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Temple of Heaven or Tiantan

Ancient China in Modern Beijing

Introduction

Temple of Heaven or Tiantan

Last time I visited Beijing I was 4 years old (~1989) and I ran off in Tiananmen Square looking for bullet holes (which led to homemade personal locating devices attached to me for the reminder of the trip… aka little bells around my wrist).  From my recollections Beijing was a sterile and oppressive city possibly because my parents and I visited not too long after the infamous Tiananmen Square incident.  My memories of Beijing consisted of endless bicycle traffic with occasional motorbikes (cars and buses were few and far between); numerous soldiers standing guard everywhere; ice-sledding/tobogganing on a frozen lake (courtesy of nice Beijing locals); climbing the Badaling great wall in tears but got a “Great Wall conqueror” certificate; and my first encounter with snow.

Raised in Hong Kong before immigrating to Canada when I was 9, I had a pretty good grasp in spoken Cantonese and I understood some Mandarin as well… Fast forward 20+ years my Chinese had regressed tremendously compared to the 4 year old me (shame!).  This time I took my wife with me to hike the Great Wall of China (wild wall).  My wife, a third-generation Chinese-Canadian who is fluent in English and French, turned out to be less useful in communicating with the locals than even myself lol.  During our trip to the Chinese Capital we were essentially two foreigners traveling in Beijing where everybody expected us to converse in Chinese which led to some funny and memorable experiences (ie. We went into a store for some souvenirs and the shop owner would tell us a price, and as soon as he realized that we were English speakers our price immediately went up by 200%… I could still understand numbers in Chinese haha)

Itinerary

 

 

Conclusion

Beijing had graced us with a mix of western familiarity along with its deep-rooted eastern culture. We had seen and experienced the variety of Beijing’s food culture, from the world famous Peking duck to local dumplings (but we were too scared to try scorpions and starfish). It was abundantly clear that the Beijing I visited two decades ago had transformed into a world class metropolitan. The evidence of such rapid development could be seen at every corner of Beijing as old traditional Hutongs struggle to survive in a sea of new concrete developments. Beijing is now a modernized city by all western standards (in fact many North American cities are falling behind cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc), but in pursuit of development Beijing has evidently sacrificed some of its ancestral charm.  In my opinion it is equally important to embrace Beijing’s rich heritage (3000 years!) going forward and maintain a proper balance between history and growth.  However, despite all the cosmetic changes throughout the city one thing did remain constant: the welcoming and warm personalities of Beijing citizens.

Beijing: Day 5

February 9th, 2012

Flag-raising Ceremony – Airport

Our flight was scheduled in the early afternoon so we did not have much time to sightsee that day. In fact even if we went sightseeing we wouldn’t see much because the smog was terrible. We were lucky that the majority of our trip was under beautiful blue skies (at least we could see the sky lol) because I would be quite bummed if all I could see were my immediate surroundings.

My mom and I woke up extra early (before sunrise early) so we could see the flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square. A small platoon of soldiers marched in unison carrying the Chinese flag to its destination (honestly it must be a communism thing because the soldiers took their march seriously… they made changing of the guards at Buckingham palace look amateur). The Chinese national anthem resonated throughout the square as the flag climbed to the top of the flag pole and the entire flag raising ceremony was great.  The flag-raising experience would’ve been perfect if I didn’t have to look at Chairman Mao’s gigantic smug portrait above the Gate of Heavenly Peace (the crimes he committed to China was unimaginable… I still don’t understand why he is regarded so highly in China).

On our taxi ride to the airport we were greeted by an ultra talkative local Beijing driver.  He was a loud, honest, and warm personality that I had associated Beijing with.  He was proud of his heritage and he made sure that we knew he was local (he lived in a hutong just a couple blocks from our hotel and he could easily sell the property for millions, but because he wanted Beijing to maintain its heritage he refused to sell out to another condo developer.  (Apparently Beijing was also flooded with “uncivilized foreign migrant workers” which he deemed unfortunate).  The taxi driver insisted that I try speaking Chinese to him because I looked Chinese (and by that time I was a little bit more comfortable having some practices in China).  After about 30 minutes in gridlock traffic it turned out the police had shut down traffic for a mid level government official… seriously!?  Because of the traffic jam we were running late for our flight and our local driver was determined to deliver us to the airport on time (alive or not).  He turned on that “Chinese driving” switch and we found ourselves traveling at high speeds on every part of the pavement (median, in between lanes, curb-side, etc).  By the end of the taxi ride we were actually conversing in Mandarin (Me = extremely broken Chinese but at least he understood, or pretended to understand) and my wife was suffering from motion sickness.  Needless to say because of our taxi driver’s determination we managed to catch our flight.

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Jinshanling Wild Great Wall

The Great Wild Wall of China (Jinshanling)

February 8th, 2012

Day 4: Jinshanling

Woke up to a beautiful clear morning with cloudless blue sky (BOO YA no smog!).  The first order of business: Go to McD’s and grab our lunches for the day – $2 CAD breakfast meals (we got 2 each haha).  We are not big fans of fast-food especially when traveling abroad, but with minimal choices we had to buy from the world famous golden arches.  Combining McD’s with some light snacks/drinks, we were ready for the Great Wall of China (the real one)!  Our driver met us at the hotel lobby and off we went to Jinshanling!

For RMB $900 we hired our driver Joe for the entire day.  Having a fantastic guide/driver really made our great wall experience that much more immersive.  The drive to Jinshanling was approximately 2.5 hours from where we stayed (close to the Forbidden City).  My wife (of course) slept through the entire car ride (there and back), but I was conversing with Joe the entire time in English and some broken Chinese about topics that would’ve put her to sleep anyways haha (like politics).  In fact I was pleasantly surprised at Joe’s willingness to speak his mind about more “sensitive” subjects such as government and politics.  From our conversation I learned a few fun facts about Beijing and China:

1.    The “one child policy” in China is not applicable to rural communities (farmers).  I have always wondered why any country would want to half their population every generation… As of 2015 this draconian family-planning rule was finally scrapped.
2.    There are a lot of changes in the past couple decades and there are hiccups here and there.  However many Chinese citizens are content and they enjoy a lot of day-to-day freedoms similar to the rest of the world (Thanks CNN for conditioning me to think that mainland China was similar to North Korea)
3.    To control the amount of cars roaming around central Beijing, only certain license plates are permitted to enter the city each day (ie. Monday = cars with license plate starting with odd numbers, etc).
4.    Beijing is constructed like a spider web with various ring roads surrounding the city (separated into 1st ring, 2nd ring, and so on).  But unlike most cities in the world where the center is filled with skyscrapers, Beijing is the opposite with the Forbidden City at its center and the tallest buildings are found in the 2nd and 3rd ring.

The scenery on the drive out to Jinshanling was a lot like the drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon: barren and uneventful.  Occasionally sections of the wall could be seen on some distant mountaintops (I think… it could also be self-fulfilling prophecy).  I had originally planned to hike Jinshanling for 5-6 hours (~2.5 hours one way then backtrack to the starting point) but Joe suggested a new route where he would drop us off at a newly built entrance closer to the Simatai end (east) and we would hike one-way towards the main Jinshanling entrance. (I couldn’t find such information anywhere on travel sites so hopefully I am contributing something new to the public haha).

This new alternate entrance (East gate entrance?) to Jinshanling Great Wall was similar to a lot of new architectures in China.  Although the property itself looked amazing, it did not blend in with the surrounding landscape and thereby it stuck out like a sore thumb.  We realized that we made the “correct call” to visit Jinshanling instead of the more famous sections like Badaling or Mutianyu because we were the only visitors at the entrance.  After an entrance fee of ~$50 RMB per person, we embarked on a 30 minute hike uphill on a well maintained trail until we reached our starting point.

After having Beijing’s bone chilling wind kick my butt a couple of days before, I made sure I was dressed appropriately even though it was +3 degrees Celsius outside (dressed in layers, just like any good Canadian would because cold + sweat = trouble).  Once we were on the wall the view overcame my desire for warmth and the majesty of this ancient monument trumped my senses.  The weather-battered great wall meandered endlessly like a stone serpent resting over hills and valleys, and at that moment I truly felt small and powerless.  The vastness of the great wall against the barren landscape, in combination with the shivering wind created a harsh and lonely atmosphere… as if I were a sentry posted here 450 years ago to defend against barbarians from the north.  Granted, 450 years ago the protective barrier walls were probably intact and the bricks weren’t loose, but I am sure the wind was just as harsh.  In fact midway through my daydream those nasty gusts woke me up from the jaw-dropping experience because my face screamed in pain (thank god for face warmers and heat packs).

Our hike started at Dongwuyanlou (or Dongwuyan tower/East Five Eyes Tower/東五眼樓) and we could only proceed in one direction westward towards the Jinshanling main entrance because the path towards Simatai was off limits.  This section of the great wall was considered as the “wild wall” because this section had not been touched since its conception from the Ming Dynasty era (AD 1570).  We walked casually westward as we were in no rush, sometimes stopping at the watch towers (or what was left of it) for refreshments and sometimes even doubled back to savor the astonishing views.  (Jinshanling has the highest density of watch towers as well as various strategic wall improvements that are unique to this stretch of the Great Wall).

The first third of the hike was definitely more challenging as loose bricks, crumbling walls, wobbly steps, and numerous potholes welcomed us at every turn.  We hiked this section rather cautiously but the hike itself was easily manageable and we didn’t feel at any point in danger.  We had the Great Wall all to ourselves as we did not encounter another soul for the first 1.5 hour.  Our driver said most visitors who visit Jinshanling are foreigners as most Asians usually stick with Badaling or Mutianyu.  In fact throughout our entire hike we saw two other couples, one local elder, and four local kids playing tag.  Looking back at my Great Wall experiences I would rather experience 5 minutes of Jinshanling than hours at Badaling.  There was something special about experiencing the Great Wall at its original state with minimal disturbances from other visitors, over commercialization, and traffic.  (Did you know the Badaling section was basically completely rebuilt on ancient foundations?)

(Aside: I visited Badaling when I was a kid before China was open to the western world and domestic Chinese citizens were too poor to travel… and Badaling was already packed then! Badaling wasn’t as commercially developed then and the “washroom” had white crawlies everywhere – I imagine its hygiene status should be improved now. Anyways I digress…)

As we proceeded westward the wind felt gentler and our hike felt less rugged as well.  We encountered an abruptly repaved section half way into our journey, but just as abruptly the renovation ceased 200 meters down the path.. WTF?  By the time we reached the Big Jinshan Tower our journey through the wild great wall was over and we were walking on “solid stones” once again.  This stretch of Jinshanling was renovated in the 1980-1990s and it was beautifully renovated (non-intrusive).  There were even cable cars to traffic less physically-able visitors to/from the great wall! It was closed when we visited during the winter months and in fact the entire main entrance seemed deserted when we hiked through the little Jinshanling resort village (aka main entrance).  Joe was waiting for us at the parking lot as promised and our hike through Jinshanling was about 4.5 hours all together (with numerous photo/snack breaks in between… so probably 3 hours with no interruptions).

As we return from our mini road trip our driver Joe was kind enough to detour to the Olympic grounds so we could have a glimpse of the “birds nest” National Stadium before he dropped us off at the trendy Houhai district for dinner.  Houhai district was filled with restaurants, bars, and karaoke shops… We were going to chill-lax at a pub after dinner, but since my wife refused to use squat toilets her dehydration tactic was only successful for about 12 hours haha… we hailed a taxi (with great difficulty) and headed back to our hotel.

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Main attraction of the Summer Palace: Tower of Buddhist Incense

Beijing: Day 3

February 7th, 2012

The Summer Palace + Jingshan Park

We jumped on the metro for the Summer Palace.  After a quick transfer (Subway Line 1 to Line 4) and a 40 minute journey, we concluded that personal space was obviously defined differently in Beijing.  Avoid travelling around morning rush hour on the subway because I was simultaneously the big spoon and the little spoon for a significant portion of the trip.  Luckily most passengers had no intentions of traveling to our destination and there were ample space midway through our metro ride.  Once we arrived at Beigongmen station, aka the north gate of Summer Palace, it only took a few minutes to reach the admission gate.  Today was incidentally the Lantern Festival (last day of the 15-day lunar New Year celebration) and many parts of the city were decorated with bright red paper lanterns.  It had been almost a decade since I last celebrated Chinese New Year in any capacity (even longer for my wife, if ever) so it was pleasant to experience some bonus cultural excitement.

Upon entry to the Summer Palace we were greeted by hundreds of sizeable lanterns overhead.  This imperial summer retreat/garden was gigantic and we didn’t want to spend an entire day there, so we decided to limit our visit strictly to the northern and eastern portions where most structures were concentrated (yet still a healthy distance to cover).  We were visiting a summer retreat in the middle of winter: the central Kunming Lake was frozen solid and the temperature was a few degrees below anyone’s comfort (it was really the wind that bothered me the most… even with face-shields).

One of the main attractions in the summer palace was the Tower of Buddhist Incense (aka Foxiangge) located at the top of Longevity Hill.  At the top we were treated to a wonderful panoramic view of the entire Kunming Lake along with various structures that surrounded the lake.  I was even more impressed at the view upon being informed that Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill were entirely man-made centuries ago without the aid of machineries.  The architecture style of the Summer Palace was similar to Temple of the Heavenly where these wooden structures were painted in a mix of harmonious red, blue, and green.  The Tower of Buddhist Incense was an engineering marvel considering the height of the structure and the material used to reach such height (wood).  In addition, the entire complex also doubled as an ancient art exhibit because each overhead beam was decorated with an unique painting (there must’ve been thousands of beams).  The meticulous artwork, the ingenious engineering, and the grand landscaping propelled this ancient imperial retreat onto the UNESCO heritage list.  However, this structure also represented a painful chapter in Chinese history because this extravagant palace was built from diversion of military funds which eventually led to the successful occupation of China by the Eight-Nation Alliance.

As we descended from Longevity Hill we reached the Long Corridor by the lake (aka Changlang/ Long Gallery).  Continuing the architecture style of the Summer Palace, Long Corridor also featured countless colored paintings on overhead cross-beams each depicting an unique tale.  We continued down the corridor and there were only a handful of other tourists (a perk when visiting during winter months I suppose) until we reached another symbol of frivolous spending: A marble pavilion constructed to imitate a two-story boat.  We were getting hungry by that point so we exited out of the closest gate (east gate).  To our surprise it was a 15-20 minute walk from the east gate to the closest metro station (Xiyuan station) and unfortunately there were no restaurants along the way… By the time we traveled back into the city center and had our empty stomach filled, there were only a couple hours of daylight remaining.

Instead of visiting the Forbidden City, I had done some research the night before and many people had recommended Jingshan park which was adjacent to the Forbidden City.  Jingshan Park offered a fantastic 360 degree view of Beijing including the imperial palace… once again we traveled by public transit and we found not only were Beijing buses efficient, navigating on the bus was a breeze as well (there was a display in both Chinese and English indicating the next stop).  Once we arrived at Jingshan Park (and of course after another small entrance fee… nothing is free in Beijing) it was clear where we should go: up the hill.

Jingshan Park was originally an imperial garden (and part of the Forbidden City) and had since been repatriated to Beijing’s citizens.  We saw a group of locals practicing taichi and line dancing; It seemed synchronized activities such as line dancing/morning stretches are popular in Beijing because during our brief visit we encountered many such activities practiced en masse.  As we powered up the hill there was a gazebo 3/4 up the hill with an amazing view of the modern Beijing with its skyscrapers, and a short distance from the gazebo was the main lookout.  By pure luck we arrived at the lookout around sunset where the sun casted its warm gentle glow over the entire city including the Forbidden City in the foreground (I will let the pictures do the talking).  We concluded our day surrounded by sporadic fireworks as locals celebrated the conclusion of Chinese New Year and festivities radiated throughout the city.

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Outer Pavilion framing Temple of Heaven

Beijing: Day 2

February 6th, 2012

Temple of Heaven + Tiananmen Square

Outer Pavilion framing Temple of Heaven

We had a late start since we were exhausted from our flights.  On this chilly breezy day we began our adventure to Wangfujing by foot and it was our first run-in with the infamous Beijing smog.  I knew we were lucky because the smog was quite mild and only distant buildings were obscured by a slight hint of brown.  Visibility was minimally impacted but for a Canadian who is spoiled by prestine landscapes the smog was noticeable.  We went to Wangfujing in search for food but the only restaurant opened was McDonald’s (of all places!) and there we were delighted to find $2 CAD breakfasts… (OK I lied, there were limited restaurants open, but $30 RMB for a bun = blatant tourist trap.  Due to the simplicity of typical Chinese breakfast – usually congee or noodles… local Chinese usually stay home for breakfast hence limited restaurant options).

Our first attraction of the day was Temple of the Heavenly (also known as Temple of the Heaven, or Tiantan which meant Sky Altar… see what I mean by translation inconsistencies?).  On our way to the subway station we were surprised to see how western fashion had influenced Beijing because there were many well-dressed locals (i.e. Well fitted suits, nice tasteful dresses… similar to Manhattan).  However on the flip side we were also surprised at how Beijing locals were always battling with phlegm because throat clearing/spitting seemed to be widely accepted even in crowded spaces (must be the chronic bad air).  Beijing’s metro system was top notch: modern, clean, and most importantly simple.  During our stay we were able to navigate on public transit to most destinations relatively inexpensively.

The metro exit led us close to the east gate of the Temple of the Heavenly park entrance and the admission fee was modest (we used our Canadian university ID for a slight discount).  Once inside we were treated to a harmonious balance of red, green, and blue that defined this UNESCO heritage site built in the Ming dynasty (600 years ago). The park was extremely popular for the local population and it seemed to be the epicenter of community get-togethers because it was buzzing with activity even in the middle of winter.  As we walked through the long corridors that led to the temple we were constantly surrounded by laughter from locals playing traditional games such as Jianzi (Chinese hacky sack) and Chinese chess.

The composition of park visitors favored tourists the further we continued down the corridor and we were finally treated to a familiar yet impressive view: The Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests (aka the altar).  To my disappointment entry to the actual structure was restricted (I remember there were no restrictions last time I was there two decades ago… but then I guess there were hardly any visitors foreign nor domestic during late 1980s).  To be fair we were also fortunate because we visited during winter months and there were relatively few tourists to compete for a glimpse of the temple’s interior.  During our visit the wind started to pick up and I had my first encounter with the ridiculous Beijing chill: Armed with Canada-tested gloves and a proper winter coat I still felt as if I jumped into Arctic waters in my birthday suit.  Semi frozen tears and snot continually ran down my face like a broken facet; We decided to press on to see other portions of the park… and within 15 minutes we conceded to the wind and were forced to seek shelter (and purchased heat packs from the park store to put inside our gloves).

We left our itinerary open intentionally for the rest of the afternoon because I didn’t know if we would be excited enough to visit the Forbidden City (I know it is supposed to be a must-see… being another UNESCO heritage site that symbolizes China).  I had already visited the imperial palace when I was little and I actually had a chance to go inside the main hall as there were no visitor restrictions back then (similar to Temple of the Heavenly).  The last time I visited I also met the last living eunuch from the Qing dynasty (he was 102 years old 20 years ago… I don’t know why I remembered since it was so uneventful).  My wife had never been to mainland China so we took the subway back to Tiananmen Square (adjacent to the Forbidden City).  Once there, the amount of visitors who queued for tickets was so absurd it made the queue at the Louvre laughable.  We quickly abandoned the idea and instead we opted to strolled around possibly the most monitored piece of land in the world – Tiananmen Square.  Aside from the numerous visible presence of armed soldiers and policemen there were also more-than-enough surveillance cameras mounted to each light post.  On a lighter note, there were also Canadian flags on every single light post! (I guess I am kind of a big deal hahaha, Stephen Harper’s visit had NOTHING to do with it).

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Street vendors selling exotic Chinese delicacies

Beijing: Day 1

February 5th

Vancouver-Beijing

After a tiring long distance flight we arrived at Beijing international airport.  Our flight with Air China was uneventful but unlike my wife I can never get any sleep on the plane.  We rushed through customs and met up with my mother who insisted to be our guide around Beijing (She had been to the capital multiple times and spoke Mandarin well… super helpful in covering up our Chinese incompetence.  However since our travel preferences were different we ended up going to places where she had never been to – win-win I suppose!). Thanks to numerous travel websites we were able to plan and book our trip with only one week in advance.

We hailed a taxi to usher us straight to our hotel from the airport. We negotiated a fixed price with the taxi driver in order to deter any possibilities of fare-gauging as recommended online.  This domestically-built taxi then raced through tolled expressways like a German-built sports car (without the comfort, style, or safety measures).  As we frantically searched for our seatbelts we were passed by countless Fords, Volkswagens, and Audis just like any highways back home.  We approached Beijing and I soon realized that all the bicycles I saw 20 years ago had been replaced by automobiles, and modern commercial buildings stood in places where hutong residences dominated just a couple decades ago.

We arrived at our reasonably priced hotel (Hotel Kapok) with above average reviews at the heart of the capital.  The hotel staffs were courteous and they escorted us to our hotel rooms after check-in (they photocopied and registered our passports – I later learned that there were different classes of hotels in China: 1) foreign visitors, 2) Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan guests, and 3) domestic Chinese travelers).  Hotel Kapok was ultra modern with many amenities any travelers would expect, plus glass walls for the bathroom (with curtains if one wished for privacy) – my privacy-loving wife did not appreciate such added “luxury” haha.

By the time we freshened up it was near dinner time and we ventured out on foot to explore the streets around our hotel.  We wandered toward Wangfujing street (or Wangfujingdajie).  [I found the inconsistencies in English translation all over China (not just Beijing) confusing because one thing could have 3-4 different translations… i.e. Wangfujing Street VS Wangfujingdajie.  At least I could make out dajie = big street, but what about those poor non-Chinese visitors?].  We passed a busy street full of food vendors selling all sorts of “exotic delicacies” to locals and tourists – for under $5 CAD anyone could enjoy the taste of bee cocoons, beetles, scorpions, starfish, snakes, or sheep’s penises.  I didn’t know I would start travel blogging at the time or I would’ve totally whore my stomach out for some extra page views/comments haha.  We ended up stopping by a seemingly famous dumpling restaurant (food staple of the northern Chinese) and at the restaurant my wife experienced her first Chinese culture shock: Squat toilets.  As a dude it really didn’t matter whether it was a bush, a bottle, or any permutations of a toilet because I pee the same way… but I guess girls are more intimate with toilets…  Fun fact: my wife refused squat toilets throughout the entire trip and she purposely dehydrated herself on longer day trips despite my concerns.

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