BEIJING (REUTERS) - As China ushers in the Chinese Year of the Dog, hundreds of millions of Chinese are travelling to their hometowns to spend the week-long national holiday with their families.
But for the 23-dog patrol that guards China's famous Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing, there will be no break.
"There is no difference if it's Chinese New Year or not. Burglars don't have holidays, we don't either," said Chang Fumao, 59, the head of the canine patrol, who has trained the dogs for more than 30 years. "We have to be on guard 24 hours a day."
Built in the early 17th century, the Forbidden City and its fabled 9,999 rooms are surrounded by a moat and covers 74ha on a site to the north of Tiananmen Square.
The palace-turned-museum boasted 16.7 million ticket sales last year. Once home to China's emperors, it is now a trove of national treasures, including a 3,000-year-old bronze vase covered in intricate carvings and a 12th century five-metre-long painting of daily life in the Song Dynasty.
There have been few reports of theft over the years, but the Communist Party leadership has been careful to preserve the palace, a national symbol of China.
Even during the Cultural Revolution, when fanatical Red Guards smashed and stole relics en masse, the Forbidden City was placed under special guard and escaped largely unscathed.
Chang started his career as a clerk in the museum when he was 20 and is set to retire next year. He has slept and worked next to the dogs' kennels for years.
"We have a quite simple life. I feed the dogs in the morning, clean the kennel, train the dogs, feed them again, clean again, and train again," said Chang, as the dogs carried out a training session, attacking a guard in a protective padded suit.
When the crowds depart, he gets the rare privilege of seeing the ancient palace halls and vast walkways devoid of people.
"At night I will bring (the dogs) out to patrol the Forbidden City when all the visitors are gone," said Chang.
"Only the wind and birds in the trees are our companions, it feels quiet and lonely."