A visit to one of Beijing’s star attractions and one of its most historically significant buildings turned out to be more than what we expected. Not just a peek into history, we also got a glimpse into everyday Beijing and how its people usually hang out in a park. It was a really nice pleasant afternoon’s walk in the park for all of us, a laidback introduction to Beijing. Yes the buildings were impressive and of course knowing that we walked where emperors once walked was also cool, but we were more captivated by the local people and the fun they were having. First of all, getting to the Temple of Heaven was easy. It is right on Line 5, just three or four stops down from Dengshikou where our hotel was. That made it an easy, painless trip – which was important because we had landed early that morning and wanted to ease into the transport system and Beijing’s crowded cityscape gradually.
Right outside the subway entrance were a couple of guys selling fruits – dates and tangerines. The entrance to the park was right there. We bought our tickets easily enough and helped an American couple decipher the prices and packages offered – not the first time I appreciated being bilingual in English and Mandarin.
It was a long approach to the main buildings but we didn’t mind. The weather was great – crisply cool at 11deg, and the warmest we would have in Beijing for the rest of our stay in China though we didn’t know it then. The kids were in good spirits, playfully jostling each other as we walked in.
The first building we came to was a long covered walkway that linked the kitchen where sacrificial food was prepared to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest – that iconic blue-roofed circular building that is so representative of Beijing.
That long walkway where eunuchs and serving ladies once walked is now occupied by groups of men playing cards in a smokey haze of cigarette smoke, middle-aged vendors who sell souvenirs, woolly hats and knit toys and the occasional musician. Interesting to note that the men were the ones intent on their games of cards or chess while the women were the ones actively selling stuff to visitors.
The stately circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest stands in majestic isolation, raised on a triple dais like a fancy Manchurian official’s hat on a wedding cake. Constructed with strict adherence to fengshui principles, it has been richly restored but it stands empty, barriers allowing only fleeting peeks into the dim interior.
Amazing to know that there are no nails used in its construction. Like the Pantheon in Rome with its precise mathematical calculations in terms of its dimension and construction more than 2000 years ago, the Temple of Heaven is equally fascinating a building – considering its perfect cylindrical shape to be built without nails more than 600 years ago.
What the children appreciated was not the architecture nor the history but the vast expanse of empty space that surrounds the Hall like a concrete moat, allowing them to skip, run, chase each other around – rather irreverently considering the former function of the space. And it allows Trinity to test out her hops, skips and dances up and down the place, her bright red jacket in brilliant contrast to the faded white marble.
Think of the park as connected with three important circles in a row. The last, being the Hall of Prayer, is connected to the second, the Vault of Heaven via a 360m long walkway that gradually descends (or correctly ascends if you proceed the other way around) called the Vermilion Steps Bridge – though I couldn’t see anything remotely vermilion about the walkway – all made of smooth stone slabs. The centre path is broad and slightly raised and is known as the Sacred Way – meant only for the emperor. The children took pride in playfully pushing each other off the Sacred Way from time to time. Till today they grin about “the Sacred Face Plant”.
Later as the evening wore on, we saw people very gracefully twirling large ribbons. It is part dance, part exercise. And part salesmanship of course as some vendors tried to get us to buy the ribbons.
Somewhere a saxophonist was playing a popular Jay Chou tune to an appreciative crowd. What is it about music and evening light that always gets me? It was so in a park near Osaka-jo, on a bridge in Salzburg, amid Gaudi’s art in Parc Guell, Barcelona, in the middle of St Mark’s Square in Venice and now in the Temple of Heaven park in Beijing. Sure you can have buskers in subway tunnels, at street corners but the ambience just doesn’t fit. Then you get one of these magical evenings when music and light, greenery and company all coalesce together into a perfect moment that you would not forget in a hurry.
Further down is the Vault of Heaven. It is said that its walls were so curved that you could hear a whisper echo round the other end. We tried this but with the noise and the crowd it would be a miracle to hear anything!
Beyond the Vault of Heaven is the Earthly Mount or Round Altar. Raised on three levels, right at the centre is a marble disc said to mark the very centre of the Middle Kingdom, the centre of the earth. From the way the tourists were jostling each other to step in place for their kodak moment, this still seems so. Not to be outdone, my little red girl bounced in place quickly for me to take this shot:
Meandering out of the park, we saw a group dancing. They must be a regular group? They just put their stuff down in one corner, turned on a small boombox and danced! It seemed like great spontaneous fun! We have groups who do line-dancing in public but these are often larger, organised groups whereas these guys look like they’re friends who enjoy dancing and just want to do it in a park!
But I’ve save the best for last.
We heard a choir singing and could not believe our ears. And yet here they were, a choir and a small band comprising two or three saxophonists, complete with choir mistress and conductor! Mostly made up of middle-aged ladies, they were singing with gusto. All bundled up against the cold, they seemed pretty serious about what they were doing and they were not half bad too!
That’s what I liked so much about the Temple of Heaven and its park. These people really know how to enjoy their parks. Now why couldn’t we do the same? Bring music – spontaneous music and dance – into our parks. The thing with us is that we always need a licence for this, that and the other – public entertainment licence, buskers’ licence etc. I wish we would lighten up a little. Let groups like these just get together, dance and sing and perform without feeling like they’re doing something legally and socially ill-advised. With Singapore so multicultural these days, you could well have a spontaneous joget (Peranakan dance) in one corner, a breakdance dance-off in another and a mini Chinese orchestra in the next.
That would be so cool.