You’d think that as seasoned travellers we would have a bit of an itinerary worked out for each place we plan to visit and be prepared for our time there before we arrive. Well that’s not really how we operate. Our style is much more to look at TripAdvisor or the Lonely Planet Guide the night before, or maybe on the plane to our destination, and get some ideas about what we should see.
Consequently, we arrived in Beijing to see Karin and Wei with minimal understanding of the amazing choices that would be offered to us. Beijing has seven Word Heritage Sites, putting it right up there with Rome and Paris.
To stop us dithering about which ones to see, our hosts directed us to start our sightseeing with the Forbidden City, and follow it the next day with the Temple of Heaven. One advantage of our laissez faire style of travel is that we often have minimal expectations of what we are about to see, and therefore, can still be astounded, as we have been in Beijing.
The Forbidden City is vast, with 980 surviving buildings, covering 74 hectares and is surrounded by a 10 metre high defensive wall with a circumference of 3,430 metres. Even though there were thousands of tourists, the site didn’t feel crowded. The size, the well preserved architecture and the history of the Forbidden City are overwhelming in their grandeur, I felt insignificant.
The Forbidden City was home to 24 emperors of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) Dynasties. The construction of the grand palace started in 1406 and ended in 1420. The Emperor was said to be a son of Heaven and his residence on earth was built as a replica of the Purple Palace where God was thought to live in Heaven. Previously it was forbidden for mere mortals, such as us, to enter without special permission of the Emperor and therefore it was referred to as the Forbidden City.
I loved the celestial names used throughout the City. Imagine living in a City with a Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility and the Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies.
I assumed that we had started with the best of Beijing at the Forbidden City and so the next day lowered my expectations as we headed to the Temple of Heaven (although it’s hard to have low expectations with a name like that). But this place was even more amazing. The Temple and parklands cover 2.73 km2 and UNESCO describe the site as “a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world’s great civilizations. The symbolic layout and design of the Temple of Heaven had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries.” Twice a year the Emperor and his retinue would move from the Forbidden City into the Temple of Heaven.
The parkland was abuzz with activity and we spied ballroom dancers, groups playing Chinese chess or cards, people kicking a shuttlecock with amazing dexterity and those engaged in an acrobatic activity where they did Tai Chi type moves while keeping a ball balanced on a bat.
Young couples pose for wedding pictures, often far in advance of their big day. I hope that their lives are full of supreme harmony.
If the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven are not on your bucket list, they should be.