Tuesday, July 10

Taxi tip: $5; resulting smile: priceless

I thoroughly enjoyed showing my parents the highlights of Beijing.  The capital of China is packed full of fascinating sights and experiences.  Thanks to lashings of Government funding they’re also increasingly well maintained and easy to explore.  In late-May my parents and I spent four days touring the city with the help of a private guide and a driver.

We flew in from Xian just before midnight on Tuesday, May 29.  Our flight arrived an hour behind schedule.  Sadly, late departures and arrivals are increasingly commonplace in China.  Rising income levels are driving explosive growth in air travel.  Aviation policy, regulation and infrastructure are struggling to cope, while large tracts of airspace remain off limits to non-military traffic. As a result, progressively fewer flights depart on time.

The following morning Mum and I left Dad to sleep-in while we went for a walk through the local neighbourhood to Tiananmen Square.  I loved Mum’s reaction as we reached our destination.  The square really does look the same in real life as it does in books and magazines.  We’ve all seen images of Chairman Mao portrait framed by Tiananmen Gate’s dark vermilion walls.  It’s just as dramatic in real life.

Our first official tourist sight in Beijing was the Temple of Heaven.  For most Chinese, it’s Beijing’s ultimate iconic structure.  Chinese citizens are as familiar with its profile as Australian’s are with the Sydney Opera House.  We spent several hours exploring this magnificent place, starting as most visitor’s do from the east entrance before making our way to the south gate. 

The temple complex was constructed between 1406 and 1420, during the reign of the Yongle Emperor.  He’s the same guy responsible for building the city’s grand imperial palace, more commonly known as the Forbidden City.   The temple was used twice a year for ceremonies lead by the Emporer himself, during which he’d pray to Heaven for good harvests.  Both ceremonies involved elaborate preparation, precise rituals and scared buildings scattered across the site.

The most famous building is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.  This three-tiered circular building sits on a three-tiered marble platform.  The hall is 36 metres in diameter and 38 metres high.  Build entirely from wood, its ornate roof is supported by a series of concentric pillars, culminating in four central tree trunks that support the highest gable. The current structure is a replica.  The original was destroyed in 1889 when a lightning strike sparked a fire. 

The Prayer Hall is linked to the complex’s other major structures by a marble-clad elevated carriage-way that runs for more than 360 metres towards the south gate.   The road is intersected by the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a smaller, but equally impressive circular building.  It ends at the foot of another magnificent marble structure, the Altar.  This circular marble-clad platform rises over three levels, each ringed by sturdy marble railings and marble stairways.  The sacred number nine features continually in its design. The current structure was rebuilt in 1740, replacing an earlier form constructed in 1530.

After dinner I took my parents for a brief walk around the hotel neighbourhood.  We stayed at the Crowne Plaza which sits a block away from an ornate Catholic Church.  However, nothing had prepared for the sight that greeted us on the church’s forecourt.  It’s large, spacious plaza was filled with hundreds and hundreds of local line dancing in unison, guided by instructors standing on the building’s entrance steps.  I’d forgotten how much the Chinese love mass exercise activities.

We finished our first full day in Beijing with a private taxi tour arranged by the hotel’s concierge.  For roughly A$15 a taxi driver took us on a slow, circuit of the city’s central buildings and streets spectacularly lit at night. It’s awesome experience which simply blew my parent’s mind.  However, the highlight of the evening was the enormous grin that spread across the driver’s face when my parents generously tipped him.  The tip cost us barely A$5 but it clearly made his evening.

No comments: