We skirted the Gate of Supreme Harmony and ducked through a passageway on the left side - designed for lesser mortals. Once past the Gate, we confronted the Hall of Supreme Harmony across the picturesquely described "sea of flagstones":
This hall was the main throne room for the Qing emperors. Today it is surrounded by a palisade of scaffolding - it too is being restored - so we could not approach it; we just wandered around this huge courtyard like stunned ants.
I keep talking about how large these spaces are, while I don't seem to remember feeling the need to talk about that on our Egypt trip, and the freaking Sahara is a pretty big space too. Maybe the scale here is more daunting because it's all man-made?
At this point, some of the folks on the tour started to get a little bit worried. We had been walking for some time now, and we kept going up and down ramps, farther and farther in. How on earth were we getting out again?! Were we going to have to backtrack the whole way? (I looked it up later: the Forbidden City alone is almost a kilometer from south wall to north wall, not even counting the distance we had already walked up Tiananmen Square and from the Tiananmen Gate to the Meridian Gate; I guesstimate the whole trek to be well over 2 km!) As it turns out, we went out the "back door" - our bus met us at the North Gate - but nobody told us that!
We spent some time admiring the meticulously restored buildings:
I love the almost-insanely-elaborate intricacy of the ornamentation on these buildings. It's the same thing that makes you ooh and aah at those Painted Lady houses except more so and with an Imperial cachet! To be fair, some earlier imperial dynasties favored a more austere and restrained aesthetic, but the Qing liked it fancy.
The roofs have that characteristic Chinese curve, and are 'shingled' with textured tiles that give a combed look to the roofs:
The tiles are heavy ceramic, glazed with the beautiful Imperial Yellow color; only the royal family could wear or use things that were that color. None of these tiles are nailed down; in fact, most of the palace buildings did not use a lot of nails nails in their construction. Most of the eaves are decorated with roof guardian figures:
These little guys serve two purposes: they were supposed to protect the buildings from fire (a job they do more effectively now that they have lightning-rods running over their tiny heads) and their tails act like nails to stabilize the corner tiles! The more there were the more important the building was. Naturally the Hall of Supreme Harmony has the most:
When I view the largest size of this photo I think I see ten.
You can also see the triple marble terrace on which The Hall of Supreme Harmony stands. The terrace raises it way above ground level, and the commoners weren't allowed to build any buildings that were higher than these halls - kinda like how Paris wouldn't let you build anything taller than the Eiffel Tower until comparatively recently. Regular people would climb up there on stairs, but the emperor could walk on lovely marble pavements carved with clouds and dragons,
fitting footing for the Son of Heaven. This one only has clouds, but you get the idea.