The Forbidden City's a treasure, at least until you get inside and put your face against the grimy windows or try to elbow your way through the unruly crowds to peek at unkempt rugs and dusty thrones. For all the revenue the place brings in (tickets are 40 kuai during winter months and 60 during the summer, though the two gals I was with on Sunday got in at 20 kuai because it was International Women's Day), you'd expect Gugong -- one of the must-sees for every tourist -- to be a little better maintained.
As is, the best parts of the Forbidden City -- rebuilt so many times it retains little of its ancient luster (whatever that might imply) -- might be the large, expansive plazas where one can imagine the ghosts of centuries-old eunuchs and soldiers standing guard for the emperor, and the green mini-park-like section at the north end, full of natural stone formations, mighty cypresses, intriguing junipers manipulated into shapes (mostly the upside-down shape of the Chinese character for "person," 人) and the colors of budding blossoms. I don't remember seeing these parts of the old imperial palace when I last visited as a kid, but I enjoyed the refresher course.
Also enjoyed the translations "made possible by the American Express company." Seriously, this ain't Chinglish:
More pictures: The ladies of the day, Daisy and Amy. Touching the tree: these two started it, and soon everyone was doing it; for good reason: it was glossy and smooth, as if the sap had repackaged itself as silk, and stark vertical ravines ran down the sides of the bark as if carved out by hundreds (more!) of years of steady waterfall. This is what happens when you're not careful with a bag of sunflower seeds: they scatter! The Forbidden City's back (north) door, from the outside; for pictures of the front door, go here.
POSTSCRIPT: For an insightful read, I recommend Geremie R. Barme's concise volume, The Forbidden City, published last year. Barme, it so happens, is in Beijing for the Bookworm's International Literary Festival.