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China 6: Of exercise and heavenly temples

On our third day we spent an incredibly interesting couple of hours at the Temple of Heaven park watching morning exercise and recreation rituals and, as you might guess, seeing temple-y things.

By now subway veterans, we managed to exit ourselves at the station beside the eastern gate. Another ticket transaction later and we were in. The park is a very popular place and this was peak visiting time on Sunday.

Bicycle park next to the subway station.

Bicycle park next to the subway station.

Inside the Temple of Heaven park. Busy morning.

Inside the Temple of Heaven park. Busy morning.

The conversion of one's t-shirt into a crop-top is a popular method of cooling off among the middle-aged male population. Spot the man who's had cupping therapy,

The conversion of one’s t-shirt into a crop-top is a popular method of cooling off among the middle-aged male population. Spot the man who’s had cupping therapy,

It didn’t take us long to find the large outdoors gym area which was heaving with activity. Young and old alike were working out and putting us very much to shame.

This was a fascinating place to people watch – I was blown away by the number of elderly exercising here. We found other smaller setups of gym equipment on our walking travels through Beijing residential neighbourhoods.

We continued walking and it seemed that all over this end of the park, groups (and a few individuals) were busy with choreographed routines.

And while some exercised, others were actively engaged finding a marriage partner for their child.

The marriage market in full swing.

The marriage market in full swing.

It was a very green space, though smog again lurked in the air.

The cypress trees here can be several hundred years old and many are supported by poles.

The cypress trees here can be several hundred years old and many are supported by poles.

We wandered up the Long Corridor with its intricately painted roof, past chess matches and group sing-songs, toward the first temple-y thing.

Within the park there are several religious buildings and spaces – apparently the finest examples of Ming dynasty architecture – and these are collectively the Temple of Heaven. The main structures, more altars than temples, are laid out in a north-south line.

Emperors used to visit here to pray for bountiful harvests. One of Beijing’s icons is this, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.


Nearby is a building, closed to the public, where animal sacrifices took place. Also nearby was the first of many wedding photo shoots we’d see during our trip. In China, bride and groom photos are typically not taken on the day of the wedding.

We walked south along the Red Stairway Bridge. Below us, a busker sang a Beatles song.



This brought us to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, site of winter solstice ceremonies once upon a time.


The Echo Wall surrounds the vault. It can apparently transmit sound but the space was too noisy with people testing this to try for ourselves.


Just beyond here is the Circular Mound Altar, a large open three-tiered space where emperors worshipped and whatnot. The layout and architecture of the Temple of Heaven is full of symbolism and the number nine is very meaningful with the whole heaven thing. Here at the circular mound, each tier contains nine rings, as does each flight of steps.

We trudged back toward the east gate, past people still going at it with group activities as well as kookier individuals literally dancing to their own tune.


We were off to find ruins of the inner city wall. – Ruins! My favourite thing!

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Hayley, I love your compilation of “temple-y things”.. especially the aerobics park, cupping therapy quarter and marriage market. I’ll have to put Beijing’s parks on my to-visit list pronto!

    18 October 2014
    • Thanks Amit 🙂 – It was an excellent place (and maybe time of week) to see so much culture happening at once!

      19 October 2014
  2. Janice Strong #

    The culture is fascinating Hayley and so organized it seems. Your photos are great and certainly capture the mood of the park and all that is going on there. Such fir people.The buildings too spectacular. Didn’t like the sound of the one for animal sacrifices glad it wasn’t open. Looking forward to your ruins blog.
    Janice x

    18 October 2014
    • Hi Janice, thank you. It occurred to me how comfortable (un-self-conscious) everyone seemed to be with the public nature of their activities, which I admired at a personal level, and appreciated from a tourist-with-camera standpoint!

      19 October 2014
  3. These are all just great as usual. Love what you write. I find it interesting that the Chinese care enough about themselves to actually exercise out in public. That is seldom done here except for folks that run or bike and there are not many people that do that except the young,,as a rule. Folks go to work out centers. Even in my neighborhood it is no common to see anyone out walking for exercise

    I find the marriage market very strange. I had no idea the Chinese practice that sort of thing..The photos are all great.

    19 October 2014
    • Thanks so much Yvonne. It struck me how public it all was, which isn’t something I’d be confident with but maybe that’s part of growing up in China for you. We saw another marriage market in Shanghai – it’s very serious business indeed!

      19 October 2014
      • I had no idea that was done in China. I need to read more, apparently. 🙂

        19 October 2014
      • liwei #

        It would appear that the urban young people in China’s big cities nowadays are more devoted to their career and are not thrilled by the idea of finding a life partner. Many of them still stay single in their thirties or even older. Their celibacy actually cause more anxiety among their parents than themselves. Therefore, some spontaneously-grown “marriage markets” appear in major city parks where senior citizens usually exercise and socialize. These matchmakers exchange information with each other on behalf of their children. Things are sometimes getting visually ungainly even embarrassing there because the matchmaking boils down to a game of pure hard criteria without the fuel of romance.

        6 November 2014
        • Thanks for your observations and insight. It does seem quite transactional but that appears to be the way in some cultures. I’d really like to know what the children make of it though!

          6 November 2014
          • liwei #

            I see no reason that they want to turn down their parents’ help. At least that is one way of knowing people. I guess most of them are not proud of the fact that they are staying with the laptop all day and counting on their parents to do the job they should have done by themselves. That is just my $0.02 anyway

            I am really glad you enjoy your trip in Beijing. I had one day leeway in beijing before the flight this summer, and i took the liberty of visiting this city. I had a 12 hrs long walk in major parts of Beijing alone. it was surreal even for me. The socialist realism architecture was reminiscent of my childhood

            8 November 2014
  4. Another great post. The Chinese attitude to health and exercise is really interesting – I presume one of the reasons people exercise in public is a lack of space in their homes? The bride in her red dress is beautiful!

    23 October 2014
    • Yes I imagine that’s part of it though there was a group dynamic with much of the exercising I saw and maybe part of the philosophy is being outside in nature wherever possible? That dress was the most stunning of the gowns that I saw (from memory they were all red except one which was green!).

      26 October 2014
  5. Ahh! The photos of the men with their rolled up t-shirts so reminded me of Indonesia! Hayley, I was very excited last night to find a BBC programme about China. It’s really a culinary journey and history, travelling around China but it starts in Beijing. I managed to watch some of it on my ipad and couldn’t help but think of you, especially as they went to the street with all the food stalls that you mentioned before. They showed the scorpions and bugs, and all the things that you talked of. Did you have Peking Duck? and those divine little dumplings? I’ll send you the link if you like, you may be able to watch it if you download a VPN to your laptop or ipad. Your photos today are very much like some of the stills from the programme 😀

    29 October 2014
    • Wow, coincidental! I’ve found the episode you’re referring to, on the BBC site, though yes it’s initially blocked from playing. Spoilsports! No, we’re probably the only tourists in the history of the world to have omitted Peking Duck from their Beijing itinerary. Well, it had been an idea but just didn’t end up happening.

      Thank you Lottie for reading and commenting on all these posts x

      31 October 2014
      • The BBC programme is new, there’s only been one episode so far – try the VPN trick on your phone or ipad if you have one, and then download BBC iplayer (from the app store) which is how I got to see it. The other option is to see if it’s on YouTube. Hayley, I’m speechless that you didn’t have Peking Duck! how could you! 😀

        1 November 2014

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