These days, the Forbidden City is forbidden only to smokers. The big sights that everyone knows come first – three huge halls, separated by gates, and the gigantic yards with the elaborate stairs leading up to them. After that it gets down to business; lots of smaller halls, the bigger ones with thrones for the emperor, the smaller ones for princes, concubines, and government functions. They all have flowery names like “pavilion of mental cultivation”. The smaller buildings are in the back of the Forbidden City, and look a little like the Pingyao youth hostel, except bigger, more elaborate, and less well maintained. They show huge collections of jade, silver filigree, bronze, gold, precious stones, and ceramics. They also have a pretty bizarre clock collection; one can paint Chinese characters with a brush.

In regular intervals there are loudspeaker announcements in Chinese, introduced by a chime that every time makes me expect something like “flight 444 is now boarding at the Gate of Supreme Harmony”.

I spent seven hours in the Forbidden City, it’s just endless. The audio guide makes it interesting, it’s quite good except when it gets confused and plays the wrong message and I don’t know what it’s talking about. There are a lot of guards in military uniforms; two of them patrol the outer wall with walkie-talkies set on full volume, noisily squeaking instructions punctuated by short beeps. Sounds like two Apollo capsules slowly orbiting the city. I don’t know how they manage to look so prim in these stuffy uniforms, it’s another hot and sunny day.

Outside the Forbidden City is a pleasant park, admission charged, with many old trees, ponds, and lots of flowers and blooming trees. Lots of Chinese photographers with gigantic cameras take pictures of tulips.

I had dinner at the Wangfujing snack street. Lots of food stalls there that sell everything on sticks; you point at some and they fry them: chicken, pork, tofu, tentacles, sausages, starfish, seahorses, live scorpions, toads, and thumb-size grubs. I am not kidding. Apart from the tentacles, nobody I saw bought the more exotic options. I loved the sweet ones with what I thought were strawberries, but were some other tangy fruit with large hard seeds.

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