At Beijing's Temple of Heaven Park, Jim Eagles is captivated by the music and decides to stay, just for the joy of it.
For 600 years, Chinese emperors went to Temple of Heaven Park to pray and offer sacrifices for a good harvest. Today it's where the people of Beijing go to practise their music.
I went there for a quick look at the Altar of Heaven and the attendant temple buildings. But I stayed for hours to watch the locals at play.
I'd only just got inside the North Celestial Gate when I heard music and went to investigate. In an alcove of the gate a choir was singing lustily to the accompaniment of a collection of traditional instruments. And so it continued.
On the broad pathway leading to the spectacular round Hall of Prayer for a Good Harvest dozens of groups of young people — and some not so young — were busy keeping brightly coloured shuttlecocks in the air with their feet.
In a corner beside the marble staircase leading up to the west entrance of the hall a man was playing the saxophone. He wasn't busking, there was no hat in front of him to collect money, just playing away for the joy of it.
As I wandered around the hall, admiring the remarkable structure and the beautiful decorations, more music was wafting in on all sides. Some of it was traditional Chinese music from the loudspeakers dotted through the grounds, but most was of a different kind.
Just below the great ceremonial way, which leads from the hall to the next temple, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, young people were gathered around a young man with a great bush of black hair singing pop songs with the aid of some electronic backing music. On the other side, a bouncy young woman was doing the same, ending each song with a leap and a shriek of ecstasy, to the delight of her mostly male audience.
The special attraction of the vault is the surrounding wall, which is so perfectly built that it is said a whisper at one end will immediately travel to a friend at the other end. Even if I had someone to whisper to I doubt it would have been heard above the delighted shouts of the locals.
Further down the ceremonial way, in the direction of the giant three-tiered marble altar, there were more intriguing sounds.
No one was performing on the altar, built, apparently, to a complicated geometric formula based on the imperial lucky number nine, but music seemed to be coming from just outside its high wall. And, sure enough, sitting on a bench in the shade of the trees which cover this huge park were two very old men playing flutes. Their music was beautiful so I found another shady bench and sat to listen.
When they took a break I wandered to the Long Pavilion, a delightfully decorated covered way, from which snatches of very un-Chinese music were drifting. Sure enough, in one section of the pavilion where the imperial family once walked undercover, Turkish music was blasting forth and several dozen locals in elaborate costumes were enjoying themselves dancing. One beaming man had entered so enthusiastically into the Turkish theme that as well as wearing a colourful outfit he was sporting an obviously fake moustache.
In another section of the pavilion a smaller group was prancing around to some piano accordion music. And further along I could hear what seemed to be Scottish music.
It was too much. I went off to explore the beautiful grounds. At the eastern edge of the park I came across the Animal Killing Pavilion and the Divine Kitchen whose names spoke for themselves. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't much music there but several kite-flyers had fish, birds and planes soaring from a base amid the nearby flower beds.
On the western edge was the impressively named Double-ring Longevity Pavilion, consisting of two circular pavilions joined together, which I thought I should visit in the hope of ensuring a long life.
When I got there all attention was focused on an adjacent gazebo where a man with a piano accordion was putting an opera singer through her paces. Goodness. What next?
What next turned out to be several men playing traditional Chinese fiddles. Three of them were sitting, scraping away near the base of the marvellously gnarled Nine Dragon Cypress.
Further off, at the foot of the park wall, was a lone player who, to my untutored ear, sounded very good.
I had been in the park much longer than planned so started to head off to explore a hutong area of traditional housing I had come across on my way there.
But when I got back to the north gate what seemed like a full Chinese orchestra was in action.
The audience was so thick I could barely see the players — the instruments looked traditional apart from a viola being played by a tiny woman — but the music was delightful so I gave up on the hutong and sat down to listen. It was heavenly.
Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Beijing, via Changi, with return Economy Class seats starting at $1556. singaporeair.com
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