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Travel Writing: China – Beijing, Temple of Heaven


02/10/08: Long Distance Walking Day 

Temple of Heaven – a great photo opportunity!

Temple of Heaven – a great photo opportunity!

Our first day in Beijing! We arrived early morning at Beijing Railway Station. As we didn’t have a clue where to go or where to stay we though of sticking to our good concept from Hangzhou where we first went to a big Western hotel to get help and find our bearings. We landed up at the Marriot where they had a special Golden Week rate, which was cheaper than usual. Not that you could stay in a Marriot for prices like that anywhere in Europe anyway. So we thought of staying one night and make use of the day to find a better deal. But of course, we did plenty of things today, however, looking for another hotel we couldn’t be bothered about.

We had asked the concierge for a map of Beijing and it all looked very easy and clear to find our way around. I had a list of sightseeings we wanted to go to and she pointed them all out to us on that map. As the Temple of Heaven was the closest, we decided to simply walk over there.

Easier said than done, as one block on that map was equal to like one kilometre and it took us ages just to get to the Temple of Heaven!

First, we went wrong, as the scale of the city is sheer enormous, but on the map it all looked in close distance. So when we thought we went left, it wasn’t left enough and we ended up walking along the Ancient City Wall, Chongwen Gate.

At least this was a nice spot to see as they had created a lovely park along the Ming City Wall ruins.

From there it was ‘only’ two blocks down to the Temple of Heaven, but that took us about half an hour or so. The roads just wouldn’t end…

That’s why, when we got to the Temple of Heaven, we first looked for a quiet spot and had a bit of a picnic in order to recharge.

Even though it was Golden Week and half of China was on holidays travelling all the big sightseeing spots, it’s very easy to escape the masses, as the Chinese tend to only go where everybody else goes. Just a side path can lead you to a peaceful place where there’s no-one to be seen. That’s where we went and found that the Temple of Heaven is surrounded by a lovely park, which is kept nicely in order with lush green grass and orderly planted trees. There were speakers along the path which were hidden in the lamps that adjoined the walkway. They played some soothing Chinese tunes which was indeed relaxing. Unfortunately this got sometimes interrupted by some Chinese announcements, which were repeated over and over. But when the Chinese songs were back on, it was really calming. It made you feel as if you were in one of those Chinese Kung Fu movies.

As we walked on, we saw a few local people, doing their martial arts exercise, tuning an instrument or sleeping in the sun. The Chinese seem to always be doing things. Even if they’re actually doing nothing, they always look very busy.

Unfortunately seeing the temples meant leaving this tranquil area and join the hustle and bustle of the tourists. Shockingly enough, even the temples were not spared huge advertising flat screens. It seems the Chinese don’t mind the constant stream of noise and imagery around them. To us this was definitely crossing a border.

But the Chinese don’t have many borders in general it seems, as we should find out when we went to the first temple. The Chinese seem to have no understanding of personal space. If there is something to see, everybody simply goes for it. If someone is in their way, they get pushed aside. Or not, if you happen to be a Westerner who is quite taller than them. Then you can decide if you want to join the scuffle to get prime sightseeing position. Unfortunately, there is no alternative: If you don’t box your way through, you won’t get to see whatever it is worth fighting for.

This one was the ‘Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest’ that I’d thrown myself into the tumult for. It was nothing that special, but a pity we weren’t allowed to see it close up. A barrier hindered tourists from stepping inside and there was a guard right behind it, watching that you didn’t spend too much time taking in the sight. So in the end all you could do was take a quick picture and see the details of the hall by looking at the photo you’d taken.

From there we walked the 360 meters of the Red Stairway Bridge around the Echo Wall towards the Circular Mound Altar. There we could marvel at the Heavenly Centre Stone, or rather we couldn’t, as it was encircled by Chinese. Luckily a guard was there, so they all queued up orderly to kneel down to pray and worship on the Centre Stone. There was no chance to simply take a picture of the stone itself, as the next Chinese was already waiting behind the Chinese currently busy praying. Luckily there was a bit of a shuffle, as one Chinese tried to jump the queue. In vain though, nothing escaped the guard’s eyes. So in that split second that the guard had to sort who was allowed next, I could get a glimpse of the stone. And a picture.

After all that ruffle and shuffle we needed another break and sat down in the green grass to have the remaining sandwiches and gather some strength.

The map had shown us that there was a Hall Of Abstinence, but when we got there, it had an extra ticket office and even though we had a ‘through’ ticket, it didn’t entitle us to go through here.

We felt we had seen enough and as we knew how far it was to go back, we thought we’d better get started.

We walked out at the West Gate, which meant we could walk straight up North to get to Tian’anmen Square.

We walked the usual marathon blocks that we got used to until we came to a street that to us looked like a ghost town. It was really creepy walking down that street. It all looked new and sleek, but none of the shops were occupied. Those shops didn’t give the impression to be filled any time soon, they rather looked abandoned. Gates were concealed with canvas covers with high quality prints of what it should look like. However, beyond there were fences and constructions. The buildings were all made out of the same bleak grey stone, all in the same shape and look. The austere paving didn’t help take any of the heavy, stark feel about it away. Everything was spotless, the entire place looked constructed and reminded us of communism. As all the Chinese tourists didn’t seem to be bothered, we just continued walking down the street in puzzlement.

It was Qianmen shopping street that we had walked down and the reason why it looked so deserted was because it had undergone a total refurbishment for the Olympic Games that clearly did not turn out as intended, as hardly any of the shops that had made this street one of the busiest of Beijing had returned.

In comparison to that poignant experience, Tian’anmen Square was not as overwhelming as we had pictured it. Somehow we had the vision in our mind of standing in the middle of an empty square that makes you have an agoraphobia attack. Obviously during Golden Week there were hardly any empty places, but Tian’anmen Square was filled with buildings and displays, too.

There were water fountains with flower beds and a landscape design depicting the Olympic mascots, reducing the feel of the grandness of that square.

Slowly we manoeuvred through the masses to the other end of Tian’nmen which sits opposite the Forbidden City. Just when we thought it’s time to leave, we realise that where we wanted to go to, a lot of Chinese were queuing to get to where we were. There must have been a reason for that and we went to enquire.

Apparently all those Chinese tourists flocked to the see the lowering of the National flag at 6pm. As this was only a couple of minutes away, we decided to wait and witness this spectacle. However, nothing happened besides the flag being lowered. No national anthem or bullets being fired, leaving us in wonderment why so many Chinese wanted to see this.

Aching from walking so much, we faced the last long walk back to the hotel, which was only a couple of blocks away, meaning 2 km. On the way we took pictures of Beijing at night, as the haze of pollution gives the street lights a mystic glare.

Back at the hotel we couldn’t move one bit and were happy to dig into our pot noodles we had brought with us. They were absolutely delicious, so much better than the bland and stale pot noodles you get in Europe. We had a relatively early night, as for the next day we planned to see the Forbidden City.

In retrospective it was good that we first went to see the Temple of Heaven. It has fewer temples than the Forbidden City and thus is a nice introduction to what is to come. A through ticket including all sights is 35 Yuan. If you just want to go for a stroll in the beautiful Tiantan Park and see the temples from afar, look for one of the side-entrances. All the locals entered the park through these and it doesn’t cost a penny.

Check out the photos:

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