Studio Musings

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Exploring China - Beijing and the Temple of Heaven

My mother-in-law had always talked about wanting to visit China.  It was at the top of her bucket list, but for one reason and another she had never made it.  So almost two years ago, I started making plans.  And last month they came to fruition as Joe and I joined her on a two-week, Adventures by Disney, tour of China.

Why Adventures by Disney?  The easy answer is Disney knows how to do logistics better than almost anyone else, and that I trusted the Mouse to get me into and out of China safely.  I loved their itinerary - the tour included five internal flights spanning a huge hunk of China.  There is no way, absolutely none, we could have done everything we did in the same amount of time if we'd gone on our own.   I also liked that they offered a tour in October.  October is the off-season for China tourism, but all of my research indicated it was likely the best season in terms of heat, rain, and air quality.  Finally, neither Joe nor I had ever gone on a group travel tour previously, but we had high hopes for the type of travelers a Disney tour might attract.  The tour met every one of our expectations and more!

We technically arrived a day before the tour.  We lost a day during the flight over, so we left Friday, mid-day, and arrived Saturday evening, 27 hours Beijing-time after we left Seattle (12 hour flight + 15 hour time difference).  A Disney rep met us at the airport and drove us to our hotel, where we pretty much fell into our beds, only to keep waking up throughout the night as we tried to adjust to the time zone shift.

Touring cards make taxi rides much simpler
The tour didn't officially start until Sunday evening, but we got to meet our Adventure Guides early that morning.  They gave us several sightseeing suggestions, including the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven.  We decided to visit the later, so off we went in a taxi.

Very few taxi drivers speak any English.  We learned that before you get into a cab you need to have someone translate the destination into Chinese.  All of the hotels we stayed at had special cards with the name of the hotel written in Chinese and English on one side and a list of popular tourist destinations on the other.   These were essential, and made getting around on our own so much easier.  Fred, one of our Adventure Guides who happened to be from Beijing, also wrote a special card warning of my food allergy, in case I decided to eat out on my own.

The Temple of Heaven was the imperial religious complex, where the emporer and his entourage would come to pray (and sacrifice) for beneficence for the coming year - good harvests, good weather, good fortune from the heavens.  Today, it's both a tourist complex, and used as a community park by local residents.

Entry gates to the courtyard surround the main altar

The altar is several stories tall
The main altar is centered in a huge stone plaza.  The altar itself stands several stories tall; concentric rings constructed of white marble.  As you climb the stairs to each ring, you are surrounded entirely by stone. The courtyard is paved in stone, encircled by tall stone walls.  There are no trees or plants and it's very austere, relieved only by the intricate design work and stone carvings.  It's a very 'official' sort of place.

Something I had trouble with was the sense of perspective.  Standing at the entrance to the altar's courtyard, the altar seemed fairly squat - not too tall.  But appearances are deceiving in China.  The courtyard was so large, it made the altar feel small.  As we walked up to it, it grew larger and larger.  I had this same experience over and over during our tour through China, most notably in the Forbidden City.

Fantastic dragon rain-spouts ring the outer edge of the altar at eye level

From a distance, the Temple of Good Harvest looks a lot like the imperial altar, with the obvious addition of the temple at the top of all the stairs.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest combined the altar structure with a temple
Sidesteps leading up to the central Temple of Good Harvest
peering into the Temple of Good Harvest

We exited the temple courtyard into another stone-paved, stone-walled courtyard with magnificent, carefully-tended cypress trees regularly spaced along its length.  Then we spied a round portal in one of the walls, an ancient cypress standing sentinel. 

This portal sentinel is as carefully tended as any bonsai

Walking under the arch of tree's branches and through the gate, we found ourselves in a carefully tended 'wild' space filled with trees, grasses and hundreds of little birds.  It felt a little like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia.  Watching the little birds flitting between the groundcover and the lower limbs of the trees made me think of traditional Chinese paintings that capture a wren or chickadee with a few brush strokes.
the other side of the wall
The dichotomy between the two sides of the wall was tremendous and was something we'd see time and again during our tour of China.  The differences between public and private. The stone austerity of places of authority, of man, and the carefully cultured wildness in the inner courtyards; places for peace, for the healing powers of nature.

The tiny Temple of a Hundred Flowers
Behind the woods lay a series of more formal gardens, which is where we found this lovely little temple. 

Interior ceiling of the Temple of Flowers, 'hidden' among the gardens

That evening, we got to meet our fellow adventurers over dinner back at our hotel.  During desert, a small troupe of acrobats ran into the room and performed for us, flipping and tumbling through the air.  We then got a chance to take pictures with the Monkey King and his followers.

And that was our first full day in China!

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