A friend of mine who regularly reads this blog recently e-mailed to tell me that she's visiting Mainland China with a tour group next month. I'm not sure how many days she'll spend in Beijing but, already, since the entire tour -- which will also take in Shanghai, Suzhou and Xian, among other locales -- will only take up two weeks, I know that her time in the "Northern Capital" (which is what Beijing's name translates from Mandarin into) just won't feel enough.
Not that I'm the greatest Beijing travel expert out there by any means. In fact, I've only ever been to, and in, Beijing -- and Mainland China itself! -- once thus far in my life! Nevertheless, if nothing else, that single one-and-a-half week visit got me realizing how much there is to see and do in that city which is already pretty huge and spread out but still looks to be ever growing.
And this even if you didn't venture out on a side trip to the Great Wall of China. Something which it really would be a great pity to miss out on -- and this especially since it would be a major case of "so close, yet so far" as, at its most conveniently accessible from Beijing (i.e., Juyong Guan), this lengthy structure is less than 60 kilometers (i.e., a mere 37 miles or so) away from Beijing -- but, simultaneously, an outing that would take up, at the very least, a fairly full day on your itinerary.
Then there's the monumental behemoth in the center of Beijing itself that requires at least a day's visit to do it justice. And yes, I know that guided tours regularly allocate just half a day (or even no more than three hours) to a visit to the Forbidden City. But look at the images at the top of this blog entry and just you try to tell me that you think half a day would be enough to spend in what is, after all, the largest and most completely preserved palatial architecture group in the world!
For make no mistake: The Forbidden City is a city, not a single palace. Heck, even the term "palace complex" doesn't quite do it justice. After all, and here I quote from a Beijing photobook entitled Overlooking Beijing which serves as a great souvenir of my September 2004 visit to the city, this former imperial residence "occupies an area of 720,000 square meters [around 864,000 square yards for those whose countries haven't converted to the metric system] with 80 palaces containing over 9,000 bays of rooms"!
In all honesty, the sheer size -- never mind the grandeur -- of the Forbidden City took my breath away. And this from someone who had previously visited other grand imperial and royal residences like England's Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace, France's Palace of Versailles and Chateau de Fontainebleau, Austria's Schloss Schoenbrunn, Istanbul's Topkapi and Dolmabahce Palaces, etc., etc.
Still, should you need more proof of the Forbidden City's ability to awe and impress, here's what popular travel authority Frommer's has to say about it on its website: "despite the flood of superlatives and exaggerated statistics that inevitably go into its description, it is impervious to an excess of hype, and it is large and compelling enough to draw repeat visits from even the most jaded travelers. Make more time for it than you think you'll need."
This is especially so if you venture beyond the well-trodden and crowded central areas of the complex that are dominated by the fancifully named Halls of Great (or Supreme) Harmony, Middle (or Complete) Harmony and Preserving Harmony; and where such amazing pieces of material culture as a single stone that weighs more than 200 tons and has been elaborately carved with dragons, stylized clouds, equally stylized waves and interlocking lotus flowers are to be found.
In particular, I'd highly recommend that visitors to the Forbidden City not pass up the opportunity to venture into both its Western and Eastern Axes (the latter of which requires an extra 10 Yuan worth of entrance costs on top of the basic 40 or 60 Yuan (depending on the season) admission fee for the general Palace Museum but truly is 10 Yuan that's worth paying).
Incidentally, more than one Beijing guidebook that I've looked at has cautioned that the Western Axis is in a state of heavy disrepair. However, many of the buildings in that part of the Forbidden City appeared to already have been restored -- or, at least, worked on -- when I visited back in September 2004.
Consequently, I was able to get quite a bit out of my explorations of such as the historically significant Hall of Mental Cultivation as well as the Six Western Palaces, one of which -- the Palace of Gathering Elegance -- is particularly notorious for having been the actual residence for several years of the Empress Dowager Cixi.
For all this though, I'd still say that the Eastern Axis is my favorite part of the Forbidden City. For one thing, perhaps in large part because of that extra 10 Yuan charge, it's the least crowded -- and consequently also the quietest -- section of the Forbidden City.
For another, it's where certain of the imperial residence turned museum's more incredible artefacts -- including large pieces of painstakingly sculpted jade (one of which weighs an incredible 1.07 tons!), antique artwork and imperial jewelry, not to mention the famous Nine Dragons Screen which dates back to the reign of Emperor Qianlong -- are housed.
To sum up what I've been trying to say all along in one single concluding paragraph: No visit to Mainland China, never mind Beijing, will feel complete without a tour of the Forbidden City. At the same time, no visit to the Forbidden City will feel complete without also taking in its Western section and, particularly, Eastern Axis along with the complex's central areas. Consequently, you really ought to spend at least one day there in order to be able to sufficiently take in and appreciate the wonder of it all.