Sunday in the Park in Beijing: Temple of Heaven

China on a Sunday is pretty remarkable thing. I’m in Beijing and I often associate the place with some unbearable traffic and profoundly bad pollution, the kind that makes the sun go sunset red long before it reaches the horizon. But on a Sunday, great numbers of people head to green spaces, wherever they may find them. A bit of Sunday in the park, Beijing style. This is my fifth trip to Beijing and each time I try to scratch something off my to-see list. This time is was the Temple of Heaven in Tiantan Park.

I took the Line 5 subway (see Beijing subway map) to the park’s eastern gate at Tiantandongmen Station, a very short distance from my favorite Beijing hotel (for price, quality and location near the Forbidden City and the Line 1 subway at Wangfujing). It’s just 10 RMB to get into the park, but I paid 30 RMB which would get me into all the gated sites within as well, including the central Hall of Prayer for a Good Harvest. Rather than buy I map I shot a photo of one at the gate. But it is posted at the big trail intersections as well. (Here’s a good online map of Tiantan Park.)

Inside the park is a complex of temples, built at the beginning of the early 1400s, that were used by emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties for ceremonies and prayers for a good harvest season. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples are beautiful and I am compelled to run-go-see and get the photos. Checking things off a list. While I wouldn’t suggest passing attractions like this up, I must confess it is not nearly as satisfying as the time I spent outside the temples and just being in the park.

Tiantan Park is 2,668 hectares and many areas are filled with cedar tree plantations or other plant life, with wide paved walking lanes and a few places to go off onto the worn dusty footpaths among the shelter of the trees. That big city of over 22 million people and the endless barrage of traffic and noise, suddenly is drown out by the soft whistle of wind through the tree tops. I was warned it is a wide open place, and even with the trees a strong gust can whip up some dust into your eyes. But it was so remarkable to stroll there insulated from Beijing and often alone — at least on the walkways that aren’t direct arteries to the various temples and other sites. Magpies slipped through the branches, their black tails shimmering blue and green when the light caught the feathers right.

In contrast, but equally enjoyable, is a promenade from the gate to the colorful Temple of Heaven. Along the way are all sorts of human activity. Dozens engage in tai chi. Musicians suddenly gather and play traditional Chinese music. Groups of couples dance to a sort of pounding cumbia-rhythm version of pop songs, in Chinese and English. They are pretty serious about it. One woman maintained about a 55-degree angle with the ground, held up by her partner as they cut circles along the walkway. The tune was a remake of Leo Sayer’s “More Than I Can Say.”

A man played a set of pipes, inhaling and exhaling in harmonica fashion. I half expected him to stop at some point and gesture to a hat or cup. But he was only playing for the sheer enjoyment of it on a partly cloudy, slightly chilly Sunday morning. Men played the Chinese version of checkers or card games, sitting along the low wall of the so-called Long Corridors, the open-air sheltered walkway leading to the temple. More couples set up boom boxes blaring dance music and set about with snappy twists, turns and kicks. A number of vendors were also there, selling little trinkets or snacks, but none of them was rushing up to me Nanjing Road style and harassing me. Babies in strollers, couples arm in arm, old men reading books, children playing.

Many of the Chinese took photos of various strangers, so I felt the rules for people photos were Go For It. I was enjoying this freedom when an elderly couple dressed in track suits sidled up with big grins for anyone who happened to look toward them. They had small bags with them with a coat hanger’s hook protruding from the top. They hung these along with their jackets on a light post along the walkway. They stretched a bit and the old man produced a small circle of leather attached to a feathered wire: a makeshift shuttlecock but not like the one used in badminton (also being played here today).

It slipped from his fingers to the ground. Rather than bend to pick it up, he gave a twist of his foot around the upright feathery wire and with a flick of the ankle launched it up into the air about waist height. Then the two began kicking it back and forth in the air and counting in Chinese. Very similar to a hackysack. I shot photos for a while but then just watched. When she offered, I couldn’t say no.

I “kicked sack” a lot over the years, especially college. It’s fun and can be a nice work out. But these two were on fire. The woman could bring her foot up sideways, outside or inside, almost as high as her waist to keep the little green feather looping back to her partner. At some points she cross her foot behind her standing leg and leapt in the air to meet the shuttlecock, firing it right back again.

They are both 74 years old. When I gave in and used my only phrase in Mandarin (it was a pleasure to meet you) she gave me her card. I got someone to translate it. Her name is LIU Xin Luan and she is a member of a group Shuttlecock / Flying Feather, dedicated to this sport called jianzi. I thanked her for an awesome travel moment, and ran off to snap all the photos that will likely mean a lot less.

Check out a Photo Gallery from Tiantan Park at The Mad Traveler main site.
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Tiantan Park is open daily from 6 am to 10 pm. The gated temple sites open from 8 am until 5 pm, or until 6 pm from July-Oct.

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