It may be called the Forbidden City, but the most historic part of Beijing is no more off-limits to curious visitors than the Great Wall in nearby Badaling or the nascent Olympic venues that promise to attract hordes of sports fans when the Summer Games begin here in 2008.

These days, the Forbidden City -- actually an oversize, 800-building palace complex -- is forbidden only to the incurious without tickets of admission, which are benign-looking bills with the 20-yuan price of entry printed on the front and decidedly capitalistic advertisements for Nestle chocolate on the back.

So, where eunuchs-to-be once made the supreme sacrifice in order to gain power and position, prospective buyers of candy bars are now invited to wander the grounds of the imperial redoubt for the equivalent of about $2.50.

Open city that it is these days, the complex is officially called the Imperial Museum. Within its moated walls are ceremonial palaces, imperial accoutrements, the emperor's gardens, royal quarters and soaring entranceways with evocative names such as the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the Gate of Heavenly Purity and the Gate of Divine Prowess.

In all, the Forbidden City -- home to 24 Chinese emperors over 491 years, from 1420 until the expulsion of Emperor Puyi in 1911, as depicted in the film "The Last Emperor" -- measures 3,150 feet long by 2,460 feet wide.

Were it a hotel, it would boast 9,999-and-a-half rooms, although some "rooms" are hardly four-walled enclosures.

Heaven on earth

According to tour guides, the half-room was a gesture to the "Heavenly Emperor" above, who had a 10,000-room residence in Paradise that could not and should not be exceeded by a mere earthly dwelling.

The facility, Photo by Joe Rosenopened to the public in 1925, is in the first year of a 20-year renovation. The first stage of the revamp will be completed in 2008, in time for the Olympics.

Most of the structures on display were erected after the 18th century, as the palace was stormed and razed in 1664.

The 20th century was not kind to the city, either. The Japanese looted the place during World War II. Then, Chaing Kai-shek's nationalist Kuomintang forces made off with a museum's worth of relics when they escaped to Taiwan after the communist revolution in 1949.

But what remains is still a sight to see. Most visitors start at Tiananmen Square, scene of the country's 1989 democracy demonstrations, which were violently suppressed by the communist hierarchy.

There, visitors pass through the Tiananmen Gate, a massive structure instantly recognizable for its huge portrait of Chairman Mao, flanked on the left by the slogan "Long Live the People's Republic of China" and on the right by "Long Live the Unity of the Peoples of the World."

The main entrance is the Meridian Gate, whose walls are 42.5 feet high. This gate, reserved for the emperor, was the spot where he periodically would review his troops.

Next is the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the tallest gate in the Forbidden City. It was here, in a massive courtyard that could hold up to 100,000 people, that early Ming Dynasty emperors met with officials and military officers in the morning and later where Qing Dynasty emperors held banquets, conducted ceremonies and received foreign dignitaries.

Visitors then approach the first of three major halls, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where members of the court would kow-tow, or touch the floor with their foreheads, nine times before the emperor, who would sit on the ornate Dragon Throne in the center of the room.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony, which is 115 feet high and 197 feet wide, is the largest and best-preserved wooden hall in China. Each of the 24 pillars supporting the hall was made from one piece of wood, about 59 feet high.

Immediately behind this enclosure lies the Hall of Middle Harmony, a rehearsal hall of sorts, where the emperor would go over his speeches before delivering them. Two Qing Dynasty sedan chairs are on display here.

The last of the three great halls, the Hall of Preserving Harmony, was constructed without pillar supports and is where the highest level of palace examinations were given. Three smaller halls follow, before visitors reach the Imperial Garden, a private retreat for the imperial family that was completed during the Ming Dynasty in 1417.

Laid out over 39,000 square feet, the Imperial Garden is characterized by 20 structures, each designed to coordinate with the trees, rockeries, flower beds and sculptures that surround them.

Nowadays, the garden is also home to modern visitor amenities such as rest rooms, snack bars and souvenir shops that are strategically placed before tourists exit the Forbidden City through the Gate of Divine Prowess.

For more on the Forbidden City, Beijing and China, call the China National Tourist Office's bureaus in New York at (888) 760-8218 or Los Angeles at (800) 670-2228. Or, visit the CNTO Web site at www.cnto.org.

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see "In Beijing, roll up your sleeves and order the duck."

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