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February 16, 2012

THE REAL BEIJING GAMES

In his pacy, page-turner thriller, The Eighth Day, Alistair Smith tells of the race against time to thwart a bid by a ruthless group to grab control of China in the midst of the confusion of the opening of the Beijing Olympics. The city’s ancient Temple of Heaven is the setting for several key scenes -- in the beginning when a main character flees from the Red Guards, and during the climax as the good guys close in on the plotters. Here is the author’s real story of the Temple of Heaven ...

THE REAL BEIJING GAMES

By ALISTAIR SMITH

It is early Sunday morning in Beijing, the city that hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, and the citizens of the Chinese capital have come out to play.

But not for them the traumas of the triathlon, the dizzy heights of the pole vault, or the bulging eyes and grunting snorts of weight-lifting.

Instead, they are gathering in their thousands in the 250-hectares of shady parkland that surrounds the 16th century Temple of Heaven, greeting old friends and peeling off in groups, each to its own favourite spot.

Once there, they will spend the next few hours pursuing their favourite past-times. And what an extraordinary range of activities, some most unexpected or unusual, there are.

It’s easy to take a bus from the centre of Beijing to the Temple of Heaven, and there’s a small admission charge to enter the temple complex, which varies according to the season. It costs me the equivalent of $4, but the locals are using a much cheaper monthly pass.

On the first walkway inside the main gate, a group of people were performing what looked like the Chinese equivalent of boot-scooting, while alongside that others practiced modern ballroom dance routines.

Across the way, it was synchronised flag-waving, and elsewhere gymnastic ribbons were creating flowing rainbows of colour.

There was music: a solo player on a traditional stringed instrument, a choir or a 40-piece mouth organ band.

An area was filled with equipment painted bright purple, violet and turquoise allows the older generation to do gentle exercise to keep their joints supple, in contrast to fit young men swinging on parallel bars, or doing contortionists’ tricks with poles.

Impromptu games of badminton and other racquet games were in progress; a group of calligraphy artists were honing their skills drawing characters on paving slabs using huge brushes dipped in water.

The “Long Corridor” – five metres wide and 350 metres long -- connects various sections of the temple complex, providing shelter and shade. It is jammed with people, sitting on its balustrades or on folding stools in small alcoves, playing dozens of different card and board games, lustily slapping down the winning card, or pondering deeply over their next move.

However, the Temple of Heaven itself remains a peaceful place, despite being filled with tourists. It’s dominated by the main temple, a huge bell-shaped tower constructed on top of glistening granite terraces, sparkling bright blue in the sunlight. It stands 40-metres high and its ceiling is supported by wooden pillars without using nails or bolts.

Halls flanking the square around the temple house changing exhibitions relating to the temples and the emperors who came here to pray for good harvest.

Another drawcard for visitors is the Echo Wall, a circular structure 65metres in diameter. In theory, your whisper will reach your friend on the far side. In practice, that’s hard with several people testing the theory at one time.

But don’t be disappointed. On a Sunday morning, there’s always people-watching in the park instead.


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