Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Days 171 to 178: The Temple Of Heaven and The Summer Palace (and Pilkington)

Due to Burness's illness and current period of convalescence, we are bound to Beijing for the foreseeable future while he receives treatment and returns to the happy fellow we all know and love. In travels with deadlines, such as these, delays can be costly, but fortunately China is the one place that there was always a bit of slack and time to play with. And fortunately, there are many worse places to be trapped than Beijing.

Beijing has a wealth of history and attractions. As well as two of my Wonders, - the Forbidden City and many famous sections of the Great Wall (within an hour or two from Beijing) - it has lots of what might be termed "Unofficial Wonders". This is the name I give to the notable landmarks I visit along the way, that aren't part of my Wonder list, but nonetheless impress either with their sheer presence, or simply their iconic status within the city or nation. Some were considered for my list but didn't make it, and some I'd not even heard of before visiting, but they all stand out from the common construction in some way.

I intend - probably when home in May - to give a fuller entry detailing the various Unofficial Wonders I've seen; for now, here are two to add to the list: the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace.

I knew very little about the Temple of Heaven before arriving in Beijing, but soon realised it was one of Beijing's most prominent attractions. The image is everywhere, in the metro, on TV, in posters. It's not difficult to see why - it looks very distinctive. It also has a focus. Unlike the Forbidden City, which is a huge gathering of differently-sized but otherwise visually-alike rectangular buildings, the Temple of Heaven has the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests - and it's round.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is an astonishing looking building. It's quite, quite beautiful, and looks unlike anything I've seen to date. It entirely eclipses the rest of the temple complex (three main parts, although there are other buildings in the park it resides in) to the point where the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is generally just called the Temple of Heaven. It was built at the command of the same guy who built the Forbidden City, Emperor Yongle, from around 1406 to 1420, when he made Beijing the capital. Sat on a marble pedestal, and 38 metres tall, it is entirely made of wood. As with buildings made of wood, however, fire can be a bit of a problem, and the current version we see now dates from the late 19th Century, after lightning struck the precursor and burnt it to the ground.

It was put on the UNESCO list in 1998, and like many old buildings doesn't really do much any more except sit there and be admired. It's no longer a temple - and never was, to be honest. The name is a bit of a misnomer - "altar" is a better translation. It was where the emperor would make prayers - for good harvests, as you might imagine. With the fall of the empire, the function has been removed but the temple opened to the public to appreciate, although it is a great shame that, like the Forbidden City, the interior is still out of bounds. It's not a large interior but looks very attractive from what I could see, while pushed against a metal rail with a bunch of Chinese.I'm sure a system could be put in place to regulate people in and out, because the appreciation just isn't the same looking in. It would be like visiting a cathedral and just peering through the door.

The best way to approach is from the south, first passing through the other parts of the complex, the Circular Mound Altar and the Imperial Vault of Heaven, both of which line up in a straight line leading to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. It's a grand approach, with a great final reveal, and I'd love to tell you that this was how I arrived, but it's not. I entered by the park's east exit, just next to a metro station, and simply headed straight to the famous part, only then realising there was a bit more to it all. Let it be regarded as my sacrifice for you, dear reader, for when you one day visit.

The temple complex is part of a larger park, that was both attractive - even in the dry and barren winter - and filled with life. From the moment I arrived there were middle-aged women gathered, dancing together to a semi-modern beat, and deeper in were many groups doing exercises, some to music. Sometimes I'd see large clumps of people gathered round a performer, whether musical or entertainment, and the whole park felt vibrant and happy. It was this that made all the difference to visiting the Temple of Heaven - it made a "dead" building seem less "dead and buried" and more "dead great". Or something like that.

It was a similar experience at the Summer Palace, located about an hour's metro ride from the city centre. This dates from 1750, and was just another one of the emperor's many palaces. It all takes place around a lake - the dominant feature - and is essentially a bunch of pretty buildings scattered scenically about, with some charming bridges too. I'm glad it's not on my Wonder list because it would involve lots of description, and also the spread makes it difficult to justify as a single Wonder. But because it's unofficial, I don't need to do anything except put a bunch of photos up.

So, the Summer Palace was made for a lovely stroll. I wouldn't bother with the 50 RMB (£5) through ticket, primarily because I think the individual cost of entry plus the three attractions would equal the same, and unless you love looking at old pottery and stuff (the Wenchang Gallery) or want to stroll down a pretty but tacky fake street with vendors shouting for your attention (Suzhou Street), the only thing worth paying the entry fee for is the attractive Tower of Buddhist Incense which gives a great view over the lake. On a warmer day, like the Temple of Heaven, you could easily spend a day in leisure, looking at the sights, sitting with a coffee, and watching the world go by. On such a day where the entire lake is frozen, and people slide across it en masse as a means of shortcut, it is a little cold just to sit back and hang around.

As far as sights go, these have been the highlights of the last week. Neither were seen with Burness, whose only sight was the Union Hospital, although generally he has been trying to keep his eyes closed (it's less painful that way). Poor Burness. He has had one excursion, to the Lama Temple, and even managed to crack a joke about it being strange that they set up a temple for a South American animal. Because he's sick, I didn't lambast him too much for this. Anyway, the temple was perfectly pleasant, but having seen a lot of Buddhist temples over the last few months, not to mention Buddha statues, and a lot of Chinese-style buildings in the last few weeks, it didn't terribly excite me.

I've also been to the vast National Museum, which was so vast I only saw a fraction of it, and earlier today saw the National Centre for the Performing Arts.

As you can see, this is a pretty distinctive looking building, and so it needs a much better name than the very unwieldy National Centre for the Performing Arts. Wikipedia claims that it has the nickname "The Bird's Egg", which kind of makes sense, but I haven't heard it called that during my many, many conversations about architectural nicknames with the locals, so I'm just going to call it "The Pilkington" in honour of fellow adventurer, Karl Pilkington, whose podcasts myself and Burness have been listening to these travels.

I must admit, from a distance, when on Jinghshan Park's hill with the overview of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, I thought The Pilkington was ghastly. Not its inherent design, just its position. As a slick piece of modern architecture, all glass, steel and curves, it seemed horribly out of place in its historic surrounds. But close up, it's much better. Firstly, unless standing on a hill or right in front of it, The Pilkington isn't too prominent - I bet most visitors to the Forbidden City never see it. And secondly, it's pretty cool.

Like a gleaming blob of future, it sits surrounded by a circular pool of water, with no apparent entry point. In fact, to get in you need to go underneath, from stairway by the main road, which takes you below the pool of water, which can be seen through a glass ceiling. Very future. The interior of the main building contains several theatres and lots of open space, and is very pleasant in a highly manicured way. The architect behind it, I say with a low voice, is the same person behind my least favourite airport in the world, Charles de Gaulles. Although I'll concede the Charles de Gaulles airport has a certain dressed-up warehouse-chic, it is a depressing and hopelessly impractical set of buildings, with barely a toilet between them, that I have spent far too much of my life. The Pilkington is a far better building, and with a lot more toilets, although the whiff of the airport does hang in the air. Better than the toilets, I guess.

These have been the buildings and landmarks that have occupied my days, although not Burness's sadly. The news for him isn't really getting better. Two weeks from now seems to be a best case scenario, which puts these travels at some jeopardy if true. It's manageable still, but it could be quite a rushed trip in the rest of China after several weeks doing very little in Beijing. But we'll see (which is more than he's doing, unfortunately, in his right eye at least).

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