We’d never recommend 8 days to explore a country, leave alone – China. And yet, we managed to squeeze Xian and Guilin, along with Beijing, in our China travel itinerary. I’d have to admit, and Basil will agree, although reluctantly, it’s not been one of our best planned trips.
With few days in hand, we opted for domestic flights over trains. Ctrip is a good place to get most of your bookings done. We booked our hostels ensuring their location was next to the nearest metro stop.
Waking up in Beijing
Our flight departed from Shanghai after a delay of over an hour. Flight delays seem to be a regular feature of domestic travel in China. We reached Beijing Airport at 3:00 am in the morning. Adding to our woes, the subway opened only after 6:30 am. We parked ourselves for a good three hours – trying to catch on our sleep and sometimes observing airport security and travellers pass by.
Beijing is what you’d expect China to be. Unlike Shanghai, which seems like a city much larger than the people it accommodates, Beijing seems to be bursting with people. Changing subway lines often involves walking through huge connecting bridges and towering escalators. Fortunately, for us, we had one only backpack to worry of. We reached Nanlouguxiang (we could never really pronounce this name) at 9 am. After which, began our hunt for our hostel. It turned out that we had taken the wrong exit and had to cross the road to reach our hostel.
Peking Youth Hostel is cosy hostel conveniently located on the bustling tourist district of Nanlouguxiang. Our room was spartan with a hint of colour and offered a vantage view of Hutong grey-tiled rooftops. We were too early to check-in and decided to head to Lama Temple.
The Lama Temple
Yonghegong-Lama Stop lies on line 2 of the Beijing Subway. Cheery railway attendants guided us towards the temple. It’s probably 5 minutes away from the station.
The entrance gate to the Lama Temple is spectacular – with each colour lighting up in the morning sun. The intricately painted detailing on the wooden arch is worth a second look. Inside, a walkway lined with a canopy trees leads you into the temple lawns. Before entering the temple, each visitor gets a box of incense sticks and surprisingly – it’s free of charge. However, it makes sense to read the instructions before lighting all of them. Clearly, some of the visitors didn’t bother to read the instructions. I failed to understand why. There seemed to be a mini struggle of sorts, as devotees and tourists jostled to light the entire bunch of 12 odd incense sticks. Not surprisingly, the area around the incense stand was covered with thick blanket of smoke.
The Lama Temple could be broadly divided into a series of five main halls – each devoted to a different form of Buddha. The temple is an important place of worship for followers of the Tibetan sect of Buddhism. Yonghe Gong Hall or the Hall of Harmony and Peace displays the three bronze statues of Lord Buddha – each depicting Buddha from a different age. A pre-designated area allows devotees to bow down and light incense sticks – before entering the hall. And I also understood why one needed an entire box of incense sticks. Somewhere, before entering the last hall, I took a breather. I was tired and the weather extremely hot. A cute Chinese kid sat along with her mother on the same bench as me. And before I knew it, I had found myself posing with her for a snap. Her mother showed me snaps taken with other ‘tourists’.
It was nearing lunch time and we thought of grabbing a bite before visiting Confucius Temple. The walk to the temple is pretty scenic – with scraggy branches of cypress trees dominating the skyscape. The street is lined with shops selling religious and tourist souvenirs. It might have been a good idea to eat something while we were here, but we got lost in the old tiled rooftops (characteristic Hutong Style) and entered the main temple instead.
We’ve never been to a Confucius Temple and although our stomachs reminded us it was time to eat something, we proceeded in. At the main gate an audio visual presentation explains the history of the temple. Sadly, it wasn’t in English. The temple lawns are abundant with cosy seating areas and finding a spot of solitude wouldn’t be hard to find. Read a book, dream, or go to sleep. On either side there are small halls with characteristically painted rooftops. After a short break of quiet, we headed to the main hall of the temple. Da Cheng Hall (Hall of Great Success) is eerily quiet with bursts of red breaking the monotony of colour. The hall is where successive Emperors worshipped Confucius.
A souvenir shop, inside the temple premises, sells everything from calligraphy to books on the teachings of Confucius. The exit of the shop leads to a walkway with a statue of Confucius (depicted as an elderly man in long robes) and paintings of his disciples on panels.
Another exit leads into a hall containing rows of ancient scripture on stone steles encrypted with 13 Confucius classics. It was fascinating. To be able to walk through time – with each passing tablet of stone. We took a short break to drink Beijing yogurt – the only food available on the premises.
Adjoining the Confucius temple is the Imperial College. You can either choose to enter from the main gate (adjoining the Confucius Temple) or wander about the copious temple lawns and find your way to the college. The Imperial College is a national treasure of sorts and was an important site of learning during the rule of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
Bi Yong Hall is surrounded by a moat of turquoise water. The water was teeming with bright orange Koi fish. The main hall is where the Emperor delivered his lectures on the teachings of Confucius to students and court officials alike.
There is a towering statue of Confucius – painted red with wooden wish plaques. In the afternoon sun, each plaque bursts into a bright shade of red.