“Be careful at zee Forbidden City,” our French hostel roommate warned. “Eet eez so big and so beautiful, that after a while you say: too much!”
“But look at that tiny rectangle on the Beijing map,” I protested, pointing to the box labeled “Forbidden City.” “I could walk that in like five minutes.”
The French lass guffawed heartily, said, “Well, just arrive as early as possible in zee day!” and headed off on a bicycle tour.
Colin, Gareth, and I gathered our belongings (water, sun hats, and toilet paper) and headed by taxi to the mouth of Beijing’s Forbidden City: the historic home of Chinese emperors and government for nearly five hundred years, dating back to the Ming Dynasty of the 1400s.
What the French traveler had been trying to tell us became evident as we stepped into the foaming sea of tourists and gazed out. Red Forbidden City rooftops stretched as far as the eye could see, shimmering in the summer steam. At that moment we knew: this would be a day full of beauty, history… and possible fainting from heat exhaustion.
I didn’t know this until I looked it up afterwards, but the Forbidden City actually covers 7,800,000 square feet, and contains 980 buildings. It’s no wonder they call it a “city.”
While Colin and Gareth stood in the long line for entrance tickets, I pushed my way through the crowd to the Audio Tour rental stand. We had been advised by numerous travelers that without a guide of some kind, the Forbidden City becomes a total blur, and we didn’t want that.
The Forbidden City opens to visitors at 8:30am, but we had dallied in the hostel that morning and hadn’t arrived until past ten. As I was nearly trampled by three tour groups, then slightly sprayed by the urine of a diaper-less baby held in the air by his parent (Chinese parents deal with infant waste differently than Americans– more on this later), I kicked myself for eating my morning yogurt so slowly.
But it was all good… we were about to see the largest surviving palace complex in the world!
At last, we stood at the gate, tickets and Audio Guide in hand… and with wide grins, we entered the no-longer-so-forbidden Forbidden City!
WOW! GORGEOUS! Gaze at the photos. Indeed, the Forbidden City exemplifies our image of China.
Look at those graceful roofs, those vibrant reds and golds, and those vast open spaces between buildings!
I felt so lucky to be there.
The Audio Guide was a fancy GPS-equipped affair which automatically charted our course and, when we reached various magical activation points of the complex, started playing explanations of our surroundings. A warning on the machine stated: “Listen carefully: You may not replay explanations once they are given.”
We took turns listening to the Guide and telling our two travel buddies the most important and interesting facts.
Here are some of those background details about the Forbidden City:
- Emperor Zhu Di of the Ming Dynasty ordered construction of the Forbidden City starting in 1406. The palace took fifteen years and over a million workers to build.
- The Forbidden City gets its name because no one was allowed to enter or leave the complex without the Emperor’s permission.
- In 1860, following the Second Opium War, English and French forces briefly captured and occupied the Forbidden City.
- The Forbidden City was home to 14 Ming Dynasty emperors and 10 Qing Dynasty emperors. In 1912, the Palace stopped being the seat of China’s government after Emperor Puyi stepped down, and the Republic of China was created.
- In 1987, the Forbidden City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it is the largest collection of preserved antique wooden structures in the world (!) and a multi-decade restoration project was subsequently launched to return the palace to its original glory.
We walked and walked, drinking in the beauty of the buildings.
The sun beat down, and the wide stone courtyards became like frying pans, emanating waves of heat up through our bones and onto our sweating faces. I began to feel like sauteed shrimp.
We entered a section of the complex which features small windows where tourists can peek inside a building. It was now mid-day, and the throngs of visitors were so thick that you literally had to claw your way to the front to have any hope of seeing in the window. Once you were there, you had to brace your legs to avoid being knocked over.
There was a miscommunication. Suddenly, while looking through one of these crowded windows, I was shoved to the side by the crowd and lost sight of Gareth and Colin. I grappled through and found my friends again, hollering over the din, “Do you need help getting out?”
I couldn’t hear their reply, and was thrust away from the window and into a courtyard. Minutes passed. When I finally found Colin and Gareth again, we were all coated with sweat, irritable, and confused.
“Did you want my help to get out of there or not?” I asked. “I know you don’t like pushing people, and I thought you needed help.”
“No, I was fine,” Colin responded. “I was happy looking at the inside of the building through that window and I just wanted to stay there.”
“Well then why didn’t you say so?!” I yelled.
The sun pounded down as we all screamed at each other, dizziness making us stumble in the heat.
“Well,” I finally spat out, “it’s normal to get grouchy in such a huge and hot place as this. It always happens. Let’s just push through it and keep walking.” I stormed off.
Colin caught up with me, sweat sliding along his furrowed brow. “That’s the way it’s always been for you, but do you want it to continue that way?”
That was the moment which saved our Forbidden City day.
Instead of pushing on, Gareth, Colin, and I stepped into an air-conditioned snack shop in the mid-point of the palace and ordered the coldest snacks available. We sat, we breathed, and once we were no longer in danger of punching each other out or fainting, we talked.
“What is it that we each want to get out of being at the Forbidden City?” Gareth asked. “We could have stayed in our hostel this morning and done nothing. So let’s articulate: why are we each here?”
“Mmm,” I reflected, licking my peach-flavored popsicle, “I love taking photos of these buildings. They’re so beautiful. I want to take as many photos as possible so I can look back at them forever.”
“Nice!” said Colin. “Since I taught about the Forbidden City to my sixth graders last year, I really want to listen to the Audio Guide and soak in the history as we walk around.”
“Totally!” exclaimed Gareth. “And I am into imagining the experience. I want to peek into courtyards, bedrooms, and closets and imagine what it must have been like for the Emperors and their wives and concubines to live here.”
When our discussion was finished, our argument had vanished along with our peach popsicles.
We re-entered the hot sun and glorious vistas, bursting with renewed zeal.
In the two more hours we spent in the world’s largest surviving palace complex, we were calm, happy, and focused.
We knew we couldn’t see everything in the nearly 8 million square feet of the Forbidden City, and we knew we were still hot… but what had changed was that we each now knew WHY we were there that afternoon.
Me, I snapped 310 photos, many of which you see here. Colin played the Audio Guide and relayed the historical facts to us, and Gareth scampered hither and thither, squealing: “The concubines lived in this room!” and, “I can see a clothes closet from this window!”
By the time we trudged through the final ornate garden and out of the crowded exit tunnel, we had our arms around each other and were singing: “We rocked out the Forbidden City! Hooray!”
I share this story with you because if YOU haven’t already had an argument at a huge, hot tourist attraction, chances are you will someday. Tourism is an honor, and it’s also really stressful.
You may be at the most famous sight in the world– one you’ve waited your whole life to see– but you’re boiling mad at your friend, you’re really thirsty and just have a small bottle of tepid water, and you just want to use a bathroom that isn’t disgusting. Being in this state feels awful, because on top of it all, you are furious at yourself for being such a brat at such a beautiful and famous place. It’s a vicious, vicious cycle, and it’s one that’s hard to get out of alone.
Now, our day at the Forbidden City could have been completely ruined by our heat-and-crowds-induced argument, if it hadn’t been for the courageous communication skills of my friends.
What I’ve learned from this, I pass along to any of you who are headed to a famous tourist attraction: If you get irritable or angry during your travels, you are not crazy and you are not a bad person! You are just probably dehydrated and tired and feeling confused, and that’s normal.
What to do is this: Communicate immediately with your travel buddies, and get yourselves as soon as possible to a shady place with some food and cool hydration so that you can rest and talk.
I also invite you to try out Gareth’s strategy of articulating these questions before or during your visit:
“What is your reason for being in that famous place instead of sitting at home on a couch?”
“Why is that place meaningful to you, and how does it connect with your interests?”
“What can you and your travel partners do to help you get the most satisfaction and joy out of your visit?”
If everyone in your travel group is clear on WHY you’re all there (in a way that’s meaningful to each of you), you can support each other during your visit, and really get the full value out of your travel money.
And also not punch each other in the face or faint.