Crisp autumn air greets me as I disembark from a subway station a bit of a ways South of the city center. Days like this are the best time to be out and about. Its when the leaves turn to red and the sun, content with the encroaching firey landscape it has wrought with its summer heat, makes way for the chill of winter. The sun is still shining on this azure skied day, and it finds me navigating my way across one of Beijing’s busy thoroughfares, eager to reach my destination.
This destination is a relatively-new park sandwiched between two opposing lanes of an elevated highway. An odd place for a park no doubt. But in Chinese culture, there’s a reason for everything, and it’s what this park houses that makes it special. Walking through the iron entrance and weaving through an extra gate to keep out cars and bike, I’m greeted by a wide path pointing north, towards a large, brick gate topped by a wooden tower. Yǒngdìngmén (永定门).
The Walk Begins
Yongdingmen is still quite a formidable sight. Slowly approaching the structure, the white gray of the brick separates from the maroon and green of the tower atop it. Two lions flank each side of the single entrance, with the name of the gate emblazoned above it. It grows larger and larger as I approach.
The climax, of course, is walking through the vast doorway of the wall, which is surprisingly deep considering how thin it looks from far away. Today, the gate sits on a massive base of concrete, the grass and trees of the park it inhabits, its hard to imagine what the sight must have been like when the gate was in its original state, when Beijing was coming into its own.
Originally part of the outer city wall – torn down to make way for Beijing’s march to modernization – Yongdingmen was the first sight people would see before entering the city. It consisted of the structure seen today, consisting of an outer entrance and inner entrance, the first part of what could be called the city’s spine – the Central Axis.
Creating the Spine
Cutting through Beijing’s exact center, the Central Axis was first devised before Beijing even existed, during the Yuan Dynasty (元朝; 1279-1368), when the city was called Dàdū (大都; aka Khanbaliq).
Its in this capital of the Mongolian dynasty where the axis took shape as an aspect of city planning. Not only did planners take into account the ground water, grain routes and other factors, but they also looked to Chinese reverence of the center.
This placing of importance on the center, on center lines, played greatly into the north-south axis, which was thought to be the Earth’s meridian. It’s because this title of world’s exact center that the rest of the city, from imperial palaces to temples and other works, were planned around it, especially in the Ming (明朝; 1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (清朝; 1644-1912), which followed the Yuan.
And with this bit of a history lesson, I move from Yongdingmen to Zhèngyángmén (正阳门).
Following the Path
From Yongdingmen, I exit the park. On either side there’s the roadway, and the concrete and stone path continues, flanked on each side by grass. I stop and find the outside gate to my south, while in front of me, in the distance past the buses, cars, bikes, ebikes hurdling past me left and right, there’s Zhengyangmen.
Also known as Qiánmén – 前门; Front Gate – this is the marker of Beijing’s inner city; the playground of emperors, the imperial family, and court officials. Nearing closer to the front gate, though, signs of common life erupt. The roads alongside give way to a pretty much impassable intersection.
After a 20 minute detour trying to find my way across (going through subway stations that led to dead ends, going to one side of the road but ending up right where I began) I found a way to the other side. via Zhūshìkǒu Station (珠市口站) I’m deposited at Qianmen Street.
What was once a teeming market street has remained the same, but its been reserved for pedestrians, with a generic sort of feel to it. Nothing stands out in the way of the brand-name shops and chain restaurants on either side of the street. But then, this is progress in today’s China. I’m merely here for the view at the street’s end: a look at what was once the entryway to the Inner City.
Consisting of the same gray brick as Yongdingmen, the guard tower has a commanding position across the intersection to the pedestrian street below. Consisting of 5 rows of 13 windows, the structure itself originally functioned as a watchtower connected to the gate itself – which itself looks like a copy of Yongdingmen – to its north.
Through the Forbidden City
When I was there, access to the tower and gate were blocked, as was Tiān’ānmén Square (天安门) beyond, gearing up for China’s then soon-to-arrive 70th anniversary celebrations in October. So, making my way around the square (which had beefed up security leading up to the event, creating long lines), I arrived at Tian’anmen, the gateway to the Palace Museum (Gùgōng; 故宫).
Through the center of the gate, with its massive portrait of a gently smiling Chairman Mao Zedong, I’m greeted by the Meridian Gate, entrance to the Forbidden City proper.
Constructed during the Ming Dynasty and based on the layout of the palace that had existed during the Yuan, there’s a myth that China’s imperial palace consists of 9,999 rooms total. Why not 10,000 rooms? Because, a tour guide once told me, only the Heavenly Palace, home to the mythical Jade Emperor, could have that number.
It’d take days to explore the entire palace complex, a mishmash of inner and outer courts, a place for imperial weddings, and even an old aquarium.
It’s crowded on the day I picked to go, but as my goal was to traverse Beijing’s entire spine, it was well worth it. Plus having visited the palace museum twice already, it was a simple task just to move along through, taking in the vibrant red of the walls, the intricate roof designs, and of course the more recent edition of more chairs for lounging in the shade of the complex’s buildings.
Through to the imperial gardens, with the skeletal trees vying for attention with the chiseled rock sculptures, I made my way for the exit.
Past the Forbidden City
By the time I exit the palace museum, the sun is starting to get lower in the sky, casting slight shadows as its fading yellow light paints the pavement, trees, walls, and anything else it touches an almost mustard yellow.
The sky is still bright blue, only in a lighter shade, as I cross yet another street, making my way to the park directly behind the Forbidden City, Jingshan.
Jǐngshān (景山), literally “Prospect Hill”, is a series of five artificial hills that, being part of the inner imperial city of Beijing, was once only reserved for the imperial family and officials to pay visits to. Today, its central hill is the most popular, as it provides a commanding place to snap photos of the palace below.
It’s too hazy on the day I visit for a clear shot. Meandering my way down from the main hill, I’m surrounded by evergreens and thick rocks placed in the hillside. The sun is getting lower and lower, but I escape the darker yellow and wind through trees below, across winding paths and couples, old and young, taking in the former garden. I wander awhile until I find the exit, and its back onto one of Beijing’s busy streets.
Heading further north, the street becomes a single lane; part of the axis. The buildings begin to taken on a reddish hue, bright scarlet, with more and more people out on Gǔlóu Dàjiē (鼓楼大街) as the evening approaches.
My legs are about to give out as I end up at the end of the road, with the bright red Drum Tower (Gǔlóu; 鼓楼) before me, the slightly taller, gray Bell Tower (Zhōnglóu; 钟楼) behind. I’m at the end of the line, and after a long day of exploring this ancient city’s history, it’s time to go home.