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Beijing Sightseeing: Temple of Heaven (Tiantan Park)

Our flight arrived in Beijing in the early afternoon. Our itinerary said that the rest of the day would be free, presumably to give travelers a chance to rest. Our tour guide, however, offered to give us a head start. Since we had been sitting in the plane for more than a day, we jumped at the opportunity to stretch our legs. This turned out to be a great idea because the following days would be jam-packed with activities. So we checked in our hotel, freshened up and off we went to the Temple of Heaven, located south of the city center.

Round Altar

The Temple of Heaven is a large complex built in 1420. Its southern end is rectangular (to symbolize Earth) while its northern end is rounded (to symbolize Heaven). We entered from its South Gate and walked to its North Gate, visiting the sights along the way, thus retracing the semi-annual imperial procession from Earth to Heaven. But we were just getting started with the symbolism.

The main structure near the South Gate is the Round Altar. Notice the concentric circles around the altar. The first circle consist of 9 tiles, the second circle consists of 18, the third consists of 27, and so on until the ninth circle which consists of 81. It resembles a three-layer wedding cake made of white marble. At the center of the top layer is the altar itself (right). This is the spot where the emperor himself, having fasted and stayed away from vices (and women) for three days, would offer sacrifices to Heaven and implore for a good harvest. A good harvest was good for the country but also good for the emperor because it signified that he still had the Mandate of Heaven that legitimized his rule over the land.

Main thoroghfare in the Temple of Heaven

The three main structures in the complex are connected via this three lane thoroughfare (left). Only the emperor, of course, was allowed to travel on the center lane. But he wasn't walking. He was carried on a palanquin. Today, this area is popular with kite flyers.

The first building on this walkway was the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a small version of the main temple. Behing this building is the Echo Wall, a semi-circular wall around the Imperial Vault. Because of its shape, a soft sound produced on one end of the wall will be heard on the other end. Or so they say. Unfortunately, there are usually too many people to test this fact.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest

The last and main building is called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (right). This is probably one of the most recognizable Chinese landmarks for Westerners. Like the Imperial Vault, its blue roof represents Heaven. An engineering masterpiece, the 38-meter wooden structure was built without a single nail. You can't go inside the building but a peek from outside the door will give you an idea of how the interlocking pillars hold the building together. You'll also see four humungous columns representing the four seasons and twelve smaller columns representing the twelve months of the year.

Covered walkway outside the Temple of Heaven

After we exited the Temple of Heaven complex itself, we walked through this covered walkway, a feature often found in Chinese palaces and mansions. They make a perfect natural air conditioning even on the hottest day. This particular corridor, however, made for very interesting people watching. On this late afternoon, there were crowds young and old just hanging around in small groups. Some were playing card games, mahjong, and Chinese chess. Others were part of informal clubs focused on common interests. Thus we would find people playing Western musical instruments in one corner while a few steps down there would be people singing Chinese Opera, and yet a few more steps, we would be treated to an Italian aria.