Originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty in 1420, the
Temple of Heaven (Tiantan, 天坛)
was a sacrificial temple used by emperors during Ming and Qing dynasties to
appease the heavens, bring prosperity to the empire and ensure good crops for
the coming year. Sitting in a large park, the three main altars – the iconic
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular
Mound Altar – draw in the crowds all year round. But there’s more to the Temple
of Heaven than the magnificent altars, there's a huge park to explore!
Start at the east gate of the park. Although the ceremonial
procession traditionally started its journey through the Temple of Heaven at
the south gate, the east gate’s proximity to Tiantan Dongmen subway stop makes
it a convenient starting point for a modern-day pilgrimage.
Once you’ve battled
your way through the ticket barriers (no elbowing, please), continue straight, heading west, for roughly 100m, past
the dancing pensioners, until you reach the 1. Long Corridor. Formerly used on
the eve of the sacrificial ceremony to transport all offerings – including
silk, fruit and grains – to the altars, the 350m brightly coloured corridor is
now a popular hang-out for Beijing’s octogenarians. At this great
people-watching spot you’ll find crowds of Beijingers taking shelter in the
awnings, engrossed in games of cards and Chinese chess (xiangqi, 象棋) and
holding impromptu singing sessions.
Follow the Long Corridor and the masses
round to the Temple of Heaven’s real crowd pleaser, the 2. Hall of Prayer for
Good Harvests. As the name suggests, this is where emperors would come to give
thanks and, well, pray for good harvests.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This Beijing beauty is a national
treasure and a must-see relic in its own right – massive tick for the China
bucket list. Standing 38m tall, stone marble steps lead up to the three-tiered
wooden masterpiece, which is painted in hues of blue, yellow and green to
represent heaven and Earth.
Sadly, the original structure was reduced to
cinders in 1889 after being struck by lightning, but it was soon rebuilt in the
same Ming Dynasty style. Take a few minutes to wander around its exterior –
looking outwards on a sunny day you’ll get a great view of the park beyond and
mountains in the distance.
The inside of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Photo: Saad Akhtar / Wikimedia Commons
Once you’ve caught that perfect Instagram shot, slip
away from the hoards heading south and exit by the West Annex Hall for a very
worthwhile detour through the park grounds. Follow the path west for roughly
400m, exploring the lush 3. Chinese Rose Garden (which usually blossoms in May
with thousands of flowers) and 4. 100 Flower Garden on your left. Your next stop
is the 5. Pavilion of Longevity. This bad boy was built in Zhongnanhai – the
home of the Communist Party since the early days of the People’s Republic –
during the 1700s and relocated to the Temple of Heaven in 1975. Take some time
to contemplate the intricate paintings that cover it while basking in the
tranquillity of the area.
Pavilion of Longevity. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Enlightened? Awesome. Return to the fold, making your
way south for around 400m to the 6. Fasting Palace. The story goes that emperors
would stay here before rituals, refraining from all things fun – food, sex,
music and politics – as a sign of piety. Surrounded by a double wall and a (now
dry) double moat, security is tight, but a flash of your passport or ID card
will get you the golden ticket for a glimpse inside the palace walls. Have a
meander around the beautifully landscaped gardens, complete with giant bronze
bell – sounded during the ceremony to signal the emperor’s departure and return
to the Fasting Palace.
Fasting Palace. Photo: Vmenkov / Wikimedia Commons
Bring your detour to an end, making your way southeast
for 650m towards the next big attractions. You’ll notice numerous tour groups
battling it out for a look at the 7. Nine Dragon tree. This golden oldie has
been standing strong for over 500 years and, some say, brings luck thanks to
its gnarled shape, resembling nine dragons (hence the name) twisting their way
up into the sky. Nine is an auspicious number in Chinese culture and dragons
are just the bomb, of course.
You’ll see references to nine all around the
Temple of Heaven, with much of the architecture built in patterns of nine. Nine
symbolises Heaven itself and on Earth is representative of the highest being,
aka the Emperor.
Once you’ve queued to touch the tree for luck with thousands
others, disinfect those hands and make for the 8. Circular Mound Altar, where
sacrifices were made. While less impressive-looking than the halls, palaces and pavilions, the altar
is an impressive feat of engineering,
designed to make sounds travel in a
certain way. Stand on the Heaven’s
Heart Stone in the centre, and any
noise you make will be amplified.
Nifty, eh? For that reason, it’s from
here the emperor would call high into
the Heavens so he could be heard.
Gates of the Circular Mound Altar. Photo: Diego Delso / Wikimedia Commons
While you resist the urge to
shout rude words at the top of your
voice, snap a north-facing selfie
overlooking the 9. Imperial Vault of
Heaven, our next point of interest.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven looks
similar to its northern counterpart,
The Hall of Prayer, but on a smaller
scale. Traditionally used to store
the gods’ tablets, the real point of
interest is now the Echo Wall that
encircles it. Legend has it that if you
stand by one side of the wall and
whisper, your friend will hear it on the
other – of course, to test the theory
now you need to battle against the
crowds, so get in early.
Return north across the 10. Danbi
Bridge. The ‘main road’ through the
Temple of Heaven and Beijing’s first
overpass, the 360m bridge connects
the north and south altars.
When you reach the end of your
tour at The Hall of Prayer, take the
opportunity for one last look before
making your back to the Long
Corridor. Chances are by now there’ll
be a whole new crowd of people
When to go To avoid major queues, visit the park during
off-peak season (November 1 to March 31). Failing that, early in the morning is
your best bet.
Don’t forget your passport or ID card Although you can get a
ticket for three main altars without your passport, you’ll need a form of ID to
get a free ticket into smaller attractions like the Fasting Palace. The ticket
office for side attractions closes from midday-1pm.
Pack a picnic Walking is
hungry work. If you’re planning on making a day of it, you’re going to get
hungry and you’ll find yourself paying premium for strictly average sustenance.
We’re talking 45RMB for a ‘latte’.
Price 15-35RMB peak season; 10-28RMB
Opening times Apr 1-Oct 31 main attractions open 8am-5.30pm (tickets
available 8am-4.30pm). Nov 1-March 31 main attractions open 8am-5pm (tickets
Getting there Take subway Line 5 to Tiantan Dongmen station
(Exit A1 or A2).