Day 5: Lama temple, Confucian temple, veggie lunch, Drum tower & Bell tower, hutongs, Beihai park, Coal Hill.
The day was really hot and sunny, around 30 degrees, which was a bit too much for me.
This was also our guide’s day off and our chance to spend time on whatever we wanted.
In the morning we visited the Lama temple. This building complex started out as the residence of an imperial prince, but was turned into a Tibetan Buddhist temple when he became emperor. The architecture was the same as we’d seen before: north-south orientation, courtyards, red pillars, yellow tiled roofs, elaborate eaves.
Inside, though, things looked different: in each hall there were statues of Buddhas, saints, devils, and other creatures. (It is interesting, really, that a religion that started out as abstract as Buddhism has now acquired so many mythical objects of worship.) Many statues were golden, and they were often clothed. Unlike the Temple of Heaven, this was an active place of worship, which gave it more life and made it more interesting, but unfortunately meant that photography was not allowed inside the halls. On the other hand, there were people burning incense in front of each hall, and we could even see a few monks walking around.
Next, we went to a Confucian temple nearby. We were met by the same architecture again, but a completely different atmosphere. It was a quiet, contemplative place, with large scrolls instead of golden statues, and educational texts about Confucianism.
Outside in the courtyards there were pavillions housing stone tablets memorializing important events: the suppression of a rebellion, the renovation of the temple, or just the emperor’s writing a poem about Confucius. When the emperor writes a poem, it isn’t enough to just frame it and put it on a wall. No, first you carve it in stone, then you make a huge statue of a tortoise to carry the carved stone, and finally you erect a massive pavillion around it.
By now it was time for lunch, and very luckily for us there was a vegetarian restaurant opposite the temple, called Xu Xiang Zhai. (No web site that I can see.) It turned out to be an excellent place, with fabulous food (esp. compared to the uniformly boring fare we’ve been served otherwise). As a nice touch, their menu had photos of all options – very practical, since the staff’s English was very limited. And besides, the photos were beautiful, really whetting the appetite. We ate copious amounts.
After lunch we walked through the nearby hutongs to have a look at Beijing’s Drum tower and Bell tower. We didn’t feel like climbing in the heat, and viewed the towers from the outside only. The hutongs themselves were interesting to see – this was the first time we did any significant walking in Beijing, until now it’s mostly been bus rides.
On our way to Beihai park, which we wanted to see next, we passed through the area by Houhai lake. This was a very very touristy spot, with trendy shops and cafes everywhere. It must be where all the westerners go – we had not seen another place like it in Beijing. Hutongs killed by marketing.
Beihai park was a very nice park. (They’re good at parks and gardens). The park is dominated by a large lake, and there are gardens, pavillions, ornamental bridges etc around it. We had been hoping to take a boat ride on the lake but the boat rental had closed already. Instead we had a pleasant walk around the lake, and tried out the contents of the mysterious clay pots that were sold everywhere – and turned out to contain chilled sweetened yoghurt.
By now Ingrid was finding her energy. She’s been much more energetic in the evenings – I guess she must still be severely jetlagged. In the mornings she’s hard to wake, grumpy, and doesn’t want to do anything. Now she is jumping and running around, racing up and down ornamental bridges, climbing on stones, running up stairs, jumping down stairs, with endless enegy.
Just at dusk we walked across to Coal Hill, climbed the hill and got a panoramic view of the city. To the south, the yellow roofs of the Forbidden City; elsewhere a very green and relatively flat city centre (although hills were visible further off). And a very large city, of course.