Sunday, 6 March 2011

Four weeks with...China! [Part 1]

Given the fact that I've not blogged since returning from China, you'd be forgiven for thinking I was still on that train from Weihai to Beijing. Alas, my oriental adventure is over and I am back to all the things that I left behind.

My last week in China was mainly spent in true tourist style, ambling round places like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, in complete wonder and awe at these magnificent structures and their painstakingly detailed features (taking a total of 204 photos in 5 days). I don't think my descriptions of these places would do them justice, but there was a distinct sense of grandeur about all of them that I've never quite come across before.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony
The Forbidden City is right in the heart of Beijing, just behind Tienanmen Square, and a portrait of Chairman Mao welcomes you in if you're entering from the south side. It's basically a city within a city - a moat and walls enclose it from all sides - and it was the home of Chinese emperors for almost 500 years. It's comprised of various ceremonial buildings, officials' quarters, the Imperial Garden, and even a concubines' courtyard. I was pretty determined to walk round the whole thing and I spent a good five hours in there, but I'm still convinced there was more to be seen.

White Dagoba

A short walk from the north side of the Forbidden City is Beihai Park; (I assume) it's most famous for the White Dagoba, a Buddhist temple, which has been built on the highest point of the island in the lake (which covers more than half of the park). There were still lots of decorations up in the park marking the 15-odd days of the Spring Festival. It was a fairly tricky walk up to the dagoba, the snow had left a treacherous layer of ice on many sets of stairs and during the descent I did wonder if I'd make it out the park alive...

Mounted speaker

...but I discovered a few days later that, actually, the Temple of Heaven was definitely the most dangerous of all the places I'd visited, since many of the stairs were made of marble and ended up being incredibly slippery in icy conditions. They'd been covered with a sort of string mesh to provide more grip but even this mesh ended up freezing itself into the ice, so I found myself silently praying to the gods of the Temple to allow me to live beyond that particular day.

Imperial Vault of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven is a collection of Taoist buildings, gates and temples mainly dedicated to prayer for good harvest. It's set in lush greenery and along the pathways there are mounted "speakers" playing quiet, tranquil music as you walk past. For me, the best thing about the Temple of Heaven was the Echo Wall, which surrounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and has the incredible feature of reflecting sound along its surface -someone stood speaking at one point along it can be heard by someone else stood at another point. I learnt a fair bit about Chinese music and instruments in the Music Administration Building, which is a fairly new addition of buildings, and I found the Palace of Abstinence - where the emperor would go to fast prior to a ceremony - particularly peaceful as no other visitors were around; it was a pleasant and welcome change.

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