Thursday, June 14, 2007

Forbidden City

The Forbidden City - the home of Ming and Qing Emperors for over 500 years, is steeped in Chinese history, culture and superstitions (referred to as Feng Shui today). It is not for me to give a full account here of these historical aspects of the Forbidden City - you would do well to pick up one of many books specifically describing this City.

One thing I can say here is that the City is HUGE - Chinese emperors of yore really lived it up! But then we should be mindful that the Emperor not only had his home here, this was the place to conduct the affairs of state, administer the Imperial Examinations and worship the God(s). Before we had our SOHO, the Chinese Emperors have already invented it, only it was not small.

As you enter the City, there are small little exhibit halls, each charging a small entrance fee, that showcase various aspects of Palace life and culture. In my opinion, these are probably not worth your time, though the money is not an issue. Each of these are priced as low as RMB5 per entry.

You can also eat at one of the many 'eating places' in this City, which occupies the buildings outside the Palace proper. Be forewarned - the food tastes terrible though the portion is huge. And if you are a stickler for clean toilets, you are in trouble. There are public toilets, but they emit a strong stench, probably because the cleaners can never clean them due to the constant stream of people using them. Also there are not many toilets to start off with. If you have a weak bladder, the Forbidden City is indeed forbidding.

While most of the outer perimeter of the Forbidden City is free for your to roam free of charge, entrance to the Palace (also known today as the Palace Museum) proper will set you back RMB60. It is worth the money though. The history of this Palace goes back hundreds of years that unless you are a history expert, it will be impossible for you to know or understand what you are seeing. You can rent a talking machine, which you can sling around your neck, that gives you a running commentary of various parts of the palace. It costs RMB10 for a Chinese version, RMB50 for an English version. There are other language versions too. But you need to pay a refundable deposit of RMB100. I almost rented one, but, in retrospect, I must thank the lady in front of me in the queue. She took so long that I gave up waiting. I found out later that a 'live' commentary was much better - and cost not much more. So we entered the Palace with nothing but the guide map that came with the entrance tickets in hand.

As in most places of interest, you get accosted by people offering their services, either to take you on a 40 minute tour, or something. They can be parasitic, but you must remember that you are in a foreign land, so no matter how irritated you get, you must maintain a degree of civility and politely refuse. They will still come after you, but these people are just trying to make an honest day's living, so bear with them. They aren't that bad. They are offering a service, they are not there to rob or anything - at least that's how I see them.

When you enter the Palace, there are guides dressed in blue who will offer a one and a half hour guided tour of the Palace grounds for RMB150. They will even offer to take a video of the entire guided tour, using their video camera, or even yours, if you have one. If you use theirs, you'd have to pay RMB50 for the DV-Tape, which is quite cheap. So the video-taping is not an extra above the RMB150. If it rains on that day, you can get an umbrella rent-free! Just pay RMB20 per umbrella, which will be refunded entirely to you when you return them the umbrella at the end of the tour.

These tour guides are professionals. We learnt that they are trained and need to be certified before they can act as guides. Because they go into some historical fact during the tour, they must be accurate with their commentary and also be able to answer tourists' (your) questions. Our lady guide came across as well trained, warm, and knowledgeable. She also learnt from her past customers who had expert knowledge on some remote bits of history at certain exhibits. These she readily shared with us. Now, that's humility and an acknowledgement that no one person knows it all.

At almost the end of the tour, in the place where the Empress and concubines lived, there is a Souvenir shop. Remarkably, our guide left us to our shopping because we wanted to browse around. Normally, a guide would tie up with some retail shop. In this case, it wasn't part of her itinerary, but she gave us the space and time.

At the end of the tour, we have to sign off on her 'ticket' and give her a rating - 'Excellent', 'Satisfactory' and 'Poor'. She was a great guide, and for all her effort, we rated her 'Excellent' and on top of that, tipped her RMB100!

I don't know about the machines, but this personal guided tour was definitely worth the price! The only thing I missed was her name. But never mind, we took a photo with her.

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