Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, & the Hutong PLUS an Easy Chinese Cold Noodle Recipe
First up – Temple of Heaven (and the blistering sun)
It’s only 8AM in Beijing, but just a few steps out of our hotel and we’re quick to find out it’s already quite hot out. We just need to hike our butts about two and a half blocks to the nearest subway station before we’re off to the Tiantandongmen stop (the “East Gate of Temple of Heaven), where we’ll grab the nearest breakfast, get our tickets, and wander a bit around the old Temple. Temple of Heaven was used by the Emperors for their annual prayer for good harvest. Today it’s mostly a tourist trap, so get there early to avoid the crowds.
The complex largely consists of a 660-acre park with playgrounds, exercise, and game areas. If you come early enough, you’ll glimpse elderly locals doing slow, concerted tai ji quan moves “for good health.” The temple itself and its associated buildings are quite simple in comparison to the nearby Lama Temple, but still a worthwhile sight. On this terribly hot Beijing day, locals shield themselves from the sun with umbrellas. An odd sight at first, I decide later on they have the right idea. I am tempted to ask a couple of English-speaking tourists if I could use some of the sunscreen they so greedily spread on their legs in the corridor leading up to the temple. I chicken out and, as a result of my cowardice, I am certainly burnt.
Tickets & Notes
Price for a ticket to the entire complex is 35 RMB from April to November and 30 RMB from December through March (prices are liable to change, so just know it’s within this ballpark as of 2017). Be careful when you buy your ticket at the gate, as there are several entries to other sights which also require a paid ticket. It can be confusing to figure out whether your ticket covers just entrance to the park or multiple sights, especially if your Chinese language skills are poor.
A | Hutong — Lama Temple — Hutong | Sandwich
Right after the Temple of Heaven, we know we want to see the Lama Temple and the Hutong. Stumbling out of the Temple of Heaven with what felt like a flirtation with heat stroke, we find refuge in the shade of the surrounding neighborhood. The kind ticket handlers right out side of the Temple of Heaven advise us to walk a mere three blocks to the subway station to get a train to Lama Temple. But we find ourselves too out of sorts to even walk so far. I want to take an auto-rickshaw again because I loved the one we took from the Summer Palace just a few days before. We find one and he is happy to take us to the hutong, not too far away.
I think we pictured the hutong that had been renovated and modernized to attract tourists. Instead, we end up in a legitimate hutong. A hutong where local Beijingers build their lives, raise their children, take off their shoes, sit down for supper, and live. The “real” Beijing.
We love the sights, sounds, and smells of these hutong. We wander around for about a half and hour until we realize how close we were to being utterly lost. Then we wander right out to a main street and hail the next cab.
A quick note about cabs in Beijing
We crawl into the first cab available and request first, 打表 (Da3 biao3, in pinyin), to ensure the driver turns on the meter. We wouldn’t want to get taken on a proverbial ride. As we’ve learned, some drivers like to quote a price much higher than the metered price. On one such adventure, the cabbie told us it would be 100 yuen to take us to our hotel. We insisted he turn on the meter and our ride ended up being 42 yuen. It’s worth it to learn these words before taking any cab. The cabbie we get on this visit is all too happy to turn the meter on and chat us up.
If you can manage a conversation in Chinese, you’ll find that Beijing cab drivers love to chat. You can score some awesome local tips through them.
Lama Temple (Yonghe Gong)
The Lama Temple, or Yonghe Gong in Pinyin, is my second favorite site of Beijing. The architecture is quite stunning with beautiful statues to be seen in each hall. Our favorite is the 18 meter tall Maitreya found in the fifth hall, the Wànfú Pavilion. This Maitreya is reputedly carved from a single block of sandalwood! There is a lot to see here, including loyal worshipers who bow and pray in one of the many halls in the Lama Temple. The most devoted acolytes will pray in each of the five halls, lighting incense either before each hall or for each deity/statue.
It is also at the Lama Temple where I will have my first unsolicited picture taken by a Tibetan “monk” who sneaks it in while another monk attempts to speak to me. A kindly elderly woman stopped by to ensure that the monks aren’t harassing my husband and me for money. Apparently, there’s been an issue with people posing as monks and asking for money, so be on guard.
Tickets & Notes
Price for a ticket is 25 RMB (prices are liable to change, so just know it’s within this ballpark as of 2017). We received a mini-disc with our ticket, presumably with tour footage however we don’t have the correct media player to confirm. Be on the watch for anyone dressed as a monk who asks you for money. Donations can be made in secure boxes throughout the site, so don’t hand your money to anyone who solicits you. Generally, when in China, be wary of anyone whose English skills are passable and ask for money (unfortunately).
Hutong #2: Nanluogu Xiang (I think…)
Beijing houses many hutong and we found it quite difficult to communicate which we wanted to see. One Beijing public employee rolled her eyes impatiently when we attempted to ask where to find the nearest hutong and set about educating us about our ignorance of the number of hutong we could possibly be referring to. So, unfortunately, I cannot tell you confidently which one we finally find ourselves in which is brimming with activity, from locals and tourists alike. We had asked for Nanluogu Xiang, and this is where our cabbie drops us off.
The street bustles with pedestrian, bike, and motorcycle traffic and, in the suffocating heat, at times it becomes almost unbearable. But the promise of shops and cafes begs us to keep going. Including an incredible cat cafe where I get to squeeze through hundreds of people clamoring to pet cats to pet some myself. The cats are wise enough to know who of the crowds were cat lovers, and were receptive to my outstretched hands over the other hands competing for the touch. These cats are like celebrities, walking the carpet, and choosing which of the paparazzi to grant the time of day to.
The cafe even has an Asian Leopard Cat (the breed which makes up the wild half of the Bengal cat breed) on display, although she is caged and not so receptive to our attention.
After I get my fill of petting cats, we move on to another cafe. It is at the next cafe where I have my first Liangpi (凉皮, or Cold Noodle) in Beijing.
Homemade Liangpi, or, Easy Easy Chinese Cold Noodle Recipe
As I mentioned before, adapting the recipes we learned in Beijing for the U.S. kitchen has been a bit of a challenge. First conquered was the one that I found myself craving most: Liang Pi. Our version is easier but captures the flavor I fell in love with in Beijing.
You can use rice noodles or wheat noodles for this dish, but the flat, thick wheat noodles usually used in this dish might be harder to find. If you want the authentic wheat noodle flavor, you can make your own or go to a local Asian market and look for Shanxi Noodles. Otherwise, rice noodles will do fine.
The next point to consider is if you want to make your own chili oil or if you want to buy it. If you choose to buy it, I can’t recommend Lao Gan Ma’s brand (linked in the image below) enough. It has been my favorite chili oil that I’ve ever tasted. I use it on everything.
Now for the recipe!