With one last morning free in Beijing, we had a bit of a debate: should we go to the Temple of Heaven or to the Museum of the Revolution? We would have flipped a coin, but when we asked our tour guide he gave us a look that shouted "are you insane?" and said simply, "There's nothing in the museum that's so special or unique that a visit there is critical. The Temple of Heaven is something you will not see any where else on Earth." That settled it.
Tiantan is not a single structure. The building that is often captioned "The Temple of Heaven" is actually the Temple for the Prayer for a Good Harvest. The Temple of Heaven is comprised of several buildings and courtyards. Each year, just before the Winter Solstice, the king would leave the Forbidden City, travel in total silence through the streets, unseen by any commoner, and enter the temple precincts to make a petition for a good harvest.
To get the best sense of how it worked, enter the temple through the south heavenly gate. Up a set of stairs to the robing terrace, then another set to the Round Altar, where prayers would be said and sacrifices made. The number of steps is significant -- there are 9 sets of 9 stairs. 9, as the largest single-digit odd number, was considered the most heavenly number.
Down the stairs on the other side of the altar, you will approach the Imperial Vault of Heaven, surrounded by an Echo Wall. It is said that if you stand facing the wall and whisper, someone on the other side will hear you. We tried and it didn't work. It could have been, however, that the Chinese idea of whispering is several times louder than the American version of whispering ... most people went up to the wall and screamed.
The gates of Prayer for Good Harvest lie near the northern end of the park. As you pass through them, you get your first unblocked view of the Temple of Prayer for Good Harvests. The simple white and blue exterior belie the splendor of the interior of the building. Every inch is painted in a riot of colors, with intricate furnishings and cabinets to hold the relics. Push your way in to get a good view.
On either side of the courtyard in front of the Temple of PGH are two buildings: one which explains the annual prayer ceremony, the other containing articles used during the ceremony and scenes from The Last Emperor which was filmed in the Temple Grounds. It was a great way to end an amazing trip.