On Tuesday morning, our friend Sun was kind enough to pick us up and take us to the front gate of the Forbidden City, where we gained free admission thanks to her job with the Beijing Museum for Cultural Heritage Exchanges.
As one walks through the succession of gates to go deeper and deeper into the palace grounds, it is impossible not to feel a sense of awe. To think that, for centuries, the inner workings of the City were a mystery to even those living in the shadow of the 26-foot high walls makes it all the more unbelievable to wander around and explore freely.
The only yellow roofing tiles seen in China throughout history were those in the Forbidden City, for no one else could decorate using the color of the Emperor. In addition, only the most revered buildings would display as many as ten figures between the customary man-riding-phoenix at the head and the imperial dragon bringing up the rear. This is still an important part of Chinese architecture. In fact, we can see two figures between the symbolic bookends on the roof of the hotel across the street from us.
|Ten figures in the Michelin Guide means it's worth a special journey.|
|We should have followed local customs and charged a few yuan.|
We paid a small admission to visit the Hall of Clocks and Watches where about two hundred timepieces made by foreign and Chinese artisans and presented to or collected by the Emperors of the Qing dynasty (18th century) are on display. There were some remarkably intricate pieces including this 19-foot tall hand-carved wooden clock with stairs to access the winding mechanism and whimsical pieces like this sunflower. Others had figures that performed various tasks such as dancing, striking bells or even writing Chinese characters.
Just killing time, waiting for the dumpling stands to open...
We saw birthplaces of Emperors, gardens where princes and princesses once played, halls that housed the catty concubines as they jockeyed for royal favor, a fascinating display on the life of Puyi (The Last Emperor) and throne rooms where business and ceremonies were conducted and dignitaries were received.
The wooden eaves and some of the building exteriors are meticulously repainted every forty years or so. However, much of the ceramic artwork adoring the walls was in the very inner part of the City was in excellent condition.
|Including this dragon greeting visitors to the Big Hunk O' Love Hall.|
That evening we undertook one of the more memorable adventures of our journey as we set out in search of the strangest street food we could find. The little alley off of Wangfujing we scouted out the day before turned out to be quite fruitful. We saw trios of live scorpions squirming on a stick next to inanimate seahorses and various entrails-on-a-stick. I opted for the scorpions and Vaughn was eager to try the seahorse. After a quick bath in boiling oil, we energetically dove in. Vaugn shared a bite of seahorse with me and Xander ate one of the scorpions. Both reminded us of fairly flavorless shrimp tails. Neither good nor bad.
The scorpions found it very distasteful.
Next we found a safe-looking series of stalls on Snack Street all staffed by people wearing the same uniform. This gave us confidence that we weren't eating items cooked in gutter oil. Below you can see the giant brown grubs and the white strips of snake meat we (I) sampled next. Note the grubs are sold on sticks of four or five. I was able to convince them to just fry up just one grub for me and that was definitely for the best. It was not pleasant to mix the exoskeleton with the mushy bug-paste inside but I guess the aftertaste wasn't that bad. While that was not something I'd eat again, the snake was quite tasty. It was cooked and then dipped in a spicy sauce and felt like a cross between chicken and good, thick squid mantle when chewed. Snake is often eaten in the winter months in China because of the pleasant warmth it leaves behind. They say it's also an aphrodisiac (not pictured).
|Who needs Viagra when you've got Wangfujing Snack Street?|
But we didn't have the balls to try the balls.
Tomorrow we head to The Great Wall for our next bucket list item.