Temple of Heaven Park

Every visitor to Beijing should get up early and go to a park to witness a unique feature of city life: the city's awakening to the gentle rhythms of mass t'ai chi exercises, the song of caged birds brought out for some air, the pleasures of open-air breakfast, and the cool morning light falling on temples and other historic buildings. There are plenty of excellent parks in the centre of Beijing, such as Beihai Park, with its lake, just to the north-west of the Forbidden City, and Zhongshan Park, between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City – good places to relax at any time of day, but extra-special in the early morning.

Particularly impressive is one of the largest public parks in the city: the Temple of Heaven Park, which lies about 1.5 km (1 mile) to the south-east of Tiananmen Square. It was developed on sacred ground during the Ming dynasty as a centre for all-important rituals performed by the emperor, who arrived on fixed days at the head of colossal processions of extravagantly attired nobles and officials.

The rites and sacrifices took place at three sites still in the park: the ornately-carved Round Altar, the shrine called the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and – the most impressive and famous of them all – the pagoda-like Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. All are round because that, apparently, is the shape of Heaven, while the Earth is square.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven is surrounded by the Echo Wall, which also acts as a whispering gallery – a diversion so popular that the numbers of people trying it out often defeat the exercise.

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