Beijing. A city so huge, it has a city within the city. It’s like someone trying to explain the vastness of the African savanna to someone who has only city parks. It’s like explaining why you might need days to get from one end of the city to another - it’s over sixteen thousand square kilometers! But the Forbidden City, located inside the city of Beijing, you travel to the times of boy kings and conspiring queens and powerful eunuchs so easily, you would be compelled to book another trip to discover new Beijing, the one with great stadiums and Mao’s Mausoleum, and the Tiananmen Square where you are forbidden to gather in groups…
It’s called Forbidden City because ordinary people were once not allowed to see the Emperor, or enter the premises. But today, happy couples organise wedding picture shoots there… After you have spent lots of money to enter the Forbidden City (foreigners pay more than locals, and Yuans while the locals pay in Renminbi, the local currency), you do not try and save money and skip renting the audio guides. They are simply marvelous in the details they offer. But do learn to put them on pause and take in the sight in front of you.
You imagine the little boy Emperor in yellow robes run to highest point while you stand stunned at the bottom of the palace. You forget that you walked what feels like miles from the front gate to the bottom of those steps. Bertolucci wasn’t wrong when he made The Last Emperor.
The steps are on the two sides, and in front you is a gigantic slide like middle, but with dragons entwined. You bend down and touch the relief sculpture with reverence, not just for history, but as homage to all the Chinese movies you grew up watching. You climb up the steps following the audio guide, but at the top of the steps you turn around and have to hold on to a railing or the arm of a fellow tourist because your mind begins to play tricks.
The phenomenal space you covered between the main gate and here is dotted with tourists, but all you can see the army of the Chinese emperor, ready to protect him. You look out for ninjas hidden behind tiled roofs. You end up being fascinated by animals real and mythical on the pointy edges of buildings (dragons on the emperor’s palace, the cockerel for his minister of communication, cows for agriculture and so on...)
All through the palace premises you let the audio guide explain how palace intrigues were hatched and why, how concubines would plot in order to be noticed by the Emperor… You walk through pearl gates (in ancient times, only the royal family could walk through these semi-circular gates, while other had to make their way around to the regular rectangular gates), and see the bedrooms of concubines and minor royalty. You see rectangular buildings that housed offices of ministers. And you wander about the kitchens, imagining foods being cooked for the Emperor.
But you walk so much, you wish you would suddenly encounter a boy on a bicycle with a canister of piping hot adrak chai. No such luck. The audio guide propels you through the complex, and when I returned to the ‘once house belonged to famous general, now hotel’ hotel, I just crashed on the bed forgetting to take pictures of the alleyway made famous by the movie Black Snow (dir. Xie Fei), telling myself, all alleyways look the same…
The kindly lady at the hotel tells me in her near perfect British English that the cook has made extra effort to make vegetarian breakfast for friend from land of Buddha. I take one look at the comparatively sad looking wilted spinach, and quickly choose a cha siu bao (steamed dumpling with delicious barbequed pork) instead. Pro tip for vegetarian travelers: look out for the picture of the Buddha for strictly vegetarian meals. They are so good, they even make a vegetable octopus!
The next day, I ignore my aching muscles and visit the Summer Palace by the lake, and meet a sweet old lady selling steamed buns. Today I am prepared. I have carried a Chairman Mao thermos flask (bought at one of the many gift stores) full of chai. You climb two floors, lend your video camera to kindly tourists in exchange for their grandma and you wait at the steamed bun stall with her. They come back with such stunning views of the lake, I said goodbye to the granny who loved the tea, and powered by that same chai, I climbed back up. Pretended I was some princess enjoying the summer breezes…
You have to take a bus or rent a car to travel to the Great Wall. The one portion near Beijing is like what you picture in the mind’s eye. But the one portion which is located to the North of Beijing, is stunning. If they called it ‘great’ they were not exaggerating. You have to climb and climb to get to the top (the army probably was the fittest!) and then you marvel at the width of the wall. I never thought that the wall would be wide enough to hold at least ten soldiers marching shoulder to shoulder…
Back in Beijing, the cabbie tells me that tourists must visit the watermelon museum. I am intrigued. I decide to visit it the next day, and eat and eat and eat at the hotel (you still have to order the famous Peking Duck a day in advance, and the hotel lady told me Buddha would forgive me for eating non-vegetarian food after having ticked the ‘veg’ option when booking my room).
Beijing is brilliant in winter as well. The Forbidden City under snow seems like out of some fairy tale… And yes, the watermelon museum is ghastly. Trust me, I have seen the Asparagus and Banana museums in Germany, the Jello museum in New York and the Ramen noodles museum in Japan. This museum had wax versions of watermelons and panel after panel information (in Chinese only) about watermelon cultivation. Sigh. What a waste. But wait, all was not lost. In the cafe near the museum, I had the best French Roast coffee and drank it to the sounds of ABBA!
The author is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer's forum, hosts Mumbai's oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.
First Published: IST