Tag Archives: People

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Switzerland

(Note: Apologies for this lengthy post, a compilation of three earlier ones.)

As part of the European extension to the Silk Road, we are revisiting a trip to Switzerland taken in 2015, at a time when life was COVID-free. Zurich, Basel, and Sierre were the highlights. It took awhile to decipher the dual French-German place names, but eventually it was fun guessing on top of a heavy Swiss-German dialect.

Zurich’s Riches

A street parade was taking place, and there were floods of tourists, mostly young, clad in costumes and wigs, and ready to tackle hundreds of music venues spread throughout the city. Many of the party-goers appeared to be from within Europe–Italians, Dutch, and Eastern Europeans.

A curious contingent of Asians were in one of the small squares with yellow T-shirts promoting democracy. I thought that was a bit strange but learned afterwards that they were Malaysian students and residents, protesting against their prime minister and demanding for his resignation. He apparently was dictatorial and had mis-managed funds. Another group in yellow T-shirts were just getting out ahead of the parade and entertaining tourists on the street.

Switzerland is frightfully expensive, so I am staying on the outskirts of town. The location feels like the South Peninsula, with many new internet and bio-tech firms concentrated in the area among spanking new housing. I noticed that the housing includes heavy metal louvers over each window as a standard. (even on my hotel window). It definitely helps provide shading from the strong sun as well as good riot protection if ever needed.

There was also a playroom in this new housing development. American architects have studied ideal housing in Europe consistently, yet I still do not see this level of integration for children in public or private housing in the U.S. It would be perfect if housing can incorporate activities for seniors such as a mutual support system for day care within the same development. Time to consider this approach and how we can get it to happen.

My do-it-yourself city tour of Zurich on Saturday morning had me breaking a sweat by 2pm–it was well over 90 degrees. At the end of the day, I had to beat it to the supermarket before it closed on Sunday. Americans look like a bunch of workaholics who can’t get their lives together to avoid food shopping on Sundays. Or else we just eat so much we run out of food every day.

Valais (Wallis)
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The next few days, I traveled by train through the beautiful countryside from Brunnen on the shore of the Vierwaldstättersee near Lucerne to the French speaking area of Valais near Sion.

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A car train took us through a deep tunnel in the mountains and emerged into the spectacular views of the valley. Also known as Wallis in German, Valais is a serious wine growing region with a patchwork of vineyards etching the south-facing sides of the valley and with flatter terraces facing the north side. It was in the middle of the Autumn harvest, and the vineyards provided a lush green carpet for the eyes and infinite pleasure for the palette.

I spent a much appreciated day “at home” at my friend’s house built with 2′ thick haybale walls for natural insulation. No air conditioning or heating is required inside, and it is built like a bunker to withstand any natural or man-made disasters.

The next day, I met Marie, who was working in the French speaking area. Marie’s friend was visiting from Der Wolf in Belgium, so the three of us went to the medieval castle on the hilltop in Sion. Afterwards, we had a delicious late lunch al fresco at Restaurant L’Enclos de Valère. At the end of the afternoon, I took the bus back to Sierre, then halfway up the hill near the resort area of Montana to Helena and Hans’ home.

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Later that evening, Hans, Helena and I drove two hours by car to Gstaad, to attend a performance by world-famous opera diva Cecilia Bartolli. The tiny church was maxxed out for two hundred guests. Cecilia sang some beautiful music by Vivaldi and others. It was performed by I Barocchisti, an orchestra specializing in baroque music and original instruments from that period.

Basel, a Center for Architecture

On a day trip from Lucerne, Helena and I took the architectural tour of the city. Many of the buildings were designed by Swiss architects Herzog and Meuron. Basel has bragging rights to a number of world-famous architects, including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Tadao Ando and another of their own native sons, Mario Botta.

Both Botta and Herzog and De Meuron designed museums in San Francisco. They are known in Switzerland for many other building types. Many of the buildings featured on the architectural guide housed biotech companies such as Roche and Novartis. American architects may have become known in Europe by partnering with biotech firms to create research hubs in this area.

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The vertical extension of the Basel Museum of Culture was designed by Herzog and De Meuron. The textural pattern of hexagons reflected the irregular shape of the plaza facing the museum. They were in both convex and concave shapes. The gently swaying giant hanging plants at the entrance reminded me of the seaweed forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The De Young Museum in San Francisco, also designed by Herzog and De Meuron, is one of my favorite buildings. The mottled effect of the exterior copper panels cast on the inside of the building imitates the light coming through trees in Golden Gate Park. The huge canopy at the entrance also reminds visitors of the deep shadows in the park. I love this firm’s bold conceptual thinking and superior design execution that makes them one of the world’s most eminent and respected architects.

The Basel museum featured an exhibit on opium that sparked a lively conversation with Helena. My grandfather had died in China in 1925 from an addiction to this deadly plant. The museum collection included the history of opium, plant production, and implements used for taking opium. A section featured famous figures influenced by opium. I was surprised to find Lin Biao mentioned–of my relatives!

The saddest part was that opium was grown in India, transported to China, and then sold illegally to force free trade in China. It caused two wars, between 1839-42 and from 1856-60. The exhibition was very thought-provoking and a moving educational experience for me.

Swiss Raclette
Swiss Cheese, Salad, and Potato for Raclette
Swiss Cheese, Salad, and Potato for Raclette

Our final evening was topped by the famous Swiss specialty “Raclette”, a fondue-like dish of Swiss cheese toasted with onion and spices on a grill, then spread with a miniature wooden scraper onto the top of sliced potatoes.

Next Week: We’re on to Austria, the land of Viennese Coffee, Waltzes, and Freud. Don’t forget to let me know how you are finding these visits to European cities–a bit off the beaten Silk Road track but nevertheless the eventual drivers and benefactors of intercontinental trade between Asia and Europe!

SILK ROAD Adventure #5B: Isfahani Style (Cont’d from Part A)

From the last post, our itinerary started in Tehran, then south to Shiraz. In this second half of travels to Iran, we are visiting Isfahan, then plying our way north to Yasd, Isfahan, and back to Tehran.

Isfahan

Isfahan represents one of the great architectural cities of the world, and now I know why. The magnificent scale of site planning, building design and decoration are fully integrated. Many of the civic buildings surround what used to be a polo field and display the pride and beauty of Persia. (Yes, Persia and Iran is used interchangeably).

In the 16th Century, the Safavids defeated the Ottomans. During this triumphant period, Shah Abbas developed this square, which is the largest in the world. Islamic art and architecture flourished with distinctive elements. The public Mosque with twin towers dominates one end of the square. The architect’s signature is written on a tile discreetly placed to the side of the building. It avoids the front face and competing with the orientation towards Mecca. If only all architects were as humble!

After designing and building the Mosque, which is now a UNESCO World heritage site, the architect went away and returned after six months. He managed to convince the king that he was waiting to see whether the massive structure, with all its solid stone, brick and tilework, would cause settlement. (Yeah, right!!)

Everyone was relieved that it hadn’t, and the architect could still get his tea in Isfahan. Maybe the architect and structural engineer for the Millennium Tower in San Francisco were taking their sabbaticals before they got the bad news.

To the side is the private mosque, known as the Shah’s mosque. Daylighting illuminates verses on walls. As the sun rotates and casts light on various exposures, appropriate poetry is spotlighted naturally. The inside of the dome is also decorated with flecks of gold to cleverly simulate a spotlit tromp l’oeil effect.

This is only a glimpse of the many beautiful buildings with intricate floral tilework and awe-inspiring domes that are signatory to Isfahani architecture. The Shah’s Palace contained a music room with deep cutouts that made you feel as if you were inside a gigantic violin. And the Entertainment Center for the Shah displayed beautiful period paintings. While depiction of human figures was not allowed, these paintings represented non-Muslims such as Georgians or Indians. Some faces on the paintings were later marred or removed.

Persians enjoy strolling in the world-famous gardens built on the desert oasis and along the Zayandeh River. Sadly, the river is dammed to provide water to Yasd and farmers in the desert and as a result it runs dry. The Khaju Bridge that originally spanned the river is used as a leisurely stroll for Isfahanians. Local singers gather under the bridge to spar with other talented folk opera afficinados.  Here’s a short video of one of the talented regulars:

While I normally focus on historic architecture and museum artwork, this trip has engaged me in taking more photos of people in the streets. I have not been shy about asking for posed photos of strangers, because they are universally handsome and graceful in their poses and demeanor. You can’t help but want to capture some of this spirit that delights visitors to Iran and endears you to the people.

Where We Didn’t Go

Apparently the hottest place on earth is in Iran. Fortunately, it wasn’t on the menu. We got the details from our guide as he drove us from Yasd to Isfahan. A year ago, he took a couple of people out to see sand towers that appear like high rises. He reported to the police before entering the desert and notified them that he and a tourist couple were entering the zone. If you go missing after an hour, they come to get you.

They each brought a bottle of water to drink. On arrival he began to feel faint and told the travelers that he had to leave right away. He found out afterwards that you need to drink water every few minutes in order to stay hydrated. Food shrivels once it hits high temperatures of 76 degrees C. (equivalent to 167 degrees!!)

Driving through in the car reduces some of the effect until you get out. Abdullah had the AC on but the wife insisted on having full effect of windows open. He tried not to think what would happen if his car broke down as he seldom saw anyone on the road returning.

The second time, he accompanied two male travelers who wanted to get their thrills as extreme sportsmen. Once they got in, they encountered a sandstorm, that can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Fortunately, they were on the edge of it and after it blew past they were able to see what they wanted. They tried dripping water on the stones to watch how fast the water would be sucked dry. Others were frying eggs.

He has returned the second time to be ready to escort any of you for his third foray to a place that’s hot (literally) on the adventure trail. Sorry that this is only a second-hand story, but if you are interested in more, you can go to https://www.livescience.com/19700-hottest-place-earth.html for another great story about the Lut Desert in Iran.

Speaking of water and lack thereof, here’s a picture of the water bottle we recently purchased. Being a Muslim country, Iran does not allow liquor to be drunk or sold. This plastic bottle is shaped like a flask of liquor, or even worse, it makes me think of some toxic lighter fluid or cleaning alcohol. Its shape can’t be understood, but it seems to make sense for grasping (or gasping) purposes. Maybe drinking from cases of these will be part of the desert ritual as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner searches for those precious drops.

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Only 2 days left of blissful travel in a clean country with exceptionally kind and handsome people with a deep sense of their history and humanity.

Here’s a bonus video of delightful young, uninhibited girls playing in the evening. They capture the spirit of a safe and secure life. This was taken in a shopping area around 10pm at night. I feel far safer here than any country I have ever visited.

(This post was created on April 18, 2018 and edited April 22,2018.

Kool in Kashan

Midway between Tehran and Isfahan lies Kashan. One of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Fin Garden highlights traditional Persian landscape design with fountains, channels and reflecting pools. These design principles trace back to the 6th Century and Cyrus the Great.

Local tourists love to visit these parks. On a particularly busy “weekend” Friday, the sites were crowded but the feeling was festive. Persians are courteous and never pushy, so it always seems like you are part of the public experience, not against it. Each person, including you, is entertainment material.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant where large divans or platforms shaped like a huge sofa surrounded by a low back/barricade offered guests an alternative to traditional tables. The design defined a semi-private space, where groups or families could sit cross legged, enjoy the food, but not miss out on the activity outside their spaces.

The nearby town housed merchants who became wealthy from the textiles, carpets and tile produced in the area. Door knockers on a pair of entry doors differentiated men from women arriving by the sound of the knock. That was a pretty ingenious communication device!

The local bath house was an important community space and lavish design details encouraged members to use the club’s facilities!

I couldn’t help but to continue a few of my forays into people pictures. I was starting to get really comfortable doing this, again because the faces of the individuals are so engaging and CALM. Young girls may be a bit giddy, but overall everyone whose pictures I took were inviting, elegant and never intimidated or negative.

Below, here’s a video of the adorable little girl shown above:

(This post was created on April 20, 2018)

Iranic Irony in Tehran Terroir

Iran can be considered as a country of contradictions. We certainly experienced many of them, but certainly not without challenging our own values and assumptions about what it means to be a citizen of the world, of one’s country, and about human beings and their treatment towards each other.

Iran currently produces no wine. But like wine, the struggle to survive, the endurance, and the flavor come from the people. As mentioned in earlier posts, the most remarkable takeaway was the unique character of Iranians. They are proud. They are animated. And they are a kind and gentle people.

Everywhere we visited, people were not only good to us, but good to each other. There is a high value on the family. In the streets of Tehran and elsewhere, there’s no jostling, little noise, and a graceful poise.

Naturally, as travelers in a foreign country, we notice the aspects that are different from what we consider normal in our own countries. But being in Iran has had a profound effect on how we think about human interaction.

Maybe it’s because life is tougher in many ways, and there’s so much misunderstanding about the country.  But there appears to be a genuine friendliness that is inherent in Iranians. Hospitality is in the DNA of every Iranian. There is an elegant flow in body language, facial expressions, and greetings to one another.

The newest gesture we learned is placing your hand over your heart to express many words:  “I’m thankful”, “I’m sorry”, “I feel for you“, “I’m happy that you’re happy”. It was an unfamiliar gesture of hand to heart.  We tried it out and found that it was a quite natural act to put your hand over your heart, especially meaningful between strangers.  We hope we won’t lose this stress-reducing contribution to the world. Our guide taught us. After studying his natural behavior, we wanted to do it too. These habits could certainly be considered by others, where the “in your face mentality” is the new normal.

The Iranian’s sense of history is profound. Had it not been for the depth of it and my obvious ignorance, I probably would not have ventured here. Indeed, it’s all here, in its raw, all-inspiring splendor. From the earliest settlements around 2,000 BC that predated the Greek and Roman civilizations to the latest shopping mall outside Tehran (complete with fast food outlets sans American chains), Iran is country that is proud of its history. It is one that has had to become self-sufficient. It is stifled by political, cultural and economic events.

This is a country of very handsome people. We stare at their faces, and see the lines of character and beauty that appear from nowhere. My imaginary pen draws each face, each feature, with love and affection. Clothing shrouds the natural beauty of the women, so exceptionally high value is placed on their facial features and how they manage them.

Within a very short duration of time, we were hooked on Iran. It wasn’t expected. It’s definitely not what the media world tells us. After a short overnight layover in  St. Goarhausen ( in second home Germany) and a few days in Manhattan, we have come back to recover our thoughts and perspective on Iran. Like our own, a country like Iran is full of contradictions. We wish the people well and a hopeful future.

Below are a couple of galleries of people and places that capture our fanstastic experience:

Iran can be considered as a country of contradictions. We certainly experienced many of them, but certainly not without challenging our own values and assumptions about what it means to be a citizen of the world, of one’s country, and about human beings and their treatment towards each other.

Iran currently produces no wine. But like wine, the struggle to survive, the endurance, and the flavor come from the people. As mentioned in earlier posts, the most remarkable takeaway was the unique character of Iranians. They are proud. They are animated. And they are a kind and gentle people.

Everywhere we visited, people were not only good to us, but good to each other. There is a high value on the family. In the streets of Tehran and elsewhere, there’s no jostling, little noise, and a graceful poise.

Naturally, as travelers in a foreign country, we notice the aspects that are different from what we consider normal in our own countries. But being in Iran has had a profound effect on how we think about human interaction.

Maybe it’s because life is tougher in many ways, and there’s so much misunderstanding about the country.  But there appears to be a genuine friendliness that is inherent in Iranians. Hospitality is in the DNA of every Iranian. There is an elegant flow in body language, facial expressions, and greetings to one another.

The newest gesture we learned is placing your hand over your heart to express many words:  “I’m thankful”, “I’m sorry”, “I feel for you“, “I’m happy that you’re happy”. It was an unfamiliar gesture of hand to heart.  We tried it out and found that it was a quite natural act to put your hand over your heart, especially meaningful between strangers.  We hope we won’t lose this stress-reducing contribution to the world. Our guide taught us. After studying his natural behavior, we wanted to do it too. These habits could certainly be considered by others, where the “in your face mentality” is the new normal.

The Iranian’s sense of history is profound. Had it not been for the depth of it and my obvious ignorance, I probably would not have ventured here. Indeed, it’s all here, in its raw, all-inspiring splendor. From the earliest settlements around 2,000 BC that predated the Greek and Roman civilizations to the latest shopping mall outside Tehran (complete with fast food outlets sans American chains), Iran is country that is proud of its history. It is one that has had to become self-sufficient. It is stifled by political, cultural and economic events.

This is a country of very handsome people. We stare at their faces, and see the lines of character and beauty that appear from nowhere. My imaginary pen draws each face, each feature, with love and affection. Clothing shrouds the natural beauty of the women, so exceptionally high value is placed on their facial features and how they manage them.

Within a very short duration of time, we were hooked on Iran. It wasn’t expected. It’s definitely not what the media world tells us. After a short overnight layover in  St. Goarhausen ( in second home Germany) and a few days in Manhattan, we have come back to recover our thoughts and perspective on Iran. Like our own, a country like Iran is full of contradictions. We wish the people well and a hopeful future.

Below are a couple of galleries of people and places that capture our fanstastic experience:

Swivel-Chair Pop-Up: Join us for a Zoom Party with Sara Ishikawa, former UC Berkeley Professor of Architecture, and Peter Basmajian, AIA, of Richards Basmajian, Hong Kong, for a crazy, 40-year delayed world catchup— with Iran as the backdrop—on Saturday, August 7, 8pm (PST). Send me an email at vifongit@gmail.com and I will send you the link!

CORRECTION: THE DATE IS SATURDAY, AUGUST 8, AT 8PM!

Silk Road Adventure #5A: TEHRAN, Shiraz, AND PERSEPOLIS

If you were traveling along the ancient Silk Road from Samarkand or Bokhara to Istanbul, you would undoubted stop in Tehran, Iran.

Our itinerary, in case you missed it on the map and on the World Travels 2018 page of https://travelswithmyselfandothers.com, started with our guide in Tehran, then south to Shiraz. From there, we plied our way north by car with our guide through Yasd to Isfahan, and back to Tehran. There is so much to see! I am splitting the adventure into two parts for this Silk Road series. This is the first part (A), to be followed by the wrap-up (Part B) of Iran in the next post.

Tehran

With all my worldly possessions-and a precious visa to visit in tow, husband Gee Kin and I have just arrived in Tehran, the capital of Iran. We left behind the globalized world of Starbucks, KFC and Macdonalds, to one with brewed tea, fast food chicken legs roasting on an open fire, and lamb kebabs with bread made with pebbles for dimples. We passed tantalizing corner stores filled with pistachios and dry fruits that you buy to take to a friend’s house. Hospitality means alot here, and we can already feel it in the air.

Our hypothetical Silk Road route started westwards from the outer reaches of Mongolia and Beijing, China, past the outpost of Turpan in Northwest China through Samarqand, Bokhara and Khiva ( today’s Uzbekistan). But in actuality, I took this segments was undertaken in 2018 separate from this route. Here is the post.

Having just completed a marathon flight in 19 hours (San Francisco-Washington DC-Vienna-Tehran, I was glad to hit the end of the day with a hearty meal of lamb stew macerated at the table and mixed into a tomato based soup, with chicken and lab kebobs, saffron rice, yoghurt dressing, a vinegar-based eggplant sauce on the side, and bread.

After a few days of jet lag, weather changes, and internet hell, we resparked our curiosity and thirst for the unknown. We visited museums, mosques, and even a madrassah, but no mausoleums yet. The last three m’s defined Islamic architecture during my visit to Uzbekistan, but each building type was not fulfilled until we saw Hafez’ tomb or “mausoleum” in Shiraz.

At the Golestan Palace in Tehran, a World Heritage Site, the pre-Pahlavi royalty (within the last 150 years) displayed their wealth and were over-the-top ornate. Most of the public rooms including the ceilings were covered with intricate mirror mosaics and made you feel like you were inside the Hope Diamond.

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Interior with Mirrored Ceilings
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The exteriors demonstrated the integration of gardens and fountains that are
famous in Iranian architecture and design, as well as the intricate mosaic work and marble carving on doors and walls.

The National Museum of Iran contained some of the most precious relics of the ancient world. The statue of Darius I (Xerxes I, from which an opera is based!)  and a panel from the Achaemenid Period in Persepolis are shown below. For those interested, you can scale up the text included in the adjacent photos.

The bazaars in both Tehran and Shiraz contained endless boutiques in a Walmart-sized atmosphere with limited and inexpensive goods from copperware to aromatic spices.

Shiraz

We bonded with our local guide from Shiraz after he passionately described Iran’s native son and poet, Hafez. His elegant poems are beloved by all Iranians and transcend cultures. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Goethe were known to quote his poetry. It was enough for me to determine to read some when I get home.

As we stood in the garden of the tomb of Hafez, Abdullah, our guide, explained that Shiraz is known for its wine, women, and roses. Many of us will recognize the famous wine namesake that comes from this region.

In the evening light, Abdullah pointed out the abundance of young couples strolling in the park, with flowers intoxicating the warm breezes. Knowing a little or a lot about the poetry of Hafez is enough to start amiable conversations and the start of a promising relationship, Abdullah surmises (maybe from experience?)

While Abdullah waxed poetic, we observed that families were out selfying just like any other society, enjoying a delicious evening, and lingering among crowds of friendly visitors.

There seems to be tremendous respect for fellow humans in Iran. So far, we have found the urban environment remarkably quiet. We stayed on busy streets in two cities on and found the traffic unusually quiet. Being highly sensitive to noise, I am finding the calm, lack of noise shattering to my ears.

People glide about the streets, smiling at one another with eyes and lips, and salaam each other without exception. I’m not sure our guide has coopted us, but we sense the immense pride and confidence in the people.

Persepolis

Just outside of Shiraz, on a wide open plain, lies the ceremonial center of Darius. Before him, Cyrus the Great created and led an impressive empire. The wooden ceilings of buildings and both palaces of Darius and his son built around 518 BC were later razed to the ground by Alexander the Great (around 330 BC), but the massive stone structures with priceless carvings remain.

After just having seen the great empires of Rome, Greece, Inca at Macchu Picchu and Aztec in Teotihuacan, it’s hard not to be impressed by the volume and quality of artwork in situ at Persepolis. We could not believe how much of its splendor is still present for the whole world to appreciate.

Were it not from my earliest art history lessons on ancient civilizations and curiosity on its context and meaning, I would not have made this trip.

Everything begins to fall into place, as the pieces of the puzzle assemble. My scant preparation for this trip, thanks to Francopan’s Silk Roads, a New History of the World, captures the whirlwind tour through the rise and fall of Eurasian civilizations. Iran, and more fondly, Persia by the same name, stands prominently at the helm of the Silk Road.

The artwork at Persepolis chronicles the peaceful arrival and acceptance of the local inhabitants to the new ruler. Darius followed shortly after Cyrus (within 40 years), and while not a direct descendant, they were related. Although the local Medians were conquered by Cyrus and the Archimineads, he managed a peaceful settlement and was respected for his accomplishments as a capable ruler. Darius culminated the dynastic rule with his grandiose and impressive complex at Persepolis.

Within the ceremonial entrance and grand reception areas are magnificent stone reliefs of warriors supporting the king on his throne. Rows of roundheaded conquerees alternating with the conquerors proceed to meet the king, hand in hand. Offerings from 23 nations include food, treasures and animals from surrounding areas and those as far as India.

Other friezes demonstrate the high quality of craftsmanship that preceded the Greek and Roman periods revered in history. In a splendid exemplary frieze, a bull and cow signify the end and beginning of the new year.

The symbolic meanings of birds, rings and flowers stem from the ancient monotheistic Zoroastrian and Mithras religions. They did not have a concept of God as a human, but that he lies within each of us.

Individually the symbolism of the characters presented are less significant than the collective splendor of the human mind that is left behind for all of us living creatures today to ponder.

(This post was created on April 17, 2018 and edited April 22, 2018).

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #3: NORTHWESTERN CHINA

Today is a travel day, so I am getting ahead of the pack by sharing some information about the Silk Road. I read the book “the Silk Road, a New History” by Valerie Hansen and I want to cite some interesting points from it. The book covers three key chapters of my selected cities: Turpan, Dunhuang, and Samarkand.

Dunhuang, while known for its Buddhist cave paintings, has a treasure trove of over 35,000 documents that recorded official edicts, announcements, and private letters. These were found in a garrison outside of Dunhuang. The dry desert air helped to preserve these documents from the 1st Century BCE to the 1st Century CE.

Agreements were written on bamboo strips and wood before paper, originally used for wrapping, became the material for writing. Paper did not become widely used for writing until the 2nd Century. All envoys passed through this garrison at Xuanquan outside Dunhuang in either direction to control movement.

Turpan, a walled city further west from Dunhuang, was known for its foreign community dating back to the Tang Dynasty. It was only the halfway point between Samarkand and Chang An (current day Xian). One of the most significant groups living in Turfan, believe it or not, was the Sogdians, who originated from Samarkand! They settled in Turfan to farm, run rest stops, take care of animals, and trade.

Thing for Thina
image

In case you were ever wondering, the name “China” is derived from a reference to “Thina”, by a merchant in the 1st C. CE with a description of China as “a great inland city from which silk floss, yarn and cloth are shipped by land…” Since Ancient Greek did not have a letter for “ch”, the letter theta was used. In Sanskrit, where the English word for China is derived, China was pronounced Chee-na. This word came into use around 221-207 BCE during the Qin Dynasty.
As far as the “Silk Road” is concerned, it is a relatively recent concept from 19th C. explorers. The Silk Road consisted mainly of clusters of cultures that lived and traded among each other. The paths were unmarked and did not provide the big saga event romanticized by the Marco Polo story. Silk was only one among other goods traded that included chemicals, spices, horses, glass and paper.

The Dunhuang Museum


The Dunhuang Museum was an exciting experience, because the museum provided the history and the context for what we were seeing in the ruins the previous couple of days. Most of the development of Dunhuang occurred during the Han Dynasty, when the emperor sent troops and their generals to protect the frontier of China. At that time, Dunhuang and the area around it was the outer edge of the country. The Han general finally defeated the Hsiung Nu raiders from the North.

Following this major victory, trade needed to be controlled and taxes charged. So it stood to reason that Dunhuang occupied a very strategic position in the future success of China. As a matter of fact, the heavy control over the trade and passage through the Silk Road allowed the Han Dynasty relative peace and prosperity. The country advanced in many areas during that time.

After a period of turmoil and disorganization, the Tang Dynasty continued to maintain strong control over the passages. We visited the Mogao Grottoes in the afternoon, and while there are no photos to share the experience, the Buddha sculpture, paintings, and architecture were a clear expression of the flourishing of encounters with the outside world. Trade, language, art, and religion were being introduced, explored, challenged, and absorbed between many cultures during this time (600AD-900AD).

I am posting a few pieces from the museum that I particularly liked and found quite unusual. They seemed to be very robust and expressive, similar to the style of the better known horses of the Tang period. The Photos of Han and Tang (200BC-900AD) Museum pieces are above.

The new museum itself was surprisingly beautiful and excellent in its presentation of material. It was very thoughtfully and clearly laid out, and spanned everything from early neolithic implements to planning for the future generations. I am inserting a couple of photos to show you how the new building interior courtyard looks. I would highly recommend this museum to anyone intending to visit this area.

The Northern Silk Road
Over and Out

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!

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 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.

Gaochang

The Ancient City of Gaochang was an essential passageway between the East and West during the Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasties and was an important section of the ancient Silk Road. The foundation of the Wall was laid in the first century BC. The total area of this city is about two million square meters.

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.

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.

Food! Food! Glorious Vegetables!

In addition to items one might expect from a typical Chinese breakfast buffet in Turpan, we were treated to an array of dishes, all cold, and mostly vegetarian. These locally produced vegetables were lightly flavored with oil and a hint of garlic or chili pepper and proved to be not only a visual delight, but very appealing to the palette for an energetic wake up. Dishes included the following:

  1. Fresh broccoli
  2. Lotus roots with ginkgo nuts, fungus strips, celery strips, red cabbage clips, red pepper, and straw mushrooms
  3. Fresh steamed yellow and orange carrots (a contribution to China from the West)
  4. Clouds Ears with onions, red and green pepper strips, bean sprouts and green onions
  5. Shaved Gourd strips with Green onions and red peppers
  6. Green beans (also likely a Silk Road vegetable imported from the West) with carrots, leeks and red pepper
  7. Chinese Greens
  8. Marinated cabbage with deep-fried pork strips
  9. Deep-fried pulled noodles
  10. Mini tschung and corn on the cob (another item from the New World) sections
  11. Mung beans and pickled cabbage
Onward to the Southern Silk Road

The missing link between the two major urban areas of Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Urumqi, China 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. The cities we are going to visit are 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….

Training the Trainers

Our non-highspeed rail travels between Turpan and Urumqi involved harrowing late night transfers and crowded trains. We were rewarded with endless entertainment and an opportunity to chat with train interns.

Do’s and Don’ts

1. Organize your bag according to rooms in your house and how you use things in them: BR, bath, kitchen, etc. I use a lot of kitchen implements like a set of plastic fork, spoon, and knife to do most in-room dining for those unexpected, can’t be bothered moments to avoid eating out. Plus the knife comes in handy and passes security control.
2. Pack a box of tissue flat as a pad for your Ipad or computer.Use it as you go.
3. I use a nail clipper to cut and make my own band aids. They cost pennies if you buy them uncut and in sheets and you can make them any shape you need. The nail clipper also gets you around the scissor-weapon issue at airport security.
4. Be careful when taking trams and trains. Check to make sure that you know the end destination of the line, or you may end up in a completely different part of town!
5. Never be in a hurry when checking the next train or bus schedule.
6. Never, never, never take shortcuts near train tracks.
7. Don’t be without a cell phone.
8. Never have the batteries die or be close to dead before or after you take a train in the wrong direction.
9. Never be too sure you can meet someone even after you have just confirmed that you are meeting them in an hour.
11. Do not be in a remote location where there is no cell phone coverage.
12. Do not travel when it is getting dark.
13. Never trust your own judgment.

Minor point: in having executed 4-13 above in the span of 2 hours (between 7:30 and 9:30pm at an undisclosed location), I can vouch for the necessity to avoid these incidents at any cost, particularly when they are combined. Fortunately, one additional “do”: Do trust that your friend will be patient and wait for you, even if you are a complete flake and end up being over an hour late just because you were stupid enough to think that you knew what you were doing and didn’t.

This post is a compilation of several posts from August, 2014.

Our next major adventure will be from Urumqi to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara, and Kiva, the classic cities along the Southern Silk Road.

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE 1: MONGOLIA, THE START OF THE TRAIL

POP-UP ZOOM MEETING!! If you are interested in joining a Zoom Party to share a conversation on Mongolia with me and a fellow Mongolian Traveler on Sunday, July 5, at 8:45am (PST), send me an email at vifongit@gmail.com by 6:00pm today, July 4th (PST) and I will send you the meeting invite!!

Mongolia is not technically on the Silk Road, except it was indicated on one of the Silk Road Maps connecting to Karkourum, the capital city of Genghis Khan’s empire. We revisit the sites previewed in the video last week with the magnificent expanses of land, the natural living, and fascinating history.

You might find some of the order of information a bit confusing, as I am cutting and pasting several days’ travel into one posting. On top of that, I am going backwards in some instances so the general direction is eastward! These trips may have been taken in reverse order, so please ignore references to Days. In any event, the Polo brothers did alot of traipsing backwards and forwards with Marco and two Franciscan friars to meet Kublai Khan, so I don’t feel so bad about giving you misleading directions.

Mongolian Herder Family

The afternoon we spent with a Mongolian herder family was alive with activity, including milking cows and horses (for mare’s milk), corralling animals, racing with boys, tasting fermented mare’s milk and curd dessert, and playing with the family’s newborn baby.

The family included an award-winning horse racer (30 years old), his wife (29 years old), his two boys (8 and 6), and the newborn (1 month old).

Yurt Living

We experienced five days of ger living. Despite its challenges, the variety of gers has allowed us to get a full flavor of what it’s like to live in a ger. Our last ger included a stay along one of the largest fresh-water lakes in Mongolia. While rudimentary, it gave us a feeling of staying at Lake Tahoe, Mongolian style. The itinerary through Central Mongolia was on and off-road, to ger camps without internet access. It was both a blessing and a curse.

Erdene Zuu Monastery

The Erdene Zuu Monastery was founded in 1586 and is the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The religion came from India and Tibet in the 12th Century. The grounds of the Monastery are preserved as a museum. The adjacent complex is a working temple. The temple was built over the palace built by Ugudei Khan, and materials were taken from the ruins.

The Kharkhorin Museum

The Kharkhorin Museum presented a fascinating series of maps showing the the history of Mongolia. If you are curious, please click on these to see more; if not, skip this section.

The Chinese Han Dynasty successfully fought back the Xiong Nu empire in Northwest China, and early portions of the Great Wall were built to deter the Xiong Nu from advancing further. (Remember Mu Lan? She was fighting the Xiong Nu!) You can read more about the ruins of the early Great Wall in my posts from Turpan in August 2014.

In the following series, you will learn more about the history of the great Chinggis Khan (1162-1227), one of his sons Ugudei Khan (1186-1241), and his grandson Kubilai (1215-1294). The maps attached are in some ways easier to read than the ones above, as they show the flow of conquests. Take a look at the arrows and dates on the maps and the extent of their conquests in the span of a century! The influence of the Mongols reached as far west as Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

A little background on the vast country of Mongolia. It is a flat, diamond shaped country the size of Western Europe. It is sandwiched between Russia and China and therefore must maintain good relations with these giants.

The growing season is only four months during the summer, and the entire country is shrouded in snow in the winter. Its harsh environment requires the mere 3 million people to rely heavily on family, community and each other. The limited good weather impacts all development, repairs and activity to a very short season.

Why come to Mongolia? Here are three reasons: to learn about the past, present, and future. The history of Genghis Khan, the first ruler who united the tribes, is a fascinating one. His descendants, including Kublai Khan continued to rule during the Mongolian Dynasty for two hundred years, from 1200-1400.

Most of the expansionist period was during the first fifty years, when the grandsons who were posted to the outer reasons conquered as far west as Hungary and beyond. 1 in 200 men in the world have the DNA directly attributed to this prolific ruler Genghis and his descendants.

Following the Yuan or Mongol Dynasty that ruled most of Eurasia and China, the Ming defeated the Yuan at their capital in Beijing, and then the Manchurians (Ching Dynasty) ruled over China and Mongolia. With Russian help, Mongolia defeated the Ching Dynasty and became an independent country in 1921.

The second reason for coming to Mongolia is the environment. Mongolia, unlike China today, is still a pristine and pure environment. Nothing can be more contrasted than flying from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar (the correct spelling). The pollution and stifling heat of Beijing disappears and the crystal clear skies and bright sun of Mongolia appear. Ecotourism is being promoted here today and the Mongolians are very proud of their country. They know that the world is their oyster and they have every intention of protecting it.

The future is the third reason. Mongolia has huge mineral resources. Mining is one of its biggest industries, and tourism is growing despite its short season. With such a small population, Mongolia’s GDP has been growing at a rate of 10-15% over the past several years, twice the pace of China. While Mongolia is still considered a basically agricultural, nomadic land, it will experience phenomenal change.

Many people are still nomadic herdsmen, and they still live in the traditional ger, or round huts. They are constructed of wooden supports, felt padded walls, and can be easily assembled. A pot belly stove in the middle heats the room, and all the basics of living are contained within the ger: cooking, eating, sitting, sleeping, and storing. Oops, except for the toilet.

Everything has been hunky-dory in the ger camps where we have been staying for the past few days (we’re in No. 2 of 5). Toilets in the first ger were banked below the dining hall, not unlike those you would find at the UC Blue and Gold Camp in Pinecrest, CA. The second ger ratcheted up the ante to an outhouse, with a tastefully decorated Mongolian tent over the pair for easy identification. You could use the sawdust at free will. I was getting into the flow, with one minor detail. It rained this morning.

Imagine the scene for dressing (everything was set in place in advance the night before inside the ger), with even an umbrella. Contending with Mother Nature in order to let Mother Nature contend with you was a challenge. In the end, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. You just felt all thumbs and big toes in the execution. When in Rome, do as the Romans, as they say. The steamed towels looked good enough to eat!

But I digress. Back to Mongolia. The first afternoon of our private tour was devoted to the National History Museum in the middle of Ulaan Baatar. The museum traced the beginnings in the Fourth Century BC to the present day. Photographs are not allowed there or during the performance of traditional Mongolian singers and dancers. The main display I wanted to capture was the map of the conquests by Genghis Khan and his grandsons. They occurred over a very short time span of fifty years, and mostly in a ten year period between 1215-1225.

In the morning of Day 2, we visited the largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Mongolia is 98% Buddhist, so the religion plays an important part in daily life as well as its history. Buddhism came to Mongolia via the Tibetan monks. Today’s monks come from all over the country to study and chant at this monastery.

Later in the morning, we left the capital city to visit a shaman. Shamanism, or contact with the spirits through a medium, is also practiced in Mongolia. If an individual wanted to send a message to the gods, he or she went to a shaman. The shaman did not give advice but only transferred the information back and forth.

IMG_3561 3

This shaman explained to us that she was “struck” by both a desire and calling only after being confronted a number of times. After her husband died and she was sick, she eventually consented. She very patiently and proudly explained her roots and the people she served.

Her room was laden with offerings to the gods and spirits, both good and bad. Offerings included cheese, curd, dried nuts, fruits and dishes of food. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the answer to a question I had in mind. Her next appointment was already waiting and time ran out.

The many incredible, pristine pastoral landscapes we encountered traveling off-road by Land Cruiser included frequent herds of sheep, goats, horses and cattle. These are free-range animals, owned by herders who live in nearby gers, and have no fences. The animals get rounded up at the end of the day and know who and where their friends and family are. We had a full court press of the domestic animal world with a few wild ones and migrating birds for flavor.

In the afternoon the driver and our guide took us on and off road in search of the Przewalski horses. They run wild and are the ancestor to today’s domesticated horses. They are shorter, stockier and more muscular than the Arabian horses we are accustomed to seeing. They are named after the Russian who discovered them and helped to return them to their native land. They were an endangered species, but due to good management, they can now be allowed to proliferate in a protected environment. It felt a little bit like whale watching, but we were able to find a pack of six in the distance.

The vast green virgin landscape stretches literally for miles and as far as the eye can see. Occasionally there are pigs, and sheep dotted throughout the landscape. The herdsmen know where their herds are located and round them up at the end of the day. They are branded and the larger animals are used for milk and transportation.

The next day, the landscape suddenly rose in elevation, with mountains in the background to nearly 4,000 meters (12,000 ft!). Eventually a sandy desert mixed with small grass emerged. There are many small, Gobi-like deserts throughout Mongolia, and we headed for one of them. The camels that reside here are two-humped, and can carry up to 800 lbs. They can travel without water for a month and without food for up to two months. (See featured photo above)

The distances between sites are vast in this huge country, and few roads are sealed. It takes nearly three hours to travel 100 miles, due to hazardous pits in the road or sandy roads. We were surprised that the driver only had to refuel once in the three days we were driving. While we weren’t used to sitting in the car for such long hours, we were grateful that the Land Cruiser was very sturdy and capable of handling bumps, muddy pits, and stream crossings.

The Orkhorn Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Today’s drive took three hours off-road to a beautiful valley known as the Orkhorn Valley. Rain and inclement weather has deterred our camel and horse back riding, but we have been able to see the beautiful lush green, unspoiled countryside in its natural state.

While we basked in the luxury of a “free range day” where we explored the wide open countryside at a leisurely pace, we still had time to take in another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Orkhon River Valley was a prime location for burials that grouped together large flat steles in round or rectangular shapes. Another spot showed exposed granite stones weathered over time with petroglyphs still evident.

The Land Cruiser allowed us to enjoy the off-road traveling comfortably. Otherwise, it would have been a Russian van that was just as sturdy but a rough ride. Along the way we encountered herds of free-range sheep, cattle, goats, and horses. Many birds also migrate to Mongolia over the summer and travel as far as South Africa.

The photos don’t do any justice to the huge 360 degree views that take your breath away. The clean air is also hard to swallow, especially after Beijing!

Here’s last week’s video that was posted about Mongolia. It captures a day with the herder family, irresistible 360 degree views, and some of the incredible landscape and sights we experienced.

from travelswithmyselfandothers MONGOLIA, JULY 2016

Postscript: Thoughts on Mongolia

Coming to Mongolia has been a philosophy class. What is “progress”? What is a “fulfilling life”? What should be the relationship of humans to the rest of the earth?

Thousands of years ago, much of the world was like present-day Mongolia: a few humans herding livestock from one location to another pursuing better pastures and decent weather. Then came the development of intensive agriculture; people stopped moving around and started living closer to each other. And we are now where we are.

Obviously, Mongolia is not thousands of years behind the rest of the world. But there ARE very few people, only 3 million living in an area the size of Western Europe. And as many as 30% of the population are still herders, living in “gers” that they move with the seasons. There are no fences. Their animals are allowed to roam and graze on lands naturally covered with native plants. Their livestock provide much of their food: meat and dairy. Their days are regulated by the hours of daylight, and their year is regulated by the seasons. The land and their animals provide life. This is their mantra.

All this is going to change. But Mongolia has a chance to do development right. It’s as if God is giving humans another chance – to not screw it all up this time round.

I don’t know what Mongolia is going to be like in 20 years. But as the population increases, there will be more constraints on the herding, nomadic way of life. Massive factory farms and open-pit mines already are fencing off areas from grazing.

A law that was passed a few years ago that entitled every adult Mongolian to 0.7 hectare of land will eventually have to end. Mongolians don’t write wills; the descendants decide among themselves how to divide up any inheritance. As Mongolians become wealthier and family members live further apart, lawyers are going to come into their own.

I like modern living. This past week in Mongolia has reinforced my appreciation of indoor plumbing, being able to eat foods other than meat and dairy, and security from wind, rain, bugs and wild animals. But there are other things I could do without.

If I had a chance to start human development all again, I would make choices. Mongolians have a chance to make theirs.

Gee Kin Chou, June 29, 2016

12 Tricks for Mongolian Ger Survival

I just realize that my posts have been pretty dry and humorless in the past few months. It’s hard to laugh with yourself unless you are reminded at times. Now that I have a traveling partner, we share the perspective on how we travel–the good, the bad, the fun, the pain. Laughter is the best medicine to get you through all situations.

Here are a few pointers for those contemplating a stay in a ger. There’s nothing like creating a list from real life experience.

  1. Duck your head when entering the low door opening. Oops, didn’t someone already warn me about that!?!
  2. Ask for extra blankets regardless of 90 degree weather in the daytime. Temperatures changes dramatically at night. ( hey, I thought I asked earlier?)
  3. Have the stove heated twice a day. Once before bedtime around 8 pm and once around 7 am before (thinking about it then is too late) you get up. The guide or staff will ask, but make sure it is customized to your waking and sleeping hours! It needs to be timed to when you are undressing and dressing. Notify staff or guide in advance if they don’t ask. This is your only option as there is no other thermostat in the room.(where ARE they?)
  4. Wear hiking boots , not just for hiking but for getting to the outdoor loos in knee high wet grass in the middle of the night and 6″ deep puddles during rain (Damn, I thought this was going to be a walk in the park?)
  5.  Use the futon or comforter as a sleeping bag and roll the edges around your body to eliminate air gaps (and bugs…or am I getting paranoid?)
  6. Use the long tongs for wood  from the stove for removing large black beetles from the sides of tent
  7. Do not be deterred by rain snow sleet or hail. Use garbage cans, trays, and water bottles during the time you are inside to catch any of the above that may inadvertently enter your ger.
  8. Fondle the felt when you first enter the ger. It will reassure you that you will be kept warm, away from most bugs except those that crawl under the gaps through the ground or fly in through the door or opening at the roof plastic. Don’t be disheartened by silly rodents that run over the tops of the ger roof or the moths that cluster outside the skylight plastic. They provide a sweet symphony to lull you to sleep. The felt also protects you from heat and inclement weather. (If you want to know what direction you are facing, the ger doors always face south.)
  9. Decide if you want light by leaving the door open or bugs flying around  the ger before bed. You get both if you leave the door open. Remember that if bugs have a hard time getting out if they manage to get in.
  10. Keep your voice down. If you hear others in the next ger, they can hear you.(Oops ! Have I been shouting? Remember whatever you say comes back to you in a round chamber)
  11. Avoid spending any brain power on the dung being used in the stove as the material contrary to common thought does not smell. If firewood is used, appreciate how far it has come to a neighborhood near you. The smell is only temporary as the stove will not be burning except when you are dressing. (unless you are crazy enough to come outside of the tourist season).
  12. Should you not find any hooks mounted in the walls, simply drape your clothing over any surface areas. Use the chair seats or backs, headboards or beds, and tables in the room. Avoid stuffing clothing between the cross slats in walls or structural ribs in the ceiling as they may cause the ger to collapse.

Above all, remember that Mongolians have been living in gers for centuries and the ger camps are providing you with this experience. They don’t need our advice on advancing civilization. They ruled it for over 200 years and have survival in their DNA.

from Travels with Myself and Others, June 2016

ADVENTURE 2 will be in Beijing, China, Kublai Khan’s great conquest, and a stop in the direction of the Great Silk Road.

A note to the newbies: This was part of my third, around-the-world, live (except for technical glitches), real time journey. As an architect, my interests are in Planning, Design, and Architecture professionally; archaeology, anthropology, and art history, Silk Road history, opera, culture and food emotionally; UNESCO-focused, independent travel; and everything in between.

MOM AND APPLE PIE

Restricted in traveling this year, I have been focusing my time with research on my mother’s life. As today is Mother’s Day, it seems appropriate to pause and take stock of my discoveries and revelations.

As a Chinese immigrant, my mother, Oy Lum, was in many ways the typical story of a hard-working woman who managed to raise a family of five girls single-handed, on a factory worker’s intermittent wages. My father was institutionalized, and like many Chinese men in the early 20th Century in San Francisco, was unable to find sufficient work to maintain a living.

Sun Yat-sen

What surprised me was that my mother had attended the equivalent of a women’s junior college in her late teens. This girls’ school was founded in 1862 by one of her ancestors, when women were unable to become educated. Sun Yat Sen, China’s father of the democratic revolution in 1911, valued women’s education, and he would have supported the progressive school. The story “Butterfly Lovers”, was about a woman who played “Yentl” in order to go to school.

Unfortunately, most attendees were unable to apply their knowledge to any direct purpose. There were no jobs for women in those days. The school didn’t have the political and economic forces of a Radcliffe or Vassar College to help. Students were ahead of their times but for what my mother ended up doing in America, an education seemed hardly purposeful. Nevertheless, my mother quietly conveyed the importance of education. She was the opposite of a “helicopter” parent or “Tiger Mom” these days. Yes, she did encourage us, but her primary focus was on our well-being and not in micro-managing our lives. 

My quest for understanding my mother comes from the many stories she told me as a child about China. It was definitely perplexing. My cryptic training came from opera films she took me to see in San Francisco. When I asked her if she lived like the characters in the classic opera stories, she nodded emphatically. And yes, I took her literally. She and her family wore the costumes, moved in stilted fashion, and sang in screechy voices. Nevertheless, I loved them as they remind me of her.

Many years later, when I led my mother to visit her village for the first time in over 40 years, she was somewhat unmoved by its rural appearance. She simply surveilled the environment and agreed, yes, it hadn’t changed much. Outwardly, her life in the U.S. didn’t seem to have much effect on her either. Whether in limited English or in a dialect of Cantonese, she was a woman of few words.

In the end, my mother is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. It’s a timeless, picture-perfect cemetery that once forbade Chinese and dogs from being interred there. Despite options to return to China or being buried next to my father at the Chinese cemetery in Colma, she plotted meticulously and chose her crypt location in Oakland. After 98 years, this was not only her final home, but it spoke volumes on where she saw herself in peace and tranquility.

Year of the Rat

The Lunar New Year brings renewed energy to the onset of a sluggish winter. Here are a few reminders from a friend about the origin of various Chinese myths and legends: https://chinesenewyear.net/myths/. To inspire you, look for the red pockets and panties.

Over the weekend, I hosted a San Francisco Sketchers event. A tidy corps of sketchers drew for two hours straight in the atrium at the Sandler Neursciences Center at UCSF. The architectural curves and angles provided plenty of challenges. You could barely hear a pin drop during the entire time!

At the end, we were rewarded by sharing each other’s sketches.

And here were my contributions:

Reflections on Iran (An Excerpt from Dec. 2018)

In light of this week’s tragic events over Iran, I felt compelled to share a video I produced at the end of 2018. It captures my current thoughts and feelings about Iran (in conjunction with other countries visited that year). My heart goes out to the Iranian people and their uncertain future.

Here’s the video:

(The notes below are an edited version from the original post, “Wring out the Old”, from December, 2018.)

Before the year closes out, I wanted to combine a number of videos and photos that I collected during this year’s travels. The selection includes a life-changing trip to Iran, first-timers to Korea and Hungary, and regular mainstays in Germany, Austria and China.

While most of the visits were with those who follow or are aware of my intrepid travels, fresh new friends taught me bout the hardships and endurance needed to survive the complicated political and economic world we live in. Shared laughter helped to offset an arduous year and to renew hope for the future.

I hope you will enjoy this quirky video. I’ve culled material from travels this past year, based on Barbara Streisand’s moving song, “Imagine/What a Wonderful World”, from her album “Walls”. Let’s hope that we can resist building walls and find ways to build trust and friendship instead.

The video includes clips from Shiraz, Persepolis, Isfahan, Yasd, and Tehran in Iran, as well as a few from Seoul, Korea. There are clips from my month-long sojourn at the Goethe Institute in Munich, Germany.

If you are interested in reading more about Iran, you can find the blog posts from April 2018.

Guangzhou to Hanoi

Getting to Hanoi from Guangzhou was an adventure! Initially, we traveled by train for four hours in the evening. We finished with a land route from the Chinese border at Pengxiang to Vietnam. We passed gorgeous mountain peaks reminiscent to those in Kweiin, but also traveled through many rice fields being burned. They polluted the sky and left us wondering why there weren’t alternatives for clearing the spent growth.

After three hours, we arrived in the old city. Our kamikaze driver got us to the city in half the time of a train ride. The honking horns and endless stream of motorbikes reeked chaos and anarchy. We were relieved when we arrived at the hotel safely.

A glimpse of normal life in Hanoi

Hanoi Central Park

From our rooftop breakfast room at the hotel, we spotted a small lake in the middle of Hanoi. We headed over for a look. The leisurely stroll refreshed our souls and allowed us to escape from the constant traffic noise. Girls and ladies in beautiful Vietnamese gowns posed for pictures, sketch artists entertained curious passers-by, and both tourists and locals enjoyed sharing the human experience.

Hanoi Street Life

On our first night, we ate street food along with crowds of tourists watching a local soccer match between Vietnam and Thailand on big outdoor screens. The crowd was cheerful, friendly, and intent on their home team’s win. Nearly every food stall took advantage of the opportunity to bring in business by offering seating, food, and large screens.

In the next morning’s walk, we waited for a couple of bank assistants to fill the depleted ATM machine. Metal cartridges of money were stacked beside them, but they seemed stymied at how to install them properly. They were searching the internet for instructions, using their powder pink and Hello Kitty decorated phones, while squatting in their high heels!!

Vietnamese Food

The Vietnamese food has been a delightful surprise. We did not expect such glamorous presentations and freshest ingredients. Meat or seafood, vermicelli, peanuts, and matchsticks of carrot and cucumber wrapped in rice paper make yummy, albeit a bit sloppy, finger foods. Black rice and tapioca topped with ice cream was a typical dessert and great palette cleanser.

After dining at the Orchid Restaurant, we decided to take a cooking class to learn how to make the fantastic dishes. In addition to learning from his family, the chef was trained for four years in a cooking school. He worked for over ten years in French, Italian, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants.

The four-hour class started by a trip to the market. It offered one of the most p ok ingredients that we had seen anywhere in the world.

We returned to the restaurant and donned aprons. We honed our cooking skills by learning how to filet fish, julienne vegetables, and wrap spring rolls.

If you come to Hanoi, try one of the many combo restaurant/cooking schools in the Old City. Vietnam cuisine ranks high on our list as one of the most colorful and tasty in the world.

We’re heading back to Zhongshan and Guangzhou, China via Hong Kong, so stay tuned…

Day 19: Baku, Azerbaijan

City Sights

We headed to the high point of the city for an overview of the city skyline. At -28m below sea level, it is inperceptible that the area was covered by water, then receded multiple times in the past. The Caspian is called a sea for this reason–that the salt water from what was once part of the ocean differentiates it from from a fresh-water lake.

The Martyr’s shrine commemorates the 200 fallen rebels who led the second revolution in 1990. While being freed from Soviet rule and becoming independent, this was not the first attempt. Azerbaijan was established as a nation in 1920 as told by the Ali and Nino story I mentioned in the last post. Its success was short-lived however. The Russians came back and dominated the country for another 70 years before they relinquished power.

The Flaming Towers are Baku’s latest hotel, office, and condominium high rises that proudly display the city’s oil wealth and future. The capital of Azerbaijan was moved to Baku in the 12th century to this prominent peninsula on the west side of the Caspian Sea.

Shirvan Shah’s Palace and Museum

Architecture Inside Baku’s Old City Walls

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old City in Baku has renovated its historic buildings for public view.

Miniature Book Museum

Founded by an Azerbaijani woman, this museum contains over 8,000 volumes of miniature reproductions from books collected throughout the world, including Western, eastern, and local literature. This museum is cited in the Guiness Book of Records!

Baku’s Friendly People

Heydar Aliyev Center by Zaha Hadid

This new building designed by Zaha Hadid, the world-famous Iraqi architect, has won numerous international accolades for its sweeping bold design. The museum displays Azeri culture and commemorates Azerbaijan’s former president, Heydar Aliyev.

Hadid created a vision and inspiration for the next generation of architects. Its womby curves and vast proportions offers a three-dimensional fly-through in real time. From the exterior, the building looks like a huge beached whale.

Museum Collection and Interior Details

Art Doll Collection

I couldn’t help but become fixated not only by the historic costumes and expressive faces of the dolls in this collection, but also by the exquisite, life-like hand gestures.