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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

#humblebrag in Beijing, Part 2: Going to heaven

Continued from yesterday's post...

Sunday was another cold but sunny day in Bĕjīng 北京. Having already visited the Forbidden City 紫禁城 and Tiān'ānmén Square 天安门广场 (and with my loved ones earlier having taken advantage of my needing to work by going to see the Great Wall 长城 without me), and with our time limited (we had an afternoon high-speed train bound for Shànghăi 上海 to catch), we (OK, I) made the decision to spend the morning in the Temple of Heaven Park 天坛公园, "(a) tranquil oasis of peace and methodical Confucian design in one of China's busiest urban landscapes", according to Lonely Planet's Discover China guide.

Like virtually all open urban spaces in China, the Temple of Heaven Park was full of people exercising, dancing and playing games (though the folks in the photo above were atypical in that whatever it was they were doing, it wasn't being done in unison). Still, the crowds were nothing like the hordes of the day before at the Forbidden City, with the result being that we had some relative elbow room while visiting some of the sites within the park.

The Round Altar 圜丘 was first constructed in 1530 and rebuilt two hundred years later. Made out of white marble and arranged in three tiers, the structure is dominated by the number nine, which is explained in detail in the link above. Suffice it to say, it all adds up if you're superstitious and Chinese. Being an altar, it was used for religious rites, especially for rain-making ceremonies conducted by the emperor in times of drought. 

We were joined at the Round Altar by a tour group consisting of members of one of China's 54 officially recognized minority groups. The colorful native dress would no doubt have pleased the government, at least judging from this recent BBC article.

The presence of the tour group, however, made it very difficult to experience the altar's acoustic properties. One's voice supposedly is amplified when standing on the circular stone in the middle.

Behind the Round Altar was the Imperial Vault of Heaven 皇穹宇, the next place we visited (included on the through admission tickets we had purchased before entering the park).

This hall was built at the same time as the Round Altar. It's surrounded by the Echo Wall 回音臂, which is said to be able to carry a whisper from one person to another. 

The interior was used for winter solstice ceremonies. It contains tablets of imperial ancestors.

The approach to the third and final site we saw at the park, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests 祈年殿.

If the hall seems vaguely familiar, it's probably because you've seen pictures of it in guidebooks. Built in 1420 (and rebuilt in 1889 after burning down following a lightning strike), it's one of Beijing's most iconic structures.

"Look, Ma, I'm in China!"

The interior consists of wooden pillars supporting the ceiling without benefit of any nails. Speaking of the ceiling, it has a carving of a dragon, the imperial symbol.

A couple of small on-site museums explained the hall's purpose as a site for ritual sacrificial offerings and on the architectural features of the building.

And that was how we spent our last morning in Beijing. We rode the metro back to our hotel, retrieved our belongings, and then took a taxi to Beijing South Railway Station 北京南站. On the way, we passed by the China Central Television Headquarters, aka "Big Boxer Shorts" 大裤衩. 

The scenery from the train window was just as dreary going back to Shanghai as it was traveling up to Beijing, with some horrible smog partway through the trip. Fortunately for us, Beijing's notorious pollution wasn't much in evidence while we were there. A day-and-a-half for sightseeing (three-and-a-half for Amber and Pamela) wasn't enough to do the city justice, so I hope to have a chance to return before our time is over in China.

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