It is fairly safe to say that as far as first impressions go, the ones Tony & I formed of Beijing were about as abysmal as they come. We both vowed we would try our best to keep an open mind, but it would be dishonest of me to pretend that our initial forays into the city hadn’t taken a bit of the wind out of our sails. Sure we were both recovering from a soul-sucking bout of the flu that we had picked up in Hong Kong, which may have contributed to our malaise, but just when we thought there was no more soul to suck… there was Beijing to prove us wrong.
Despite my resolutions, I admit that when the morning broke to our first proper day in Beijing, all I wanted to do was pull the covers over my head and stay in bed. As hard as I tried, I found my enthusiasm to go out and explore the city utterly failed me. But, prior to arriving in China, I had actually felt far too overwhelmed whenever I had glanced at the Beijing chapter in our guidebook, so I had left it up to Tony to plan out some sights for us to see. And given that research and planning are really not his thing, but he had obliged me and cobbled together a “Beijing: Greatest Hits” list for us, the least I could do was reward his effort by actually going to see some of the things on said list.
So off to the Temple of Heaven Park we went, braving a massively crowded subway to do so. Now, I know some of you are probably saying: “But, Steph – you rode the subways in various Japanese cities and in Hong Kong as well! How much worse can the Beijing metro be?” All I can say is that for all the rumors you may have heard of Japan employing workers whose job it is to press passengers into packed subway cars like sardines into a can, this was truly the first time I understood that analogy. While the Beijing metro is delightfully cheap (only 2RMB – approximately $0.33USD – per journey), such low prices mean that you get to experience the massive, roiling Chinese population up close and personal. When the train pulls away from the station, there truly isn’t room to budge; never before have I witnessed that many people crammed into that small a space.
After an extremely intimate 20-minute subway ride, we arrived at our stop, and burst forth from the confines of the train like rats fleeing a sinking ship. We made our way to the Temple of Heaven Park and joined the queue to purchase tickets. During the wait, we observed two things that would soon become commonplace during our time in China:
1) People performing acts that were explicitly prohibited by signs that were in clear view of where they were breaking the rules (in this instance, it was someone setting up their trinkets stall directly beneath a sign outlawing vending of any kind);
2) Children wearing (and making use of) the infamous Split Pants. For those of you not in the know, while most of the world has adopted diapers as the primary means of dealing with the fickle bathroom needs of small children, China, in its infinite wisdom, knows better and has devised the ingenious “split pants” scheme. Young (and sometimes not-so-young) children are dressed in trousers that have a split in the seam leading from the crotch to the ass of the pants. This way, when the child has to void his bladder or bowels, he need only pop a squat right on the spot and get on with business. Under this framework, all of China is considered a toilet; children wearing these pants are not whisked away to a bathroom or an out of the way corner, or even the gutter. No, wherever they happen to be will work just fine, and in this instance, that meant I got to watch a little boy squat and urinate not 4 feet from the line to purchase entrance tickets to the Temple of Heaven. All I can say is be extremely dubious of any puddles you should encounter while walking in China…
While I didn’t think it was possible, my already poor opinion of Beijing, plummeted even lower, and any optimism I had for the excursion was swiftly evaporating. I was feeling crabby as all get out and was seriously considering hightailing it back to our dorm to wait out the remaining four days we had allotted to Beijing, but with tickets in hand, I sallied forth instead.
I am so glad I did.
Almost immediately after entering the park, rich, robust harmonies flitted our way on the breeze. Following the sound, we veered off the main path leading to the historic structures, walking instead past a small athletic park filled with a variety of fitness equipment which were being put to impressive use. We witnessed some serious displays of upper body strength and flexibility as we wended our way through, stopping when we found ourselves faced with cluster of about 20 individuals engaged in what appeared to be some kind of group sing. Some people held pamphlets and binders that looked like song books, but many others just stood with hands clasped firmly behind their backs and sang with gusto from the heart. What struck me most was that the songs they were singing were not the simple choral songs I would expect from a cobbled together group of park singers, but had a distinctly operatic bent to them. Hearing the men growl out the deep baritones while the women’s falsettos crested and peaked in counterpoint, the entire scene felt slightly absurd, but in the best possible way. I have no idea if the songs they were singing were exceedingly dramatic and elaborate folk songs, or old communist jingles (this was Tony’s guess), but I certainly wouldn’t have expected either of these things to be sung in the style of Western opera.
We stood there mesmerized, listening to their boisterous renditions of several songs. It was all so insane I am fairly certain that my brain short-circuited as it tried to process what was happening, and eventually it just gave up and gave itself over to this completely surreal experience. As I listened, I felt something akin to what the Grinch must have felt when the dulcet melodies of the Whos down in Whoville reached his ears on Christmas morning. I had no idea what they were singing, or why, whether this was an impromptu gathering that we just happened to stumble upon, or a pre-arranged one that took place routinely. In the end, all that mattered is that they were exceedingly good and sang with a passion that was infectious and caused my own heart to grow three sizes that day. Though I had been ornery and disenchanted by China, listening to those singers in the park made me tumble a little bit in love with China. After all, how could I — the girl who wishes life really were a musical — be angry at a place where its denizens, as inscrutable as they sometimes would prove to be, break out into song? The simple answer is that I could not!
Most visitors to Temple of Heaven park will ostensibly be there to view the buildings, and perhaps also the expansive grounds (a much needed patch of color in the seemingly unending dull gray fabric that is Beijing) on which they lie. And yet I cannot say that these attractions held the greatest interest for me on our own visit. As we made our way to the temple for which the park is named, I was more interested in watching the interactions and activities of the Chinese people surrounding us. We encountered another group of operatic singers, as well as dancers, and people just getting a good stretch in, while others lazed about playing cards or the occasional game of mahjong. We also observed a fair deal of individuals engaged in far less banal pursuits, such as the old lady with something resembling a diaper affixed to her head, who carted around her own personal karaoke machine as she serenaded passersby.
Though at times we had found our encounters with Chinese people rather abrasive and jarring, here I couldn’t help but admire their utter lack of shame as they doggedly pursued whatever activity brought them the greatest joy. It felt so good to be in a place where it felt as though everyone’s guard was down and we were all temporarily united in the goal of enjoying ourselves. For me, watching this swirling tornado of frantic activity and barely restrained insanity was utterly riveting, and absolutely more fascinating than viewing some old buildings.
By the time we reached the “main attractions” Tony and I had been caught up in the infectious lightheartedness the drifted on the breeze. When we made it to star attraction, we were positively giddy! In truth, neither of us were all that impressed by the structures themselves: they were certainly imposing, but they were not nearly as grand or gleaming as either of us had expected. We shrugged off this mild disappointment, and instead contented ourselves with taking goofy photos and observing Chinese tourists in action. While we couldn’t understand why the men were wandering about with their bellies hanging out, nor why the Chinese seemed so intent on trying to pry off the lids to sacred urns (lids that had been chained down, mind you), even this could not put a dent in our good moods, and we simply watched in a state of bemused amusement. It seemed today would not be a day of startling insights into Chinese culture, but it was enough to feel ourselves fully immersed in it, even if we gazed on most of it uncomprehending.
As afternoon trailed into dusk and then dark, we drifted about the grounds, flitting from one sight from the next. On our way from the mound & Echo Wall, we passed a cripple karaoke singer who sang with such unabashed joy and smiled with such eager kindness, I gladly passed a few coins his way. We wended though expansive avenues punctuated by row upon row of majestic pine trees in search of the Starvation Palace, only to find it had closed early. Our disappointment at this news was but a minor blip, as around the next bend in the road, a lively band of street musicians were waiting with traditional instruments in hand to play our dissatisfaction away. No matter which way we turned, the air was thick with music, as concerts seemed to be happening in all manner of pockets throughout the park.
Sometimes walking around Beijing, you feel the city is more a testament to what has been lost than to what has been saved and is celebrated, so I can’t tell you how much it buoyed my spirits and thrilled me to witness all these instances of the traditional music being kept alive and cherished. For some, these makeshift concerts would surely serve as background music as they rushed from site to site; but for me, that music and the people making it were the real stars of the day. Their music not only forced me to stop and take the time to listen, but as I did so, and as has happened before, I felt each note resonate acutely within me, and knew that an intangible part of their culture had seeped deep inside my bones. When moments like this happen, I know I am getting the absolute most out of this trip, and I am prompted to remember why it is we left on this adventure in the first place. Was it to see famous monuments and check things of lists, or was it to take the time to see the world as it truly is (which is not always how we expect it to be), and immerse ourselves in the aspects that will forever elude capture by photographs and books? In the end, we had found the obvious draws at the park to be rather lackluster and underwhelming, I can’t help but wonder if this was perhaps the universe’s way of showing me that sometimes when we are fixated on one thing, we risk missing out on beauty that is right before us if only we turn our gaze upon it. Every time an expectation is not met, this is just another opportunity for us to be truly surprised.
I can’t say whether our visit to the Temple of Heaven was singular, or whether a visit on any day would prove to be so delightful. All I know is that at a time when I desperately needed it, the travel gods seemed to smile upon me and gave me something to at least temporarily restore my flagging spirits. I have no idea why Beijing citizens pay money in order to hang out and perform in a park, but I certainly am glad for it; perhaps they are not immune to Temple of Heaven park’s unexpected charms either! Though the day had certainly had its fair share of disappointments and reminders that there were some rather large cultural chasms separating us from the Chinese people, seeing how happy they were to create and be consumed by music, emphasized to me that some of life’s joys truly are universal and unifying in their appeal.
All of this is why, when I think of the Temple of Heaven park, it is the music we heard this day — not the temples and monuments — that springs to mind. It may be a popular attraction for tourists, but its true beauty lies in the fact that for the citizens of Beijing, it is just another arena in which to play out the symphony of life.