Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Temple of Heaven

On Thursday, we set out to visit the 'Underground City', an over the top bomb shelter built in the 1970s, during the height of Soviet-Chinese tensions under the instruction of Chairman Mao. It was built in fear of a nuclear strike and comes complete with rooms intended for hospitals, weapon arsenals and even a cinema. Unfortunately that is all I can really tell you about it, because we never made it there.

As we were wandering around the streets trying the find the place (I later checked what the entrance looks like on Wikipedia and it is no wonder that we didn't find it, it is just a plain old unlabeled door in the side of a random building), we bumped into a fellow tourist also wandering around looking for something. While standing at the corner of the street at a set of traffic lights, the gentlemen explained that he had spent an hour that morning looking for the place we were looking for and when he did eventually find it, he discovered that it is closed to the public for the next year or so for renovations. He had instead went to go and see the Temple of Heaven, which is where he had just come from and gave us directions to it, informing us that it was only a short walk away. We in return directed him to the train station that he was looking for.

After sharing a couple of more stories and having a few laughs about how rude we all thought everyone is, how everyone tries to rip you off or scam you and how all the taxi / rickshaw drivers bug you all of the time (during which, about 4 of them drove up to the 3 of us and started pestering us all to take a ride), we parted ways and Jenni and I set off for the Temple of Heaven. 

The visit to this sight in Beijing was a very different experience to the one we had while visiting the Forbidden City during the previous day. The park in which the temple is in is enormous and filled with trees. There was minimal crowds, so we were able to actually enjoy the sights and able to concentrate enough while reading the English plaques to actually learn about the temple.

The Temple of Heaven is comprised of a number of structures throughout the park. The temple was used once per year by the Chinese Emperors of the past to come and pray to God for a (and I quote) 'bumper harvest'. Jenni and I found that this description of the type of harvest the emperor was praying was rather unusual. We would have expected that he would be praying for a 'good harvest' or a 'plentiful harvest', but perhaps he was specifically praying for giant tomatoes and pumpkins so he could try and get China a few spots in the Guinness Book of Records' biggest vegetable section.

There are 4 main structures in the park that comprise the Temple. The most impressive structure, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven which resembles the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests but is smaller and surrounded by the 'Echo Wall', the marble Circular Mound Alter and the Hall of Abstinence.

The temple was restored in 2006 in preparation for the Beijing Olympics and although you may quaff at the idea of doing a complete overhaul of the sight, the end result does look very vibrant and beautiful.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the main attraction and is a circular wooden structure that stands about 40m tall, is about 30m in diameter at the base and sits atop of a 3 tiered marble stone base. The restoration work has left the hall with beautiful painted colours on both the inside and outside with royal emblems (dragons and phoenixes) painted in gold all around the outside of the building.

To the north of this temple is a store room (that is what they called it, but it was actually a huge big hall - it seems that the emperors went a bit over the top with the size of their buildings back in the day) where they used to keep the equipment that was used each year in the prayer ceremony. Next to the store room, Jenni and I found the most amusing story on a plaque that was next to a stray, locked door, that on the other side lead down to the base of the structure. The plaque claimed that the door was named the 'Seventy Year Old Door' and it was built under the instruction of an emperor that had reached the age of 70. He had complained that in his old age, it was getting increasingly difficult for him to have to traverse the whole distance to get up to the temple to perform his ceremonial duties every year (serves him right for him and his ancestors for being so over the top and building everything bloody enormous over here!). So he ordered that the door be built with a short path up to it for himself as a shortcut up to the building. He realized that if he did this, future emperors would be lazy buggers and use his shortcut, rather than going the proper way around when they were fully capable of doing so while in good health. So he decreed that nobody should be able to use his door and shortcut unless they were over the age of 70 and thus named it the 'Seventy Year Old Door'. As it turns out, he was the only emperor to live to that age and thus was the only person that ever used it!

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