China: Dave visits the Temple of Heaven


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  3. China: Proteomics at Phoenix Center and the National Institute of Biological Sciences
  4. China: Seek and ye shall pFind
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  6. China: Inner and outer spaces at the Forbidden City
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For years, I have dreamed of visiting China.  I visited Korea in 2008, and I saw India in 2010.  China had always eluded me, though, until September of 2016!  The Institute of Computing Technology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited me to visit for a week; we are working together on a label-free quantitation project.  This blog post is intended as the first of a series describing my experiences there.

Getting there

American citizens need to do some footwork to visit China.  The ICT purchased my flight itinerary on August 20 and sent me an official invitation letter on August 24th.  I applied for my visa in person at the consulate for China in Cape Town on August 30th.  I paid the special fee for American visa that week, and I was able to pick up my passport, with visa attached, on September 6th (the same day I flew to Kimberley).  I was all set to fly to Beijing on September 17th by way of Dubai. (9:25 to reach DBX, and 6:44 to reach PEK)!


Even at three A.M., the international terminal for Dubai is open for business.

I was not sure what to expect of Dubai’s airport or Air Emirates, for that matter.  In fact, the jets were quite modern, and DBX itself is clearly accustomed to a heavy flow of tourists.  In the hours past midnight, the terminal remained full of people in transit.  Since neither of the flights exceeded ten hours, each of the legs was pretty comfortable.  I even managed to sleep a bit on the plane!  I arrived at Beijing’s massive shell-shaped international airport terminal in the middle of the afternoon, where I was met by a group from the ICT.  We took a cab to the WuKe hotel (which is named after the Physical Sciences campus on which it is located), and I experienced the first of several traffic jams courtesy of rush hour.

September 19th, 2016

I awoke at the WuKe hotel, having slept ten and a half hours. Who knows how much longer I would have slept without the alarm? My hosts had provided an inexpensive cell phone for my use during the visit since my South African SIM card would not function in China.

Although I had bypassed dinner upon arrival, I was now hungry enough that breakfast was not optional. I walked to the third-floor restaurant accompanying the hotel, but then I realized that it was not open until 11:30. I returned to the second floor, where I had seen other people eating. The host did not speak English, but her colleague did, explaining that I needed to get a breakfast ticket from the hotel desk. I returned to the hotel lobby and inquired about the ticket. They cost 25 yuan (divide by 6.6 to get dollars), but I had not yet visited an ATM! I used the one from the Agricultural Bank, and while I was navigating its menus (it was oddly insistent about my need for something relating to an Apple Watch), the desk clerk appeared at my side, saying something about the ticket. I completed my transaction and then returned to the desk. This time the desk clerk explained that somebody else had already paid for me to eat, and they handed me a ticket. I returned to the restaurant, where I ate a sesame-covered sweet bun with red bean paste, a greasy fried egg, and a savory puff with a spoon and chopsticks. On my way back, I acquired a 1.5-Liter bottle of drinking water for 5 yuan.

My host arrived just after nine A.M. with two graduate students, Xiao-Jin Zhang and Xiu-Nan Niu, who would show me around town. By the time we reached our first destination, they were both speaking English pretty comfortably (getting started in a second language can be hard). Our goals for the day were audacious; we would start at the Temple of Heaven, have a big lunch, and then visit the extensive grounds of the Summer Palace. We began with a taxi to the Temple of Heaven. The site is located in the southeastern part of central Beijing. We were riding in the taxi well after rush hour, and yet we still encountered several slow-downs as we navigated among the various ring-roads of the city.  Once we emerged at the entry to the Temple of Heaven grounds, Xiao-Jin paused to purchase a selfie-stick.


Looking toward the Hall of Prayer from the Circular Mound shows the blue roof of the Vault of Heaven.

The Temple of Heaven complex is built on a fairly high plain, with the Hall of Prayer on a hill that affords a view of downtown from a distance. The students bought our tickets (ICT took care of essentially all costs for the week, including tourism), gaining access to all five sites for the complex. Massive gates, each with three openings, stood at various choke points to regulate traffic; these had been modified to act as stations where visitors punched their tickets for entry. The first area we visited was the Circular Mound Altar. The first lesson visitors learn at the complex is to keep count; the number associated with the Emperor of China was nine, and so each flight of stairs that one climbs to ascend the Circular Mound has exactly nine steps. The Altar was used for winter solstice ceremonies, starting in 1530 (Ming Dynasty). The view from the Mound’s flat top promises lovely architecture ahead!

The first major building we encountered was the Imperial Vault of Heaven. The structure’s current shape dates from 1752. The blue tile roof is distinctive. A queue of tourists had accumulated on the stairs leading around the base of the tower, but happily the line was not terrible, since I visited two weeks before a major week-long holiday for China. Just the same, I did not have a lot of time to stop and stare into the interior of the tower (Chinese tourists are not shy about jockeying for position). My camera was able to capture a reasonably good look, especially at the ceiling. The wall surrounding the Vault court is circular in shape, leading to some interesting acoustics and its name: The Echo Wall.


The interior of the Vault of Heaven shows a vivid palette.

A visitor walks to the Temple site along a broad, elevated pathway that slants upward. The center paving stones are much larger than those on the edge, reflecting that the center pathway was reserved for the emperor. A massive gate (original to the Ming Dynasty) stands at the top, with three huge doors. The middle, which is by far the largest, was reserved for the “God of Heaven,” while the other two doors were for the Emperor at the east and the officials at the west. Passing through this gate reveals the massive Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a three story tower topped by a gold-plated globe.


Dave intrudes upon the Emperor’s reserved walkway.

The Hall is wildly impressive in person, not in the least because the visitor has seen a progression of structures that build up to it. Somehow it does not seem jarring that the downtown skyline is visible from the hilltop. Again, a line of tourists made it somewhat harder to get a good look at the inside of the Hall, but the ornamentation is not limited to the walls but rather covers every inch of ceiling and columns, as well. One of the two rectangular structures nearby hold 1:15 scale cutaway models of the hall to explain its structure. The other covers the rites employed at this site, including the sacrifice of animals, dancing, pouring of wine, etc.


The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a massive artwork of vivid colors, extending upward to its highest roof.

We headed down the hill from the Hall into a neighboring garden. We walked past the “North Divine Kitchen” and through a lovely garden, where I heard a lonely artist playing “Amazing Grace” on a violin. In no time at all, we had flagged another taxi for our drive to lunch. We traveled to Qian Men Emperor’s Avenue near the Forbidden City. The Avenue was lined with restaurants. We had a reservation at Quanjude (pronounce the ‘Q’ like “sh,” and make sure to give the last two letters their own syllable), a well-reputed place that has been in business since 1864 (Qing Dynasty) and which claims to have originated Peking Duck!


We quickly lost count of the ducks carted by our table.

The food was excellent. We enjoyed small pastries shaped like ducks, duck hearts with peppers, bleached walnuts with peach sprouts, and of course roast duck. We dipped a couple slices of duck in the duck sauce, placed it with some vegetables on a pancake, and then folded them up. I must not forget the deep-fried lumps of duck with pineapple slices. I quickly lost count of how many ducks rolled by our table for their final appointments. We ate until we could eat no more.

Well, that’s what we had told ourselves. In the street outside, my hosts spotted a food stall selling treats that looked like beads on a string. We acquired one for each of us. They were, effectively kebabs of Chinese hawthorn fruit that had been covered in a sugary syrup that was hardened. Aside from the pits in each haw, they were delicious!


Xiu-Nan Niu introduces us to a tasty snack.

17 thoughts on “China: Dave visits the Temple of Heaven

  1. Matt Chambers

    You make me want to go back to visit again! Do you think the pFind team wants to hear about Galaxy? 🙂

    FYI. The ‘Q’ in Quanjude is like “ch” rather than “sh”. “X” is like “sh” (Xuan). But it’s actually the vowel that’s tricky here:
    Compare to

    Liked by 1 person

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