It is immediately apparent, as you step inside the 30-foot walls of the former Imperial Palace in Peking, that in its day it was a hierarchal fantasyland on the order of Versailles. Its 9,000 rooms and 250 acres were probably none too many for the 20,000 to 30,000 people who once lived here. There are no fewer than five gates in the high wall through which we entered: the center for the use of the emperor, the ones on either side for the emperor's wives and relations, the outside for riffraff - at least, riffraff with invitations.
Riffraff without invitations were forbidden to enter on pain of death, hence the name by which the palace is most often known: the Forbidden City.
Now, of course, the Forbidden City is a museum; and blue-, olive-green-, and gray-suited Chinese wander through its vast stone courtyards, nibble small brownish apples between its lofty red wooden pillars, and peer with mild curiosity into glass cases containing chopsticks, bowls, jewelry boxes, and scepters of solid gold - items no less remote-seeming because the feudal period they represent ended quite recently, in 1911.
''This gate is called the Meridian Gate because the emperor believed that the meridian went through the city,'' said Miss Liu, our charming CITS guide, leading us through the central, emperor's arch to a courtyard whose stones, she said, were the top layer of 15, set in alternating directions, so that no one could tunnel in.
The gray, rectangular courtyard stones were massive enough that even one layer might well challenge the intruder. The courtyard, of a size to assemble an army in, was formed by long buildings with curious curling tile roofs, and Chinese-red pillars. The effect was definitely imperial and impressive rather than charming, I thought, until Miss Liu pointed out the amusing little metal sea animals on the roofs (to prevent the buildings from being burned down by lightning, she explained: ''In Chinese mythology it was believed that sea animals could produce water'').
She then led us past quaint, life-size bronze tortoises and storks (representing longevity for the emperor), lions (to frighten evil spirits away from the emperor), and a delightfully carved stone container (for setting off fireworks on occasions like the emperor's birthday).
''The air must be bluem with incense when the emperor appeared,'' said Miss Liu, leading her group of Western tourists into a receiving room titled the Hall of Supreme Harmony. A huge throne sat on a sort of chancel; every surface in the room was carved; and dragons, symbols of the emperor, snaked up and down the pillars.
The Forbidden City is a city; receiving rooms and courtyards alternate endlessly, it seems, and weeks could be spent there. But it is a Versailles without a Louis the XIV; although 24 emperors lived here, no individual one was ever mentioned. This leaves the visitor to speculate whether these beings were always too august to have a personality, or whether there is a simple lack of modern interest in the leaders of the bad old days.
Peking originally consisted of four concentric rings, Miss Liu told us: the Forbidden City at its heart, then the Imperial City, the Inner City, the Outer City. The last three are fairly monochrome: the Forbidden City seems to have absorbed all color and variety - as if color and variety, as much as gold globes of the heavens with the stars marked in pearls or robes of woven peacocks' feathers, symbolized wealth and power.
Old and new China are deliberately linked by the juxtaposition of the Forbidden City and Tian An Men Square. The exiting tourist stumbles out underneath Chairman Mao's painted visage - surely one of the most conspicuous portraits in the world - which beams from the gate of the Forbidden City, facing the vastness of the square. Across the plaza is the Great Hall of the People and Chairman Mao's mausoleum. The day I was there, thousands of Chinese - mostly men , for some reason - lined up four abreast, brought by their communes to pay tribute to Chairman Mao, who, like another emperor, lies in state in a glass case under a Chinese flag.
But other than these powerful references in the heart of the capital there was little mention of Chairman Mao, and only once did I hear him quoted. A Chinese man commented, on hearing that our group was heading for the Great Wall the next day: ''Chairman Mao said, 'To be a great man, you must stand on the Great Wall.' So tomorrow, you will be a great wo-man.''
The Great Wall is 75 kilometers (about 46 miles) from the city center. Closed off during the Cultural Revolution, it is one of a limited number of places in the environs of Peking where travelers are permitted to go. I enjoyed the ride out there via the Ming Tombs, bowling down wide smooth roads fringed with willows, with a spare lane on each side for bicycles and horse carts. Army vehicles, buses, and trucks dominated the traffic; it's very odd, for a Westerner, to be on a road with no private cars.
There were bicycles everywhere, of course; here in the country they also serve as sturdy transportation. I saw one man with an entire sofa - obviously a very light one - strapped sideways across the back of his bicycle. Cheerful white banners with traffic directions in red characters flapped over the road; occasionally through the trees there were glimpses of an unusable but beautiful old bridge, its high white arch forming two-thirds of a perfect circle.
The Great Wall crests mountains that are steep and dramatic enough to start with. The wall, begun in 476-221 BC, when sections of it were built by various kingdoms to protect their own territories, presides over a fierce, dun-colored landscape of steep, stubby little mountains like the sides of an old camel.
After the unification of China during the short but successful Chin Dynasty ( 221-207 BC), 300,000 men were set to connecting the sections. ''The wall was built at the cost of tremendous backbreaking labor,'' Miss Liu said. Although it has been reduced to 2,700 kilometers (1,600 miles) from its greatest length of 6 ,000 km, the wall is still the only man-made object that can be seen from space.
All Peking tourists visit the section of the wall near Badaling, built during the Ming Dynasty (next-to-the-last one, 1368-1644). Somehow I had visualized the Great Wall as a lonely outpost; I hadn't anticipated the giant parking lot full of buses, and the Great Wall Antique Store and the Marco Polo souvenir stand.
The wall was designed to be wide enough for five horsemen to ride abreast on it; as it follows the contours of this rugged countryside it is terrifically steep in places, and quite slippery, slapped smooth by centuries of feet. To me this following of the contours of the land gave the wall its beauty. Enough brick and stone were used in it to go around the earth in a dike eight feet high , and you can see that its architects were lavish in their design. Sinuous and massive, it sweeps imperturbably over ridges, makes majestic turns around small projections; it is like walking along the roof of a two-story row house a continent long.
Before I left on this trip, I thought that I wanted to see Old China - a culture of extraordinary subtlety and sensitivity to art. As a woman in our group expressed it, ''At one time there were people here who had something. That's what I want to see.'' But I found a great fascination in New China, a nation quite visibly undergoing a process of change. One of the most fascinating experiences for the traveler is to walk around the capital. Peking has the air of a city under construction - piles of bricks everywhere, people planting trees (''Since 1949, we have planted 144 million of trees,'' Miss Liu said), the continuous blowing dust, a brownish powder that stiffens your hair and tastes continually on your lips, and bars the sun. We had one clear day in Peking - and realized that we could see the Forbidden City, a few blocks away, from our window at the Peking Hotel. Only slightly less pervasive are the smell of coal and the ringing of bicycle bells.
There is the lack of litter of a city where nothing is wasted. The buildings are featureless, low, and gray; the famous bicycles are five or six deep on either side of the main boulevards, so that other vehicles can barely make it through. There are 3 million bikes in Peking: One man in our group said that all the bicycles reminded him of Japan during the occupation.
Peking, a city with a 3,000-year history, had been, according to Miss Liu, a backward city, a city of handicraft shops, before the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. Now, she said, there are 1,900 factories: electronics, coke, steel.
You must get up before breakfast to see the Chinese at play. Outside my window, I saw two people playing badminton, their net strung between two bicycles. I went out for a stroll and found a park full of little caged singing birds - a gentle Chinese amusement that had been forbidden during the Cultural Revolution.
I noticed a number of women with curly hair (permanents, Miss Liu explained), and a few older ones hobbling on thick little bound feet, reminding the visitor how recently that terrible custom ceased in China. In Orville Schell's book ''In the People's Republic'' (Vintage Books, $3.95), the author comments that the three inches under the chin is where Chinese women show their fashion sense: turtlenecks, thin little gauze scarfs, Peter Pan collars, above the shapeless jackets, are among the very few expressions of taste.
At night the city is vast and eerie - and dark; except on Changan Avenue there were very few streetlights, and cars creep along with just their parking lights on. When we landed in Peking, I had looked down for the usual awesome jeweled effect of a major city at night, and kept wondering, ''Where is it?''
Our guide always pointed out the human price of the great works of China - the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, and so on - by explaining how many millions of sacks of rice they would have cost or how many millions of peasants could have been fed with the money spent on them. A few days of this can lead the visitor to gloomy reflections, on, for example, how many ''sacks of rice'' he is actually wearing on his person.
China has an elaborate setup for preventing foreign currency from entering its very closed economic system. Tourists use special foreign exchange certificates, which, unlike yuan, the currency of the country, can be exchanged back into dollars, and which alone can be used in taxis, hotels, and friendship stores. Places where the certificates are accepted offer high-quality goods at substantially higher prices than the highly subsidized Chinese rates. Thus, most Chinese city dwellers earn around $30 a month, but a single night in a Western-style hotel room can cost $30. If it weren't for this system, a tourist in China would be stepping into a kind of time machine, enabling him to spend his 1982 dollars in 1910.
One of the main reasons for the development of tourism in China is to procure foreign currency; as one Peking resident commented: ''They need foreign exchange to buy grain - otherwise they're paying astronomical prices.'' Practical details:
A word on shoes: Wear sturdy ones that you don't mind destroying. A shoe cleaning product that comes in tinfoil packets would come in handy. For climbing the Great Wall, running shoes or hiking boots are a must.
Most of the women in our group wore skirts, making us rather conspicuous in a country where all the women wear pants. In general, you'll feel more comfortable in clothes that are not ostentatious.
Also, if you go in the spring especially, bring hard candies, as the dust makes you thirsty, and sunglasses, to protect your eyes.
Fall is supposed to be the best time to visit the city; 70 percent of the rain is in the summer months, our guide said, and in the spring there is that ubiquitous dust.
Next week: a regional tour of China