My last full day in Beijing and I decided to utilize it to re-visit the Palace Museum 故宫 or Forbidden City 紫禁城 as they call it in the imperial era. With a DSLR armed in hand, I had a great time re-discovering the palaces, and with many of the renovation works completed, I was able to enter some of the side palaces which now houses some collections of palace ornaments, crown jewels and imperial clocks of the Qing dynasty. I awoke really early this morning in order to catch the first few hours of sunrise over Tiananmen Square. As I exited into the relatively quiet morning streets of Beijing in the Chaoyang district, I felt a sense of peace. It is interesting to note how much more traffic would pass by later in the day. After grabbing a banana for a stopgap measure, I hailed a cab that will drop me off at the western end of Tiananmen 天安门, beside the Great Hall of the People 人民大会堂.
Initially I had wanted to experience the flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen but as I could not wake up as early, I just had to settle for the nice sunrise scene in Tiananmen as the rising sun casts a nice orange glow on the Great Hall of the People. Security in Tiananmen has now been tightened, requiring visitors and tourists to go through x-ray scanners and bag checks for entry into the square. This also meant that entrance into the vast square has been severely restricted, and perhaps even lead to long queues later in the day. New large LCD screens have also been added to showcase the numerous ethnic minorities across China and the unity of the country. I wait as I observe the morning rush hour traffic along Chang’an Avenue 长安街 bypassing the Tiananmen. Even at this time of the day, tourists are already flocking around Tiananmen, taking photos and of course posing in front of Tiananmen itself with the potrait of Mao Zedong gazing down upon them.
It was onward to the highlight which was the Palace Museum itself, and I used the underground passageway from Tiananmen to cross the road. Unlike 7 years ago when the passageway was littered with rubbish, it has been cleared and cleaned now. I came face to face with the first gate which is Tiananmen itself, translated to the Gate of Heavenly Peace. This is also the gate which gave the square its present name as well as the one where Mao’s potrait hangs from. Visitors to the Palace Museum is greeted by a second gate called the Duan Men 端门 before reaching the Wu Men 午门 translated to Meridian Gate. The latter is the official entrance to the Palace Museum. However, it has yet to open when I arrived and thus I bought a packet of cup noodles from a snack shop nearby for breakfast while waiting before wandering over to the moat surrounding the palace. The surrounding area of the Palace had several groups of locals just whiling their morning away playing chess, fishing along the moat and jogging along the pathway. It was just fun watching the locals go about their daily routine as I took some photos of the surrounding watchtower. It is an area worth exploring for some nice views and to experience the lifestyle of the locals.
I returned to the Meridian Gate to purchase the tickets which also comes with tickets for entry into the several new display and exhibition areas including the Hall of Clocks. The first thing most visitors see upon entering the Palace is the vast courtyard with the artificial river meandering across it. The Gate of Supreme Harmony 太和门 lies beyond the courtyard and leads to the first major hall of the outer court – the Hall of Supreme Harmony 太和殿 which is the hall where the Emperors of China used to hold court with his ministers. An exhibition display of the armory used by the Qing dynasty soldiers are on display on the right side corridors of the courtyard while the left side corridors house an exhibition of the outfits of the famed Eight Banners Clan of the Qing dynasty. Having seen much of the main buildings on the central axis of the Palace Museum, I decided to do some exploration of the new palaces surrounding the Main Halls.
The first hall I visited lies on the western end of the first courtyard of the Palace – the Hall of Martial Valor or 武英殿. This minor palace used to house Regents for young Emperors, and Princes of the Imperial family. It now houses a collection of paintings drawn by Emperors and collected by them. The next stop was the Hall of Clocks 钟表馆 which costs extra for admission. Having got the package admission earlier on, I headed inside and it was one of the nicest exhibits in the Palace Museum featuring decorative clocks from all around the world which had been passed to the Emperor as a tribute or manufactured in house by the Imperial Watchmaker. From porcelain inlaid clocks to an oversized decorative clock, there are many designs of clocks, some of which have been refurbished to work as intended. At certain time intervals of the day, these clocks’ features will be proudly on show for visitors’ pleasure. The hall of clocks is situated within the Hall of Ancestral Worship 奉献殿 which is located in the inner court, an area reserved for the Imperial family and their servants and attendant eunuchs.
It is well documented that the Palace itself has more than 9000 rooms, though many are still under renovation and many of the major ‘rooms’ which are actually palatial compounds in itself is being converted into exhibition halls for jewels, jade ornaments, palace cutleries and imperial paintings and calligraphy. Just as the first 2 major halls which have been converted to an exhibit gallery for paintings and clocks, I went on to explore more of the Palace which covers the history of Ceramics throughout the Chinese Imperial Dynasties. These exhibits provides an insight into the evolution of art and culture within China from around 500 A.D. to 1800 A.D. This solo tour of the Forbidden City was indeed more enriching compared to the usual guided tours which covers just the central axis of the Palace, covering the main halls along the axis which houses the major throne rooms and ritual chambers. Touring the other halls provides one with an insight into the real living quarters of the imperial family. This section of major palaces on the eastern side of the Palace starts with the famous Nine Dragon Screen or 九龍壁. This ceramic motif of nine dragons represents imperial might and glory, and again with the number nine representing eternity and hierarchy. Just facing the Nine Dragon Screen is the entrance to the Hall of Imperial Supremacy, which was known to be the palace where Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty retired when he abdicated the throne in favour of his son.
Behind the Hall of Imperial Supremacy 皇極殿 lies the Hall of Joyful Longevity 樂壽堂, the compound where the Imperial Family entertains themselves with Opera, Dance and Music. This is also famous for the area where Empress Dowager Cixi during the late Qing Dynasty spends most of her afternoon at. A large opera stage lies in a courtyard surrounded with seating areas and imperial chaise lounge covered in silk with golden threads of the dragon and the phoenix. The ceiling of the Hall is also decorated similarly to the major halls which lies in the central axis, indicating the importance of the halls in this area. Basically, these 2 halls have become some sort of residential complex for retired Emperors and Empress Dowagers who reign higher in the family hierarchy but lower in Imperial and Political Status. Amongst these grand palatial complexes, though, lies many compounds which are still closed under renovation and there is even one Palace Hall, named the Palace of Prolonging Happiness 延禧宮, which retains its original burned-down facade, a scar of the time when Beijing was ransacked by the foreign powers. It is reminiscent of the scene of the old Summer Palace in the Beijing City Centre, which used to be a Palace designed in the neo-classical European design with Chinese influences. Perhaps it was because of the ‘neo-classical’ design which resulted in it being torched by the ransackers.
The misery of the Palace compounds doesn’t end here, as one arrives at the nook and crannies of the Palace – an area known traditionally as the ‘cold Palace’ or 冷宫. This name was given due to the ‘cold’ treatment that the occupants of these Halls receive from the Emperor. Usually occupied by concubines who have fallen out of favor, it is also home to lesser princes and princesses, and even one or two Empresses. Sad tales usually can be found within these compounds, many of which have become the basis of novels, dramas and movies. One such sad historical occurrence is detailed in one of these Halls which have resulted in the deaths of Imperial Ladies inside a particular well. It might give the creeps and due to its location deep away from the Central Axis of the Palace, it is an area of relative serenity and one rarely covered by the casual visitors, making it even an interesting location to cover away from the crowds. I ended the tour of the Palace Museum with a walk around the Imperial Garden which in my opinion was not really that majestic in comparison to the scale of the whole Palace. Several highlights could be found in the Garden which includes the 2 pavilions on the eastern and western side as well as the numerous bronze urns and decorative rocks scattered about the garden. There are also several good souvenir shops around the Garden which has some nice and interesting ornaments and toys modeled after the Qing Emperor, Empress, Ladies and Constables. Beyond the garden lies the Gate of Divine Prowess 神武門 from where visitors usually exits from. This is the northerly gate of the Palace and leads into a small hill from where the last Ming Emperor is known to commit suicide at as his dynasty crumbles. I tried taking a taxi from the taxi stand here, though it seems that many of the taxis have been called for at the afternoon. As a result I had to walk to the corner of one watchtower before being able to hail a cab to bring me to Wangfujing 王府井.
Wangfujing which translates to ‘Prince Residence’s Well’ used to be an area of residential districts for high-ranking nobilities and ministers. Today, the area is a bustling centre of retail and shopping with a large shopping mall at that location. It is famous to tourists as the market for exotic snacks such as grilled scorpions, starfish, caterpillars and seahorses on skewers. Several shops also sell peanut candies, refreshments, sausages and other snacks for those who aren’t interested in ‘Fear Factor’ participation. From the main Wangfujing Pedestrian Shopping Street, one could also access a group of 3 high-end hotels which was the first few international hotels in the country after the Communist takeover. One of the hotel is now managed by the Raffles Group, and is named Raffles Beijing. Having stayed at the neighbouring Beijing Hotel during my last stay in the city, I popped by the hotel for a look and to hail a cab to bring me back to my apartment. From the look of the lobby, it seems dark, though cozy due to the lush carpeting. It also seems pretty quiet and the whole location can make it seem a bit out of the way with a wide carpark separating the hotel from the main pathway. Guests could, however walk across a small atrium mall connecting the Raffles Beijing and Beijing Hotel and exit by the side entrance to head to Oriental Plaza. Being peak hour, I was still able to get a cab from the hotel after around 20 minutes wait. I had just made it in time back to the apartment for a shower before heading out again to Sanlitun for an excellent dinner of Beijing roast duck with my cousin.
Beijing might forever be associated with the roasted duck which created a special dish enjoyed all over the world – the Beijing Roasted Duck 北京烤鸭. Tourists might head to the usual Quanjude Beijing Roasted Duck, but having been to one of the numerous outlets named Quanjude and getting terribly disappointed by the experience, I decided to go with my cousin’s suggestion for one that is found at 1949 The Hidden City which is close by to Sanlitun. Initially the plan was for a table of 4 but one of my cousin has taken ill, and I would be enjoying the dinner with one cousin and his housemate which has just enrolled in a Chinese-language course in China. I was given the name of the restaurant and managed to find my way after navigating to the location through my Google Maps. I guess the apartment proximity to the area and with Beijing’s notorious jams allowed me to arrive first at the restaurant which is named Duck de Chine. I entered the compound called 1949 The Hidden City which is actually a renovated courtyard style mansion that is located at the back of a major shopping mall in Sanlitun. The compound houses several chic (read: high-end) clubs, restaurants and an art gallery. One of them being Duck de Chine. I mentioned the reservation and was escorted by a tall, slender attendant into the really posh restaurant which was a bit dark but tastefully furnished in black-lacquer Chinese contemporary style. A small bar area is located around the Entrance Foyer and as my cousin has yet to arrive with his companion, I waited as they prepare a non-smoking table area for our party, with the current available seating being only within the smoking section.
I got round to taking some shots of the place and it wasn’t long before my cousin arrived, and we set off to order some small dishes with the specialty of the restaurant – the roast duck. The art of eating Beijing Roast Duck lies in just devouring the skin of this crispy brown roasted duck, wrapped in a thin crepe, marinated with a sweet soy gravy and garnished with spring onions, cucumber and/or leek. The duck has to be roasted to perfection while not being too oily, the crepe has to be just of the right thickness and cut, the gravy has to be savoury but not take away the juiciness and flavour of the duck while the garnish has to be fresh and crisp. With so many points to consider, it is a difficult dish to master and I have to say the version I had in Duck de Chine was one of the best I had. The price while a bit steep for food in China, was still affordable and on par with high-end restaurants in Singapore and Hong Kong. The roast duck skin was nicely cut in sizes which was perfect for one crepe, and the shiny glaze on the skin wasn’t too oily for consumption. Coupled with the fine crepe, thinly sliced garnish, the Beijing Duck served was truly memorable and made it the highlight meal in Beijing for me. The restaurant also made it special by adding salty buns in sesame seed which also functioned as another way one could enjoy the duck. To end the meal, we ordered some duck-shaped pastries filled with sweets which was really unique. The dinner was truly a great way to end my stay in the city, and after re-experiencing the wonders of the capital, I can finally say that Beijing does have the Roast Duck dish to live up to its namesake.