Just as we'd finished checking out, Howard turned up at the hotel to collect us and put our luggage in his car. For our sakes, he was sacrificing a whole Sunday, instead of spending that day with his wife, in-laws and baby son. We were grateful to him. This was a sultry morning with heavy rain threatening and smog in the air, so it's just as well he was able to drive us to a spot quite close to the attraction we were going to visit: the famous Temple of Heaven, a UNESCO heritage site, southeast of the city centre.
people in fours, playing games of Chinese shuttlecock (jiànzi) on the tree lined pathway.
The replica––I've just read on Wikipedia that the original was struck by lightning and burned down in 1889––15th century Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a huge, triple roofed, circular building with marble terraces around it in concentric circles, steps leading up them on all sides. It's hard to get a photo showing the scale of the site, especially with all those people in the way. The best ploy might be to arrive at 8am, just as the gates open. I was curious to peer inside this building, as Howard said, the equivalent of a cathedral, but it was difficult to catch more than a glimpse of what was beyond the barrier with people pushing in from behind with their cameras. In the interior stood richly patterned pillars, and the domed ceiling was covered with coloured images of dragons (long, 龙) and phoenixes (fenghuang, 凤凰), representing the Yin and Yang. In China, the dragon is a symbol of good fortune, strength and wisdom, not of evil. I think there were stone buffalos in the shadows too; I couldn't be sure.
|Wikipedia photo of the Hall of Prayer and outlying halls|
|A tourist making fun of the Heavenly Stone|
South of the Hall of Prayer (the largest structure) is a smaller one, with an echoing wall, The Imperial Vault of Heaven, and lined up with that, further south, is the open air Circular Mound Altar, built in 1530, where they used to worship at the winter solstice, again built in concentric circles with balustrades and flights of marble steps, nine at a time, the nines (as it says on the nearby plaque) "symbolizing the nine layers of Heaven and Emphasizing its extreme importance" (sic). At the centre was the Heavenly Centre Stone, surrounded by nine rings of lesser stones, 18 in the second ring, 81 in the ninth, etc. ... As Howard told us, and as the Wikipedia article explains:
The centre of the altar is a round slate called the Heart of Heaven(天心石) or the Supreme Yang(太阳石), where the Emperor prayed for favourable weather. Thanks to the design of the altar, the sound of the prayer will be reflected by the guardrail, creating significant resonance, which was supposed to help the prayer communicate with the Heaven.
The temple complex is too huge to discover everything in one morning. It includes, for example, the Hall of Divine Music Administration on the western side of the park. What was that? I wondered. We could have explored the paths through this park for hours more. What we did find on the way back to the car was the loveliest méi gùi yuan, rose garden, that I ever saw in China. Such magnificence!
I had to be torn away from there and from the strange birds with their black heads, long tails and blue feathers––which I now think was an azure-winged magpie––and the tiny, tame Chinese marmot in the grass, to be driven to the airport for our flight back to Canada. It only took us about an hour to reach the airport area from the city this time, as the traffic on the main roads was flowing well, that Sunday lunchtime. Howard lives near the airport, he told us, so he knew the way to a restaurant in a modern residential area where he chose a variety of dishes for our substantial lunch at a quiet table. We didn't recognise much of what we were eating, Chris reminds me (though I seem to remember spring rolls, mushrooms, bok choy, flavoured carrots and meats?) but we left well satisfied.
|Chris puts his Tilley hat away at the airport|
|Flight AC32 being prepared for departure|
It was over 13 hours again before we touched down at Lester Pearson airport, for a long queue in the Immigration Hall (though luckily we were put in a priority line for passengers with connections), then a frantic dash through the baggage collection hall, up and down the steps and the corridors to re-drop our suitcase and be issued twice with new boarding cards: after being told we'd be on a later than planned flight to Ottawa, the original flight turned out to be delayed so we could make the connection after all, but only just. "Paging passengers Christopher Hobbs and Alison Hobbs ...!" During the security checks at Domestic Departures I was of course chosen for the random body search; once released from there we all but ran to our gate. This sort of thing is very stressful for people with erratic pulses. Our last flight of the day in the Canadian sunset was smooth and quick and easy though, and the taxi ride home through peaceful little Ottawa a real pleasure. As we could see in the lamplight, my green garden plants had sprung up beyond recognition during our week away.
Finally we lay down in our own bed. It had been a 28 hour day.