Tourism! It begins today. Alison lives a few blocks from the Forbidden City, so we wake up this morning and walk there, clutching our street-vendor egg sandwiches and dodging the persistent “art students” inviting us to come see their shows. Thanks to the vendor onslaught, I learn my second bit of Chinese: “Bu yao.” It means “I don’t want any.” And it proves useful, especially as the Forbidden City is completely and totally packed. It’s the summer, it’s a Saturday, and as all the Beijingers will point out, it’s a “blue-sky day” something I don’t even think of treasuring back home, but which is apparently extremely rare around here. And so, temporarily, free of care and pollution, we, along with a hundred thousand of our new best friends visit the Forbidden City. Which is enormous. Our audioguide comes with a helpful map that lights up as you walk along, so I can tell if I’m in the Hall of Enduring Harmony or the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Although, given the fact that I’m trudging through the halls and the gate, surrounded by people talking, taking photos, and tour groups with loudspeaker-ed leaders yelling “Mr. Wang, Mr. Wang from Chengu, please come join your group,” it feels at times less like Supreme Harmony and more like Supreme Irony.
The Forbidden City is beautiful and its scope summarizes far more accurately than any textbook the breath and power of the dynasties that inhabited it. Trying, for a moment, to erase the bustle and the matching parasols and Mr. Wang from Chengdu and imagine it as a real, separate world of concubines and eunuchs, state secrets and palace intrigue is hard, but fascinating. The strangest thing about the Forbidden City is how empty its museum rooms are. Despite the immaculate care with which the imperial buildings have been and are being restored, they house exhibits that are, well, kind of lame – a few dusty objects, a couple lines of captioning. It’s not until dinner that night with Eric’s Chinese fiancée Joy that I learn the explanation – the Palace’s true opulent treasures were either stolen by the Japanese during invasion, taken to Taiwan in 1949, or else are sitting currently in rooms deep below the City, covered in layers of dust. It seems that some things about the Forbidden City stay forbidden.