Oh Nose!

January 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm (general life)

Beijing is not the greatest place to live. It’s bitterly cold in Winter (but almost never snows), and boiling in Summer (apparently it officially never gets up to forty degrees, but sometimes it stays at 39 degrees from early morning to late afternoon. Suspicious? Nah, who on earth would lie about the weather?!) The whole city is filled with dust storms in Spring, and it has the world’s shortest autumns (which are apparently rather nice – almost always). But it’s a really excellent place to visit. A million times nicer than, for example, Jakarta or Port Moresby. And last night – sometime before 6am – it snowed.

We were going to visit a gallery but because the city was being so pretty we went to the Temple of Heaven instead. Beijing still has all its Christmas decorations, so just walking along was like being in a Christmas card. (An incredibly slippery Christmas card, where the wind burns your face until it’s red and painful to touch – despite the fact I STILL didn’t feel uncomfortably cold, and I wore less layers than yesterday.) Beijing is filled with trees (and birds, and incredible ramshackle nests wherever you look), including a lot of silver birches which do look barren, but in a beautiful way.

It’s also worth noting that the public transport is truly excellent (except for the ten minutes we spent on an intensely crowded bus – too crowded to remove our jackets – when the heat and closeness made me feel like throwing up), with an efficient, clean and organised train system. I also love walking around in Beijing, because there are so many unique skyscrapers wherever you look. One of them is called “the underpants building” because it’s roughly in the shape of a person’s legs if they were sitting in a chair with their knees as wide apart as possible (since only the “feet” touch the ground, no-one seems very confident it’ll stay up).

And now to our feature presentation: The Temple of Heaven.

We’re staying in a flat on the sixteenth floor (or at least, roughly the fifteenth, since there’s no 4th or 14th floor – the word “4” sounds like the word for “death” so is often left out). A million people live within a mile of where I’m sitting.

Which made it even more startling when we walked through the West Gate of the Temple of Heaven area and discovered a park-like area of 273 hectares. We spent a lot of time today strolling along stunning avenues (like the one above) lined with snow-covered conifers, birches, and ancient cyprus (some apparently 900 years old, and all of the old ones heritage listed).

The Chinese are really serious about their architecture. It boggles the mind to see such huge structures made with such intricacy. You probably have a fair idea of what a Chinese roof looks like – sweeping tiles with an elegant upward swing on the lowest part. You’d also be able to imagine such a roof dusted with snow as fresh and fine as castor sugar, highlighting each tile with its own layer of white icing. It’s probably not too hard to imagine dragons carved on the corners, or the bold red, gold, blue and green paintings filling the eaves (and often the inside ceiling). But it’s impossible to put it all together unless you walk around and see it for yourself.

We walked South (past the palace of imperial fasting – the emperor didn’t do ANYTHING, including any work, for three days before peforming the annual sacrifice), to the circular altar mound (three massive circular tiers of carved marble, with stairs up – marble stairs, especially after snow, have slightly less traction than the smoothest ice you’ve ever seen) and looked at the beautiful green stone of the nearby altar.

After that we looked at the Imperial Vault of Heaven (effectively, a fancy-pants storeroom; round in shape, and carved and painted absolutely everywhere), which is surrounded by a wall with the fun acoustic property that a whisper from one side can be clearly heard on the other (this of course means that everyone somehow ends up shouting at a wall, which is even more fun to observe). The wall is also covered in ancient graffiti – Chinese characters carved into the stone. That graffiti is also now of historical value.

After that we walked on to the most famous structure, which is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The Hall is set on three circular tiers of stairs (marble, again), and is a round building three storeys high (each with its own rim of roof) that is held together by the carvers’ skill (rather than nails, glue, or anything else).

Long view of the Hall of Good Harvest (note the pillar things on the stair rail on the left; they’re everywhere):

The pillar things on the stairs look similar to this one:

Close view of the Hall of Good Harvest:

We couldn’t go inside these beautiful buildings, but we joined everyone else in looking through the open doorways. Even some of the (many) sets of stairs were blocked off. On one of the sets of stairs the snow lay perfectly still and even – except on the left and right hand side, where cat pawprints were clearly visible ascending and descending. Perhaps one of heaven’s creatures had been inside, after all.

The whole area was full of people, but (except in the most culturally important places) it felt perfectly spacious because it’s so much like a giant park. Ordinary Beijing citizens visit just to hang out – we saw many of them singing, dancing, and playing in a saxophone band. There were far more Chinese tourists than Westerners.

Right now both I and my partner are reading “Faith of our Fathers” by Chan Kei Thong, which is all about the Temple of Heaven. The author has an interesting theory about the ancient religion of the Chinese people. It’s impossible to know anything for certain when the buildings were made in the 14 and 15oos, and the religion itself is far older (and already getting mixed up with dragon-emperor-god stuff when the Temple was build). But it’s certainly interesting.

This is some of the Sacrifice song (you’ll see exactly what the author is getting at, along with far greater scholars, particularly in the 13th to 15th century) used in the temple:

Of old in the beginning, there was the great chaos, without form and dark.

The five planets had not begun to revolve, nor the two lights to shine. In the midst of it there existed neither form nor sound. You, O spiritual Sovereign, came forth in Your sovereignty, and did separate the impure from the pure. You made heaven, You made earth; You made man. All things became alive with reproducing power.

You did produce, O Spirit, the seven elements [the sun and the moon and the five planets]. Their beautiful and brilliant lights lit up the circular sky and square earth.

You have promised, oh Lord, to hear us, for You are our Father. . . With reverence we spread out these gems and silks, and, as swallows rejoicing in the spring, praise Your abundant love.

I don’t know much about the historian’s theory, but I know enough to be intrigued. Unlike the core of many other ancient religions, this God is seen as an invisible creator – not an object.

We obviously spent a lot of time outside today – my nose has been running all day, and hates me now – but I don’t feel particularly cold. I noticed when I looked at some photos my husband took today that my down jacket (which is blue and completely encases me almost to my ankles) makes me look rather like a caterpillar.

My Chinese (and my ability to recognise specific things instead of just being overwhelmed) are coming along so well that Chris and I went grocery shopping by ourselves. We bought milk, orange juice, Chinese lollies, some kind of frozen yum cha-ish meal (for me for my breakfasts), and tissues. None of them were labelled in English – or even pinyin (the form of Chinese that uses Arabic letters and lovely phonetic spelling). Hail the mighty adventurers!

My most frightening moment was when I went to the loo at home and almost forget myself and put the toilet paper in the toilet. That’s NEVER a good idea in Asia – there’s always a bin near the toilet (or no toilet paper usage at all). The plumbing just canna take it, captain. But I remembered myself and did the right thing.

Crisis averted.

We haven’t had dinner yet, but my taste sensation of the day was a red bean smoothie (which also contained honey, vanilla ice cream, and coconut milk). I’m sure red beans are related to lentils (sort of nutty and naturally sweet). The staff (the people in this flat almost never cook, because eating out is so cheap and delicious) served it in SERIOUSLY tall glasses – containing about 750mL – and it was very thick. I still finished it, and gladly. It cost about $3. (Just remembered I’m lactose intolerant. Smeg.)

Plus I had some cool Chinese candy while we walked the temple grounds -they were a little like round prawn crackers sprinkled with icing sugar (with a hint of salt making them even better).

Brushing snow from the dragon’s nose:

PS a couple more details and several more photos are located at http://twittertales.wordpress.com



  1. Steff Metal said,

    Sounds like you’re having a magical time. That toilet paper thing is the same in the Middle East, and Greece. It always seems like you get used to it, and then you come home and are always looking for the toilet paper bin.

    I’m really interested to go to Beijing at some point and try that public transport system. I love me some efficient public transport!

    • felicitybloomfield said,

      Sounds like most of the world can’t handle toilet paper. Ah well.

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