Sunday, 24 March 2013

Refuge in the Temple of Heaven

Being on the streets of Beijing can be a very stressful experience. At any given moment there are millions of people rushing around the city trying to get somewhere to do something very important, or so it seems. They push, they shove, they cut in, they ignore signals and generally demonstrate a tunnel-visioned determination to get where they want to go as quick as possible. With the air choked from exhaust fumes, the continual sound of car horns beeping in your ears and an ‘every man for himself’ attitude, it seems that the probability of either being run over or crashed into at some stage would be extremely high. Thankfully there is a place in Beijing where you can find some respite from all of this chaos. There are no cars, trucks, bikes or any other form of life threatening transport. Indeed it’s a place where you can breath a little easier and experience the more sedate side of the Chinese people.

Tiantan Park is an oasis in a sea of humanity, covering some almost 280 hectares of the southern eastern side of Beijing. It is actually larger than the grounds of the Forbidden Palace and remains equally as important due to it being the location of the sacred ‘Temple of Heaven’. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has major historical and cultural significance as the place where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would come to worship the God of heaven and pray for good harvest. For Jules and I it would simply be a relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Beijing.

It seems that we were not the only ones who felt this way, as Tiantan Park has over the years become a haven for the many senior citizens of the city. As we passed through the gates, it was like stepping into some kind of playground for the elderly. Being mid-week and with the privilege of a free admission pass due to their age, they had gathered in numbers to involve themselves in all manner of recreational activities. We immediately spotted a group of ballroom dancers enjoying an early morning waltz, people playing hacky sack and a gentleman standing with a large brush writing Chinese poems on the pavement with water … it all seemed like so such fun. Jules couldn’t resist joining in with a group of line dancers who were enthusiastically following the moves of an elderly, but fit looking gentleman who elegantly led the way. Of course there were plenty of card players, Chinese chess groups, knitters and musicians who aimed to also exercise their minds as well as the body. With the sun now beginning to shine above the smog haze and with greenery all around, the outlook was considerably different than in the streets beyond the walled park. Here there was a warm sense of community, with friendly interactions of strangers all seeking to improve the quality of their urban lives.

With time pressing, we left the seniors to continue to happily indulge themselves while we made our way toward the ‘Temple of Heaven’ itself. This was quite a walk as there were several significant areas to pass through before reaching the ‘Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest’, which was certainly the most impressive of the temples. We first approached the ‘Circular Mound Alter’; a three level circular platform from which the Emperor would offer sacrifices and prayers for rain and good harvest. The actual place where he would stand is a small circular mound not much larger than a manhole cover and is positioned not surprisingly in the centre of the structure. Its significance became obvious when just about every Chinese visitor wanted to have their photograph taken on that very spot. We opted not to wait our turn but to head over to the ‘Imperial Vault of Heaven’, a single storey circular temple surrounded by a smooth circular wall.  This wall is quite significant as it is also known as ‘The Echo Wall’ and our small group had a some fun sending messages from one side to the other. We also found the circular building quite impressive, but our feelings were quickly overwhelmed when we caught site of its larger scaled cousin in the main courtyard. ‘The Hall of Prayers’ is a beautiful example of early Chinese design and wooden construction. Built entirely without nails, this magnificent triple storey temple sits prominently atop of an equally impressive three leveled marble structure. Flanked by two traditional rectangular halls, it appeared as a picture of order and harmony, which was in stark contrast to much of the high-rise development that we could see just beyond its walls.

Our short visit to the ‘Temple of Heaven’ had provided us with yet another insight into the life and times of the great imperial dynasties. Jules and I had enjoyed the history and the cultural significance of this place, but much like the Emperors of the past, we had also welcomed the solitude it had offered. Tiantan Park had provided us with a temporary haven from the modern world outside and we could well understand why the senior citizens of Beijing had also found it such a pleasant refuge to frequent.

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