My plan for this day was to visit sights that were all within walking distance from my hostel. The first place on my list was Prince Gong's former residence. While walking there, I came by a little museum of the residence of some guy I'd never heard of. I stopped to peek in and the ticket lady looked at me so hopefully, that I decided to pay the $1.20 admission fee to go inside. The person, Guo Moruo, studied a lot about ancient Chinese culture and was into the science-of-history sort of thing. He was a literary figure of sorts. Actually, the museum was quite nice, and I was the sole visitor for the duration of my visit. There were many quotes by this man put up among the exhibits and he said some interesting things. The ticket lady, though, made me think of that I Love Lucy episode where they're driving across the country and get gas at a station, then stop at a restaurant where the waiter is the same guy as the gas station attendant, and then they get a hotel room and the hotel manager is the same guy again – he's just running around ahead of the Ricardos and Mertz's. Well, the ticket lady hustled over to the first exhibit hall to sit by the door as I walked in, and then as I was nearing the end of the exhibit, she ran over to the next hall to sit by the door as I went in over there ... one step ahead of me to man each post in the museum.
I made it then to Prince Gong's Mansion (or some say Palace). And that is one lovely place. A humble entryway opens up into a child's ultimate paradise (for kids like me, anyway) – you can just run around where ever you please, and there are all kinds of stone paths, nooks, stairways, tunnels, and funky rock formations.
The centerpiece is a pond, complete with ducks and geese, with a nice gazebo beside it. It was terribly relaxing, even tranquil, despite all the people (I was the only Westerner, though). I was approached this time by three middle-aged men who wanted to be photographed with their own cameras standing next to me. Funny thing, that. If that happens yet again, I will ask them to take a photo of us with my camera as well.
I never get bored with or tired of the quaint "portals" into courtyards throughout Chinese architecture ... usually circles or ovals and sometimes more unique polygon shapes. They seem somehow magical to me, like the architecture of fairy lands. And I'm always impressed by the long corridors with elaborately painted roof beams -- another ubiquitous feature in the imperial architecture. The one pictured below is also lined with lanterns ... I think it's one of my favorite photos, actually.
Then I went on to the former residence of Soong Ching Ling, former wife of Sun Yatsen, as per the well-deserved recommendation of my aunt and uncle. The grounds are very nice. But its primary feature is the very interesting information. From the reading I'd done before I came to China, I knew something about the Kuomintang and Sun Yatsen, but for all that I knew I had equal confusion, because they are referred to in drastically different lights based on the time-frame of reference to them and based on who is referring to them. I won't give you the history lesson that I have now learned, but let's just say the exhibit was very informative. One thing I thought was funny was that Sun Yatsen's wedding gift to Soong Ching Ling was a pistol. How romantic is that? So I didn't make it to my third intended destination, but no matter. I had a peaceful and lovely day all the same. Oh, and the best part was at Mdme Soong's residence there was a swingset with two very sturdy swings on the grounds next to the pond, so I swung for about 15 minutes until closing time. Not only was it fun, as swinging always is, but the "wind" in my face was so deliciously cool on a very hot day.
While we're on the subject of lesser-known attractions in Beijing, I read a description in my guide book of a Museum of Chinese Architecture that talked it up, and it was near the Temple of Heaven which was one of my priorities to see. So I decided to check it out. The friendly staff at the hostel called the museum to get directions, and wrote out an extensive page of characters for me to give to the taxi driver. But the driver still had to get out and ask directions along the way. Clearly, it's a little obscure. After the driver finally let me out, I walked under an arch into what appeared to be the driveway for the museum. Soon I came to a little building that looked like a ticket window, but there was otherwise really no indication that I was at a museum of any kind. So I went to the guy behind the window and pointed to the paper that I had given the taxi driver and asked if this is where I was. The guy started talking and talking and pointing back behind me. Another guy came over and joined in the pointing.
"Go back," they say. So I figured I've got the wrong place. I walked back to the arch. I asked two ladies there, pointing to the Chinese characters on my slip of paper if I am there. They pointed back to the direction I had just come from and said, "That way, up ahead." So I walked back up the road, past the little booth a short ways to where the road ends at a gate with a guard. I asked the guard the same question. He points back the way I've just come, back toward the arch and the ladies.
For crying out loud! I was thinking at this point. This is so silly -- me walking back and forth along this same stretch of road. So I went back to the little booth and talked to the guy again. This time, after another minute of him saying stuff I couldn't understand, rather exasperatedly, I finally understand him to say that I had to buy a ticket back at the arch. So I walked back to the arch, got the ticket and came back, waving my ticket happily. He laughed and let me in. It was a very silly scene, me walking back and forth like a dope.
At last I gained entrance to the Museum of Chinese Architecture, where I puttered around for over an hour, during which time I was the sole visitor. I'm beginning to realize it's not actually very hard to get away from crowds in Beijing. There were some interesting buildings which were built in that dazzling year of 1420. It's original function was connected with the imperial ceremonies that took place at the Temple of Heaven. One of the very coolest things I've seen since I've been here was the ceiling of one of these buildings, which was a round dome painted beautifully, and ringed around the inside with small and amazing wooden carvings of pagodas and other Chinese-style buildings. It was stunning. And then befell me the diabolical misfortune of my camera ceasing to work. So I will have to keep the picture of that amazing ceiling just in my head. The large courtyards were filled with stone and tile artifacts.
Then I moved on to the well-known Temple of Heaven, the primary place of ceremony and sacrifice for the dynastic emperors to maintain prosperity in their kingdom with the help of the gods. The main structure here was under renovation and not open to visitors, which was a bit of a disappointment, but fortunately the following year it had reopened for Erik and me to see. However, the rest of this large heavenly park was very lovely, indeed. Any disappointments were canceled out by stumbling across this crazy musical gathering filling the length of "The Long Corridor." (yes, another one ... see the Long Corridor in the Summer Palace HERE from year 1 and HERE from year 2) Walking through the wooded park, I started hearing a cacophony of sound up ahead. I arrived at the corridor to find it packed with musicians of all sorts -- playing traditional instruments, playing saxophones in a way that sounds more like a stringed violin-type instrument, whole choirs of singers with accordion accompaniment (I got the feeling it was some kind of casual singing group), and individuals belting out Chinese opera songs. Wow. I don't know if it's always like that on Thursday afternoons (or every afternoon?), or if something special was going on. But it was just amazing. These were not like just joe-shmoe people practicing their instruments; they all sounded to me like concert performers. It was as if they were all practicing for some kind of competition. I had SUCH a good time just walking the corridor back and forth and sitting and listening to some of the different musicians for awhile.
Finally I tore myself away and made it into all of the remaining structures just before they closed. The coolest thing was this huge round ceremonial structure for offering sacrifices to the gods of heaven. By structure I don't mean a building in this case, but a round platform in several tiers. Again the favored number "9" came into play where many features of the platform were present in numbers divisible by 9.
The whole complex of the Temple of Heaven is associated with worship and sacrifice to the gods. There is a building where the sacrifices are killed, one where they are prepared, a place where they are burned, a place where the emperor stays in abstinence before the ritual, a place where he changes clothes for the ritual, etc. etc. The intricacies of these rituals are astounding. But perhaps having kept the Chinese empire in tact for so long, the rituals became ever more elaborate in an attempt to maintain an ever-more staggering feat of national unity.