Beijing Bucketlist: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City & Jingshan Park

Given (a) the amount of infamous sightseeing attractions in or near Beijing, (b) that it’s the capital of the nation we now call home and (c) it’s only a cheap 2-hour flight away, on reflection it’s a little strange that it’s taken Matt and I so long to visit. When holiday-planning, there was always another place at the top of our wish-list (maybe influenced by conversations I’d had with other expats during my first 12 months in China – there were plenty of people who seemed to much prefer Shanghai as a city). I realised that Beijing had become somewhere I ‘had’ to see, rather than somewhere I craved to see…

However, when my parents visited China in April, it gave me the motivation to book a trip there so we could jointly see some of those famous landmarks. Thus began a whirlwind 2.5 day hurtle through our Beijing Bucketlist. This post covers day 1 including Tiananmen Square, The Forbiddden City, and Jingshan Park.

Bucketlist #1- Tian’anmen Square (Tiān’ānmén guǎngchǎng)

First stop, Tiananmen Square – located in the center of Beijing. Flanked by Tiananmen Tower (the entrance to the Forbidden City) to the North, and Chairman Mao’s memorial hall to the South, the Square is a vast expanse of grey flagstones and huddles of tourists. The morning sky was thick with PM2.5 which cast the scene in a hazy grey light punctuated only by the bright red flags, full in the breeze.
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View to the South of the Square

This enormous but otherwise dull-looking square was somewhere my parents’ really wanted to see while in China. I was only 3 years old when the pro-democracy protests took place and I didn’t do any digging before our trip so I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of these flagstones to China’s modern history. Not wanting to fall foul of internet censors (information about what happened is still heavily suppressed), if you want to find out more, there are loads of articles you can read online.

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Tiananmen Tower, at the North end of the Square

 Bucketlist #2 – The Forbidden City (Zǐjìnchéng)

We entered the Forbidden City through a deep stone archway cut through the Meridian Gate, beneath an enormous oil painting of Chairman Mao. Today, there are so many visitors that the experience is similar to churning a field-full of cattle through a small gate – the guards’ sharp reprimands to those who linger (even to take a brief, visceral gawp at the painting) being the human equivalent of a cattle-prod. However, during the 500 years which spanned the Ming and subsequent Qing dynasties (1420 to 1912), this same passage would have been as likely to the common person as stepping though an old wardrobe into the magical snow-covered lands of Narnia. As the Imperial Palace to the resident Emperor – believed to the the son of God – the FC was strictly off-limits to all but his inner circle, and the price of uninvited admission was instant execution. For comparison purposes, today it will cost you 80 RMB.

On the inner side of Meridian Gate was an enormous courtyard, bisected by the Golden Stream (金水; Jīn Shuǐ), shaped to resemble the smooth curve of a tartar bow and crossed by five marble bridges (backdrop to our group photo – below).

The walls of the Forbidden City – a UNESCO world heritage site last re-painted for the 2008 Beijing Olympics – were being re-touched while we were there; a titanic venture given that this is the world’s largest palace complex – built over 180 acres.

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集体照; Jítǐ zhào

Passing through a second gate – the Gate of Supreme Harmony – into the Outer Court, we started to comprehend the enormity of the place. Another huge courtyard and the first of Three Great Halls – the Hall of Supreme Harmony – stood before us; raised on a three-tier marble platform, the earthy terracotta structure with brightly painted eaves was framed with red columns and topped with gently sloping yellow glazed roof tiles – yellow was the colour of the Emperor and so featured heavily in the symbolic aesthetics of the FC.

On the corner of each rooftop, a procession of mythical gargoyles – flanked by a dragon at the rear and a small figure at the front – guard the building; the more beasts, the more important the building (and presumably, the owner or person for whom the building was intended).

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The majority of the FC was made from wooden structures and so heavy copper or brass vats were installed in the courtyards to collect water which was used to fight any worrisome fires. Numbering over 300 in total, they were prevented from freezing in winter by lighting fires underneath. I’m guessing it is lucky to touch the handle of this one given how shiny it was, although I’m not sure why!

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We visited the FC on an ordinary Thursday, but even so the place was packed. I’m not sure what I did to offend the chap below, but he seems sufficiently insulted to flick me a V nevertheless!

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So much of the FC was photo-worthy, and this is partly why it’s taken me so long to write this blog… choosing my favourite photos was a task-and-a-half! I did fall in love with the iron sculptures (below, and in the title image) though; our guide told us they are incense burners.

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Bucketlist #3 -Jǐngshān Park

Exiting the FC through the North Gate, we crossed the road to Jingshan Park – a beautiful landscape garden built on a hill made from rubble and dirt unearthed during excavation of the Forbidden City moat. The hill – one of very few in central Beijing – also served to protect the palace from evil spirits from the North.

We climbed the steep steps to the Wanchun Pavilion and were rewarded with a stunning panorama of the palace we had just explored; golden rooftops shining in the smoggy sunshine.

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I’d originally intended to cover Beijing in a single blog post as we also visited three other cities in April – Pingyao, Xi’an and Zhangjiajie – but I’ve failed! This is one of three on the capital – hope you enjoy!

– Emma