Monday, June 22, 2009

Beijing - Day 4 (Temple of Heaven)

Took the metro this morning and walked a short bit to Tien Tan (天壇) (aka Temple of Heaven). Short overview here. Temple of Heaven is not really just a temple, but a complex of Taoist buildings and structures, where the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties would come to pray for good harvest. Built in 1420, this UNESCO World Heritage Site covers 2.73 sq. kms. of parkland. Arranged in a north-south orientation, you have the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests located in the north, the Imperial Vault of Heaven in the south, then the Circular Mound Altar further south. Connecting the Hall of Prayer to the Imperial Vault is a 360-metre long raised walkway called the Danbi Bridge, though it's not really a bridge.

So we entered the temple complex via the east gate. The place is quite popular with the locals - lots of senior citizens walking about, groups of people dancing, exercising, etc. We also saw a band playing some oldies using Chinese instruments, and looks like anyone can grab the mic and start singing. Through the Long Corridor, we saw the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests for the first time. (Actually, second time for me.) The temple is awesome. Very wide expanse of space, and this 38-metre tall triple gabled circular temple in the middle of it, on top of a three-tiered marble stone base. What's more incredible is that the whole structure is made of wood. Not a single nail! Inside the temple is a hall supported by four inner pillars, twelve middle and twelve outer pillars. These symbolizes the four seasons, the twelve months in a year, and the twelve divisions of night and day. Located near the Temple are some green glazed stoves, where the sacrificial lamb is burned with pine twigs and reeds.

From here, we followed the Danbi Bridge all the way to the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It looks similar to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, but is only single-gabled and sits on top of a single level of marble stone base. Encircling the Imperial Vault is a smooth circular wall called the Echo Wall. We would've liked to try out its acoustics, but it's now protected by metal barriers, so can't really get near the actual wall. We're told it actually works. Beside the Imperial Vault are the East and West Annex Halls where divine tablets are kept. Located near the temple is a 500-year old juniper tree. Because of its age, its trunk is covered with spiral grooves twisting up, said to resemble nine coiling dragons. Hence the name "Nine-Dragon Juniper".

A short distance from the Vault is the Circular Mound. This open altar is where the emperor came to worship Heaven every winter solstice. What's very interesting about the Mound is that it has a singular circular stone block in the middle, surrounded a ring of nine plates, then a ring of 18 plates, then 21 plates, etc. etc. until we get to the outermost ring with 9x9 plates. This use of number 9 is said to represent the nine layers of Heaven, and thus the Emperor himself. Beside the Mound, we can see a 28.8-m. high wooden pole. This bamboo pole has a lever and pulley system used to raise and lower the lantern during the ceremony. There used to be three poles during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, but Mr. Yuan Shikai (then the President of the Republic of China) had the two cut down the last time he came here to perform the ceremony in 1914, in an attempt to declare himself Emperor of China. Yeah, right.

With the tour officially over, we visited the nearby Hong Qiao Market (Pearl Market), just east of the Temple of Heaven. The wife is in the mood for some pashmina shawls and the store are all very willing to sell. She selected some nice designs and was given a price of RMB120. A bit expensive, but we were assured this is the real stuff. They even showed us their government certificates to prove that they're official outlets. With a bit of bargaining and haggling, we lowered the price to 95, then 80. What if we bought more? Ah, final price of RMB75, the lady said. We thought, should be good enough. Done.

So we took the metro back to the hotel. And what do we find? A market stall selling the same pashmina shawls at a listed price of RMB30 each. Heck, we can probably lower it down to RMB10. Therefore, we went to the nearby McDonald's for lunch.

Met up with DIL in the afternoon at the hotel lobby. He hasn't had lunch yet, so we ordered some fastfood at the nearby noodle house. After making arrangements for an airport taxi for tonight, we went to the Wangfujing shopping district to whet the wife's appetite. Having decided what we're going to do for the next few days, we went back to the hotel, met up with our airport taxi, and waited for our visitors to arrive.

In between sips of Starbucks coffee and hot chocolate, DIL noticed that the flight we're waiting for are not showing up on the arrival board. A quick check confirmed that our taxi brought us to the wrong terminal. Worse, the taxi had gone off (most probably on another errand). Hell hath no fury than a man left standing on the wrong airport terminal with no taxi. When the taxi came to fetch us, he really got an earful. Good thing MIL's flight was delayed a bit, so we got there with time to spare.

Back at the hotel, it was half an hour before closing time for the Golden Elephant Restaurant. Still, they were very happy to take us in and fire up the kitchen and the airconditioning, considering we're the only patrons for the night. DIL was in such a happy mood, he ordered way too much food. (At least for me.)

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