June 26, 2010

Day 21: Urumqi to Turpan

Tuyu Vallery Mosque, Turpan

Taking a local bus in any country is always an ordeal when traveling with my camera bag. It has to stay with me at all times; solution is to purchase an extra seat, but in China with so many people this is a problem. Instead, I hitched a ride from Urumqi to Turpan with a private mini-bus for the Chinese day tourists, my luggage in full view, securely stored behind the driver.

Funny thing about these Chinese tourists, they detest the sun so much. Driving in our shaded cocoon with window curtains pulled tight I could not see any of the scenery leaving Urumqi until we arrived at the first viewing stop. A wind farm located about an hour outside the city. I had an attitude that I could care less and was not too thrilled in stopping, since we have these in California too.

Also annoying, was the tour operator who felt obliged to begin talking the moment we pulled away from any site and continued talking until we stopped at the next location. Then, she would gather us up, to begin explaining something in great detail. At one point, I am sure having run out of facts or anecdotes, she started singing for a few miles, to every-ones delight except mine. It’s these little things that convince me not to go on group tours.

Since Turpan lies below sea level its the hottest place in China, yet most of my fellow passengers where covered from head to toe in some version of a poly-fiber material. Each time we unloaded from the bus to visit a site, umbrellas opened, face masks put in place and cotton gloves where worn to help obscure any inch of skin from the sun’s deadly rays.

Finally, after much delays and unnecessary stops to visit, reconstructed forts, artificially restored old cities, museums and factory outlet stores we arrived in Turpan, for lunch. It’s my time to depart the group and the new friends I made and head for my hotel. In a few hours my greeting for “Hello” changed from the Mandarin, “Ni Hao” to “As-Salam 'Alaykum” now that I was in the mostly Islamic Uyghur, Xinjiang Province.  It’s a simpler life of farm and family, where the sun shines 270 days a year.

Tomorrow is Day 24 and I am spending a few days in this charming town know for its grapes, famous for its raisons.

June 23, 2010

Day 16-20: Dunhuang

Mingsha Sand Dunes,  Dunhuang

To me, the quaint oasis town of Dunhuang represents the meeting place between sand and civilization. Walking down the tree lined main street leads right into the Mingsha Dunes’ sweeping 20 story arabesques. Approaching, it seemed to go from pavement to sand in a few short steps.

Curious about the camels I had photographed at the dunes in the morning, I set off again later that evening with friends from Long Island, Joan Digby and her husband John, who happened to be in Dunhuang too.  I ventured back toward the sand, veering off the road onto smaller trails that meandered into timeless moments. They spoke to me about the early caravan traders who arrived at this point where the Northern and Southern Silk Roads converge.

Camels Coming Home,  Dunhuang

Dunhuang, being an important destination for the traveler to either stock up for, or repair from, the arduous journey crossing the fiercely hot Taklamakan. I too, prepared for this next phase of my journey, and rode the Bactrian camel for a few hours to get the experience of the desert. It was not too pleasant, as my camera kept hitting the camel’s front hump then onto my leg.  Making the entire trip an event as I kept switching positions trying to get comfortable on this graceful animal of the sand.

Tomorrow is Day 21 stop over in Urumqi then onto Turpan the hottest place in China.

June 22, 2010

Day 13-14-15: Jiaguyuan

The Fortress at Jiaguyuan, in Gansu Province on the edge of the Gobi Desert is the most western section of the Great Wall that eventually undulates its way to Beijing. Today there is little romance about this cold desert city except its perfunctory usefulness with dozens of chemical factories processing the raw minerals from the nearby Qilian Mountain. Once a strategic fort guarding the narrow pass that bears its name. It was the last outpost for travelers on the Silk Road leaving China for the wilder wilderness of Xinjiang Province and the West.

Western Section of the Great Wall,  Jiaguyuan

I was drawn to the fort’s high-terrace pavilions and crenellated walls, but after a day and a half shooting I soon tired of this relic of the past. Wandering through a nearby village I came across these farmers sitting by the side of the road playing a local board game.

The player’s own confusion on his next move reflected my inner turmoil; should I take the crowded 5-hour bus to Dunhuang or hire the driver who I have been with these few days in Jiaguyuan.

Go-No-Go,  Jiaguyuan

I decided on the taxi driver to take me through the Hexi Corridor on the 5-hour journey. He told me he would bring his sister along as an extra driver. But when I arrive at the car the backseat is full with sister, wife and child all ready for the adventure ride to Dunhuang.

Tomorrow is Day 16 and the Sand Dunes at Dunhuang.

June 15, 2010

Day 7 to 12: Xi’an

As my 7th day in China turned to dusk, I left the shadows of the Great Mosque and the chaotic sounds from the lively Muslim Market that sprawled through its narrow side streets. The density was intense with the layers of activity. Tourists, hawking vendors, three-wheeled motor surreys, and the roaring motorcycles were becoming tiresome.

I soon retreated to the peaceful gardens of the thousand-year-old Big Wild Goose Pagoda located near my hotel. To my delight, while I was wandering the grounds, I came upon a small green alcove where a monk from the Da Ci’en Temple was tending to his pet grasshoppers, which he kept in small jars. These captive insects were each busy munching on a single soybean as the monk tenderly fed them special food from a tiny toothpick. It was a timeless quintessential moment.

Monk with Grasshopper, Xi’an

 Terracotta Warriors Found, Xi’an

Tourists from around the world fly in for one day to see the famous Terracotta Warriors, the discovery by three farmers in 1974 that has changed Xi’an forever. But for me, it’s the romance of Buddhist monk Xuanzang , the intrepid traveler.  His epic journey to India opened relations with China, when in 629, He left Xi’an to bring back a comprehensive understanding of Buddhism. His journey marks the beginning of the Silk Road and I am following in his path today, retracing his footsteps in Xinjiang Province. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was built to house the thousands of sutras and manuscripts Xuanzang carried with him on his return to Xi’an 17 year later.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda Park, Xi’an

Tomorrow is Day 13 and I am off to Jiaguyuan the Western section of the Great Wall and the gateway for the Silk Road travelers from the west entering China.

June 9, 2010

Day 6: Summer Palace, Beijing

This morning I photographed the historic Lu Song Yuan for the Silk Road Hotel Group. The head of marketing fell in love with my destination photographs and commissioned me to photograph, in my own style, three of their properties. This is a great honor; the Silk Road Hotels are respected for their cultural authenticity and located in some of the best places in China. I am delighted too, since one of my joys in traveling is finding hotels that have a unique local flavor. Now, I’ve been invited to stay in traditional hotels in Beijing, Dunhuang and Shouzou. This is one of the mystical indications that I am on the right path.

Once I finished shooting at the hotel, I headed to the enchanting Summer Palace located on the northwestern edge of Beijing. It’s my last day in the capital city and it should be a toss up between the Summer Palace and the Forbidden Palace. To me it was a no brainer. I’d seen the rooftops from afar but I wanted to be in nature with Pagodas, surrounded by lakes, flowing streams and picturesque bridges. All the iconic romantic symbols of Chinese landscape design in one place, a photographers dream and I was not disappointed.

Red Pagoda, Summer Palace, Beijing

Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing

Tomorrow is Day 7 and I am off to Xi’an the capital of ancient China and the city from where the Silk Road originated.

June 6, 2010

Days 5: The Great Wall and Houhai Nights, Beijing

Wall Walk View, Mutianyu Great Wall, China

The Great Wall is one of those “must do’s” when visiting Beijing. I’ve seen the wall from photographs, from movies, from outer space. For me, I was not so much interested in the wall, as seeing the neighboring village outside of the city. I chose to visit the Mutianyu section, some 70km north and one of the best preserved. Also, fewer tourists visit since the drive is almost two hours from Beijing. I found Mr. Lui at the front desk of the hotel when I went to inquire about a car and driver. He seemed friendly enough and even spoke a little English. Devananda was coming along too, and would be able to translate. Mr. Lui picked up Devananda first and they both arrived at the hotel exactly at 2:00pm as planned, since I was hoping for sunset shots at the Great Wall.

It was a fun ride, we chatted and laughed our way out of the city. The dense chaos of Beijing soon dissolved into green fields and tree lined sidewalks. Each tree was painted with a band of white paint and a red stripe about one third the way up its trunk, creating this beautiful pattern as we moved along.

I was lucky to find that there is a cable car to take you to the top. Unfortunately, the car stops at 5:30, which did not give us much time on the wall. This meant that there would be no sunset shots.

Surprise, surprise how jaded am I! Seeing the wall in person was more than I ever imagined.  It’s impressive as it undulates over ridges, dropping down into valleys, snaking its way across China.  We climbed to the first Watch Tower where the jasmine flowers were blooming all around us filling the air with a sweetness that was heaven scent.

Once down from the mountain I did a bit of yoga and Tai Chi with Devananda.  Then had a delicious dinner on the outskirts of Beijing.  We arrived to the hotel late and set off to the HouHai area for a drink to catch the night scene.  The hutongs to the lively Back Lakes district were alive with activity as people prepared for the evening.

Mao Entry, Suoyi Hutong, Beijing

Night Scene, Houhai, Beijing

Tomorrow is Day 6 and I am off to the Summer Palace for my last day in Beijing.

June 4, 2010

Day 4: The Lu Song Yuan and Hutong Culture

NanLuoGuXiang –“Nan-Loo-Go-Shoe-On” is how I say the words all together really fast. I love the sound of Beijing’s oldest hutong area. Today, a fashionable shopping street lined with bars, restaurants and shops. I see the Yuan Dynasty’s hutong, (Mongolian for water well) layout of 16 narrow lanes leading off from this central lane a bit confusing. I am looking for the 3rd hutong, No.22 Banchang Lane, which is where I am to find the Lu Song Yuan Courtyard Hotel.

 Finally leaving the western style Hi-Rise of the Wangfujing Grand and New York behind me, I will be living street level in my new room in the once private residence of Grand General Zeng Ge Ling Qin. He was a defense minister in the Qing Dynasty and his home is in the traditional quadrangle courtyard style. This is typical of the elegant residences of the officials, and aristocrats who live within close proximity to the Forbidden Palace. Today sadly the hutongs are being torn down to be replaced by the dazzlingly new structures that have excited the world.

 Window View Court  Lu Song Yuan Hotel, Beijing

Chinese Lamp in Window, Lu Song Yuan Hotel, Beijing

View From My Room, Lu Song Yuan Hotel, Beijing

 I never tire of the ubiquitous red lanterns all over the Beijing, now they are hanging right outside the doorway to my private courtyard.

Tomorrow is Day 5 and I feel in my element, excited to begin exploring the area, then later in the afternoon its to the Great Wall. I’ll leave the Summer Palace for my last day in Beijing.

June 1, 2010

Day 3: Temple of Heaven, Beijing

“Tian Tan Park, East Gate. Just remember that name and I’ll meet you by the ticket booth at 9:30.” These were the instructions that Devananda gave to me as we Skype the night before. This morning, I told it to the bellman and he explained the instructions in Chinese to the taxi driver.  And that’s how I get around, sort of like the game “Telephone”, and it usually works.

I get to the park early to settle in to enjoy the throngs of tourist, who arrive in two, threes, and tens. The big groups arrive in formation, usually led by ambitious women with sunglasses and large umbrellas.  It’s getting hotter, and I am becoming breathless waiting. It’s easy for me to loose patience in the stifling heat. When from amongst the crowd I see a familiar smiling face wrapped in a big red bandana. It’s Devanada, radiating such joy and delight that I forget about being anxious. He leads me into the park, where I immediately buy a straw hat and join in with the other missed-matched tourists. Devananda waves me over to a crowd of couple’s ballroom dancing.

Joy of Dance, Tian Tan Park, Beijing

 A few groups over and 50 -75 people are line dancing while others watch. Drifting up the stairs to the colonnade, we follow the sounds of windpipes, then move on pass the classical opera singers and the cello players. Where’s the Frisbee throwers, the dogs, the runners? I thought this was supposed to be a Park! I am moved by the Chinese people’s great sense of happiness from these simple pleasures. As I ascend the marble steps to the Temple of Heaven, I am reminded of Jerusalem. The Temple mount’s vast expanse feels the same, the layout similar.

Tian Tan, Beijing

Temple of Heaven Fire Grates, Beijing

We pause, glimpse inside and take photos in the Temple’s arches. We move to the grounds below, where amongst the sparse Aspen trees, we find the place to do Tai Chi. Here is Devananda second home. He’s been practicing in the park for years, with his special master. Soon, others watch as Devanada shows the locals how a specific exercise is preformed. He explains in Chinese the reasoning behind the action. Suddenly, the crowd breaks into applause impressed by Devananda’s power and fluid graceful movements.

Devanada Tai Chi, Tian Tan Park, Beijing

Unfortunately, I have to leave the peace and tranquility to attend the panel discussion with the Beijing Cultural and Historical Preservation society. It’s about to begin shortly.

Then I plan to join up with Ira and May for some classic Peking duck. Its only Day 3 and I am already falling in love with this country and the people.

Peking Duck Surgery,  Xiheyaju  Restaurant, Beijing

Tomorrow is Day 4 and I move to my new hotel Lu Song Yuan and then off to the Summer Palace.

Mt. Ararat

Marla Mossman

My photo
One woman traveling alone, in search of her religious and cultural heritage.