You've already had a wander around Central Park, NYC, with me, and we'll be returning to New York later, but before that let me take you to our first stop, Beijing. This was way back in February so, despite these glorious blue skies, it was cold! (Remember, you can click on the photos for a larger view.)
We didn't have a great deal of time to explore. We spent only a week each in Beijing and Shanghai and, with three separate shows to put on in each city, much of our time was spent inside the theatres. But I tried to make the most of what we had, and the one full day off in Beijing simply had to include the Forbidden City. This is the first of a trio of posts on just that visit!
Before we get caught up in history though, here's where we were performing in Beijing... the National Centre for the Performing Arts - an extraordinary gleaming egg of a building. (My nephew thought it looked like a spaceship!)
It's almost completely surrounded by a lake - and even once you're inside you walk under the surface of the water... a lovely calming effect as it ripples overhead. This is just inside the entranceway you can see in the photo above, before entering the main shell of the egg.
Enough of work - back to the sightseeing...
It's hard to convey the sheer scale of the Forbidden City, a palace complex of more than 900 buildings over 180 acres. It's essentially a display of power and wealth designed to overawe and humble anyone visiting the Emperor. This is just the approach to the entrance...
... and the same building a little closer. That's Mao Tse Tung, 20 foot high, over the central archway - still publically much lauded.
Once through the first fortress of a gateway, you progress through a series of courtyards and gatehouses and receiving rooms and offices and chambers.
It's nearly a kilometre from the first gatehouse in the south to the final Imperial chambers in the north, and about 3/4s kilometre across from east to west. The outer wall is around 7 metres thick, 10 metres high and nearly 3.5 kilometres long, and outside that is a moat 6 metres deep and 52 metres wide. Impregnable! So your only approach to the seat of power is via the front gateway and through those awe-inspiring buildings and vast courtyards.
And I do mean vast - overwhelmingly huge, the size of several football pitches put together in some cases. (This is not one of the largest, just one I tried out my panorama photo function on.)
The whole complex was constructed between 1406 and 1420, and involved more than a million labourers and craftsmen. Their skill is evident at every turn.
I could hardly believe the detail and decoration at rooftop level.
These roofs soar way above the heads of the visitors, so you turn your gaze upwards in awe and submission to admire the work...
... and your neck starts to ache!
These incredibly intricate gilded dragons and scrolls are tucked up way under the eaves.
It's obviously fairly gloomy under there compared to the bright sunlight; we're also at maximum zoom from ground level, and the netting doesn't help, so I'm afraid this is not a great photo; but I loved the dragons and the moulded dimensional ceramic ornamentation above.
The ceramic tiles - in their thousands - gleam in the sunlight, so rich in colour, with the gloss of the ceramic glazes adding extra intensity.
There is so much gilding and intricate detailing...
... that the overall effect is dazzling...
(even to someone not much enamoured of red and gold in the general way of things)
... and each one of those circular tiles is exquisitely carved inside too.
These crouching (or sometimes walking) beasts on the corners of the rooftops were permitted only on official buildings in Imperial China - palaces, government buildings and temples.
The more important the activities carried on inside the building, the more beasts would be present on the rooftop (to a maximum of nine plus one figure of a man).
... and the dragon bringing up the rear represents the authority of the state. (If you'd like to know more about the symbolism, take a look here.)
And the colour is important too - only the Emperor was allowed to use this Imperial Yellow glaze.
How far you got through the sequence of courtyards and palaces depended, of course, on your status. The lowlier visitor wouldn't make it beyond the first gatehouse, and would only meet with palace flunkies.
If you were allowed to progress further (ascending flights of stairs with each set of chambers in the sequence, so you head upwards as well as onwards) you might meet with more important functionaries and advisers. And always and everywhere there are reminders of the wealth and power of the Emperor.
And as you finally reach the areas where you might encounter members of the Imperial family or household, the names of the palaces and halls are wonderful. I'm not sure I'd feel particularly at home in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, but I'd love to spend some time in the Hall of Mental Cultivation!
I've spent longer than I intended dancing around on the rooftops, and I don't want to outstay my welcome, so I'll wait until the next Forbidden City post to share some of the incredible artistry and craftsmanship visible nearer ground level, as well as inside some of those inspiringly-named halls and chambers.
And in Part III, since you are all clearly very important, we'll progress all the way to the Imperial Garden, the Emperor's private retreat beyond the final Palace chambers. I hope you'll be able to come and join me for more soon.
Travel changes you. As you move through this life you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life - and travel - leaves marks on you.