Visiting the Temple
The temple is laid out on a traditional south-north axis and is best visited in this order, although you can also enter the park at its eastern and northern gates. There are guides available at the entrances to the temple, as well as audio-guides (in English and French, ¥40) that can be dropped off at any of the gates.
Although the main buildings always have a flow of visitors passing through, the temple is twice the size of the Forbidden City and the surrounding grounds, particularly those to the west, are usually quiet and are a pleasant spot for a picnic.
Entering through the principal southern Zhaoheng Gate the path leads to the three-tiered Round Altar (Yuanqiu).
The three levels represent Man, Earth and Heaven and on each numerically significant slabs of marble indicate the importance of the number nine in Chinese cosmology.
The Temple of Heaven
The top tier was seen as the center of the Middle Kingdom and as such, the world. You can ascend the marble steps and stand on the central stone, just as the emperor did, although these days you’ll have to wait your turn!
Proceeding north from here and after passing some incredibly old trees protected by wire-mesh, you’ll reach the circular Echo Wall (Huiyinbi). Similar to whispering walls found in Roman amphitheaters, the idea here is that you can whisper at one side of the circle and the words will quietly travel and be perfectly audible to someone on the opposite side, although the number of people testing this theory confounds most attempts. The ‘sweet spot’ in the center of the circle also creates great echoes.
Immediately north of the wall is the octagonal wooden Imperial Vault of Heaven (Huangqiongyu) where the emperor would meditate and commune with the heavens before proceeding to the prayer hall.
Continuing north along the imperial way you’ll start to see the fabulous sweeping azure roof of the complex’s most impressive building, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (Qiniandian). This 120-foot-high building becomes all the more amazing when you discover that not a single nail was used in its construction!
Its sits atop another three-tiered marble platform and inside is supported by four central pillars and another 12 peripheral columns, which represent the seasons and months respectively.
The hall was completely destroyed by lightning in 1889, which was seen (correctly) as a very bad omen, given that the Qing, and indeed dynastic China, would completely collapse within two decades. It was reconstructed immediately and has just received another facelift in preparation for its next wave of worshippers during the 2008 Olympics.
Walking east from Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests takes you along a covered pathway full of old folk passing the time of day by singing opera songs, playing cards and watching the world go by. It’s not far from here to the eastern exit.
From there you can take a taxi (or visit Hongqiao Market, just over the road). Or, if you might prefer to wander through the wooded grounds around the Fasting Palace (Zhaigong) to the west of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.There are plenty of quiet spots for a picnic. The park is free from and, although the buildings aren’t open, it’s a great time to visit as every open space is full of people gently carrying out their morning exercises – from tai chi to ballroom dancing.
Seee also Temple of Heaven pictures, map of Beijing temple of heaven
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