As a last hurrah to San Francisco and its importance in the global community, Gee Kin and I attended an event sponsored by his alma mater, the University of Canterbury in Christ Church, New Zealand. The former ambassador to the US and now the chancellor of Canterbury was promoting the University’s new buildings and developments after the recent earthquake. He was hoping to gain support among the New Zealanders in the US and was on a whistle-stop tour of 8 major US cities. He spoke to a group of us here in San Francisco, along with the NZ Vice Consul from Los Angeles.
One of Canterbury’s success stories is the engineering department. They are collaborating with UC Berkeley to develop better earthquake engineering technology. Both institutions have participated in the past in signficant earthquake engineering research.
Other engineering departments and computer science departments have also gained recognition world-wide.
Christ Church sees itself at the cusp of new cutting edge development, both physically and virtually. Canterbury is tapping into the knowledge base of New Zealanders living in the US to help them forge new connections, create exchange opportunities, and raise funds for its programs.
While the group was small, the chancellor had an opportunity to meet and chat with everyone in an intimate setting at the Diplomat Club at the Fairmont Hotel.
Old friends Richard (who went to high school with Gee Kin and now works in the Bay Area), his wife Kris, David (Gee Kin and Richard’s instructor in Christ Church, who now lives here), and Keith were all present at the event. Unfortunately, David and Emilie, who are in Lebanon, were not able to attend.
1. Gee Kin and Richard at the Nob Hill Cafe in San Francisco after University of Canterbury Event
2. Victoria, Kris, and David
Well, all loyal family and friends,
Around the world in 68+12 days has come to an end. It has been an incredibly fruitful, deep learning and deep cleansing experience for me. I was able to get all those kinks out of my system that I carried through many years of working, and could really stretch my brain by choice to its fullest. The trip to Uzbekistan stands at the top, for its luxurious setting, those who took exceptional care of me, and its little known but amazing cultural presence.
Both the Northern and Southern portions of the Silk Road were important links to understanding the development of trade and culture between east and west. To this day, the blending of the two are sometimes indecipherable. Who was to blame? Who gets the credit? Historians will be left to answer those unanswered, or unanswerable questions.
Thanks to Gee Kin for being my translator and guide for the Northern portion. We had to wing it in many cases, but got a lot of pride and prejudice from our decisions. It was riding wild and woolly, and a lot of fun in the process. The Southern portion, with excellent guides and a tour company to iron out all the logistics in advance (including a very clumsy visa process), get a round of applause for keeping my mind, body and spirit healthy and happy.
Keeping a blog obviously has its ups and downs, but overall it served as my companion. It gave me impetus to research questions on the spot (although you may find some of my facts and entries flawed or missing backup data). I tried to keep my impressions in the forefront and timely to avoid getting bogged down and behind. With a little bit of discipline, it seemed to work and the pace was very manageable.
For anyone contemplating doing a blog, I would say it’s worth a shot. Setting up a travel itinerary with an educational intent, whether you document it or not, helps to move the interest level up a notch (as opposed to picking a spot like Mexico, Galapagos, etc. purely from a bucket list). That will compell you to look ahead each day and determine what you want to achieve in advance. Then the documentation part comes much more fluidly.
I have a lot to say about postings and where you are posting from. Technically, an average person can decipher blog formatting. What is difficult is if you get “messed with”. No more needs to be said, except that its great to be back in a free country. We shouldn’t take that too lightly. Naturally, the hotels and their claims for Internet access are really a crap shoot, but try to remember that we are not in San Francisco, where access seems to be a right and not a privilege.
My whole premise for this trip is to make connections by connecting the dots. Remember how fun it was to play that graphic game with pin points on a grid? You could claim the boxes you made. Same delight for me, and it was fun to play alone as much as it was to play with others. My all-time favorite book and quote comes from Howard’s End, and the frontispiece message, “only connect”…
Two books I will reiterate were worth reading before, during and after this trip are “the Silk Road-A New History” by Cynthia Hansen and “the Orientalist” by Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Reiss. I have thanked the donors of this latter book profusely, and for introducing me to such an enlightening book. It was totally appropriate to my wants and desires to understand where and why I was traveling. So thanks again, Leena and Jim!
I would be remiss if I failed to thank Hanni and Jens for inspiring me to study in Germany, and all of their intensive care and concern during my stay in Dresden. Knowing local residents of my favorite European city made all the difference, and they gave me confidence to make the leap into a new and welcoming environment. Viele Danke, Hanni und Jens!
So, goodbye, auf Wiedersehen und Zai Jian once more, to all friends and family who were willing and able to participate! Stay in touch, and I love you all!!
Fondly, warmly, wonderfully, gratefully, happily,
PS. An updated index of posts will follow as my final post.
Segment IV, while a continuation of China, was the Non-Silk Road portion of the trip. Gee Kin and I stayed in Szechuan 5 days with an overnight in Emei Shan. Gee Kin returned to the US after that, and I traveled solo overnight on a rail journey from Chengdu to Guangzhou. After that, my final destination was Hong Kong before heading back to San Francisco via Vancouver.
The photos are in triplets, three for each city. Most of our earlier trips to China focused on the heavily populated cities of the East Coast, namely Beijing, Shanghai and Qingdao. It was a completely different experience visiting Western China, where the food, character of the people, dialects, and temperament were distinctive.
The rapid growth of Chengdu and Guangzhou were astounding. I felt as if portions of Putong District in Shanghai were airlifted there. The noticeable presence of cranes was unavoidable, and I felt a bit like a country bumpkin trying to navigate around big complexes, malls, and huge underground systems.
Hong Kong had always had this buzz, but relative to these other cities it too felt behind in some respects. There are fewer sites to develop so the other cities appeared to be amassing more square foot on a pure volume basis. But clearly in the lapse since I had last been there (a span of perhaps 3-5 years), there had already been extensive infill projects, more electronic advertising on sides of buildings, and several new mass transit lines added.
Going back to Chengdu, it’s clearly a city on the rise. People seemed to be excited that this inland city was getting its share of development. The malls were filled with local tourists who worked hard so they could spend money. There were very few foreigners in this part of China. Even atop Emei Shan there were only a handful of foreigners among the scant groupings of local Chinese tourists. For that, it made going up the mountain a worthwhile adventure.
Guangzhou shot me into the twenty-first century. The cultural buildings near my hotel in Tian He were impressive in size and scale, but the design and quality were questionable. These buildings completed in the last few years included the Library by Japanese architects Nikken Sekkei, the Guangzhou Provincial Museum by Rocco Designs from Hong Kong, and the Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid. Clearly Guangzhou’s Bureau of Architecture was intent on putting the city on the world map and has managed to do so virtually overnight.
Taking from the concept of two pebbles, the Opera House has sweeping angles and swoops to make the spaces in between buildings dynamic. But the building already looked prematurely worn and wrinkled. The museum was a vacuous building that didn’t seem to have enough material on display and lacked any kind of soul due to its monumental size. Materials were poorly assembled and chosen. The exterior of the building, with a wavy podium ramp to the side, did not make any sense supporting a very rectilinear box with slits and window cut outs. The library seemed to have the most promise, but I was not able to spend any time inside.
At last, arriving in Hong Kong felt a bit like a Homecoming. Three sets of friends from my earlier days working in Hong Kong kept me informed and entertained during my five day visit. The protests against the government were unsettling but did not occur until the day after I left. A good proportion of the Hong Kong people felt betrayed by the British government and by the Chinese, who promised to allow free elections for leaders chosen by the people. The complaint is that the Chinese government changed the terms of the agreement.
Food of course dominated my attention in Hong Kong. Food continues to maintain a very high standard and the innovative touch was evident. While I can’t speak for HK stocks or property speculating, this is one place to bet your money. It’s a winner every time, despite everything else around you never staying the same.
I’ll leave here to allow time for you to ponder my comments. In the next couple of days, I will close out my blog. As mentioned previously, I’d be happy to hear from you and provide details of each segment if you are interested.
Northern Silk Road
The missing link between the two major urban areas of Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Urumqi, China (see my post: a Thing for Thina) is very perplexing. With a flight time of just less than 2 hours, the distance over the Ferghana Valley and the Tian Shan mountains was indeed very short. Google maps had no discoverable routes between the two cities. Even Kashgar, the far outer reaches of Xinjiang Province accessible by train, had no published routes between these two cities in Google. You can go to Kashgar but there was no train to go beyond into Uzbekistan, and there were no flights from Tashkent to Kashgar. This was a Catch-22 for me.
There was probably a way to go via road locally, but I did not see any reliable method that could be planned in advance. Thus my itinerary and decision was to fly from Tashkent to Urumqi, where Gee Kin and I successfully rendezvoused. It was somewhat miraculous that both of our flights arrived in Urumqi, his from San Francisco via Beijing, and mine direct from Tashkent, within ten minutes of each other. And we actually found each other in this far-flung, highly sensitive part of the world!
We know that this minor link had to exist overland, but it seems to have been forgotten and virtually decommissioned as the Silk Road declined over time. There were a number of other options, but they too have drifted by the wayside. We learned that the caravans traveled from oasis to oasis in the desert, where ground water was available. It seems so obvious once you are in the desert, staring at each grain of sand, that this was essential for survival and success of the Silk Road.
The camels could pack enough food for 2 months and water for 2 weeks. Other animals and men could go for 4 days, so the caravans timed their journeys so they would have enough provisions and wouldn’t get caught in between. From Dunhuang, on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, there were two basic routes to the next watering hole: one took seven days and was easier, and another took four days but was riskier. Doing the hop-skip made so much sense!
The other aha moment came when our guide explained the history of the two major outposts in China. Both Turpan and Dunhuang were major Silk Road trading points. Turpan contained one of the early walls from the 1st C. BC that preceded the Great Wall outside Beijing. And both the ruins of Gaocheng, a Han Dynasty city, and Jaio He, a fortress, were worth seeing but very remote from the current day town of Turpan.
The Han emperor sent the generals to fight the Hsiung Nu invaders from the North. When they finally won, a period of stability and civil order allowed the Han Dynasty to flourish. Trade and intercourse between the Chinese and the Sogdians, who were settling and trading in China, developed during this time. The Sogdians, if you recall, were the people who inhabited Bokhara and Samarkand! This period of prosperity lasted through the Tang Dynasty until the Mongols came down again from the dreaded north and ruined everything for the Tangs.
As soon as a sea route was discovered by Chang He in the Ming Dynasty, the party was over. It was better, faster, cheaper to go by sea to all the Middle East points. And sadly, the Silk Route diminished in its importance. While trade continued, the difficulty in going between desert and mountains became impractical and the cities like Dunhuang lost their significance.
After staring at the map for quite some time, I realized that all of the cities I visited were only within a few degrees’ latitude of each other: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara, Kiva, Turpan, and Dunhuang were nearly on the same latitude by a range of only 5 degrees. Amazingly, San Francisco lies in this zone of 38-42 degrees. There must have been something in the air or water that made me feel so at home in all of these locations. Maybe the wind direction had something to do with why the ancients chose to move eastward, or the water flow below fed the streams and wells in one horizontal line….
It was amazing that amidst the Turpan desert were extensive grape vineyards. They really gave the lush impression of the oasis. It was a little bit of Napa Valley in the middle of the Gobi! The wells and water sources were precious and more important than gold. To this day, they are maintained carefully as a national resource. The government has big plans to harness the desert’s solar and electrical power capabilities. A high-speed train is under construction and will be in operation next year. That’s when development and tourism will be inevitable, and will kick in big-time.
Both the Southern and Northern Silk Road segments were the highlights of my travels. If you are interested in details, please let me know, and I will be happy to share my plans with you.
1. Simplified map showing cities I visited on both Northern and Southern Routes: Kiva, Bokhara, and Samarkand in the south (Uzbekistan); and Turpan and Dunhuang in the north (China)
2-3. Ruins of Gaocheng and Jiao He
4-5. Ruins of Dunhuang Palace
The three UNESCO world sites I visited are: Samarkand, Bokhara, and the inner city of Kiva. Timur, or Tamarlane, who reigned in 1400, conquered India and was known to be one of the most powerful rulers in history. He was responsible for developing many of the building complexes in Samarkand.
He conquered India when Alexander the Great tried many centuries before and failed. Timur knew about the use of elephants in the campaign that beat Aexander. Timur released rats and mice against the elephants in his successful battle. The elephants were so scared that they fled, so the story goes.
The flowering of the Islamic culture occurred between 700-1300 AD, when Europe slumped from the Middle to the Dark Ages. Mathematics, science, and medicine flourished at this time. It wasn’t until Ghenghis Khan swept down from Mongolia and obliterated everything in his path when Central Asia declined.
The mosques, madrasahs (academic institutions) and the mausoleums were built during this golden period. The sites were renovated or new buildings were rebuilt on the original sites. The ongoing renovations resulted in varying degrees of success, but the beauty and magnificence of the original concepts of Islamic Architecture are still evident and being protected under the UNESCO umbrella.
At the time these buildings were built, their beauty was never allowed to be perfect. There was always a degree of incomplete construction by intent. Layouts of building sites or facades were asymmetrical, building beams were left uncut and projected from the eaves, or tiles were unfinished from the surface to reflect the imperfect nature of the human endeavor in paying respect to respect to Allah.
Visitors to these sites often find these conditions curious and strange. I found that it made you study and look at the buildings more closely. They didn’t seem so static and were more alive. It felt as if something was going to be corrected on the building in the next day, even it if it took centuries!
Coming to Central Asia helped me to understand the beginnings of the trade along the Silk Road, and the innovative people it took to forge their way into China. The environment, culture, and abilities of the Sogdians (originally from Persia) provided the tools and desire for them to seek the intercourse with other lands and people. They will surface again as we traced their steps along the Northern Silk Road.
August signaled a month of doing and learning German at the Goethe Institut in Dresden. I picked Dresden because this was my fourth year there attending one of the best music festivals in Europe. Being in the former East Germany, Dresden has some of the best musicians and the tickets are very reasonably priced. You even get a discount for a series of three events.
So there was no question where I wanted to spend time in Germany. Dresden’s beautifully restored buildings to its Baroque magnificence and the wealth of art treasures are not to be underestimated. Its gentle climate and beautiful geography made the decision easy. With a few beginner’s classes behind me in San Francisco, I felt ready to tackle a four-week intensive class, with 5 hours a day of immersion style, no English-spoken cold turkey training.
Within three minutes of the start of the class, we were asked to introduce ourselves and identify 1. Who we were, 2. What we did, an 3. How old we were. I rattled my brain trying to decide how I was going to finesse the last answer. If I could answer in French, I could say “plus que soixante ans”, but as pressure was building up, I couldn’t remember the simple equivalent for “more than” in German. As answers were winding around the circle towards me and ready replies spewed out “23”, “18” “oh, I’m one of the older ones, 32”, all eyes eventually focused squarely on me.
“I’m Victoria. I’m an architect. And I am 66”, in my spastic German. Everyone gasped.
After a pregnant silence, normal breathing resumed. Eventually, everyone got used to me, just being myself. We bonded and played tricks behind the teacher’s back, cheated on tests, and enjoyed the language games the teacher tossed us to keep the ennui to a minimum.
At the end, I passed the exam with “good” marks, only 1 point off “very good”. No grade inflation in Germany, and no “excellent” exists in the grading vocabulary. I was happy.
But I do sorely miss the comraderie from the class. You inevitably bond with each other, no matter what the generation, nationality, or the cultural difference. It was a fantastic reminder of humanity and how we are all in this place together, getting through life and its challenges, tragedies, and ecstasies. I guess I’m gonna like it here.
My favorite photos from August:
1. Guest house room, my home for a month in Heeresbackerei, the old bakery for the Russian army and military quarters
2. My favorite hotel in Dresden, the Aparthotel Neumarkt just around the corner from the Frauenkirche
3. View of the “Florence on the Elbe” near Konigstein
4. The Goethe Institute, a great place to learn and do German for all
5. A delicious home made care package from German friends Hanni and Jens, who took good care of me. everything was home grown, and even the jam was home made!
6. Winking eyes on the rooftop in Loschwitz got me intrigued with rooflines in Germany, and how they deal with lighting deep attic spaces. My friend Pam asked if they winked at night when the shades were pulled. (See the post for “third Eye Blind”).
7. The train tracks behind my complex. I became very fond of the whooshing of the trains every evening and found the known sounds both frightening and calming at the same time.
8. The interior of the Frauenkirche, where Music Festival performances are held. This building was fully restored to its original splendor with the help of the City of Coventry, England, after it was bombed by the Germans in WWII.
9. My Swiss friend Helena, who came to Dresden while I was there.
10. Moritzburg, hunting lodge for the king with beautiful paths for walking
11. My signature German class, with friends from Mexico, Bulgaria, Algeria, Indonesia, Hungary, Japan, Thailand, India, Korea, and Portugal. I was the only American.
CLICK Above to see 4 hours live of the SF Ballet Company! Only til Saturday, Oct 4!
As my blog winds down with 80 days around the world (OK, so I’m cheating on the last 12 days as an after-thought, but why not?), I am becoming nostalgic about all the planning and implementation for the trip. So pardon my indulgence in recapping each of the four original segments and the extra spoiler at the end.
First of all, I had no problem leaving home without one…extra birthday. For Segment 1, Karen and I left on the night of my birthday, on a red-eye bound for New York Sit-Tay. After our early urban walk down Fifth Avenue and a stop at Balthazar, we went the other direction in the late afternoon for the Big Apple Store, designed by BCJ, the firm Julianne worked for in Seattle over the summer.
We made it to the Ai-Wei Wei exhibit in Brooklyn, had dinner with friends at the Bateau Ivre, and bunked at the Pod. We scooted over to London for whirlwind tours of St. Paul’s Cathedral, The Tower of London, Tate Gallery and Buckingham Palace as an introduction for Karen’s first trip there. I managed to savor my old digs on Torrington Place in Bloomsbury, Byng Place, and Gerrard Street, and we stayed in a great location off Euston Station.
After taking the Eurostar, we arrived in St. Germaine des Pres and tracked down nearly every chocolatier that exists in Paris. Melissa met us after her etage stint in Ghent, Belgium, learning how to bake bread at the Superette. We ate our way to heaven via Roseval, Septime and Clown Bar, and managed to refresh our brains at the Musee du Monde Arabe.
Two quick stops at Reims to see the cathedral and take a champagne tour was followed by a visit to Trier to see what the Romans were doing there so early in Germany’s history. We bee-lined for Dresden just in time for my German class to start the following day. Karen stayed at my absolutely favorite accommodation, Aparthotel Neumarkt, before returning to the US via Berlin on Norwegian Air.
Beautiful, isn’t it? I took my first urban walk in the City of San Francisco since my return today, from home to Mt. Zion. It took an hour, around 3 miles. Along the way I encountered the usual playground, park setting, lunch at one of my favorites (My Father’s Kitchen on Divisadero for chicken Soup and Pho), and an inner courtyard. The city was warm, breezy and crystal clear, a once a year phenomenon each Fall. Today was the day.