Monday, January 7, 2008

The Forbidden City

I was at the Forbidden City the day before yesterday. It was like a combination of the Vatican, Disneyland and your favorite park, but bigger. Certain parts are just mobbed with people. The Emperor's throne, the throne of his wife, the home of the main concubine -- people are literally on top of each other, pressing in to get that supposedly life-changing photo that will end up on the cutting room floor when they discover the elbow of the person next to them stuck in the picture. The Vatican (other than early or late, which I recommend) is exactly the same way. There's nothing like seeing two ladies, probably both American, literally fighting to get to the Pieta.

At the Forbidden City I also thought of Disneyland because the two places share such an incredible appreciation for perspective. Everywhere you go in the Forbidden City, you're always being directed by the lines of the rooftops or the entryways into something else. Every building is exquisitely framed by all the others. And we're talking SO MANY buildings. It's mind-blowing and all aesthetically so pleasing.

Just bigger: it's very difficult to appreciate the scale of the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City really was just that, a city that no one could come in without the Emperor's permission, because he lived there. It is the biggest complex of buildings you'll ever see. Really and truly, it just keep going and going, one palace after another, with a million side areas to boot. I am told it has 9998 1/2 rooms, in fact, and having walked most of the place, I believe it. (My hutong driver explained that the city has 9998 and 1/2 rooms because 9999 is the perfect number, therefore the number associated with heaven. The Forbidden City is a half step below that.)

And then, the really unexpected thing about the city, and my favorite part, is that it also combines that massive scale with the intimacy in places of your favorite park. The main drag gets lots of traffic, and baby does that gets old. But take a few steps off the beaten track and all of a sudden you find yourself completely alone in a Chinese style garden, with little cupolas and a few trees and silence. It is exquisite. A completely focused and harmonious environment. I tried to take a picture of a favorite one I came upon; not sure it really conveys that feeling, though.

I'll tell you one other thing that struck me about the City was the light. In photography, they talk about the magic hour, that period at the beginning and the end of the day when the sun is low on the horizon, which generates the best light for photos. At the Forbidden City, as far as I can tell, it's always the magic hour -- at least in January. Those buildings take in the sunlight like a solar panel; the yellow rooftop tiles and pinkish walls just glow. Amazing.

All in all, a great adventure.

PS Word to the wise: never eat fried scorpion.

1 comment:

Ken said...

What happened between your two posts today that changed your mind about fried scorpion? (You seemed to like it at 5ish; didn't like it so much later...)