From ancient walled capital to showpiece megacity in barely a century, Beijing (Běijīng, 北京), spins a breathless yarn of triumph, tragedy, endurance and innovation.
Layers of History
Capital of China since Kublai Khan came a-knocking (with a hundred thousand Mongol horsemen behind him), Beijing has hosted the last three imperial dynasties: the Yuan (Mongols), the Ming (Han Chinese) and the Qing (Manchu). Hutong, the city's residential alleyways, are a Mongolian legacy. The Forbidden City? Hat-tip to the Ming. Summer Palace? The Qing. Nor does it stop there. Chairman Mao slumbers in Tian'anmen Square, hallowed turf for the Communist Party of China. And over it all loom giants like the 528m CITIC Tower, which topped out in 2018. What next for this restive superpower? You're about to find out...
Have You Eaten?
In Beijing, chī le ma? (have you eaten?) is literally how locals greet their neighbours. Food is the glue that binds all Beijingren, no matter their beliefs or bank balance. Whether you're slurping noodles, queuing for jiānbing, or guiltily rolling just one more Peking duck pancake, you're in good company. A mouth-watering melting pot, Beijing hosts exotic regional cuisines from across China, which equates to unbridled adventure for foodies.
State of the Arts
From Peking opera troupes to world-class contemporary art, Beijing draws on a profound well of creativity, and that's despite the vagaries of censorship. To give the government its due, museums are more numerous than ever, curation is less prescriptive and innovation is at an all-time high. China's finest universities feed Zhongguancun, the 'Silicon Valley' of Beijing, which is making seismic waves with its breakthroughs in AI and Big Data. At the humbler end, post-punk bands drone away in divey livehouses, local DJs get the hands in the air, while old folks still warble the revolutionary songs in the city parks.
Undisputed party capital – the Communist Party, that is – Beijing is a uniquely micromanaged megacity, a showpiece where the State's latest schemes are piloted to the populace. 'Xi Jinping Thought' is the guiding mantra (Xi being China's prez for the foreseeable future). When Beijing needs to get things done, it gets things done. Air pollution? Improving year on year. Winter Olympics in a snowless city? No problemo. Country-wide surveillance? Easy-peasy. The world's biggest airport, Daxing, was ready to open at time of research, as ever more bullet trains race outwards to the provinces. All in a day's work for Beijing.
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Enclosed by 3.5km of citadel walls at the very heart of Beijing, the Unesco-listed Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings – large enough to comfortably absorb the 16 million visitors it receives each year. Steeped in stultifying ritual, this otherworldly palace was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule, sharing 900-plus buildings with a retinue of eunuchs, servants and concubines, until the Republic overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911. The year 2020 marks the 600th anniversary of the Forbidden City, which the palace intends to celebrate by ensuring more of the complex is open for visitors than at any other time in its history as a tourist attraction. Which is a longer history than you might think – the Palace Museum (故宫博物馆, Gùgōng Bówùguǎn), as the Forbidden City is officially called, first opened in 1925, just one year after Puyi, the abdicated 'last emperor', was evicted from the Inner Court. Built between 1406 and 1420 by the Ming emperor Yongle, the construction of the Forbidden City was a titanic undertaking, employing battalions of labourers and craftspeople. Pillars of precious nanmu wood were floated from the jungles of southwest China to the capital, while blocks of quarried stone were hauled to the palace in winter over ingenious ice roads. Once built, the Forbidden City was governed by a stultifying code of rules, protocol and superstition; 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties governed China from its closed-off world, often erratically and haphazardly, until revolution swept them all away just a century ago. Despite its age, most of the buildings you see are post-18th-century Qing dynasty constructions and renovations – fire was a constant hazard, hence the enormous brass water vats everywhere. Planning Your Visit Although you can explore the Forbidden City in a few hours, a full day will keep you occupied and the enthusiast will make several trips. Most visitors focus their energies on the showpiece ceremonial halls and parade grounds, which take up the central axis in the outer court (southern half) of the complex. But the real thrill comes from exploring the labyrinth of courtyards and halls, laid out on a more human scale, on either side of the central axis, and from parading along the tops of the 10m-high walls for aerial views of the palace. Entering the Forbidden City In imperial times the penalty for uninvited admission was severe, although mere mortals wouldn't have even got close; the Imperial City girdled the Forbidden City with yet another set of huge walls cut through with four heavily guarded gates – including the Gate of Heavenly Peace, upon which hangs Mao's portrait. These days, tourists enter through the Meridian Gate, a massive U-shaped portal at the south end of the complex, once reserved for the emperor alone. Gongs and bells would sound imperial comings and goings, while lesser mortals used lesser gates: the military used the west gate, civilians the east gate and servants the north gate. The emperor also reviewed his armies from the Meridian Gate, passed judgement on prisoners, announced the new year’s calendar and oversaw the flogging of troublesome ministers. Through the Meridian Gate, you pass into a vast courtyard and cross the Golden Stream (金水, Jīn Shuǐ) – shaped to resemble a Tartar bow and spanned by five marble bridges – on your way to the magnificent Gate of Supreme Harmony, beyond which the courtyard could hold an imperial audience of 100,000 people. Mounting the Wall Since 2018, visitors can climb the Forbidden City's Wall just inside and to the east of the Meridian Gate, follow it eastwards to the Corner Tower, and then north to the East Prosperity Gate. This route includes the Gallery of Historic Architecture, with exhibition spaces in the Corner Tower and the splendid East Prosperity Gate. In total, around three quarters of the 3.4km wall wall can now be climbed, a fine way to leave the crowds behind and take awesome photographs. First Side Galleries Before you pass through the Gate of Supreme Harmony to reach the Forbidden City’s star attractions, veer off to the west of the huge courtyard to visit the Hall of Martial Valour, where emperors would receive ministers. It houses a changing line-up of exhibitions. Just to the south is the Furniture Gallery, occupying an area known as the Southern Storehouses, which opened for the first time in 2018. The Hall of Literary Brilliance complex to the east of the Meridian Gate was formerly used as a residence by the crown prince. It was rebuilt in 1683 after being destroyed by fire. It too hosts a changing line-up of exhibitions throughout the year, but is sometimes closed between November and March. Three Great Halls Raised on a three-tier marble terrace representing the Chinese character for king (王; wáng), are the Three Great Halls (三大殿; Sān Dàdiàn), the glorious heart of the Forbidden City. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City, and was once the tallest building in the capital. It was used for state occasions, such as the emperor’s birthday, coronations and the nomination of military leaders. Inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony is a richly decorated Dragon Throne (龙椅; Lóngyǐ), from which the emperor would preside over trembling officials. The entire court had to touch the floor nine times with their foreheads (the custom known as kowtowing) in the emperor’s presence. At the back of the throne is a carved Xumishan, the Buddhist paradise, signifying the throne’s supremacy. Today you can only view it from the outside, and it virtually requires a rugby scrum to do so. Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Central Harmony, which was used as the emperor’s transit lounge. Here he would make last-minute preparations, rehearse speeches and receive ministers. On display are two Qing dynasty sedan chairs, the emperor’s mode of transport around the Forbidden City. The last of the Qing emperors, Puyi, used a bicycle and altered some features of the palace grounds to make it easier to get around. The third of the Great Halls is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, used for banquets and later for imperial examinations. The hall has no support pillars, and to its rear is a 250-tonne marble imperial carriageway carved with dragons and clouds; it was hauled into the city on an ingenious path of ice – they had to wait until winter to do so. The peripheral buildings surrounding the Three Great Halls were used for storing gold, silver, silks, carpets and other treasures, and now house museum exhibits. Lesser Central Halls The basic configuration of the Three Great Halls is echoed by the next group of buildings, reached through the Gate of Heavenly Purity. Traditionally, this gate was the dividing line between the ceremonial outer court and the inner court to the north, where the emperors and their entourages actually lived and worked. Smaller in scale, these buildings were more important in terms of real power, which in China traditionally lies at the back door. The first structure is the Palace of Heavenly Purity, a residence of Ming and early Qing emperors, and later an audience hall for receiving foreign envoys and high officials. Immediately behind it is the Hall of Union, which contains a clepsydra – a water clock made in 1745 with five bronze vessels and a calibrated scale. You'll also find a mechanical clock built in 1797 and a collection of imperial jade seals on display. The Palace of Earthly Tranquillity was the imperial couple’s bridal chamber and the centre of operations for the palace harem. Imperial Garden At the northern end of the Forbidden City is the Imperial Garden, a classical Chinese garden with 7000 sq metres of fine landscaping, including rockeries, walkways, pavilions and ancient, carbuncular cypresses. At its centre is the double-eaved Hall of Imperial Peace. Nearby, the Lodge of Spiritual Cultivation is where British tutor Sir Reginald Johnston gave English lessons to the abdicated 'last emperor' Puyi. Treasure Gallery On the northeastern edge of the complex is what feels like a mini Forbidden City all of its own. This is the Palace of Tranquil Longevity (宁寿宫; Níng Shòu Gōng), built around 1771 for Qing emperor Qianlong's retirement, though he never moved in. Today it holds the Treasure Gallery, one of the palace's most important collections of ornamental objects, which are crafted from gold, silver, jade, emeralds, pearls, and other gems and semi-precious stones. The complex is entered from the south – not far from the unmissable Gallery of Clocks. Just inside the entrance, you’ll find a beautiful glazed Nine Dragon Screen, modelled after the one in Beihai Park. From there you work your way north, exploring various halls and courtyards before exiting at the northern end of the Forbidden City. En route, seek out the Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies, a three-storey wooden opera house, which was the palace’s largest theatre. Note the trap doors that allowed actors to make dramatic stage entrances. Western & Eastern Palaces A dozen smaller palace courtyards lie to the west and east of the three lesser central halls. It was in these self-contained abodes, like far grander versions of Beijing's sìhéyuàn mansions in the hutong, where most of the emperors and empresses actually lived. Many of the buildings, particularly those to the west, are decked out in imperial furniture. Other Attractions Parts of the palace that were previously off limits are opening all the time. Due west of the Gate of Heavenly Purity are a collection of halls and gardens where the empresses and concubines of deceased emperors resided. Known as the Palace of Compassion and Tranquillity, it was used for storage for many decades after 1925 and today houses the Sculpture Gallery, which includes Buddhist statues, terracotta warriors, exquisite stone reliefs and more, from as far back as the Warring States period. To the south is the Garden of Compassion and Tranquillity, where empress dowagers and imperial consorts worshipped the Buddha, entertained themselves and rested. To the west is the Palace of Longevity and Health, built for emperor Qianlong's mother.
An oasis of methodical Confucian design, the 267-hectare Temple of Heaven Park is unique. It originally served as a vast stage for solemn rites performed by the emperor (the literal 'Son of Heaven'), who prayed here for good harvests at winter solstice and sought divine clearance and atonement. Since 1918 this private imperial domain has opened its gates to common folk, who still congregate daily to perform taichi, twirl on gymnastics bars and sing revolutionary songs en masse. Don't expect to see worshippers at prayer; this is not so much a temple as a place of arcane, Confucian-inspired statecraft. The emperor, the Son of Heaven (天子, Tiānzǐ), visited the Temple of Heaven twice a year, with the more important ceremony performed at winter solstice. The royal entourage proceeded from the Forbidden City to the Imperial Vault of Heaven in silence, with commoners instructed to close all windows and remain indoors. The procession included elephant and horse chariots and long lines of lancers, nobles, officials and musicians. The imperial sedan chair was 12m long, 3m wide and employed 10 bearers. Although there are four main entry points to the park (with the east and west gates most convenient for visitors; through tickets cannot be purchased after 4pm), the imperial approach was via Zhaoheng Gate in the south leading directly to the Round Altar. On this open-air, raised dais the ceremonies to heaven took place, performed according to solemn protocol every winter solstice by the emperor himself. Arranged in three tiers, the Round Altar revolves around the imperial number nine. Odd numbers were considered sacrosanct in imperial China – nine ( jiǔ) is the highest single-digit odd number and a homonym for long life. The altar is arranged in three tiers, with the top tier containing nine rings of stones, arranged in multiples of nine. The stairs and balustrades are also multiples of nine. North of the Round Altar is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, enclosed by a low circular wall known as the Echo Wall. Despite its splendid, shapely appearance, the Vault of Heaven was a storeroom, used to keep the spirit tablets of the gods and other materials needed for the ceremonies on the Round Altar. Seen from above the structures of the Temple of Heaven are round and their bases square, a pattern deriving from the ancient Chinese belief that heaven is round and earth is square. The Echo Wall, 65m in diameter, is so named for its unique acoustic properties. A quiet word or two spoken a few feet from the wall can be heard at the opposite point on the circle (although the din of other tourists chattering can drown it out!). Continuing on from the Imperial Vault of Heaven is the majestic, 360m-long Red Stairway Bridge, an imperial thoroughfare leading to the marvellous centrepiece of the Temple of Heaven, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. A much-photographed icon, the triple-eaved Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is made entirely of wood without the use of nails, with the heavy roof supported by 28 wooden pillars. First built around 1420, it was burnt to cinders by a lightning strike in 1889. A faithful reproduction based on Ming architectural methods was erected the following year, with timber imported from the USA, since by that point China lacked trees big enough for the task. Rich in esoteric symbolism, the four largest central pillars represent the seasons, the 12 in the next ring the months of the year, and the 12 outermost columns represent the day, broken into 12 ‘watches’ of two hours each. Writhing about on the ceiling is a vivid dragon-phoenix relief, representing the emperor and empress. Connected to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests by the ornamental Long Corridor, the Animal Killing Pavilion was where oxen, sheep, deer and other beasts were slaughtered and prepared before being presented as divine offerings. You'll need to show you passport to get a look in at the copper boilers and cleaning sink on display. To the west of the park, the Divine Music Administration is where the ranks of drummers, pipers and bellringers got their act together prior to the imperial ceremonies. Now a museum, exhibits cast light on zhōnghé sháolè (中和韶乐), the ceremonial music reserved for the imperial court, and there are galleries devoted to ancient Chinese musical instruments. Adjacent to the West Heavenly Gate, the Fasting Palace is where the emperor hunkered down in preparation for the winter solstice ceremony, abstaining from all earthly pleasures for a day or two. Resembling a Forbidden City in miniature, it's surrounded by a moat and has its own Drum and Bell Tower. You'll need your passport for entry. Since 1918 the Temple of Heaven has opened its gates to Beijing's lǎobǎixìng (old 'hundred names' – literally common folk). Among the 4000 or so knotted cypresses, you'll see locals performing taichi, kung-fu routines, dancing, or assembling into impromptu choirs and orchestras to belt out the old revolutionary songs with gusto. The exercise area in the northeast of the park has some of Beijing's best people-watching, where you might catch sight of a septuagenarian twirling on gymnastics bars, and other feats of athleticism.
Flanked by triumphalist Soviet-style buildings, Tian'anmen Sq is an immense void of paved stone (440,000 sq metres, to be precise) at the symbolic centre of the Chinese universe. Watched over by Mao's portrait (and the eyes of hundreds of security personnel), it's an iconic if disquieting place for a stroll. Highlights on the square itself include the daily flag-raising (and lowering) ceremony, Mao's mausoleum and the Zhengyang Gate. Access is via the underpasses beside Tian'anmen East and Tian'anmen West subway stations (Line 1). The rectangular arrangement of the square, echoing the layout of the Forbidden City, to some extent pays obeisance to traditional Chinese culture, but most of its ornaments and buildings are Soviet-inspired. Mao conceived the square to project the power of the Communist Party, and during the Cultural Revolution he reviewed parades of up to a million people here. The ‘Tian'anmen Incident’, in 1976, is the term given to the near-riot in the square that accompanied the death of Premier Zhou Enlai. Another million people jammed the square to pay their last respects to Mao in the same year. Most infamously, in 1989 the army forced pro-democracy demonstrators out of the square. Hundreds – possibly thousands – lost their lives in the surrounding streets, an event the Chinese government has spent the intervening decades removing from the national consciousness. Contrary to widespread belief, it is thought that few if any were killed in the square itself. The famous 'tank man' photo was taken not on the square but from a balcony of the Beijing Hotel on Chang'an Jie; now Beijing Hotel NUO. Early risers can watch the daily flag-raising ceremony at sunrise, performed by a troop of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers marching at precisely 108 paces per minute, 75cm per pace. The soldiers emerge through the Gate of Heavenly Peace to goose-step impeccably across Dongchang’an Jie (the reverse ceremony is performed at sunset). In the centre of the square is the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a 40m-tall obelisk emblazoned with calligraphy from Mao and Zhou Enlai, while behind it sits the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where Mao's body lies inside a glass coffin. At the foot of the square, the magnificent Zhengyang Gate can be climbed for superb views and an exhibition of historical photographs showing the area as it was at the beginning of the last century.
This immense fortress, part of the Ming City Wall Ruins Park, guarded the southeast corner of Beijing's city walls. Originally built in 1439 but repaired numerous times over the centuries, the tower is skewered with a formidable grid of 144 archery embrasures, able to rain fire on would-be attackers. Visitors can mount the battlements and explore the tower itself, a magnificent maze of carpentry over multiple floors, including an exhibition of historical photographs. From the ramparts, you can photograph the remains of the city wall as it flows west, while trainspotters can admire the rolling stock grinding in and out of Beijing Railway Station. Keep an eye out for graffiti scratched into the tower by American and Russian soldiers during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Allied forces overwhelmed the redoubt after a lengthy engagement (during which it was heavily damaged), en route to relieve the besieged Legation Quarter. Also known as the Fox Tower, it was just outside here that the body of a murdered British woman, Pamela Werner, was discovered in 1937, as recounted in the bestselling true-crime novel Midnight in Peking. Travel company Bespoke Travel Co runs the official (Penguin-sanctioned) Midnight in Peking Walking Tour, occasionally hosted by author Paul French himself when in town, but otherwise by the history buffs at Beijing Postcards. The tower formerly housed Red Gate Gallery, which has since moved to 798 Art District. Architecturally comparable to the Southeast Corner Watchtower are Deshengmen Arrow Tower and Zhèngyáng Gate Arrow Tower. A visit here pairs nicely with a jaunt through the Ming City Wall Ruins Park and a walk north to the Ancient Observatory.
Instantly recognisable by its giant framed portrait of Mao, and guarded by two pairs of Ming dynasty stone lions, the double-eaved Gate of Heavenly Peace (literally 'Tian'anmen') is a potent national symbol. Formerly the largest of the four gates of the Imperial City Wall, it was from here that Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Climb the gate for excellent views of Tian'anmen Sq. The ticket office is on the northwest side of the gate. Built in the 15th century and restored in the 17th century, the gate provides the main point of access for tourists entering the Forbidden City. Today’s political coterie watches mass troop parades from here. Mao's portrait – a 6m x 4.6m oil painting repainted annually – is a relatively recent permanent addition. During the 1950s, it was only hung on the gate for the May and 1 October celebrations. In the early years of the PRC, the gate and its vicinity also occasionally sported portraits of Sun Yatsen, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Mao has been a constant fixture since 1975. Either side of the portrait are placards reading: 'Long Live the People's Republic of China' and 'Long Live the Unity of the People of the World'. It was from atop the gate, at 3pm, 1 October 1949, that Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, when the square it faced was just a fifth of its current size. Climb the gate for excellent views of the square and to admire the carpentry inside. You'll also find a photographic history of the gate and Tian'anmen Sq (the captions are Chinese only), and footage of military parades. The ticket office is on the northwest side of the gate; you'll need to stow all bags here before entering. For Forbidden City tickets, keep walking 600m further north.
One of Beijing's more surreal spectacles is the sight of Mao Zedong's embalmed corpse on public display within his mausoleum. The Soviet-inspired memorial hall was constructed just 10 months after Mao died in September 1976, and is a prominent landmark in the middle of Tian'anmen Sq. The Chairman is still revered across much of China, as evidenced by the snaking queues here; the occasional local tourist may be solemn-faced but many are in high spirits, treating it like any other stop on their Beijing tour. Mao's body lies in a crystal cabinet, draped in a red flag emblazoned with hammer and sickle, as guards in white gloves impatiently wave visitors on towards further rooms where a riot of Mao kitsch – lighters, bracelets, statues, key rings, bottle openers, you name it – ensues. Directly outside the mausoleum are some stirring socialist-realism war memorials that make for good photo ops. Mao is one of a pantheon of world communist/cult-of-personality leaders to be embalmed, along with Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and North Korea's Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, who are also on public display in their respective countries. Before you join the queue, all bags and cameras need to be deposited at the signposted storage area beside the National Museum of China east of the square; collect them before 2pm. And don’t forget your passport – you won’t be let into the hall without it. Although the queues may seem impossibly long, they are constantly moving (visitors aren't allowed to stop inside the hall). Be aware that opening hours can vary; occasionally it can open later at 9am or close earlier at 11am.
Lost in a tumbledown hutong neighbourhood, this Buddhist temple is one of Beijing's best-preserved Ming dynasty structures. It was built in 1444 to honour a corrupt and powerful eunuch, Wang Zhen, who held tremendous sway over the guileless Emperor Zhengtong. Remarkable treasures within include the Ten Thousand Buddhas Hall with floor-to-ceiling wall niches filled with miniature Buddhist effigies. You won’t find the coffered vault ceiling of the Zhihua Hall (it’s in the USA), and the Four Heavenly Kings have vanished from Zhihua Gate, but the Scriptures Hall, to the west of the central courtyard, encases a spectacular, eight-sided zhuǎnlún zàng (转轮藏), a rotating scriptures cabinet mounted on a marble base, crowned with animal carvings and a seated Buddha beneath a mandala fresco. The Ten Thousand Buddhas Hall is at the far rear of the complex, dominated by a trio of wood-carved deities (a 20ft-tall Tathagata Buddha, flanked by Brahma and Indra). Unfortunately, visitors are no longer allowed to climb to the 2nd floor, which houses a seated Buddha. Time your visit to coincide with a short musical performance, taking place in Zhihua Hall at 10am and 3pm daily. Performers use traditional Chinese instruments associated with Buddhist worship. Following renovations in 2018, the temple has added several museum displays to its offerings, including notes on temple construction and restoration over the years, and an exhibit on jing religious music.
Beijing's finest park is also one of the only hills in the inner city, a mound that was created from the loess (sediment) excavated to make the Forbidden City moat. Called Coal Hill by Westerners during Legation days, Jingshan also serves as a feng shui shield, protecting the palace from evil spirits – or dust storms – from the north. Clamber to the top for a magnificent panorama of the capital and princely views over of the Forbidden City. On the eastern side of the park, a locust tree stands in the place where the last of the Ming emperors, Chongzhen, hanged himself as rebels swarmed at the city walls. The original tree survived right up until the Cultural Revolution, some say, when it was uprooted. In the north of the park, the Shouhuang Temple, built in 1749 under the reign of Emperor Qianlong to honour his royal ancestors, opened in 2018 after four years of restoration. One of the best places in Beijing for people-watching, hit up Jingshan Park before 9am to see (or join in with) elderly folk going about their morning routines of dancing, singing, performing taichi or playing jiànzi (kick-shuttlecock). In April and May, the park bursts into bloom with peonies and tulips forming the focal point of a very popular flower fair. The park has three gates: the south is directly opposite the Forbidden City's north gate, the west leads to Beihai Park's east gate, while the east gate has a couple of nice cafes outside it.
One of Beijing's best-kept secrets – despite being next to the Gate of Heavenly Peace – the Workers' Cultural Palace was gifted to the masses by Mao in 1950 as a place of wholesome recreation. For several centuries prior, it was the most sacred temple in Beijing, where emperors would come to worship their ancestors. The cathedral-like Sacrificial Hall is as magnificent as any imperial building in Beijing. Ancient cyprus and pine trees, one reputedly planted by a Ming emperor, line the approach to the Glazed Gate (琉璃门; Liúli Mén), said to be a Ming dynasty original, which would make it older than those in the mostly Qing-era Forbidden City next door. Marble bridges lead to three flights of steps ascending to the mighty Sacrificial Hall (太庙; Tài Miào), its sign inscribed in Chinese and Manchu. Gods alone were permitted to traverse the central plinth; the emperor was consigned to the left-hand flight. This hall would have held the thrones of departed royals and their consorts; now it holds rotating calligraphy displays and the like. Enter to admire the epic scale of the interior and its astonishing carpentry. The northern edge of the park abuts the palace moat, where you can find a bench and park yourself in front of a fine view. Exit through the northwest gate to enter the Forbidden City ticket area, neatly bypassing the tourist scrum entering via the Gate of Heavenly Peace.