Small as it was, our group was pulled apart during the crossing and there were a few nervous minutes at the gate itself as one by one by one we found each other. (Linda did an amazing job of hanging onto both young girls and keeping them calm, then guiding them to their folks through the crowd.) Luckily, the bridge was the worst choke point, and after regrouping we were able to pass through the gate essentially as a group. (Note: when I use the word "gate" I'm not referring to a moving barrier a couple of inches thick; each gate is a building unto itself, and you're essentially walking through a tunnel that runs from the front to the back along the first floor.)
...and we began to loom large on the vendors' radar. First came the legless beggar, an old man who wouldn't take "bu" (no) for an answer. Then an old woman... then an older but healthier man... then another older woman... and then I lost count. We'd been approached several times in Tienamen Square, but at least there we'd been a moving target. Here, we were stationary, and it didn't take long for the vendors to find our weak spot: one after another, they'd go directly to one of the girls and after a loud, "HELLO!" would offer some kind of toy, pretty trinket or hat, ignoring the adults until it was made exceptionally clear that no purchase was going to be made.
Eventually, Linda and her friend (a slightly older woman we later realized was our Beijing-only guide) made it back to our spot with tickets in hand, and we began an elephant walk to the entrance. Progress was slow. but as we got closer we could see through the gate's tunnel into the outer courtyard of the actual Imperial palace. Well, palaces, actually; the Forbidden City is quite literally a small city in its own right, with many buildings of varying size and purpose. All I knew at that point was that I could see people everywhere I looked, and I didn't see a lot of space separating any of those people except on the other side of the gate... Would we ever get in? (No, I do not like crowds, no sirree!) The crowd eventually flowed close enough for us to get to the ticket window, and after some momentary confusion over who was in the group* we were all through the tunnel and standing in the outermost courtyard.
(*As in most cultures outside North America, there is a very different notion of "personal space" in China; there it is about as close to zero as one can get. Back home we might step aside and keep a comfortable distance between ourselves and people who were obviously trying to stay together, but at the Meridian Gate Linda's job was made all the more difficult by individuals -- an entire family at one point -- pushing in between the members of our party, even separating one of the girls from her folks. It may have driven us crazy, but by local standards no one was being impolite. Perhaps a tad less helpful & understanding than absolutely necessary, but not impolite.)
We all took a moment to just breathe -- there was room to spare for everyone -- and then began to take in our surroundings. We were just inside the Meridian Gate, looking across the outer (ceremonial) courtyard. It's one thing to see it in depicted in The Last Emperor or even Mulan; it's quite another thing altogether to actually be there, coming through the shadowed tunnel that suddenly opens up into a huge paved expanse ringed by buildings that look almost like they've come off an ancient scroll or painting. Looking back at the gate, I could see where restoration work was underway and realized that the "red brick" facades were actually red paint -- underneath which were centuries-old brick and stone that would probably be around in another 500 years even if all the paint flaked off. Linda explained that in ancient Chinese culture, a "room" was any area enclosed by four pillars holding up a roof -- and that the Forbidden City was said to have 9,999 rooms! (After returning home, I checked Wikipedia and it says there are "8,707 bays of rooms" -- "only" 8,707... so who's counting?)
There was another "not in Kansas" moment when Linda pointed out the bricks used to pave the floor of the courtyard. (Yes, they're all manmade bricks, not stones.) There were two distinct tones of grey visible: a wide path down the center paved in lighter grey with darker, more uneven bricks covering the rest of the area. She explained that the main path is most heavily used, so it's kept in better repair with new bricks regularly replacing older ones that have broken... but the less-traveled areas are still mostly paved with the original bricks placed in the 1400s and 1500s due to their historic significance and to save money. I couldn't help but take a photo; I was standing on handmade bricks that predated the nation I was born in by at least three centuries! Our family had experienced that feeling periodically when we lived in Europe, but I couldn't remember brickwork on this scale being that old. Yes, there are cobblestone streets in Europe going back many centuries -- but those use cut stone (we sort of smuggled one home from a city that shall remain unnamed) while the Forbidden City's "floor" was entirely manmade. Impressive.
We crossed the bridge over the inner moat and approached the central Gate of Supreme Harmony, which is raised above the courtyard and divides it completely. There are massive bronze lions guarding the steps, and equally massive incense burners that were designed on a scale to permit the scent of burning incense to fill the entire area during Imperial ceremonies. I took a real liking to the lions and kept trying to get "the" picture I had in my mind. I didn't even notice A laughingly shooting a photo of her brother attempting an artsy-fartsy shot (or nearly duplicating my pictures with her camera by accident), but after several attempts I think I done good.
We made it into the inner courtyard, where the white marble railings, intricate golden roofline, and richly decorated buildings were truly fantastic in the old sense of the word. This wasn't just a reaction to being able to check off a major item on my "bucket list" -- the place just defies description. Even with all the people swarming to & fro, it was easy to see past (through?) them and I kept hearing my mind silently ask what stories we would hear if those stones and walls could talk. (On a personal note, I probably should've mentioned that Dad's a real history buff, and it's rubbed off on me; give me an old building, courtyard, battlefield, or other historic site and I'll probably be able to keep myself busy for as long as you let me... and the Forbidden City is way up high on that list.) It was also interesting to see how differently the Chinese used some of the materials common in Western architecture. In the West, marble tends to be given a smooth, reflective surface, and gold tends to be used as a thin foil to decorate less "noble" surfaces. Here, the marble was almost rough-hewn (even the dragons wrapping around each and every post top were smooth only where centuries of visitors' hands had rubbed them) and the gold panels on the doors were solid gold. Solid gold cast & sculpted into intricate designs in cornerpieces & central cabochons about four feet high... on every gorgeously carved & decorated wooden panel... all the way around the central Hall of Supreme Harmony. You want to see opulence? Look no further. It may have been good to be the King, but to be the Emperor... WOW.
Before we moved on, I also did the Classic Tourist Thing and tried to make a panorama of the courtyard. Unfortunately, my camera doesn't have a panorama mode (or at least I haven't learned how to use it yet), so please make do with the following, slightly overlapping, images:
Turning East to South...
...and continuing around to the West:
One problem with these photos is that they simply cannot convey the scale of the place; when Zhu Di said he wanted an impressive palace complex, he absolutely meant impressive.
We began to make our way around the side of the pavilion, heading north, I noticed that the dragons on the marble railings and wall carvings were echoed in the bronze railings around the building. In the most heavily trafficked areas, the railing had actually been worn smooth and the little guys were gone from view (another sign of the Forbidden City's age), but in places where fewer people ran their hands along the rail the dragons could be seen clearly. Another place where dragons (and other spiritual guardians and symbols of Imperial power) could be seen was overhead. On every corner of every roof there were carved figures (protected by modern lightning arrestors) lined up from the corner and along the seam between sides of the roof, going roughly halfway up to the peak. It was hard to make out the individual figures because they tended to become dark silhouettes against a lighter sky, but they shared all the intricacy of the wood & stone carving beneath.
Coming around the building, I noticed A composing a photo and wandered over to see what had caught her attention. Below us and off to the side was another much smaller courtyard where we could clearly see just how much work the stonemasons had done to raise the central pavilion above ground level. Although there was a lot of modern paving material present, we could also see a lot of the original brick pavers still in place. Combined with the greyish light and sparse visitors, it was easy for me to feel the age radiating from the stones; just squinting a little, I could see officers of the court, servants, and the Emperor's staff moving between the buildings all those centuries ago in my mind's eye.
As usual in the Forbidden City, we rounded the corner and were immediately presented with yet another unanticipated "oh, wow!' view, this time of what had been the private living area(s) for the Emperor and his family. Facing north and looking slightly upwards, I could see a skyline little changed for half a millenium; past the roofs of the Forbidden City itself was Prospect Hill in Jingshan Park (also known as "Coal Hill" since for many years the trees on its slopes were used to make coal for Beijing's populace), crowned with ancient pagodas. Looking back at where I'd just been, I saw a complex pattern of roofs and walls; looking ahead were the twin lions guarding the entrance to the Emperor's private gardens. Just before moving ahead through the next gate (on a much smaller scale than the others, but still built to impress) we stopped to look at one of the free-standing pavilions used privately by the Imperial family and for just a moment the modern world intruded.
As I walked up to the rail for a better look, my foot slid on something. The crowds had thinned out quite a bit by this point (it had begun to drizzle) so I bent down to see what I'd stepped on -- and found one of the small national flags so many of the children were carrying, left torn & forgotten on the ground. I picked it up and put it in my pack, thinking that in my experience it was highly unlikely that back home someone would have dropped a the U.S. flag on the ground and left it to be stepped on. (Bunting and stars & stripes designs are one thing; I can't remember an actual flag, regardless of size, being left to be trampled underfoot in a public area.) I still have that little flag, although during the trip I often wondered what Customs officials would think if they opened my suitcase and found it on top.
We made our way up through the next gate, where it was obvious the buildings were meant more for day-to-day living than for ceremonial purposes. There were still white marble railings and dragon motifs, but everything was built on a smaller, more intimate scale, with more color -- massive grey foundation stones were replaced with colored tile, buildings were mostly on the same level -- and a generally warmer tone. (Remember, this is all in reference to the rest of what I'd seen in the Forbidden City; personal space or not, Imperial opulence was definitely still the rule.)
Coming through the gate, everything was completely different from what we'd seen before; these were the Emperor's private gardens, designed to encourage peace & reflection instead of to formally present the Emperor's persona to his subjects. The original designers had done their job well; although there were many people wandering around, the arrangement of greenery, large stones and heavily twisting paths hid most of the crowds from each other, even in center where there was a relatively open space. There was a great deal of stonework carved to look like the mountains of the north and the karst crags of the south (a sight we'd be seeing ourselves in just a few days). Although the stone looked natural, all the shapes were the product of skilled stonecutters and masons working to enhance the natural shape of boulders and blocks cut from quarries. Pointing out a particularly large boulder beside the path that I'd thought was volcanic due to all its nooks, crannies and holes, Linda said that it and many similar stones in the Imperial gardens were in fact carved that way to act as natural fountains; the holes would catch the rain and it would gently work its way down from the top by gravity, providing beauty for the imperial eyes and gentle sounds for the imperial ears to be enjoyed after the storms had passed or while taking shelter in the garden's small tea pavilion.
After pausing for some poses by the girls (and a quick check inside the tea pavilion -- the photos didn't work out because I forgot to use flash, but the ceiling is as intricately carved & decorated as in the larger formal pavilions -- we continued on toward the Gate of Divine Might (and our exit) on the northern end of the complex. Leaving the Imperial gardens, we passed over a pond with fish I'd learned to call Koi but which Linda said were Li; the more familiar name is Japanese, whereas Li is Chinese... and if you read about them online you'll quickly learn that no one really knows which nation first began raising them for their color. A few feet farther on, as we turned to leave, we caught a quick glimpse down one of the walkways that was lined with very, very old trees -- so old, in fact, that many of them are being supported with metal beams. (Obviously not part of the original design, but I doubt they'll be removed anytime soon.) We'd managed to avoid the overpriced tourist shops and came away without any physical souvenirs -- except for my little flag! -- but I was already thinking it would be worth a return visit to wander down some of the avenues we hadn't had time for and to spend some quality time in the museums.
We headed out through the gate in a light drizzle, a little surprised at how much less imposing it was than where we'd entered; it looked more like a back door than something I'd associate with "divine might," but that seems to be due to it opening on the private living areas of the palace complex while the Meridian Gate to the south led directly to the ceremonial areas of the court. The pagodas on Prospect Hill came into view again as we moved through the gate house and stopped for a moment on a busy sidewalk by a very busy road. After one last photographic look back (and a quick check to make sure the entire group was still together) we joined the throngs walking along the outer moat, then dashed across the street to locate our bus for the next leg of the day's adventures.
The block we were walking down reminded me of grand avenues in several cities I'd visited; there's just something about wide sidewalks with grand old houses & buildings on one side and big old-growth trees on the other that seems universal... as did the long line of tour buses parked along the curb, just like the area around the Mall in DC during the height of tourist season! After dodging the odd vendor (not as persistent here, the drizzle was making everyone move fast and most of the tourists were running to board their buses, having already spent their cash on souvenirs) we found our trusty minibus and were quickly on the move again. Next stop -- lunch!