MANY CITIES HAVE made a clear delineation between ‘public’ areas and ‘tourist attractions’. The entry fees, the price gouging and hoards of tourists that come in such high volumes so as to destroy the ambience and atmosphere that you would associate with the long history of a famous site. At any time after 10:00 a.m., it would take some focused discipline, and probably nirvana-like state, to actually feel the tranquility that was intended to help one meditate in the gardens at the back of the Forbidden City, no matter how beautiful hey are.
The Temple of Heaven is a marked exception. To be fair, its sheer size helps. As does the layout where the main historical site is centralised into a small area of the Temple complex. But spend an hour or two in the vast greenery surrounding it and you truly get the feel of a sanctuary in the middle of the city. Or a plain sanctuary – rest far enough from the edges and you could block out any bustling urban noise. The Temple of Heaven is, after all, a place where people prayed – in this temple, they have been praying for good harvests for almost a thousand years.
And there is one clear sign that it hasn’t decadently fallen into becoming a tourist trap – locals young and old still go here to wind down. In two hours there, we saw an orchestra, people jogging, meditation, elderly people playing mahjong and chess, busking, dancing … and, of course, tai chi. You’ll find people all over Beijing doing these sorts of activities in any public space they can find. But the fact that they are actually willing to pay the entrance fee – albeit a mere 15 RMB – for this feeling shows that it is far more than just another historical site to them. It’s part of their lifestyle, their identity, and they’re willing to pay for it.
And why not, when it is that much of a sanctuary that another of my travelling friends who went here took no notice of how polluted it was that day, so much so that when I met up with her after a day at the Teple, she was taking pictures of the haze blurring the skyline! A true testament to just how meditative a peaceful patch of green can be in a bustling megacity.