The one thing you can’t miss in Beijing

A lion standing guard at the Forbidden City, Beijing

A lion standing guard at the Forbidden City, Beijing

No visit to Beijing would be complete without a trip to witness the grandeur and pomp of one of the world’s most gilded cages – the Forbidden City. Otherwise known as the Imperial Palace, its presence at the edge of Tiananmen square is marked by a distinctive and imposing gate. Once through this marker, you have effectively left the modern world behind you, swapping it for one whose seclusion and traditions left its inhabitants stranded in the past. Through the hundreds of tourists, the seething mass of impatient bodies clutching expensive cameras and tour guides waving flags and talking into megaphones, you can just about see the thrones encased in their vast ceremonial halls. The crowds are off-putting in places, with people jostling like crazed fans at a rock concert, but no amount of bodies can stifle the astonishing scale and alienation of this palace.

Turn off the main, cattle market of a thoroughfare and pretty soon the groups begin to thin out and there is space to appreciate the magnitude of a kingdom so ornate, beautiful, rigid and removed from reality. The rich red walls, the yellow tiled roofs and the gloriously painted green, gold and blue beam work are a patchwork of colour and vitality. The buildings have a character of strength, imposing and un-ruffled by the madness surrounding them today, the madness that is nothing to that which they have witnessed in the past.

Intricate paintwork on the ceilings

Intricate paintwork on the ceilings

The central palace complex of ceremonial halls are ornate and impressive, but the side galleries have a more natural feel. Much of the original furniture is still in place and the huge amount of relics on display give a more relatable picture of what life could have been like. The roofless corridors and scattered formal courtyards go on forever, you could wander them for days and still be discovering new things. And that’s just considering the areas which are open to tourists – as you drift down the long, straight lanes you pass great wooden doors, padlocked closed, a glimpse of green foliage and fading paintwork all that can be gleaned from a peek through the hinges.

In one of the quieter courtyards, a handful of men are perched nonchalantly on the crumbling yellow tiled roof, carrying out repair work without a thought for the unsociable height. In soft shoes and straw hats they pick their way over the circular ridges of tiles, pulling up weeds and bits of broken pottery as they go. Their balance proves an irresistible photo opportunity for the assembled tourists, Chinese and westerners alike, who turn from the temple to point their flashing cameras towards the silhouetted workers instead. Laughing, the men carry on with their work, entirely unperturbed by the attention.

The roofs themselves are edged with rows of stone guardians at each corner, an imperial dragon’s head at the back preceded by a parade of protective mythical creatures. The greater the number of creatures, the more important the building. As you look up they are silhouetted against the sky, a regal procession halted, as if frozen in time by the hand that carved them. It would be so easy to miss these details, to be distracted by the attention given to the main 6 central pavilions or overwhelmed by the colours, distracted by the sheer scale of such a world. But it’s these tiny touches that really bring it to life, demonstrating how much thought and time has been invested in it, how many lives lived exclusively for its service. Think how many people would have worked and slept and cooked and eaten and dreamed here. It is a maze of memories, forgotten footprints of all the little people whose lives contributed to the royal regime.

Roof Guardians

Roof Guardians

Dragon’s heads line the edges of marble tiered platforms at the palace’s centre, a vital part of the drainage system but so much more than merely functional. Huge brass and copper vats lie around the palace like skulking emblems of the past, their vast handles ornamental, their past use – as fire extinguishers – less so. The two impressive dragons who stand guard in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony are imposing, but look closer and you will see they aren’t as identical as they may at first appear. One has its paw on a globe – the extent of the emperor’s influence. The other has its paw on a wriggling baby, demonstrating the fertility of the court. They might be cast in metal, but this family has a sense of life about them. They exude power but also, with the baby, playfulness, reminding us that while entirely secluded from reality, the emperors who ruled here were real people.

The Imperial Garden is a welcome haven of cyprus trees, sculpted stones and pavilions after the rigid formality of the previous buildings. Here people chatter and giggle and rest by the trees, enjoying the retreat as you can imagine a young emperor might have done a long time ago. A pair of elephants stand by the exit, bent in impossible fashion at the knee, showing their deference to the ruler. Water reflects gnarled stones and small fish dart beneath the surface. Patches of shade offer welcome relief from the beating sun, and the green of the leaves and trees brightens the grey stone.

Bowing elephant at the exit to the imperial garden

Bowing elephants at the exit to the imperial garden

Just opposite the North gate sits Jinshan park, a mound made by the expulsion of the soil from the moat of the Forbidden city. After climbing to the top here, you can look out over the whole palace complex as it lies below you in all its stately glory. Once again, the un-imaginable vastness of it is revealed as you see just how far it stretches in every direction. Bound in, now, by skyscrapers and shopping malls, it nonetheless lies undisturbed by the outside world, as unconnected to its surroundings as it ever was.

As the light changes to a shadowy grey, the gates are lit up from below and the sound of a saxophone floats tenderly up from the park below. The moon appears above the lake in Behai Park to the right. As it brightens in the sky, the colour drains out of the world below it. The people begin to leave in twos and threes, making their way home, warmed by the brilliance of the view. And finally the light is gone, and gone with it too is the Forbidden City. Only the gates are lit, so now it is just a slumbering mass of darkness, a huge empty space of blackness. Conspicuous by its absorbance, it is secluded from the bright city lights around it.

A world of estrangement, built to deify but separate its inhabitants from reality, the Forbidden City is tinged with sadness. A place so beautiful and yet, ultimately, a failure at preserving its monarchy and the ways of privilege and ceremony. It was created with such care and attention to detail but now it serves as a ceremonial display of long forgotten systems. It is left lonesome at night in the darkness, to slumber alone and unconnected.