Saturday, 5 November 2011
If I had to sum up recent travels in one word, then this year has definitely been the year of Asia. Temple-spotting, food which always seems to contain noodles, people so slim they make me look like a beached whale...we've managed to tick a number of Asian countries off the list in the past 12 months. However, somehow we had missed the big one - China. So when a family member moved to Beijing for work, we naturally ensured that we made some time to pay a visit and explore a little of this vast country whilst there.
Although I'd heard many tales about China's capital, nothing could prepare me for the reality of the city. Vast and well developed, laden with designer shops, huge skyscrapers and evidence everywhere of China's emerging world influence, it is without doubt the busiest place I've ever been. Cars sat constantly in traffic, the metro was always full and the streets lined with people. The smog hanging thick in the air at times appeared suffocating, preventing us from seeing more than a few metres ahead, giving everything a grey hue.
We decided to base ourselves primarily in Beijing to be able to explore what the city had to offer fully, with a break in the middle to tick a couple of the 'must see' sights further afield. The real advantage of staying with someone who was living in China was sleeping in a residential area, rather than the main hostel zones, so setting off on our first morning involved wandering past small parks, seeing schools in full swing and people rushing about on their day's business.
Encouraged by a break in the smog after a bout of rain and the only blue skies we were destined to experience during the trip, we headed towards the Lama and Confucius temples in the north of the central district. The whole surrounding area was lovely - bright lanterns and flags hung from tree-lined alleys; men sat around in groups on the roadside arguing over board games, and the smells from the small restaurants made my mouth water.
After walking right past the entrance to Lama temple twice, we finally switched our brains on, seeing the completely obvious signpost and paid our entrance fee. The colours were incredible - a complete contrast to the mostly muted pastel shades we'd seen in SE Asia, brought alive by touches of gold, Lama temple was coated in vivid shades of primary colours, lit up by the sun. The familiar sweeping roofs associated with Chinese architecture gave the impression of multiple levels as they slotted in amongst each other, and the deep plum of the monk's robes completed the scene.
Although right in the centre of a bustling part of the city, the temple felt relaxed and calming, and we spent a long time exploring it's different elements before giving in to our stomachs and finding some food.
Once we were truly stuffed, we made our way to the Confucius temple. Although virtually on the other side of the road, the style was very different from that of Lama temple. The buildings initially looked very similar, although the use of stone was extensive and the colours less bright. Moats surrounded the larger buildings, filled with gawping orange fish, and ornate trees offered peaceful spots to sit under. The bases of statues of the man himself were covered with small red charms hung by visitors, and rows of carved stone pillars remind that this was always a place of learning as well as beauty.