Last night before bed, we had discussed with Mark what we might do today and settled on spending the morning at the Summer Palace and the afternoon at the Temple of Heaven.
But you know what they say about best laid plans…
I didn’t sleep well. Whether it was the substantial dinner we’d had or some impact of jetlag, I woke up at 3am and didn’t get back to sleep for several hours. When my alarm went off at 07:00, I rolled straight over and went back to sleep, not to emerge again until 11:30. Hence the plan to see the Summer Palace in the cool of the morning was clearly a non-starter. Even once awake, we were still a bit sluggish so, remembering we were on holiday and not a tourist-attraction-marathon, we had a leisurely breakfast, revised our plans and set off for the Temple of Heaven once amply fuelled with coffee and cereal.Back when I was tour manager in the late nineties, I escorted a trip here. It all went very well but the subway proved to be my nemesis; just like London it was hectic and confusing but here everything was (naturally) signed in Mandarin. I was lucky to make it out alive!
So, despite Mark’s reassurances, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached the subway station. There was a perfunctory security scan at the entrance and a bit of a hike through a tunnel to the station-proper but, once there, all my fears were put to rest; all of the signage, displays and even the onboard announcements were bi-lingual English and Mandarin. In the end it turned out to be easier to navigate than Madrid or Barcelona would be!
Anyway, we reached Tiantandongmen, the station which serves the Temple of Heaven without incident (apart from me hitting my head on a train door designed for a population mostly a couple of inches shorter than me.)
We were out in the heat of the day, so were glad to find the Temple is located in a substantial park with lots of trees shading the paths: We very much sought out the shade. It was quite a lovely day out of the direct sunlight. The park seemed a popular venue for people just to relax with their friends. There were couples and young families strolling around, people sitting reading on a bench. We passed one old couple just sitting shelling and eating a pile of nuts they had between them. All freshened occasionally by a gentle breeze and softened by the constant rustle of the crickets in the grass.
By the time we got to the park, we were actually getting hungry again so, having bought our tickets and picked up the audio guides, we headed to the restaurant location indicated on the site map to find some lunch. It turned out to be an area with a few café-style outlets in the shade of what we later learned were quite famous cypress trees. It was a low-budget affair, but they had bi-lingual menus – they must get a lot of westerners unable to speak more than a few words of Mandarin. I ordered pork and rice, which turned out to be substantial and tasty. Brett ordered the hamburger which turned out to be two slices of ham in a bun with lettuce and tomato, only the top half of which had been heated properly, the bottom half still being part frozen. I resisted the urge to snicker.
We did have some very nice ice creams after lunch though. While the complex chocolate confections on sale at home are available, the Chinese also seem to do a nice line of simple creamy fruit iced lollies which cost less than a pound and I find much nicer.
So, rested and refuelled, we assayed the main event; the Temple of Heaven. I actually never really got it straight, but I think “The Temple of Heaven” is the name of the complex, which consists of several altars and halls for prayer. I really should have done more research on some of this stuff!
We followed the route our audio guide suggested was most common; from the southern end towards the north. It seems that each year, the Chinese Emperor had to follow some quite ornate prescribed rituals in order to seek the gods’ favour and ensure a good harvest. I am always amazed at how specific and demanding religious rituals can be and marvel at imagining how they must have developed over time.
The audio guide turned out to be a mixed blessing though; unlike the more common smartphone audio-player app you see in Europe, this was a plastic wafer, a little smaller than a sheet of A5 card. On one side was a map of the site with embedded LEDs, on the other were buttons for Volume, Pause and Help. The idea was that the device senses your location and plays the appropriate track without you needing to select it. All well and good, but it turns out you have to be following the route pretty carefully to trigger the playback. Also, there was no lanyard and a quite short headphone cable, so you could just about get it in your trouser pocket – but woe betide you if the Help button should get knocked as you walk along while a commentary is playing; no way back!
On the whole, it all seemed like a clever idea, but they should have field-tested a bit more rigorously before releasing it on the public.
We finally called it a day around 5:30 and headed back to the Metro, pausing only for Brett to be photographed by a random lady who wanted his picture with her husband (!?!?). We were slightly spooked, looking out of the Metro train windows to realise that an advert was following us along. It seems there are projectors mounted on the outside of the tube carriages which, when they detect a wall close by, project advertising on it for the benefit of passengers looking out of the windows. Between that and the ads pasted to the escalator handrails, you get the impression that no marketing opportunity will be wasted in the new Beijing!
When Mark got home and we were all freshened up, we headed out to catch the cocktail happy hour at the Kerry Centre bar, Centro, and then on to another local restaurant. Where last night we’d tried out the spicier Sichuan cuisine, tonight we assayed a more northern menu: Less chili but no less flavour. Then, after dinner, home to bed.