I apologize that this is such a nice, long, juicy post but wanted to shove in a lot of photos and information, so read on…
I wanted to see the Forbidden City on my own on Friday, 1 May. I had a guided tour booked for Sunday, 3 May but assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that I would want to spend more time there than the tour would allow.
However, my Friday tour was absolutely not going to happen; 1 May was the celebration of International Labor Day (I had no idea) and I swear I saw most of China’s 1 billion people, all of whom wanted to go to the Forbidden City. There was a two-hour wait for security alone, so I decided to take a self-guided walking tour instead and headed off along the FC’s encircling moat, which is 52 meters wide, 6 meters deep and stocked with fish, I am told. I did see a few people with poles, but the fish didn’t appear to be biting. Maybe they were on holiday, too.
(No, I didn’t alter the photos above to create a mood…blame Beijing’s famous air quality. You can honestly feel the air moving down your throat when you breathe and it is dirty and dry. The pictures of the moat were taken on Friday, 1 May…Friday night there was a very welcome rainstorm that cleared the city’s air for the weekend, with the pictures of the hutongs below from Monday, 4 May clearly showing the huge difference.)
Surrounding the FC are Beijing’s oldest neighborhoods, known as hutongs. They are well worth a wander off the main streets. A hutong (I will throw in some knowledge gained from a fantastic walking tour I took on Monday and will review in a separate post) is essentially a collection of low courtyard houses along narrow, regular streets that form a traditional Beijing neighborhood, each centered round a communal well or water source; hutong was the old Chinese word for water.
You will only find these unique neighborhoods within the first two of Beijing’s ring roads (with most of them within reasonably comfortable walking distance of the central city), since the majority of the hutong neighborhoods were torn down in the name of progress during the early years of the Communist regime. The government now realizes the cultural and tourism value of these hutongs though, and with very strict building codes currently in place to protect them as they are, it is very easy to imagine the city as it must have once been.
When you walk through these vital, densely populated areas full of residents, restaurants and sometimes, other tourists, remember that they are very highly sought-after living arrangements. Since they have been protected by the government as historic districts and no changes can be made to the structures… the residents still share communal bathrooms and showers powered by the original central water sources for the neighborhoods, some of which are hundreds of years old…that explains in great part the public toilets that you see on almost every block.
The class and occupation of the original families inhabiting the individual houses in the hutongs could be determined both by the number of beam ends showing over the door lintels and the shape and size of the decorative, carved stones flanking the door frame. Four beams are better than two, and square or drum-shaped stones indicate military families, with rounded shapes advertising that a family of scholars lived inside. This was very important in recognizing your neighbors, since most life went on inside the courtyards of the houses and not outside, unlike today where the entire house is no longer inhabited by a single family but often up to 20 families in some of the larger homes in these densely-populated areas.
(As noted earlier, below is another photo taken on Friday, 1 May prior to the rainstorm, looking down into the FC from the man-made hill in Jingshan Park, behind the FC and the highest point in Beijing…no need to ask yourself again why you see Asians wearing those masks, I wish I had bought some. Just below that is another shot of the same view on Monday. What a difference.)