On a bone-chilling morning in Beijing, the Temple of Heaven Park was bustling with activity.
Elderly couples were dancing to traditional Chinese music, groups of amateur crooners were singing Peking Opera songs, early risers were practicing tai chi and others were playing jianzi, a game in which you kick a weighted shuttlecock.
The 660-acre park was once a solemn place where emperors prayed for good harvests and sought divine guidance. Now it’s a peaceful refuge for residents of a crowded, noisy city.
The centerpiece is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a three-tier structure with a purple umbrella roof. The original building was constructed in 1420 and destroyed by lightning in 1889, but it was rebuilt a few years later. The ceiling is supported by giant wood pillars, using a technique that didn’t require a single nail.
Another park highlight is the Echo Wall that surrounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven. The circular wall’s flat, smooth surface is an excellent transmitter of sound waves. On a quiet day, you can whisper into the wall and a friend can hear what you’re saying on the opposite end. The last time I was here, it was too crowded to try it. But this time, it worked perfectly. I whispered “Can you hear me?’’ and Pat, standing 150 feet away, answered “Yes.’’ The sound was so clear it was like we were standing next to each other.
Some walkways in the park are lined with brick-red poles topped by candleholders that once lit the area. In a sign of the times, they’re now used mostly as speakers that play music and announcements.
After leaving the city park, we rode to a northwest suburb to see the Summer Palace, which was used by the royal family to escape Beijing’s sweltering summer heat. The immaculately landscaped grounds include a large manmade lake, gardens, pavilions, bridges, a stationary marble boat and a 2,400-foot long corridor decorated with 8,000 paintings.
The emperor and empress lived a lavish life at the Summer Palace. It’s said that one of the empress’s meals could feed a farmer for an entire year.
At night, Pat and I walked from our hotel to the Wangfujing Night Food Market, a street lined with stalls selling such exotic delicacies as scorpions, centipedes, lizards and crickets.
We were warned about buying any meat or fish there, so we ended up eating at a Korean barbecue restaurant in a mall near our hotel. I cooked my own lamb strips on a charcoal-heated grill in the middle of the table, wrapped them in lettuce and ate it like a sandwich. It was the first meal I’ve cooked for myself in China.