Seven surprises located within the Forbidden City

4 Get lost in a maze of lesser courtyards

A maze of courtyards.

A maze of courtyards.Credit: iStock

Tour groups gallop along the Forbidden City’s central axis in 90 minutes, but budget much longer to wander beyond. To east and west, the living and working quarters of the imperial family and courtiers are more human in scale, and decorated with furniture, intricately carved screens, scroll paintings and Buddhist statues. The seldom-visited eastern courtyards are emptier but especially atmospheric. You can find yourself alone, surrounded by stone lions, pink walls and the echoes of history.

5 Go on a treasure hunt

The Gallery of Clocks.

The Gallery of Clocks.Credit: Alamy

The Forbidden City is more architectural showpiece than museum: head to Taipei’s National Palace Museum to see its greatest objects. Still, its various palaces and outstanding Gallery of Clocks present magnificent leftovers. Don’t be seduced by the gold and glitz, though: China’s most precious cultural relics are often deceptively plain. Seek out the tiny, 1000-year-old, grey Jade Cloud and Dragon Incense Burner in the Jadeware Hall and study its calligraphic poem and sinuous dragons afloat between swirling clouds and ocean waves. Superb.

6 Take a journey back in time

Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall of marble carving of dragons playing with pearls at the Forbidden City.

Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall of marble carving of dragons playing with pearls at the Forbidden City.Credit: iStock

The best gallery is in Fengxian Palace and showcases clocks and other timepieces collected by emperors during the Qing Dynasty. Many were ordered from Britain, France, Switzerland and elsewhere and are embellished with elephants, automatons and even the entire solar system. But Chinese-made mechanisms are equally astonishing, such as a water clock the size of a car, and the 18th-century Eight Immortals Clock, seemingly modest in black lacquer but intricately designed.

7 Wind down in the gardens

Gardens at the North Gate.

Gardens at the North Gate.Credit: iStock

The northern-end Imperial Gardens are past some visitors’ exhaustion point, but conserve energy to wander patterned pathways between courtyards and wisteria-strangled pavilions, and admire bonsai trees, water-spurting dragons and weathered rocks. Latticed windows provide intimate outlooks. Chinese gardens are designed for contemplation rather than showing off, so you might ponder the vagaries of history here – or pen a poem. As a Chinese saying goes, keep a green tree in your heart, and a singing bird will come.

See also: Seven hidden attractions at this hugely popular Tokyo shrine

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