DPRK (and Beijing) Day three
02.09.2019 - 02.09.2019
Seen near the Lama Temple
It was Monday today, so the coffee shop just by the hotel, Pacific Coffee, was open for breakfast. This was our preferred choice as it seemed to be a local chain (despite being very much on the lines of the multi-national brands like Starbucks and Costa, which are also present in Beijing these days - another very noticeable change from our previous visit!)
We enjoyed people-watching inside and on the busy avenue outside, Dong Chang’an Jie, while we ate our muffins and drank our coffee. There's something especially pleasurable about watching people hurrying to work while you relax over a holiday breakfast! And it was interesting to observe the very smart business outfits of most of the women in particular as again this struck us as a significant change from 25 years ago.
After our breakfast we walked through the Oriental Plaza mall, taking a few photos until told by a security guard not to (!), to reach the subway station.
Outside another branch of
Pacific Coffee in Oriental Plaza
By now we had got the hang of the ticket machines so we bought our tickets and caught the train to Yonghegong Station, changing once.
The Lama Temple
Our destination was the Lama Temple, as we wanted to visit somewhere we hadn’t been on our 1994 trip. Its proper name is the Yonghe Temple, hence the name of the nearby Metro station, but it is usually referred to simply as the Lama Temple.
The road led us along one side of the temple’s grounds to a stunning mainly blue entrance gate and into a courtyard/car park where the ticket office was located. As with Bei Hai Park yesterday, we spotted that over 60s could get in for half-price so we showed our passports and paid 12 yuan instead of 24.
First entrance gate, Lama Temple
The temple was built in the late 17th century on the site of an official residence for court eunuchs. It was later converted into the residence of Yinzhen, a son of the Kangxi Emperor. After the prince ascended the throne as the Yongzheng Emperor in 1722, half of the building was converted into a lamasery, a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks, while the other half remained an imperial palace.
After the Yongzheng Emperor's death in 1735 his successor, the Qianlong Emperor, granted the temple imperial status, and marked this act by having its turquoise tiles replaced with the yellow tiles reserved for the imperial buildings.
Passing through a second equally ornate entrance gate we found ourselves at one end of a shaded avenue of trees leading to the temple itself. This is the Imperial Way, was used by the carriages of the emperors and their wives during the Qing Dynasty.
The Imperial Way
The second entrance gate
The avenue leads to the Gate of Peace Declaration, Zhaotaimen, with three large archways, the central one of which was, as always, for the exclusive use of the emperors.
Beyond this is a series of temple buildings. While these are undoubtedly attractive and of historical interest, I found that after spending so much time yesterday in the rather sterile and tourism-focused Forbidden City, here it was primarily the people that drew my attention – and that of my camera - as well as many small details.
Temple visitors and worshippers
According to our guidebook photos are allowed in all the courtyards but not inside the temple buildings so although we saw no signs to that effect, I restricted myself to exterior shots apart from one photo of a Buddha taken from outside looking in.
In any case, there was plenty to see and photograph outside. This is very much an active temple with many worshippers coming to burn incense in front of the shrines. I loved the smell of the incense and the way the smoke drifted around the various statues and building details.
Incense burner, and temple detail
When we left the temple we crossed the road to investigate the narrow lanes of the hutong district opposite. As I mentioned in my previous entry, hutongs are typical older streets and lanes of Beijing. Many were demolished during the 20th century as the city was modernised, but those that remain are nowadays recognised as important relics of the country and city’s history, and are protected, including this area near the Lama Temple.
Roof detail and signs
This local was happy to pose for us, but unlike some hutongs I had read about, this area seemed to be mainly (if not entirely) residential so we didn’t find anywhere to stop and enjoy the cold drink I was craving.
Local resident, and small shop
~ cold drinks aplenty but nowhere to sit and relax while drinking them
So although it was an interesting short stroll we decided not to spend too much time going far into the network of lanes.
The Temple of Heaven
We decided instead to head back to the station and our next destination, hoping to find refreshments there instead. This was somewhere we had visited previously but only briefly, the Temple of Heaven. It lies in a mainly shady park, Tiantan, so was a good choice for this scorching hot day (34 degrees Celsius).
We took the Metro to Tiantandongmen – a direct ride with no need to change. This station is only a few metres from the eastern gate to the park. Here we again spotted a reference to a ‘preferential ticket’ for seniors so we produced our passports and asked for this, expecting to pay half price as we had at the Lama Temple. To our surprise we were told it was free! So that was another 30 yuan saved.
Sign in the Temple of Heaven park
Just inside the entrance we stopped to buy that much-needed cold drink from a stand which we enjoyed sitting on a shaded bench. Then we set off to explore. The park covers an area of 2,700,000 square metres, larger even than the Forbidden City; Chinese emperors were not permitted to build a dwelling for themselves that was greater in size than the earthly residence dedicated to Heaven. The temple park is enclosed by a long wall, its northern part semi-circular to symbolise the heavens and the southern part square to symbolise the earth. This follows an ancient Chinese belief that 'the heaven is round, and the earth is square'. The northern part is also higher than the southern, to show that ‘the heaven is high, and the earth is low’.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests from the Long Corridor
There are several significant buildings in this park but of course we headed first to the main draw, the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests with the iconic round Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at its heart. Our walk there led us along the appropriately named Long Corridor, also sometimes called the Seventy Two Corridor because it is divided into 72 small ‘rooms’.
Roof details, Long Corridor
On the eve of a sacrificial ceremony, this corridor would be lit up by lanterns and all the offerings, including jade, silk, grains and fruits, transported along it.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
Arriving at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests we discovered that our preferential tickets also gave us free admittance to the three paid-for buildings in the park, saving a further 25 yuan per person. There are some compensations to getting older!
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
When people talk casually about the Temple of Heaven, they are usually referring to this building. Here the emperor, in his role as the Son of Heaven and therefore spiritual intermediary with the gods on behalf of his people, would come twice a year to give thanks for the bounty of the current year’s harvest and to pray for a good harvest in the season to come. He and all his retinue would move from the Forbidden City through Beijing to camp within the temple grounds, wearing special robes and abstaining from eating meat. No ordinary citizen was allowed to view the procession or the ceremony itself.
The original temple was burned down by a fire caused by lightning in 1889 and re-built several years later to the same design. It is circular (32 metres in diameter and 38 high) and has three layers of eaves covered in blue glazed tiles to symbolise heaven, each smaller than the one below to create a sense of getting closer to heaven.
The building is considered a masterpiece of wood frame construction, and was built entirely without nails. Inside it has 28 columns and 36 pieces of interconnected squared rafters. The columns have different symbolic meanings: the four making up the inner circle represent the four seasons; the twelves posts of the middle circle represent the twelve months; and the twelve in the outer circle represent twelve shichen, an ancient Chinese unit of time equivalent to two hours (thus there were twelve shichen in a day). It was hard to get a photo of these columns through the narrow entrance way (it’s not permitted to actually go inside) but I did my best!
Inside the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
The temple stands sits on a huge round white marble platform known as the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests. This is six metres high, with three floors; each of which is surrounded by carved white marble railings. The steps between each floor are decorated with central relief panels. It has 360 balustrades representing the 360 days of the lunar calendar.
The Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests
Around this are various buildings associated with the ceremonies. On either side the West Annex Hall and the East Annex Hall were used to store the divine tablets. Today the latter houses an interesting exhibition about the temple and its ceremonies, while the West Annex Hall displays musical instruments (we didn’t go into this one however).
East Annex Hall and Imperial Hall of Heaven details
East Annex Hall and Imperial Hall of Heaven
On the northern side is the Imperial Hall of Heaven, built originally in 1420, here the tablets of the emperor’s ancestors, and the tablet of the god of heaven, were stored. The day before the ceremony the emperor would come here to burn incense before they were transferred to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests ready for the next day’s worship. The sign above the entrance reads ‘the Imperial Hall of Heaven’ and was inscribed by Emperor Jiajing.
The Imperial Hall of Heaven
Unfortunately I had developed a slightly bothersome small blister on my toe yesterday, which after all the walking I had done then and today was rapidly becoming much more than slightly bothersome! But it seemed a shame having come all this way not to see more of the park and its buildings, so I pressed on. A broad raised avenue, 360 metres in length, leads from the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest to the southern group of buildings. This is known as the Vermilion Steps Bridge. The sun was glaring off its white stones, but we found a parallel path under the trees which was much more pleasant.
Under the trees, and at the entrance to the café
Arriving at the end of the path our first stop was at the small café where we enjoyed an ice cream. In that heat a Magnum made a decent substitute for lunch! Then we went to check out the buildings, again using our free tickets.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven
The Imperial Vault of Heaven
Entrance to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and visiting monks
This building is circular like the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests but at just 16 metres in diameter half its size and more squat – 19 metres high and with a double eave roof rather than triple. It was built in 1530 and originally named the Hall for Appeasing Gods. It was renamed the Imperial Vault of Heaven in 1538 and rebuilt to its present design in 1752.
It was easier to get photos of the interior here, with its beautiful intricately carved ceiling with a golden dragon in the centre, playing with a pearl, and apparently (I didn’t count them!) another 360 small dragons around it. In the middle of the hall is a carved circular stone platform on which the Heavenly Great Tablet is placed, while many imperial ancestral tablets sit on both sides.
Imperial Vault of Heaven
As at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests there are a number of buildings within the complex, including again both West and East Annex Halls. A sign told us that the latter was used to house ‘the divine tablets of such gods as the Great Brightness (the sun), the Polar Stars, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Saturn and other celestial stars.’
Annex Hall details
My young play-mate!
Just as we had yesterday, we had a rather sweet encounter with a local toddler here. He was amusing himself sliding a park entrance ticket down a marble slope next to the steps of the West Annex Hall where I had stopped to take a rest. When the ticket came near me I caught it, then released it to slide back down to him. His face lit up and he shrieked with enjoyment! I spent the next five minutes playing this simple game with him, much to his delight. And I was equally delighted when his mother agreed to my request to take a photo.
South of the Imperial Vault of Heaven is another large marble platform, the Circular Mound Altar, where the Emperor would pray for favourable weather. But we decided against climbing another set of marble steps in this hot sun, especially as this altar is bare of any structures.
Instead we made our way slowly back through the park towards the entrance, my toe decidedly painful by now.
In the Temple of Heaven park
The Seven Star Stones
Nevertheless I was distracted enough by a group of mainly women who were performing some sort of ceremony, clapping and chanting.
We couldn’t work out if this was linked to the nearby group of stones but I’m assuming that it might have been. These are the Seven Star Stones and they represent the seven peaks of Taishan Mountain, a place of heaven worship in classical China.
Seven Star Stones
When we left the park we took the subway straight back to the hotel, having decided that a rest for my poor toe was in order. After all, this couple of days in Beijing was just the prelude to the main event, our tour of North Korea, and I needed to be fit enough to cope with that!
Thai food in China
Partly for that reason, and partly because neither of us felt like going far for dinner, we decided to explore the options in the ‘Gourmet Lane’, the restaurant area on the lower floor of the Oriental Plaza. We chose a likely-looking Thai restaurant (I think called Lotus Thai), as a change from Chinese food and because it seemed pretty busy and reasonably priced after last night’s splurge.
We opted for one of the set menus, with a spicy papaya salad appetiser, mains of green chicken curry, a pork dish with basil leaves and spring onions, fish cakes and Tom Yum soup with shrimps. They had run out of the set dessert of mango pudding so I chose a fruit salad from the menu for which we paid a little extra. Everything tasted good, although service was a bit haphazard, with the fruit salad arriving well before most of the mains! We paid around £40 which included our two large beers - very good value.
Entrance to the restaurant
Papaya salad appetiser
After our meal we had a short stroll through the shopping centre before returning to the hotel room to pack.
Tomorrow we would be off to Pyongyang!!