What the heck – let’s explore the city! The rain lasted pretty much all day, letting up a little every now and then, but we were good and soaked by the time we were done…and we did a lot of walking. We started off taking a chartered bus to the Temple of Heaven, built from 1406 to 1420, and where Emperors of the Ming and Qing (pronounced “ching”) prayed for a good harvest. In times of drought, they also prayed for rain. It worked.
We explored the temple grounds amid hundreds of other tourists and locals, finally reaching the main temple after a long walk. Not one nail was used in its construction, and apparently there are just three other similar structures in China. Only the Emperor was allowed to ascend to the top of the three-tiered terrace surrounding it, while priests could only go as high as the second level, and government officials were confined to the lowest tier.
Next, a bus ride to the Ancient Observatory, built in 1442, where the real showpieces are a group of magnificent bronze instruments that were ornately-decorated with dragons, designed by Belgian Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest in 1673. On the lower grounds are 1/3-scale reproductions of other instruments, including a simplified armilla and an equatorial armillary sphere, and some incredibly lifelike bronze busts of famous ancient Chinese astronomers.
After a very tasty Chinese lunch, we headed to Tiananmen Square, an enormous plaza overlooked by a painted portrait of Chairman Mao on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is the portal that leads into the fabled Forbidden City, so-named because no one could enter – or leave – without the Emperor’s permission.
The Forbidden City is a mind-boggling collection of 980 ancient wooden buildings, comprising the residence of 24 successive Emperors across nearly 200 years. Literally a walled city in the heart of Beijing, it was packed with sightseers, despite the rain. The sense of history is palpable, and you really wonder what life was like in this walled city-within-a-city.
Tomorrow, the Great Wall!