Tiantan Park, also known as the Temple of Heaven, was completed in 1420 AD. Its distinctive circular pagoda makes it one of Beijing’s most recognizable tourist attractions, after the Great Wall and Forbidden City. Located about 6km south of the city center, it has an area of 2,700,000 sqm – significantly larger than the Forbidden City but smaller than the Summer Palace. It may originally have been a place of sacrifice for good harvests, but now the park and its immediate environment (which includes Hongqiao market and Toy City) offer a tranquil day away from the hustle and bustle of central Beijing. Alongside the austere Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – famously built without a single nail or screw – this itinerary also incorporates the more lighthearted echo wall, jewlery and toy markets and a chance to see some of Beijing’s expert public performers in action.
Start out at Tiantan East Gate (Exit A from the subway station), and almost immediately you’ll spot the Hongqiao Market. It’s a popular tourist stop due to its pearl stores, but you can also pick up watches, various electronic goods, Chinese fans, and clothing at knock-down prices (be prepared to haggle). An insider tip: Find similar items for slightly cheaper at Hongqiao Tianhuan market, which is also less hectic.
Immediately behind Hongqiao market, visible from Tiantan Donglu, is Toy City. The aptly named toy market is reasonably sized and houses a glittering array of plastic, digitized and plush playthings. Particularly prevalent are computer games, remote controlled toys and sports equipment. Much like Hongqiao, Toy City attracts a mostly European clientele and haggling is the rule here, but with some tough negotiation, the mass of toys you’ll leave with will be a bargain.
After the shopathon, stretch the legs and get some food. Cross back over Tiantan Donglu, and walk northwards round the outside wall of the park to its north entrance. There, you can grab a bite to eat at Lao Ciqikou Douji, which sells snacks from Beijing’s Hui minority – if you have any problems eating halal meat, chow down at one of the restaurants inside the park instead. Tiantan Park’s opening times change throughout the year. During October, the park opens at 8am and closes at 6pm; until Oct 31 tickets cost RMB 15 for park entry only, or RMB 35 for the all-inclusive “through” ticket. From Nov 1 prices are RMB 10 and RMB 30 respectively.
Once inside, start walking directly south. On Sundays, you’ll come upon a number of performers playing traditional Chinese instruments, singing in choirs or dancing along the side of the path and in gateways. There is nothing quite like seeing groups of these performers doing their thing; some are genuinely talented, attracting large crowds who often join in if they know the song or dance. Although this Beijing tradition occurs in other parks, Tiantan is one of the best places to catch a show.
Carrying on southward, you’ll eventually reach the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would visit three times a year. The easiest accessible entrance to the hall is through its east side (just past the long corridor), though you will need to buy a further RMB 20 ticket (if you didn’t purchase the “through” ticket at the park entrance). Inside, you can see the circular building, which represents heaven; the four inner pillars represent the seasons, the twelve middle pillars signify the months of the Chinese calendar, and twelve outer pillars simbolize the hours. The whole thing is spectacular, colorful and surprisingly calming, though the crowds can sometimes be a pain.
Heading south from the Hall, you will reach Danbi Qiao, or Vermillion Steps Bridge. Following that will lead you to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which is similar in shape to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. It, too, is an architectural marvel – wooden with a blue tiled roof; it was built without roof beams and held up by a number of interlocking brackets. Surrounding that is the Echo Wall, standing 193 meters long. The curved design allows for sound to carry perfectly along its length. If you whisper into the wall at one side, the person on the other can hear clearly. Great fun for younger kids. Directly below that is the circular mound altar – if you speak in a low voice at the flagstone in the center of the altar, you should be able to hear your own voice. Once you’re done mucking around with sounds, it is a quick jaunt back up the east side of the park to the gate where you started.
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