18 August 2009

Travel: Beijing, the calm before the new year storm...

We were back to the city by early afternoon. I left my guide and driver with hong bao, the traditional red packets given at the new year, and headed out to explore the capital on my own. My first stop was the Temple of Heaven, where the Ming and Qing emperors would hold a twice-annual prayer ritual for a good harvest. This was an important ritual, as the emperor was considered the Son of Heaven, and this allowed him to show respect for the source of his authority.

This is a magnificent location, a huge park that deserves several hours of exploration. Which I gave it. The highlight is the triple-gabled Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a cylindrical structure painted in lovely bright hues.

[Standing admiring this structure, I found myself in a conversation with an Australian who had just visited the Great Wall. He told me he took the train, which had been completed for the Olympics. “What?!” I thought. Why hadn’t I done that? It was good that I had a guide, because I didn’t know anything about the landscape. But, now I knew how to get to the Wall on my own, and I would use that information the following day.]

The grounds of the Temple of Heaven are quite nice – very peaceful, filled with gardens and little compounds of buildings that were used by the Emperor and his minions in the day. Besides the hall above, there are several other notable sites, including the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar. Plus, there were all kinds of smaller structures, wooded areas, pathways and other interesting bits that could have kept me there for a long time. But, as the day waned, it was time to leave, so I walked across the street for a cup of coffee and slice of cake (and an impromptu photo session with a quite nosy Japanese tourist). From there, I decided it was time to really put myself into Beijing’s hands, and I got on a bus. I didn’t know where it was going, but I figured that I could get off before I got too far from the city centre. And I didn’t have to worry about it – this particular bus line ended just a mile down the road! So, I got off, got on the same bus going in the opposite direction, and rode it back towards the Imperial Palace. The route skirts the east side of the palace grounds, then heads west and north, towards Bei Hai (north lake). This is where I got off – in the darkness that comes just after the sun has set. The lake is surrounded by shops and bars and restaurants, and it is a lovely site. I decided it was time to enjoy a traditional tea house, and I stepped into one conveniently located on the bank of the lake.

I was the only customer, as everyone else was preparing for the new year’s celebration. But, I still enjoyed the quite elaborate ceremony. It uses an entire set of tools, each of which has a very specific purpose. The ceremony involves smelling your chosen tea leaves, brewing a cup and then throwing the tea on the floor, brewing another cup, and sipping that using the lid of the cup to filter the leaves. The entire ceremony is described on a tablet made of small strips of wood that is rolled up and placed on the table. It was a very cool experience.

It wasn’t that close to midnight, so I headed back to the hotel to relax a little and plan where I would watch the celebration. Fortunately, I could take the same bus back up that I took down. So, off I went, back to Bei Hai, arriving around 10.30. The celebrations were already beginning, as evidenced by the small explosions in every direction. And this was just the beginning. It was to build to a crescendo that was unlike anything I had ever seen.