February 6th, 2012
Temple of Heaven + Tiananmen Square
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).