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Beijing Ancient Observatory

Beijing Ancient Observatory
 
   
   
   
   
 
 

I WAS staying just across the road from the Beijing Railway Station. It was after midnight when I had arrived at the hotel, following two long flights from home following the Western side of the Pacific Ocean.

Hotel towering over the City Wall

Hotel towering over the City Wall

Later today I’ll be starting an epic 11,000 kilometre train journey across Eurasia. For now though I had the entire morning to explore this part of the city. I wanted to make the most of my time here as it my first time in China, so I headed off into the thick humid early Autumn haze. Although the sky was almost completely fine, the thick haze faded the sun into a sickly orange disc and the few large clouds hanging around were almost invisible against the steely grey pollution.

The fast-moving deafening heavy traffic constantly fed the thick pollution, reminding me that this small corner of the world covering a radius of a couple of thousand kilometres contained half of the world’s rapidly expanding population. It was already bursting with close to four times the number of people the planet can sustain. The overcrowding is not apparent in Australasia where I’m from as it is one of the remotest corners of the world. Here in the middle of the most crowded part of the world it is painfully obvious.

Ancient city wall

Ancient city wall

In amongst the towering modern high rises was a stone wall forming what had once been part of China’s 20,000-kilometre Great Wall. This remnant had somehow survived the desecration of communism and modern industrialism. Much of what had been the city wall has been lost to the erosion of time, but in amongst the bright green trees over healthy mowed grass this section of wall still stands here to enclose what had once been the Imperial City.

After following a path through green parkland beside the wall I returned to the chaos of the modern traffic. I followed a path beside one of many very busy roads walking through what would have centuries ago been the farmland outside the Imperial City for about a block before I saw it.

Beijing Ancient Observatory

Beijing Ancient Observatory

A large stone structure of fortified walls resembling a British castle with ramparts towered before me. Each wall of this square tower leaned in a little into a truncated pyramid shape. I knew this was what I was looking for. I found the ticket office tucked away around the corner in a smaller stone building. Ticket in hand I entered the compound through a thick gate. I was instantly taken away from the chaos of modern traffic into an ancient Chinese setting, with stone walls and moon arches leading between different parts of the grounds. I had reached the Beijing Ancient Observatory.

Steps up the tower

Steps up the tower

My first aim was to get on top of the stone structure, from where observations had been made. I followed the stone stairs along one side before it turned and continued climbing the next wall until reaching the top. A small building selling souvenirs at the top occupied one corner. The rest of the top of the structure was a large paved area with a raised stone platform around it.

Building on top of the tower

Building on top of the tower

The raised platform formed the base for eight intricately constructed metal instruments built by China’s top astronomers after they combined their knowledge and artistry with scientific information traders from the West had shared with them centuries ago after the Qing dynasty took over from the Ming dynasty in the early 1600s.

Astronomy instruments

Astronomy instruments

Sadly, this ancient observatory has been well and truly superseded by modern radio telescopes and orbiting satellite telescopes. These observe the night sky clear of the thick soup of the increasingly polluted atmosphere of today’s world. This observatory now stands slowly decaying away under the thick cloud of Beijing’s pollution.

Still the instruments stand as proud reminders of the observatory’s 487-year continuous tenure with the reputation of being one of the world’s most advanced observatories for many of those years.

Armilla made in 1744

Armilla made in 1744

Fifteenth century Beijing was only a small city with clean air almost inconceivable to its modern inhabitants. Built just outside the city in 1442 under the Ming Dynasty, the fourteen-metre-high platform gave observers enough elevation above the smoky lights of the surrounding peasant villages to afford a clear view of the sky.

It remained in continuous use until 1929 when the city was much larger and the sky significantly polluted.

Celestial globe made in 1673

Celestial globe made in 1673

The instruments on the platform were complex, though most giving away its trigonometric secrets in calculating of the positions of the sun, moon and planets. A large bronze celestial sphere built in 1673 was a globe showing all the main stars and the path of the planets. No doubt the Chinese had devised their own system of constellations based on their ancient mythologies in a similar manner to the Greeks with the constellations we use today.

More instruments

More instruments

The astronomers spend hundreds of years poring over their data gathered in their observations not only for scientific predictions, but also for astrological projections. The information they gleaned from the heavens was passed onto royalty as astrological advice of the Feng Shui system.

View from the tower

View from the tower

There was little to observe today. The hot morning sun penetrated sharply through the thick soup of cloud over the bustling city of rectangular high rise buildings and meandering motorways. By night you’d be lucky to see the moon from here, yet alone the stars and planets. The only lights you’d see are the city street lights and those of the countless noisy vehicles tearing past below.

Large instrument in the garden

Large instrument in the garden

I headed back down the cobbled stairs discovering a large grassy courtyard partitioned with low well-manicured hedges and shrubs under larger trees. In each partition were even larger astronomical observation pieces and various statues of prominent astronomers. These were larger and more complex than the ones on top of the tower. These were made from metal gradually corroding flakes of metallic blue and green. At the back was a small observatory with a dome on top. Perhaps this was a planetarium.

Small planetarium

Small planetarium

The large instruments sitting in amongst the traditional Chinese garden had a deep sense of timeless history about it. After all this tower had been constructed fifty years before Columbus discovered the Americas and formed such a pivotal role in shaping China’s unique long-standing culture.

Sundial

Sundial

Returning towards the gate I passed through a smaller paved courtyard of more astronomy tools. These were simpler devices than those I had seen previously, mainly sundials. One large sundial was accurately calibrated not only to give the time, but also the date based on the midday altitude of the sun. Unfortunately the pollution diffused the sunlight to the extent shadows weren’t obvious.

Accurate sun measuring device

Accurate sun measuring device

Through a moon entrance were several stone buildings with a gift shop and a small museum with more history of the observatory.

Moon entrance

Moon entrance

With an epic adventure to embark upon, I left the ancient observatory heading back into the chaos of modern civilisation, into a city so polluted, few people here have had the experience of having seen the brilliant night sky the astronomers of old would have enjoyed night after glorious night over nearly half a millennia.

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04 September 2016

 

Beijing

China

 

39°54'27"N
116°26'05"E
44m ASL

 

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Jeff

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