Temple of Heaven

July 14th, 2009 7:05 pm by Ray

We hadn’t been in the Temple of Heaven very long before the first groups of tourists approached for photos. One slides seamlessly from tourist to attraction. We were photographed by people from Guangxi province, Afghanistan, and Spain, among others, each bringing their own interpretation.

The Temple of Heaven is the center of the world in the Chinese system. There is a particular round platform with a small marble disk on it that is rather like Four Corners in the number of tourists who take their picture standing on it. Most visitors seem to proceed from the park entrance, to the center of the universe, to the two buildings north of it that you aren’t allowed into but can peer in the door and try to make out the wood ceilings. The largest temple is actually quite new, having been most recently burned down in the late 19th century and been rebuilt to the original plans, which did not include nails.

The accessory buildings have mostly been turned into museums, where you can see the various palanquins and portable altars for carrying sacred tablets and the remains of emperors and little gold censers and doodads all sorts. Make sure to notice the Qing dynasty urn handles. They have an insouciant wave to them that Alessi would patent if they had thought of them first, very modern.

Far to the West, where not so many crowds venture, is the Divine Music Administration. The Divine Music Administration buildings fell into complete disrepair after the fall of the Qing. They were used for storage, barracks, hutong housing, and the Imperial Japanese even set up a germ warfare research lab, for which the Chinese have erected a memorial stele. The Japanese were serious about that, to the detriment of the Chinese people. They were to the American biological warfare program what the Germans were to rocketry.

But I am not worried about having toured the site of a germ warfare lab because when we go to Chernobyl it will kill all the bacteria.

In the last ten years, the remaining tenants of the DMA have been evicted and the building reconstructed to the original specifications, and it is now a musical instrument museum and performance hall. There are explanations on the wall, some in English, of how the Chinese tonal scale came to be. Every note has been precisely laid out to astronomical specifications or other opinions of various scholars. There never was a Pythagoras in China, just a long accumulation of traditions and scholars who occasionally tweaked the frequency of a note. One of the signs on a neolithic bone pipe mentioned that you could play an acceptably good rendition of <here was the name of some Chinese folk song> on it, by way of indicating how one particular tuning system had transmitted down 8000 years of history.

We came back on the subway at rush hour, which was not more crowded than any other time of day. The Beijing metro is pretty sleek.  The only glitch is that their tickets seem to fade. We bought 4 tickets in the morning and by the afternoon our two return tickets were dead. Maybe they have a time limit, but the English translations didn’t go so deeply into the subject.

Last night we went to a carefully chosen Tripadvisor restaurant, the Dali Courtyard. Tripadvisor’s contributors are mostly impressed by mammoth Peking Duck restaurants but if you read between the lines you can sometimes determine who is best listened to, for your own tastes. (The Dadong chain makes good Peking Duck but they aren’t 4 of the top 20 restaurants in town.) Dali Courtyard might not be 8th best but it certainly is interesting, except their muzak playlist is only about 5 torch songs long. They just bring you food. Deep fried fungus, unknown mushrooms (we have so few mushrooms in America), fermented tofu skin, lemon leaves and shrimp tempura…really wonderful tapas. It takes a lot of work to find it. There is one red lantern in a hutong near the Drum Tower that tells you to walk down an alley. The taxi driver couldn’t find it even after calling them. But it’s worth it.  Dali Courtyard is at 39.94009 N, 116.39875 E.

A Brief Diversion

July 13th, 2009 5:16 pm by Ray

It isn’t a good sign when the flight to an eclipse gets diverted for bad weather.  We were about 300 kilometers northwest of Beijing and had actually descended a little bit, when the captain turned northwest avoiding a bunch of thunderclouds and then came on the radio announcing that we weren’t going to Beijing, we were going to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, because the Beijing airport was closed due to bad weather.  We proceeded another thirty minutes and landed.  I’m writing this as we are parked on the tarmac.  A few guards are standing around and some locals are taking photos.  It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll get off the plane; I somehow doubt that Hohhot has immigration facilities to handle a 747 full of diverted eclipse chasers (we aren’t the only ones on this flight).  In fact, I’m surprised that a 747 can even land here.  Although, you must keep in mind that there are probably 40 cities in China larger than San Jose that you’ve never heard of, and any city you have heard of probably has 2 million inhabitants and a big airport.  And everybody knows Hohhot.

I can actually see the sun through the haze, if that’s any consolation.


After about two hours of waiting, we took off again and got to a very empty Beijing airport.  We rejected a van who would have taken us to our lodgings for about 400 yuan, and instead took a metered taxi and got there for 100 yuan, including a generous tip.  (A yuan was $6.83 yesterday.)

The place we’re staying is known to us as “Michael’s House in Beijing”, though no Roman script is visible on the outside of the building.  It’s delightful so far — a little courtyard in the style of the hutong houses that were all torn down to modernize Beijing, and all the guest rooms immediately adjoining. The bathrooms have a kind of Formule1 feel, with IKEA shampoo in a bottle, so you won’t feel like a Ming emperor while bathing but you will feel refreshed

Time to check out their hotel breakfast.

The Story of the Weeping Camel

July 11th, 2009 10:32 pm by Dave

We just saw the 2003 DVD “The Story of the Weeping Camel” about a family in rural Mongolia and their challenges raising camels. The camels were two-humped with huge manes and beards, looking unlike any camel we’d ever seen. Highly recommended, especially the night before leaving for a trip to Mongolia.

Risky Adventure?

July 11th, 2009 7:39 pm by Dave



July 10th, 2009 12:56 pm by Dave

Here we may write things which pop into our heads as we go to see an eclipse near Iwo Jima, and then travel on the Transsiberian Railroad through Mongolia and Russia.