We had a couple of days left on this grand tour and we planned to make the most of them. Problem was the Beijing weather had a different idea. It’s an odd thing here to have days of crystal blue skies but we somehow were allowed one after another. And the price of that clarity was a hot Beifang (literally place in the north part of China) sun beating down on our heads.
My driver Jiang and I often talk about the weather and specifically how it is up here in the north. While we in the west hear about the sandstorms in the country’s capital, for whatever reason we’re inclined to think of them as aberrations. Jiang though has told me repeatedly that Beijing sits in a desert and what you hear about is consistent with how it should be. Back in March when my daughter Aidan and I got caught in the worst sandstorm of the year it was reported as an unusual event. Months afterwards I read in the local news that it had nothing to do with the fact that the Gobi is slowly creeping across the north of China towards the Pacific Ocean. Rather, in the report it was laid at the doorstep of some sort of odd combination of a dry winter and low temperatures and loose soil and an oddball wind pattern. It had nothing to do with generations of deforestation, land abuse and the weather patterns that are no really changing. However, if you think of Beijing the way Jiang describes it, a towering wall of blowing orange sand inexorably converging on the city should be expected, it’s a desert after all. And if you consider that the average early summer day in any desert is darn hot, well then what we had when we hauled ourselves out of the subway station at the Temple of Heaven should have been expected.
I came up to the lounge at 7:30 to meet my daughter for breakfast. Federico the floor manager asked me to come over to the window – for once in a hundred days you could see the mountains to the west of the city. Up the Third Ring Row, the CCTV pretzel stood starkly clear against its background of high rises. The view from the 24th floor was like none I had seen on any of my past visits – every building was outlined in sharp clear light; we were clearly in for a special day. There were clouds but they were not obscuring anything. Rather they were providing a nice fluffy white counterpoint to a sharp blue sky. I knew this meant a hot day, but leaving the hotel at 8:30 we had some hope – the sky had still mixed clouds that were regularly filtering the sun; the temperature was mild and there was a breeze to boot. We rode the subway across town and down south to the Tiantan exit and emerged into weather that you would expect at midday in a more brutal climate. It was 9:30 AM.
The Temple of Heaven is my favorite monumental park in the city. The tall, circular tower known by the flowery name of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is simply so striking and placed so perfectly in the center of a large empty square that it’s hard to come away unmoved by the beauty and the emptiness. We paid for our tickets and walked into the already crowded park. On one side of the path a marching band was playing anthems; on the other couples were ballroom dancing, a typical day in a Chinese urban park. Unlike people in the cities of the west, the Chinese strongly value group participation in places like this. I can’t think of a single time of day in any season when the park I was in lacked some sort of social undertaking. From the early morning exercising elderly and the tea drinking bird keepers to the evening fan dancers, something is always going on. As we reached the outermost buildings the covered walkways leading to the inner gates were packed with people singing, playing traditional instruments and belly dancing. I’ve been this spot once before and it’s the same thing every time – Chinese entertaining themselves with music and dance, westerners taking videos.
The tower is surrounded by perhaps two acres of paved space which is bordered by a low gray stone wall topped with shiny green ceramic tiles. It stands on a circular platform of gray, carved stone. There are four stairways, one at each of the cardinal points that lead from the ground level up to the tower itself. Dividing the staircases into two lanes are intricately carved marble slabs depicting stories from the imperial mythology – mountains crested in clouds leading to dragons floating in the heavens. The general lack of color in the surrounding environment draws your eye directly to the intricate blue, green, white and salmon paintings on the beams and rafters that support the blue tile roofs.
We walked fully around the square before climbing the stairs for a look inside. Like most Ming and Qing dynasty ceremonial structures, the details on the inside do not close to those on the buildings. Here were pieces of simple wooden furniture and altars for the rites. The only thing that grabs your eye here are the oversized but delicate gold inlay peony flowers that decorate the red floors and pillars. Beautiful and subtle.
We walked on through the next gate stopping to take a photo of the view back through the open doors. You have to wait for the loitering people to get out of your shot, but when it’s clear the perspective is stunning – the tower seems greatly increased in size when viewed through the simple archways. There is a long plaza that connects this end of the temple complex to the other. Between the two is a single building with a blinding yellow roof where the emperor changed into his ceremonial garb for the rituals. At the far end of the plaza stands another, shorter tower called the Imperial Vault of Heaven and it is in turn surrounded by the Echo Wall which is one of those wonderfully amusing constructions where you can whisper at any spot and a person yards down the way can hear you. On the way in we passed the 9 Dragon Tree, and ancient cypress that today was surrounded by people holding their hands up with their palms facing it. I don’t know why and I didn’t ask.
There was a long line of people waiting to file past the open windows of the Vault so being fully committed to the tourist experience, we joined in. The throng was probably 8 wide people wide but it narrowed as we ascended a set of stairs. Somehow we divided an older man from his wife – he was endlessly jostling us and she kept turning around to talk to him. I’d finally had it so I told him if it was so important that he be 18” further along, we would get out of his way. He was stunned by my tone and my language but we parted and he moved through. The view inside the Vault was only slightly more interesting than its neighbor’s up the way. As we went down the stairs on the far side, the rude man was still in tow behind his wife who was clearly displeased with him for who knows what reason. He would try and walk alongside her; she’d pick up the speed to maintain the distance between them.
The last stop in the complex is the Circular Mound Altar where the emperor would pray for good weather. It wasn’t much to see, simply stone platforms similar to those the hold the beautiful tower. At the center was a round marble disk with a slightly convex surface, the point (I assume) where the emperor once stood. Today the Chinese were lined up to have their picture taken standing on it – a human conveyor of photographer and subject, each stepping up for the shot and then peeling off to the side.
As we walked down the first set of stairs I found I’d walked in front of a woman having her picture taken. I apologized but as I walked past her husband lightly grabbed my arm and began that well-known pantomime – I want a picture of your kid. I agreed and Gwynn walked back up the stairs and posed with him. As were saying goodbye, he asked if I would pose with his wife and so we began the process a second time. They were very grateful and cordial so I stopped for a moment and explained who we were and why we were there and as we were talking I heard a passing woman tell her friends “That foreigner speaks Chinese.” The interest in us continues to baffle me – Chinese speaking westerners are very, very common in Beijing. I suppose it’s possible that these people doing the asking are not from the city; rather they might be visitors just like we are. And do we might be a novelty worth investigating. I can only imagine Chinese families across the country sitting down to look at the photos from their trip and proudly pointing us out, standing on the stairs with their loved ones.
It had really warmed up by the time we caught the subway to our next stop, the Forbidden City. Emerging back into the light at Tiananmen East I was struck by the heat and the incredible number of people filing into the main gate. But more interesting was the light – the sky and the sun conspired to make photograph look like a postcard, with those garish colors so common on the cards we would pick up on the trips of my childhood. We debated for a bit about subjecting ourselves to the place and decided in the end that we were here and so we should go inside. The line for tickets was not horrible, but a man with obviously mental health issues was. He was aggressively trying to get patrons to buy the cheap maps he was selling. The people in the line would say “no” and he would force the map into their hands, which only made them more adamant. He never sold one while I was watching and I was glad that he didn’t see me.
On the one hand, the Forbidden City is just a giant collection of the brightly decorated buildings you see at every site. The colors are impressive but what gets you here is the enormity of the space. The distance between the various halls is huge and the point that gets made is the incredible disparity between the imperial court and the peasants outside these walls. The people lived their lives in densely crowded hutongs – gray stone slums that packed themselves up against the outer ramparts. Inside was another world – empty, under populated and serene. It’s no wonder that when the royals fell, they fell hard.
I came away with one thought as we walked through from one end to another – I need to come back here and wander around the outer rings. I’ve never been outside the main avenues and I am sure that there are far more interesting things to be seen in the nooks and crannies.
After a cab ride across town and a nice western lunch we grabbed the subway for one last stop, the Lama Temple, or Yonghe Gong. The construction of this complex was begun in 1694. Originally the residence for court eunuchs, it later served as the residence of Prince Yin Zhen who went on to become emperor. His successor converted the buildings into a monastery for Tibetan and Mongolian monks and today it remains one of the most sacred sites for the Geluk sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
Ending a busy day in a temple is always a good idea because the serenity washed away the stress and exhaustion of wandering around. We strolled down the lanes, visited the display of 16th and 17th century gold Buddhas and stopped to stand in awe of the 60’ tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha which is said to be carved from a single piece of white sandalwood. It’s hard to believe that one tree became that Buddha, but a plaque from the Guinness Book of Records says it’s so.
Rather than suffer another hour in the subway, we grabbed a cab and took a nice breezy ride back to our hotel. It was a day well spent, wandering along the axis of the city from south to north and in doing so tracing the entire history of two dynasties. But now we were hot and tired and in search of nothing more imperial than a cold club soda and a late afternoon in the hotel lounge.