Beijing 4: Temple of Heaven, Tianamen Square and Hutong tour

Our last day in Beijing started just as early as the others, even though we took a van down Wafujing Jie to the Temple of Heaven. Dad went out to get breakfast and found just McDonalds. Signs around the city advertise value meals for the equivalent of about $2.80!! My dad got breakfast for four – coffee, hashbrowns and a sausage biscuit – for less than $10, and it was easily the worst food we had the whole time in Beijing (and I love McD breakfast!). Sadly, our sweet little Mr. Tian could not drive us, as Jack explained, because Beijing traffic laws dictate that you can’t have your registered car on the road more than five days in a week. How this is inforced, he couldn’t tell us, so he hired another driver who was about his age.The roads were packed, even at 9am. We first went back to the Silk Market so my mom and Linda could finish the end of their shopping, but we had Jack run around and bargain for us. Thankfully, we were some of the only people in the mall and did a good job. According to Chinese tradition, you must make the first sale of the day in order to have a good sales day. I got gifts for cheaaaaapppp! And we didn´t lose our heads with all of the people running after us practically shoving the goods into our hands.The Temple of Heaven is a series of small temples and a large, circular one to which emperors used to pray for good harvests once a year. Like all great cities, the center of Beijing was built on an axis that starts at the temple of Heaven and runs through Tianamen Square to the Forbidden City and beyond. We entered the park surrounding the buildings, all built on the axis, from the west gate. Snow had, again, fallen in a light dust, but people were outside exercising and playing a game that was like hackey sack, only with a shuttlecock. And, in a cement jungle, this was one of the only natural places we saw. This is where the doggies were hiding!

We went to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a circular building at the southern part of the park that´s preceeded by an acoustics wall and a round, granite altar. The decoration mirrored that of the forbidden City – golds, reds, jades and royal blues. Walking along the axis back north, we passed a series of guards marching, half of them dressed in plainclothes. Their discipline is astounding. The Temple of the Great Harvest, also cylindrical but with three tiers, is covered in paintings and embellishments on the inside to match its grandeur from the outside. The street sweepers were doing their jobs, making small mounds of snow with equal distances. Jack told us that the characters on the front meant “good Harvest Year”

Jack and the nameless driver took us to Tiananmen Square, the largest public, open air square in the world. My mom remembers watching Mao preside over military parades from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, so she just about flipped out as we pulled up. Jack lead us through the underground security points, where we had to put our bags through a scanner and get the wand passed over us. The day was icky and gray and the snow had begun to turn to slush. I got all crabby because my boots soaked through and I hate my feet being wet. We came into the square at the southern edge, meeting a large tower with the old train station behind it. Also in the square are museums to the history of the PRC and famous, influential people, as well as an enormous mausoleum that dominates the center. My mom ignored mine and Jack´s insistence that taking pictures with the soldiers staffed all around the plaza was illegal.

Jack lives close to the square, so he took us to one of his favorite restaurants. We were the only westerners in their. We sat at a round table with a large, glass wheel in the center upon which the food was served. Jack ordered us a bucket (literally a bucket) of fried rice, fried noodles, pork and chicken dishes, spicy shrimp and other delicious stuff that we gladly snarfed down. We watched the place fill up and I had an eyeshot to the tanks where people picked out their lunch. We ate for about $5 a head with a drink. I was still clumsy with chopsticks at this point, even after several days in China.

I had been most keen on seeing the hutongs, traditional alleys that have survived amidst China´s massive growth. These neighborhood are dreary and sandwiched between skyscrapers and shopping malls. Jack showed us around one that was listed in my dad´s book as very up and coming. It was hip, crowded and dilapidated. Bars and boutiques stood next to traditional homes. Bikes crossed with cars and trams. I saw a man selling sweet potatoes on the street to people as their cars passed his little stand, which consisted of a grill on wheels. There were fabric shops next to tea houses, luxury hotels next to shacks. It was an interesting juxtaposition, mirroring that of China´s uneven expansion. Thankfully, the government has taken steps to ensure that these neighborhoods be saved to preserve some of the cultural impact they´ve had.
After a tea ceremony demonstration that had me so desperate to peepee that I used a squatty potty (aka a hole in the ground), we headed back to the hotel to pack before meeting the Berkowitzes, the parents of one of Margaret´s roommates, for dinner. We went to the same restaurant as lunch, which greatly excited Jack. The whole day got us wiped out, and we needed to be at the airport at 5:30 am for the flight to Harbin the next day.

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. […] in China, we saw dozens of sites, thanks to our guide, Jack. Among my favorite were the hu tongs, small alleyways that become home to traditional neighborhood life. Jack took us to several, many […]

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