When I walk out of the subway station, I see a sign to the Temple of Heaven Park, and I enter through the East Gate. It would be easiest to walk straight to one of the main sights of the park, but I want to walk south first, and start my exploration of the park from there. The Temple of Heaven Park is laid out on a North-South axis, and I feel I have to respect this orientation. There are tree-lined lanes on which to walk, but also smaller trails through the trees. A friendly supervisor allows me to walk out of the South Gate to take a picture, and walk in again. The South Gate has 3 arches, and through the central one, you can see that the main buildings of the park are lined up precisely straight ahead. I feel ready and eager to explore this extensive park, walk back through the central gate, and head north. The first major sight is the Circular Mound Altar. It is standing in the middle of a square opening in the park: square symbolizes Earth, while circular symbolizes Heaven. There are three stone gates, with a circular wall with dragon heads and dark blue tiles: the dark blue again symbolizing heaven. The altar is the upper level of three circular marble platforms, all decorated with marble carved dragon heads.
The altar proper is an empty platform, with a circular slab at its centre, called the Heart of Heaven. This is where the Emperor would pray for good harvests. Apart from being circular, the altar is rife with symbolism, in which the sacred number nine is important. I stand here for a while, but there are just too many people who have their picture taken at the Heart of Heaven. A far cry from the original use of the altar: the Emperor, considered the Son of Heaven, would come twice a year to the Temple of Heaven complex with his entourage, dressed in special robes, to pray for good harvests. This was strictly a private matter, and the public was never allowed to see any of it. The white marble rail around the altar was constructed in such a way that it helped reflect the sounds, and the acoustics helped to relay the prayers to the gods in heaven. From here, I walk further north, to the Imperial Vault of Heaven. The building itself is circular, of course, with dark blue tiles, and surrounded by the circular Echo Wall. This wall is constructed in such a way that, when one person says something at one side, the sound travels around the wall, and can be understood perfectly at the other side. There are two richly decorated halls on either side, and a peek inside the Imperial Vault of Heaven discloses an even richer interior, full of symbolism again.
From the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Vermillion Steps Bridge, a smooth and wide lane without any steps, leads to the main building of the complex: the three-gabled Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests. Again, this circular building is standing on a square space. When I walk through the gate, the magnificent building rises ahead of me. I first take a look at the hall behind it, before climbing back to the wide, circular platform on which the hall stands. The sun is setting, and the people have gone: suddenly, I am alone on this heavenly place. Inside the hall, there are four inner pillars for the four seasons, twelve middle pillars for the twelve months, and twelve outer pillars for the twelve traditional Chinese hours. Unfortunately, it is not possible to go inside. Instead, I walk back to the gate, where I find a few photographers waiting for the sun to set, and I decide to join them. It is a particularly cold day: freezing temperatures combined with a strong wind, and sitting still under the darkening sky quickly makes me shiver a little. But the view of the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests makes it all worth it: the brilliant colours turn warmer and deeper. When the sun is gone, I walk to the east side of the tower, where its contours stand out against an orange sky, before slowly disappearing into a dark winter night.
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