Forbidden No More

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This blog entry about the events of Saturday, August 21, 2004 was originally posted on August 26, 2004.

DAY 308:  At the heart of Beijing lies the Gugong, the Imperial Palace, more commonly known as The Forbidden City.  Why it was still known as The Forbidden City I don’t know — they just let me (and hundreds of others) right in through the front gate.

Actually, the name spawned from the fact that when the palace was occupied by Ming and Qing dynasty emperors and their parties of family, soldiers, eunuchs and concubines, anyone else was forbidden to enter within its walls — or to even approach the walls for that matter.  Times have now changed of course, and now anyone with 60 yuan (about $7.50 USD) can enter through its gates and be one of the estimated two million visitors per year who come to see the center of many a dynasty.


BEIJING HAS A LONG HISTORY of being the governmental seat of the lands that eventually evolved into modern day China.  It was here that Ghenghis Khan and later his grandson Kublai Khan ruled the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, the largest empire in world history, until it fell and eventually became the center of the Ming Dynasty.  Ming Emperor Yongle reconstructed the city and built many of Beijing’s famous historical buildings known today, including The Forbidden City.  The Mings were succeeded by the Qings who ruled until the early 20th century when Beijing was run by overlords, and then foreign troops.  Enter the Communists in 1949, and the city was reconstructed under the Cultural Proletariat Revolution of Communist ruler Mao Zedong.  Nowadays, Beijing continues to be modern China’s capital with a unique multi-party rule where the official ruling Communist party works together with socialist parties to bring Beijing and China up-to-date with the rest of the world.


MY JOURNEY TO THE “CITY” once forbidden to someone like me started at my hostel in the northeast corner of the city center.  Using the Roman alphabetic Pinyin signs — and many that just used plain old English — I managed to figure out the Beijing subway to get to the Qianmen Gate, to the south of The Forbidden City.  After a quick Chinese fast food breakfast of dumplings at Yonghe (who looks like he could be Colonel Sanders’ Chinese cousin), I made my way passed the Qianmen south and north gates, through Tian’anmen Square — with its disciplined soldier guards and vendors selling little flags of China for people to pose in pictures with — and up to Tian’anmen Gate (picture above), where I came face to the painted face of Mao Zedong.  Once through the gate, I had entered within the walls of the once forbidden palace, paid my 60 yuan at the ticket booth and was on my way inside.

Most times when you go to a place like this, the buildings don’t really mean anything unless you know a little historical background information.  I had not yet purchased a guidebook specifically for China to tell me what might be what, so I did what many others around me had done:  rented a headset and electronic device for the audio tour.  I suspected a lot of people simply rented the audio guide for the reason I did — for its narrator with a British accent:

“Ni hao.  Welcome.  I’m Roger Moore and I am delighted that the Palace Museum has asked me to be your guide on this tour of the magnificent imperial palace known as The Forbidden City…”

With the former James Bond talking to me in my ear above background Chinese music and sound effects to simulate times past, I followed the relatively linear path from the south of the city to the north.  The eight main buildings were designed and constructed in accordance with the balanced principle of yin and yang, with big courtyards balancing out the space occupied by bigger buildings to provide an overall harmonious peace of the palace grounds.  Some buildings were under renovation, but even their construction signs gave forth an expression of peace to the visitor.

Over the small Golden Water Bridge, the voice of Mr. Bond led me passed the bronze guardian lions — one male with his right paw on the globe, symbolizing worldwide imperial power; and one female with a baby cub under her left paw, symbolizing a prosperous family.  Through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, I walked through the Outer Court, up a three-tier terrace and up to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall of The Forbidden City.  In addition to the bronze statues of a heron and a turtle on its main terrace, there were examples of Chinese ingenuity, such as the sun dial.  Inside the building was the Imperial Throne, conveniently placed in the center underneath a heavy sphere on the ceiling.  Legend had it that if anyone overthrew the emperor and siege the throne wrongfully, the sphere would fall and kill him dead.  What a way to go, huh?

Most of the buildings in the Outer Court half of the imperial palace (the governmental half) were pretty much the same, just in varied sizes positioned in accordance of yin and yang.  Each one was painted mostly using four main colors:  green and blue, representing rebirth; yellow, representing the earth and wealth; and the predominant red, the color of fire, representing good luck and happiness.  It was ironic that the buildings — wooden buildings I may add — were predominantly the color of fire; the Hall of Supreme Harmony had been burned down four times, each time rebuilt to its original state.  The threat of fire became so common that bronze vats filled with water were placed around the great halls in the event of another ignition.

The former Agent 007 continued to guide me through the imperial grounds, passed the Hall of Central Harmony, used for imperial briefings, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, used as a testing hall for the civil service exam.  According to Mr. Bond, passing the civil service exam could elevate a poor person into the imperial circle, which is why kids started to study at the age of five and continued for thirty years. 

Down the Great Carved Marble Ramp, carved out of a single block of marble, I passed through the Gate of Heavenly Purity, the boundary between the Outer Court and the Inner Court, the private, more intimate residential half of The Forbidden City where the emperor got busy with his concubines — one so “busy,” and full of testosterone that a harem ganged up on one and killed him for being too rough. 

Meanwhile, the Inner Court area was also inhabited by eunuchs (castrated men) who lived in smaller buildings on the rim of the courtyard to serve the emperor.  Eunuchs were able to work up the ladder of imperial authority, and sometimes it was in a man’s best interest to become a eunuch by means of a really big knife and a lot of falsetto screaming.  Although I can’t help but wonder if having no testicles really led to a better life.

Passed the Palace of Heavenly Purity, used for entertaining foreign dignitaries, and the Hall of Union and Peace, where the empress celebrated her birthdays, I continued to the last building of the linear northbound route, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the residence of the empress.  It was supposedly unique because of its differently designed walls, but it was just another stop on the tour where hundreds of tourists stopped for a photo.


A GREAT CHINESE MAN once said that if a ruler is to govern well, he must take time out for a stroll to relax his heart.  Since the emperors almost never went beyond the palace walls, Yongle put a whole park inside the “city,” the Imperial Garden, an 1170 sq. m heavily-landscaped park with a Taoist temple, rocks to climb on for the view and trees to please the soul. 

Roger Moore never said goodbye as I left The Forbidden City via the north gate and went off looking for a China guidebook at the foreign bookstore.  Talk about the duality of yin and yang; while The Forbidden City was a preserved tribute to China’s past, the ultra-modern Wangfujing Dajie was its opposite, a glitzy modern commercial pedestrian mall of bright lights, big billboards and shopping malls.  The big Foreign Languages Bookstore had many English guidebooks for countries around the world — except for China.  Later on, someone told me that the Chinese government banned the sale of Chinese country information from foreign publishers.  I guess they didn’t mind as long as it was coming out of the mouth of James Bond.


TONI AND I DECIDED TO GET SOME DINNER.  He had managed to buy a really old used Beijing guide and we used it to try and find a placed called Food Street, which had many local delicacies, including deep-fried scorpions.  We walked passed the nightly summer ballroom dancing session outside the Workers’ Stadium and took the subway to the closest station and thought we’d be able to find it, but we ended up just getting lost in some random neighborhood with a really bad map.  We tried to ask for directions but no one was of any help, until we ran into the American embassy — McDonald’s — with a Chinese staff that spoke English.  The manager knew where we wanted to go, not even minding that we were asking directions for a restaurant in her restaurant, and wrote down our destination in Chinese for us to give a taxi driver.

Food Street was closed by the time we got there (around ten) and I ended up eating some noodles at a little dive restaurant before going to a glitzier club nearby, Club Nu, which had relatively pricey drinks and a techno DJ was simply faded from one song to the next in one slide of the mixer.  Toni, a DJ himself, said, “Club Nu?  They should call it ‘Club No.’”

I was exhausted and just wanted to sit down and write but Toni egged me on to continue the night with him — I conceded.  The club he wanted to check out was back near the Workers’ Stadium anyway.  We searched wide and low for it, asking people for directions.  It was advised to ask younger looking women because they would most likely no English.  Whenever Toni would approach one, pointing to club Vogue in his guidebook, they’d just nod their head no.

“Maybe they think you’re asking them for sex,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, I am pointing to a guidebook and asking for sex,” he said sarcastically.

“Maybe they think it’s the Kama Sutra, and you’re pointing to a position.”

We wandered some more until we found two Caucasian guys who seemed to know what was going on.  They were American ex-pats who told us that Vogue had shut down two years before, but tipped us on a place called Cloud Nine, the best bar in the area, so they said.  They pointed us into a direction and told us to “just ask anyone, ‘Cloud Nine.’”  However, whenever we asked someone on the bar and cafe-lined street, we were only retorted with offers for “lady bars.”

“You wan’ lady bar, lady bar?  Massage, one hundred yuan.  Lady bar, lady bar.”  One woman even whispered, “Two hundred, sex!”

It seemed everyone on the street was a pimp or madame of some sort trying to push her “beautiful Chinese girls” on us — for a fee of course — instead of giving us directions.  As appealing as a ladybar was, we had become so obsessed with finding Cloud Nine — it seemed to be a forbidden place to us and we just wanted to find it.  “Yesterday, our goal was to find Beijing Duck, tonight, Cloud Nine,” Toni said with determination.

We walked beyond the strip of bars to a quieter section of the street.  A man there that we asked didn’t know what we were talking about, but led us to a friend who might.  That friend just touted us for more lady bars. 

Dark alleys, wrong streets, we couldn’t find it.  We met a trio of other travelers looking for a cool bar and they tagged along with us for a while for the search, but we lost them too.  Long story short, we found Cloud Nine with the help of a Russian gay couple who knew exactly where it was.  Upon entering we discovered that Cloud Nine was a chilled out electro-lounge — a complete metrosexual lair — with candles, sofas and pillow lounges.  It reminded me a lot like Dahab, just without the ocean breeze.  Toni and I chilled out in a booth with a round of drinks and just soaked in the modern Chinese vibe of downtempo jazzy beats.

The voice of James Bond may have not been there, but at least I think our Cuba Libres might have been shaken, not stirred.






Next entry: The Fantastic Wall

Previous entry: Money, Lodging and Beer




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Comments for “Forbidden No More”

  • Yippee - first.  Jealous! I want to go to the Forbidden Palace soooo badly.  Hmmm… maybe I’ll download Last Emperor tonight.

    Posted by Liz  on  08/26  at  02:56 PM


  • Awesome pics of the “Forbidden City” - If anyone is up for even more visual stimulation, a movie called “Hero” staring Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung is out today in the states. Wonderful story accompanied by great visuals and fighting sequences- a very artsy movie.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  04:24 PM


  • Erik, I just had to laugh….James Bond as your guide….I just kept thinking that Pussy Galore was going to meet you at the Gates of Heavenly Purity!

    I am keeping up-to-date and also reading the archives….very cool!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  04:59 PM


  • fixed “I came face to the painted face of Mao Zedong” picture…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  06:07 PM


  • r u sure you guys aren’t at “ladyBar??? sounds good so far smile looking forward to your pictures of Hong kong, when you get there. Have a good weekend!
    N smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  06:10 PM


  • Hey Eric.  I have been a silent Blog reader until now.  I am trying to catch up with your adventures since someone turned me on late.  You are still in Cairo in my readings and you mentioned to say your favorite color if anyone was reading—-blue.  It has been great reading at work and sounds like you are having fun.  I’m glad I spoke up and I will try my hardest to catch up with your travels.  Have fun—-

    Posted by Dhaval Patel  on  08/26  at  06:17 PM


  • though i’m sure some of you have seen this link…have fun with it…

    i’m bringing you your own cloud nine and martial arts with the click of your mouse!

    http://www.skop.com/brucelee/

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  06:19 PM


  • Erik: If you need some free Net access in HK airport, go to gate 65. There are a few Imacs set up in a store on the left hand side.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  06:43 PM


  • I love the chinese colonel sanders!

    Is that dice shirt Toni’s lucky “going out” shirt?  haha.  It reminds me of how, when I go on vacation, I seem to wear the same outfit in all the pictures.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  07:58 PM


  • get me some of that finger lickin general tso’s chicken

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  08:21 PM


  • DHAVAL:  Welcome and thanks for breaking the silence… it’s the new trend!  Glad you enjoy it—pass the word along!

    Just curious, how did you find out about The Blog?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/27  at  05:23 AM


  • MARKYT:  Thanks… I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry, I got a haircut later that day…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/27  at  05:28 AM


  • I was going to comment on the hair - love it!

    Your blog is awesome, I just have to say, and reiterate: you tell us history along with fun stuff. I LOVE it. I know you know this, but the history stuff is so awesome to read, along with the touristy aspect.

    The buildings are HUGE and that “court”? GIANT. Awesome pictures, as usual. I woulda gone through culture shock going to the other side of the busy city!
    Have fun - still jealous.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/27  at  07:00 AM


  • NOELLE:  Really glad you appreciate the time I put into doing historical research.  Most of the time I actually look up stuff after the fact as I’m writing to provide the background info…  I feel it gives my work an edge, rather than the usual Blog I-did-this, I-did-that routine…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/27  at  02:30 PM


  • Well, Erik, for that I thank you. I do appreciate it for the fact that it’s more than the “ho-hum” blog routine.
    Thank you again.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/28  at  04:27 AM


  • Noelle is right, Erik - It’s a great history lesson!  I like history to begin with but with your pictures and sense of humor, it’s perfect.  I look forward to reading the blog every morning at work.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/28  at  10:25 PM


  • Erik: Your blog is the perfect blend of wit and wisdom, beautiful photos, and adventure. Its better than any crusty guide book, and its fun to go along on your journey. The backstories are critical, otherwise it would be “here’s a red building, here’s a green building, here’s a lion, here’s another lion, here’s a big goddamn cauldron….” I loved hearing the names of all those magnificent places, and all the juicy details. Keep up the great work—this entry is a winner!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/01  at  12:15 AM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


Next entry:
The Fantastic Wall

Previous entry:
Money, Lodging and Beer




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