Our accommodation in Beijing was dusty and windowless, yet felt authentic. We were staying at Xiao Yuan Alley Courtyard Hotel – an old hutong residence converted into a hotel. The rooms were furnished in Chinese red hue on thick wooden furniture. What appealed to us when booking was its location, especially its proximity to the Forbidden City.
For first timers in Beijing, the Forbidden City is a must-visit. After half an hour walking along the narrow streets of our hutong, we found ourselves at its gate. We saw a ticket office with no queue so headed there. Then we lined up to go through security, only to be told that we had bought the wrong ticket (it only gave us entrance to a side wing).
We found the real queue for tickets on the boulevard leading up to the front entrance – it stretched out long and wide. A guard tried to stop queue-jumpers but they annoyingly got in. Despite this, it only took about 20 minutes to make it to the counter. We had to show our passports (luckily we had brought them) and then re-queue at security. It was all worth the effort.
The magnitude of the city was felt immediately as we passed through the thick red towering walls and into the first courtyard. It really was a city – one that was off-limits to most people for 500 years. Every inch of the complex was regal and exquisitely detailed.
Construction of the Forbidden City apparently took 14 years and required more than a million workers. It was the political centre of China from 1420 to 1912 (during the Ming and Qing dynasties) and then became a World Heritage Site in 1987.
As we moved from courtyard to courtyard, I was amazed by the symmetry, bright colours and miniature figurines that gave the place such character. Everywhere I looked was a story to be told (or crowds of people snapping photos). The large complex was undoubtedly abound with tourists and yet there were moments of stillness and solitude, especially on the sides.
The gateways and stairways were also impressive, as were the stone carvings on the rails and between the stairs. We weaved through the buildings, making sure to see the middle of the complex, but mostly sticking to the edges. At one of the many souvenir shops, we stopped for a cold refreshing fruit juice and admired the expensive jewellery and artefacts on sale.
On we continued. We saw golden thrones, lions and urns, and even golden clocks inside the Clock Exhibition Hall. After three hours, we made it through the Imperial Garden at the end of the City, past the sculptured trees, stylised rock formations and groups of people taking selfies.
On the other side of the 52-metre wide moat, we caught the tram to Tiananmen Square. Once there, we had to go through security (again) to enter. The mass of grey, beige tiles was sparsely populated (perhaps because of the police, soldiers and anti-riot vehicles lurking around). The absence of people allowed us to absorb its size – it happens to be the world’s largest public square (at 440,000 square metres).
Tiananmen Square felt shockingly modern after a morning spent within the walls of the city’s ancient heart. The government buildings around the Square, however, were reminiscent of the great dynasties, with their tall walls and high entranceways. Communist statues reminded us of the country’s recent infamous history and its growing power today. The Square also felt monitored and controlled (security cameras clustered together on the lamp posts) – the fact that there wasn’t anywhere to sit was sobering.
We walked on, beyond Tiananmen Square, until we got to Qianmen Street Mall. We ate shao mai dumplings at Dou Yi Chu for lunch, visited a teahouse and explored the restored shopping street. Tired, we took the subway back towards our dusty hotel. As we were walking down the long street from the station, we came across a group of young hip locals drinking beer outside the “Beer Supermarket” next to Beijing 161 Wangfujing Hotel. We bought a few bottles of Chinese-made wheat beer, sat at one of the tables outside and people-watched as we munched on a plate of hot chips.
In the end, it felt like we had spent the day walking through Beijing’s history, from ancient to the current day.
Price: April to October: 60¥ or November to March: 40¥
Travel advice: remember to bring your passport as you will need it when purchasing entrance tickets at the Forbidden Palace. Most of the tourists wander through the middle of the complex, but off to the sides is much quieter and just as interesting.
Accommodation: we stayed at Xiao Yuan Alley Courtyard Hotel, which we booked via booking.com. The location of our accommodation, inside Lishi Hutong, was perfect! However, our room didn’t have windows and we found it to be quite dusty. Breakfast wasn’t included (we did eat there the first morning and found the food to be pretty average) but we had a nice cappuccino each morning up the road at Beijing 161 Wangfujing Hotel.
Transport: we either walked around or took the subway. For the subway, we bought tickets as we went.
We also took a tram for 2¥ from the Forbidden Palace to Tiananmen Square – we bought a ticket on board. Make sure you have cash for this!
Photo: the miniature figurines on the roofs of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, China