Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Shanghai--China's Modern Jewel

China and Shanghai will host the World Expo in exactly one year. Go if you can--this is an amazingly beautiful and rich city. It embodies so many of the struggles, travails, successes, and potential that China has to offer in the 21st century.

Shanghai is China's largest city--with more than 19 million residents. 15 new buildings are erected in Shanghai every month. It's skyline reads like a major Financial newspaper cover--with the world's biggest brands in banking, hotels, and shopping filling the sky. It's location on a major Chinese waterway and coastline have made it a trading port of the world for centuries. And, of course, you can get a great cup of tea in Shanghai.

(Photo above: Fresh, steaming hot pork and sticky rice rolled in lotus leaves at Watertown.) 
(Photo above: Old style brooms at a private garden in a residential neighborhood.) 
(Photo above: Shanghai's growing skyline seen from the rooftop of a famous tea house near the Bund.) 
(Photo above: 15 new buildings go up in Shanghai each month--here is a handful of this month's offering.) 

(Photo above: Shanghai's future is now.) 

Scenes from the Forbidden City

The big Chinese monuments are just fascinating to visit because they embody so much rich, mysterious (for Westerners), and varied history, and also because you come to realize these places are living spaces where contemporary society lives, plays, and celebrates. 

(Video above: Locals and visitors gathered in several spots in the outer courtyards to sing nationalistic songs from Mao's era.) 

We visited the Forbidden Palace on Labor Day weekend--a famous shopping and vacationing weekend for the Chinese each May 1st weekend. 

(Photo above: Inner courtyard of the Forbidden Palace with its archetypal Han Dynasty roof lines, large squares for Imperial functions, and tiered marble steps and galleries where high ranking officials would attend ceremonies for the Emperor.) 

(Photo above: This couple did not appear to be from Beijing. They were authentically dressed in farmer's "Sunday" clothes, and their color and features struck me as being more Western Chinese. They were very handsome, and very honored and proud to visit this Forbidden place. 

(Photo above: Two lions typically adorn doorways is high palaces, a female on the left and a male on the right. You can tell them apart because the female is holding down her lion cub--a symbol of her familial and relationship powers. The male always has his large paw pinning down a golden globe, they symbol of Imperial ad absolute power.) 

(Photo above: One of the beasts that protects the Emperor. Every household should have one of these.) 

The Great Wall

Today we went to the Great Wall. As with most places we went in China, most of the other visitors were "locals."

It was fantastic to experience this place with so many Chinese people, some who had never seen it before, others who make an annual family outing just to connect with this part of their ancient heritage. 

That Great Wall has become the key metaphor for defending against a new, 21st C., invader of a different ilk than the Mongols: The "outside world" that can enter China through the Internet. 

Though you do not experience the Great Fire Wall when you're a tourist staying at Western-oriented hotels (where the government opens up holes in the Fire Wall so Westerners can access the rest of the world's content seamlessly), Chinese across the country--whether they are university professors in HK, Party members researching Western policies, or Beijing or kids playing network games on Wi-Fi--they encounter the Great Fire Wall any time they try to access content that is not sanctioned by the PRC: 

They simply get a "cannot find that page" message from their browser. 

(Photo above: Looking north toward Inner Mongolia, through one of the watch tower doors.) 

When we in the West say the "world is flat" in order to explain the "leveling effects" of the Internet on ideas and commerce, well, it is flat, relatively; but developing parts parts of the world, maybe like in China, are cautious and so they try to keep out (and in) ideas and views that a government in transition might find difficult to align with their own current policies. 

The choice to censor is a difficult one for any government and people. The Great Fire Wall will likely come down slowly, especially as more of China's people want to see "beyond the ranges" of their own beautiful Middle Kingdom, and the more explorers like you want to see in. 

(Video above: An old woman makes her way toward the section of the Wall we climbed (the section was built during the Ming Dynasty in the 1300s). She looked like she'd been there before.) 

(Photo above: John and James with our tour guide, Jennifer.) 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Beijing's Hou Hai area

Hou Hai is a natural lake area in Beijing. It is a draw for families who want to take walks and boat rides during the day, and for Beijing's youth set in the evenings. Restos and bars surround the lake--beer is ten bucks a bottle!

(Photo: We met friends, Marlene and Katty, at our hotel, and they took us to Hou Hai for a nice walk and then for one of our best dinners in China! Katty's daughter is 2 weeks younger than my son, Finn, so we are hoping for a long-term friendship!) 

(Photo above: Young prodigy plays his instrument to a large crowd at Hou Hai. Click to hear him play--he's quite amazing.) 

Connecting with Art in Beijing

In Yellow Sheep River I met an art broker specializing in calligraphy drawings and paintings and during the trip to Tibet and back I communicated with him about purchasing a painting I liked. We finally agreed on a price and then negotiated a rendez-vous in Beijing.

He brought about two dozen other works and I agreed to photograph the ones I like and show them to friends at home. The works are by Western China artists who have sold works through galleries, vendors, and independently.

Let me know if you want more info. 

Largest Public Square in the World

When you go to Tienanmen Square you can imagine it fits 1,000,000 people. And after touring around China I couldn't help wonder what the next big gathering at the square will be about.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Xining--Halfway to Beijing

We disembarked the train at Xining, which lies halfway between Lhasa and Beijing, wedged between the past and the future.

Today its economy is part Ag, part finance, part manufacturing, and part tourism (though last year they had almost no tourists because Tibet was closed to tourists for many months--One of the main reasons tourists stop in Xining is because they, like us, are on their way to or from Tibet).

Xining, like many places in China, is growing rapidly. Our guide said it's grown by 30x since the Revolution.

There were many wonderful images and people there, in Xining.

(Photo: The Cultural Revolution. The smaller sphere revealed inside the cut-away of the larger sphere represents minorities (56 of them) within the greater context of "China.") 
(Photo: A gatekeeper at the Taoist/Buddhist temple above Xining.) 
(Photo: A subtle reminder of what is likely to happen if one fails to follow the virtuous path in life.) 
(Photo: The midday prayer hour.)

(Photo: A rare peek inside the washing room at the central Mosk in Xining.)