culture

Climbing China’s Great Wall

Looking down at Base Camp and the wall from the top tower at Badaling

Right or Left? That was our choice when we arrived at Base Camp—my nickname for the concrete entryway, lined with small shops and a ticket booth—at the Great Wall of China’s Badaling section, 40 miles northwest of Beijing.

Only select sections of the crumbling Great Wall have been fully or partially restored. Badaling is one of the best. It’s also closest to the country’s bustling capital. As such, it’s the most crowded, especially when we were there—during October’s National Day Holiday, when everyone in the country goes on vacation for a week and makes a beeline for Beijing and the Great Wall. During peak times (i.e. holidays), it’s estimated that 70,000 people per day visit Badaling.

Before traveling to China, I’d watched a tv show documenting the Great Wall’s history. In the 3rd century BC, during what’s known as the Warring States period, Qin Shi Huang’s army defeated armies from the other 6 kingdom states in what is now China. After crowning himself emperor of the now unified country, he ordered most fortifications between the states demolished. Some walls he kept and joined together in a single system to protect his empire from barbarians in the north.

Using mostly packed earth and rocks, almost a million peasants, criminals, soldiers, disgraced nobles and unemployed intellectuals slaved for ten years to construct a wall that stretched 3,100 miles. It’s estimated that 400,000 of these laborers died during construction, and many were buried in the wall, giving rise to its nickname: the world’s largest cemetery.

Over the years, there were various accounts of the wall’s efficacy. As dynasties came and went, it was either repaired or neglected. It kept out some invaders but not others such as Mongol Genghis Khan. Around 1206AD, his grandson Kublai Khan broke through, conquered China and created the Yuan Dynasty, stationing soldiers along the wall to protect merchants and caravans traveling along profitable Silk-Road trade routes.

The year 1368 saw the defeat of the Mongols and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, which put a great deal of effort into fixing and strengthening the wall, building fortresses, steps, watchtowers and gates; employing skilled laborers; using bricks handmade of granite and limestone; and turning it into the fortification we know today (note: they added sticky-rice flour to the mortar, and although many bricks disintegrated, the mortar is still holding strong, leaving a pattern of holes where bricks used to be). The series of 25,000 towers built less than 500 feet apart and 30-40 feet high enabled troops garrisoned at each tower to see each other’s smoke signals, lanterns, flags and beacon fires and be ready to fight the enemy when and where he should appear.

In the mid 17th century, the Manchus broke through the wall, precipitating the fall of the Ming and beginning of the Qing Dynasty, which lasted until 1912.

map of the many branches of the Great WallSurprisingly, the Wall is not just one wall, but a series of walls, some running parallel or perpendicular to each other. At one time these walls slithered like giant snakes from the Yalu River in the west, through the Gobi Desert, along mountain ridges and sixty-six feet into the sea (so that raiders could not ride their horses around the end) for an estimated length of 5,500 miles (actual 13,170.7 miles, if you count all the branches). Many parts are now in ruins.

So, back to our choice. The left side, we were told, was a more difficult climb but with fewer people. No longer energetic youngsters, we opted for the easier Right side and were grateful for the railing on the steeper sections. Make no mistake—climbing the Great Wall is no walk in the park. There are steps—lots of them, and I noticed many of the younger Chinese huffing and puffing along with me as they pulled themselves up by the railing.

I could easily imagine soldiers running up and down these steps, using the nine-to-twelve-foot-wide top of the wall as a transportation corridor from tower to tower, firing canons and aiming their crossbows through the narrow battlement openings at the enemy below.

The crowds didn’t bother us. We rather enjoyed climbing with the Chinese tourists. Perhaps it was because they were on holiday and in a good mood, but they were courteous and friendly, many asking to take pictures with us. When I asked our guide about this later, she said that when they go back home, they’ll show off their foreigner “friends (us).” We’ll be famous in little villages all over China.

Can you really see the Great Wall from the moon? Well, not with the naked eye. It’s long enough, but not wide enough, says an astronomer friend. But photographs and radar imagery taken from a low-earth orbit do show the world’s longest defense fortification—one of the Seven Wonders of the World—snaking like a massive Chinese dragon across the desert, grasslands and mountaintops of China, enthralling us still.

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Categories: Asia, China, culture, History, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cee’s Which Way Photo Challenge: The Great Wall of China

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From a recent trip to China: Climbing the Great Wall. Stamina required

Categories: Architecture, Asia, China, culture, engineering, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments

India’s Ancient Magical Observatories

I wanted to climb the steps, but it was not allowed, and a guard stood by to ensure everyone followed the rules. Still, the idea of climbing on the giant edifices tugged at me just as it does a child who steps into an enchanting playground. And that’s what this place looked like—a playground filled with odd-shaped structures that begged to be climbed.

Part of the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, India

In reality, though, we were at Jantar Mantar—an astronomical observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, a soldier, scholar and ruler with a lifelong interest in math and astronomy. He founded the city of Jaipur in the 1720s and built five Jantar Mantar observatories in northern India.

Jantar Mantar means “instruments for calculation,” or “magical calculations.” The Jaipur observatory consists of 18 devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, observing planet orbits; calculating the lunar calendar and predicting the start of the monsoon season. It’s main purpose, though, seems to have been casting horoscopes, which require a precise knowledge of the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars at the moment of birth.

The largest instrument (with steps leading to its top) is a sundial 27 meters high, its shadow carefully plotted to tell the time of day to an accuracy of about two seconds. You can see the shadow moving at 1 millimeter per second, or roughly the width of a hand (6mm) every minute.

Influenced by the Islamic school of astronomy, Jai Singh also incorporated elements of early Greek and Persian observatories into his designs. The Jantar Mantars, however, are more complex, on a greater scale, and contain some completely unique designs and functions.

They were made almost entirely of masonry, with some engraved metal rings and plates set into masonry foundations, and they were built large because the larger the scale, the more accurate the measurements. Once finished, they could not be corrected or improved, and observations were limited to those involving the positions and motions of heavenly bodies that are visible to the naked eye.

Over the years, they’ve been restored from time to time—partly because they are tourist attractions, but also to keep them useful and scientifically authentic. Local astronomers still use them to predict the weather for farmers (although the accuracy is questionable), and students of astronomy and Vedic astrology are required to take some of their lessons at the observatories.

Because of their size and inflexibility, the Jantar Mantars were obsolete even before they were constructed and were soon replaced by smaller machined brass instruments and telescopes that proved more useful and accurate. Still, they are amazing reminders of ancient innovation and man’s quest to understand the universe.

Categories: Architecture, Asia, culture, engineering, History, India, Photography, Stock Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sampling of Southeast Asian Cultures

Last September, we embarked from Shanghai on a 17-day cruise that made port at Nagasaki, Japan; Busan, South Korea; Taipei, Taiwan; Hong Kong; Vietnam; Bangkok, Thailand; and finally Singapore. My story (with photos) of the journey is featured in the Spring issue of TravelWorld International magazine, starting on page 6.  http://issuu.com/travelworld/docs/_twi_magazine_spring_2015/1. Please enjoy the tour.

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, China, cruises, culture, Da Nang, dragons, Photography, Published Work, Thailand, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bangkok’s Grand Palace

 In 1956, actor Yul Brynner, as the king of Siam, sang and danced through a gilded palace in the movie, “The King and I.” The country of Siam has since changed its name to Thailand, but its Grand Palace in Bangkok is still something to sing about.

The older Thai capital at Ayutthaya in the North had been destroyed in 1767 during a war with Burma, and newly proclaimed King Rama I ordered his men to remove bricks and other materials from the forts, walls and palaces (but not the temples) of this ruined city and send them by barge down the Chao Phraya river to the new capital city of Bangkok. Not only was he updating his wooden palace, but to solidify fortifications around his riverside capital, Rama I dug canals along its eastern edge, turning the city into an artificial island.

The Grand Palace is not one large structure in the tradition of most European palaces. It’s divided into four main courts separated by walls and gates and originally housing royal offices, state ministries, the royal chapel, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, ceremonial throne halls, and the king’s harem quarters. After a second expansion during the reign of Rama II, the palace covered an area of 2,351,000 square feet and was Thailand’s administrative and religious center, with thousands of inhabitants including guardsmen, servants, concubines, princesses, ministers and courtiers. And just like Rome’s Vatican City, the Grand Palace was considered a city within a city, subject to its own set of laws.

Gradually the government ministries grew in size and moved to other locations. The King, too, relocated to more modern palaces. In 1932, a student-launched revolution overthrew the absolute monarchy of King Rama VII, replacing it with a constitutional monarchy. Today, the Grand Palace still serves as a royal ceremonial venue, as well as a museum and tourist attraction.

I found the Grand Palace to be a photographer’s eye-candy wonderland rife with golden temples; bejeweled pavilions; and giant, elaborately painted warriors. I’d love to return, without having to follow a tour guide, and get lost in the visual magic of it all. Have you been to Bangkok’s Grand Palace? If so, what were your impressions?

Click on any image to see the slideshow.

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, culture, History, Photography, Stock Photography, Thailand, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Lovely Hula Girl

My Lovely Hula Girl photo sold to Hawaiian Airlines for their coffee-table book celebrating 85 years of service to Hawaii.

My Lovely Hula Girl photo sold to Hawaiian Airlines for their coffee-table book celebrating 85 years of service to Hawaii.

Categories: Books, culture, Hawaii, History, Photography, Published Work, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cee’s Fun Photo Challenge: Bridges

Dragon Bridge, Da Nang, Vietnam

Dragon Bridge, Da Nang, Vietnam

Rong Gao (Dragon Bridge), Da Nang, Vietnam. Built in 2013 and designed by U.S. engineers, this dragon breathes fire and hissing smoke (water mist) each weekend after sunset. Now that I’ve photographed it during the day, returning at night is on my Bucket List.

Categories: Architecture, Asia, bridges, culture, Da Nang, dragons, engineering, Photography, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Shanghai, China: Garden of Dragons

Yu Gardens bridge, pavilion and lake.

Yu Gardens bridge, pavilion and lake.

The most delightful maze in the world is not a maze—it’s a 5-acre plot of tranquility in Shanghai’s Old Town. But once you pay your entrance fee and step inside Yu Gardens, it’s easy to get hopelessly turned around amid the tapestry of winding walkways, caves, red pavilions, carp-filled lakes, stone bridges, whimsical doorways and myriad artful rock formations (which I suspect are feng shui inspired). “Haven’t we been to this spot before,” I asked my husband more than once as we wandered around gawking at the aforementioned sights, and peering through different-shaped openings that framed the garden’s treasures.

The largest and most prestigious of its era in Shanghai, Yu Gardens was built in fits and starts during the Ming Dynasty between 1559 and 1577 by Pan Yunduan as a peaceful place for his aged father. It was first opened to the general public in 1780. Despite damage during the First Opium War, Taiping Rebellion, and in 1942 by the Japanese, it was repaired by the Shanghai government and declared a national monument in 1982.

Don’t expect orchids and other floral arrays here, but if you’re ever in Shanghai, Yu Gardens is a must-see. Be sure to go when it first opens to get ahead of the tour busses.

If you’d like to wander with me through this enchanting garden. just click on any photo to start the visual tour. But, as the sign says, “Be Careful,” because here there be dragons.

Categories: Architecture, Asia, China, culture, gardens, Photography, Stock Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Argentina’s Gauchos

Some say there are no real gauchos in the traditional sense—rebels who never settled down, who defied authority, ignored the law, and were so attached to their horses that when they finally dismounted, they walked with permanent bowed legs. “A man on foot is half a gaucho,” the saying goes, “because the gaucho and his horse are one.” But in Argentina, many proudly consider themselves gauchos and carry on gaucho traditions.

Each year, in early November, the Argentine pampa town of San Antonio de Areco holds a Dia de la Tradicion (day of tradition), which is actually a week-long festival of all things gaucho. We had planned to be there for the festival’s ending—a parade of gauchos—hundreds of them—through town, followed by displays of gaucho horsemanship. To our dismay, the festivities were cancelled at the last minute in response to reports of a gathering storm.

Nobody was happy with that decision, including the gauchos, especially when we arrived at San Antonio de Areco and the weather was picture perfect. So instead of the parade (and the crush of thousands of people that we were doing well to avoid, our tour guide assured us) we would tour the sleepy town itself, with visits to a famous gaucho bar, and shops crafting leather goods, handmade ponchos and silver knives.

Gauchos differ from American cowboys in many respects, including their rejection of guns. Instead, gauchos carry knives—long and sharp, with elaborately carved handles—which they stow at the back of their leather belts and employ for everything: cutting firewood, fixing saddles and lariats, making adobe bricks, skinning cattle, carving off chunks of meat at mealtime, and in the early days, occasionally as a weapon.

After our tour (and the spotting of a few gauchos who flaunted the festival cancellation and rode their horses around the town square anyway), we headed to a nearby estancia (ranch) where the first order of business (after a short trail ride on the ranch’s horses) was lunch. In the cookhouse, a hearty meal was being prepared: meat, meat and more meat—steaks, chicken and sausages—as well as other delectable salad/vegetable dishes and Argentine Malbec wine.

Once satiated, we gathered on the lawn outside the stone portico where lunch had been served to watch a demonstration of the bonding between a gaucho and his horse. Trained with respect and affection, our guide explained, the horse trusts his gaucho completely, and vice versa. The photos tell the story.

At a nearby field, another gaucho demonstrated a technique in which unbridled horses have been trained to shadow a “follow horse” led by the gaucho. It was like watching a school of fish moving as one, twisting and turning whichever way the gaucho led them.

Too soon it was time to start the 90-minute drive back to Buenos Aires.

Note: Yes, we missed the gaucho parade, but that’s not the end of the story. Stay tuned to successive posts, and you’ll find out why.

Categories: Argentina, culture, Photography, South America, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Hawaii by Sea

Two of my Hawaii photos have been selected for magazine covers recently. The voyaging canoe was taken on the North Shore of Oahu, and the sunset at Anaeho’omalu on the Big Island of Hawaii.

palm trees at Anaeho'omalu Bay, Big Island of Hawaii

palm trees at Anaeho’omalu Bay, Big Island of Hawaii

Inside Out cover Jan '14

Categories: culture, Hawaii, Photography, Published Work, Stock Photography, Sunsets, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Pa’u Rider: Real Men Wear Lei (and so do their horses)

After

Before

In this image I miraculously transported my pa’u rider from the shade trees of Ala Moana Park to the rugged Ka Iwi coast of Oahu, just past Hanauma Bay. (see previous pa’u rider post)

Categories: culture, Hawaii, Photography, Stock Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Those Gaudy Greeks

Did the ancient Greeks really paint their statues in gaudy colors and patterns that wore off over time?
http://io9.com/5616498/ultraviolet-light-reveals-how-ancient-greek-statues-really-looked

Categories: Art, culture, History | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Read any Good Mystery Novels Lately?

Action, adventure and insights into Hawaiian culture. While trying to prove herself as a new detective, Lily Graham is going to learn more about her past and herself than she wants to know.

Following is a possible blurb on the book’s dust jacket. You know—that old-fashioned cover flap you used to read when trying to decide whether to buy the book. I hope you find it intriguing.

HPD Detective Lily Graham discovers long-hidden secrets in an underground lava-tube on Hawaii's Big Island

HPD Detective Lily Graham discovers long-hidden secrets in an underground lava-tube on Hawaii’s Big Island

When the body of socialite Helen Dupree is found dismembered in a shark tank at the Honolulu Aquarium, newly minted HPD homicide detective Lily Graham is assigned to her first murder case.

To complicate matters, someone is stealing from ancient Hawaiian burial sites, and Lily’s Hawaiian ancestors contact her for help. Haunted by visions of rituals and human sacrifice, Lily is guided to the lava fields of Hawaii’s Big Island where she comes face to face with a deadly 700-year-old priest and is led on a hunt for a cunning grave robber who may hold the key to Helen Dupree’s murder.

To solve the case and appease her ancestors, Lily must not only interpret the visions and make sense of obscure clues left behind by Helen Dupree, but also fend off a diabolical killer who stands between her and the truth—a truth that will change her life forever.

Just as Tony Hillerman’s Native American mysteries unveil the Navajo culture and the rugged landscape of the American Southwest, The Shark God’s Keeper reveals the hidden culture of Native Hawaiians and showcases the mysterious, volcanic landscape of the world’s most remote archipelago.

Jennifer Crites is the co-author of Sharks and Rays of Hawaii (Mutual Publishing 2002), a nature book, which includes a chapter detailing the significance of sharks in Hawaiian culture. She’s written extensively about many aspects of Native Hawaiian culture as managing editor of ALOHA magazine and as a freelance writer for a number of local, national, and international publications.

Categories: Books, culture, Hawaii, History, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

Norway: Viking Churches? Not

It’s an ironic story line—after raiding and pillaging towns and villages in countries throughout the north Atlantic, Vikings returned home and went to church.

Perhaps they did, but if so, they didn’t attend services in a stave church—so named for its interior, weight-bearing pillars, or staves. There may be dragons on the roof, but stave churches weren’t built until after the Viking Age ended. That date is traditionally marked in England by the failed invasion attempt by Norwegian King Harald III, who was defeated by Saxon King Harold Godwinson in 1066. Ireland and Scotland note their own dates, predicated on victories against Vikings.

stave church, Borgund, Norway

stave church, Borgund, Norway

At one time there were more than a thousand stave churches throughout Europe. Most were built between circa 1130 and 1350 AD. Construction stopped when the Black Death started to spread through Europe, and congregating in small spaces became life threatening.

And the stave church is indeed a small space. So small, in fact, that most of its congregation had to stand—men and boys on the right, women and girls on the left. The elderly and sick could sit on benches along the walls.

Today only 28 stave churches survive, and all are in Norway where there is a long tradition of building in wood (remember those sturdy Viking ships). Earlier churches were built on often-soggy ground and succumbed to wood rot. Lesson learned. Stone foundations solved that problem.

stave church interior, Oslo, Norway

Stave church interior, Oslo, Norway

While visiting the stave church in Borgund, I was surprised to see that it—like other stave churches—had no windows. The only light entered through a few small portholes high up on the walls. The altarpiece depicts Christ’s crucifixion. Animal masks adorn the south door, and serpents and dragon-like creatures decorate the main-door side panels and lintel. On the roof turrets, Christian crosses and dragonheads keep each other company. Old legends die hard I guess, and it seems that the parishioners were hedging their bets—honoring old gods and new.

I found it interesting that the timber used in construction of the church was most likely seasoned on the root, strategic cuts drawing the tar to the surface before the tree was felled. After construction and during renovations, additional tar was applied to protect the wood.

carved doorway, stave church

carved doorway, stave church

It was common to bury the dead under the church floor, but that practice stopped at the end of the nineteenth century thanks to the unpleasant smell. However, stillborn infants and babies who died before being baptized could not be buried in the consecrated ground of the churchyard. Tiny coffins were placed under the floor, even in recent times. It seems odd to me that the ground around the church was considered consecrated, but the ground under the church was not.

If you stand inside the church and look up, you’ll see that the roof above the nave looks like an inverted boat with ribs. Hmmmmm! I wonder what inspired that design.

Categories: Architecture, culture, History, Norway, Photography, Scandinavia, Stock Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreign, Easter Island

Ahu Tongariki, the largest collection of standing moai on Easter Island.

Ever since Dutch explorer Admiral Jacob Roggeveen landed at a small island in the South Pacific on Easter Sunday 1722 and encountered a landscape filled with giant stone statues, the world has wondered about Easter Island: Where did the statues come from? How and why were they made? And, most puzzling, how were these behemoths—some weighing as much as 75 tons—moved.

In 2004, I flew to Easter Island and spent ten days there with University of Hawaii Professor Terry Hunt and his archaeology students, who were digging at Anakena Beach—site of the first Polynesian settlement on the island. Since then and as a result of his findings, Hunt has taken academic dynamite to the old myths and blown them apart.

The original theories went like this: The first settlement was in 700 AD, after which the population mushroomed to 10,000 or more, and the islanders destroyed their environment, cutting down all the trees to roll the massive statues—called moai—into place. Famine, warfare and even cannibalism followed. It was a classic example of wasted resources leading to societal collapse, one that the world should take note of.

According to Hunt’s research, that’s all wrong.

Carbon dating of bones and other items from his dig now puts the first settlement closer to 1200 AD, and new evidence shows the population reached a maximum of 3,000, which was all the 64-square-mile island could handle because its ecosystem was depleted even before the first settlers arrived.

So did the islanders—now known as Rapanui—cut down their trees? The island was originally covered with thick forests of Jubea palm trees, and the Rapanui did cut down some of them to build shelter, says Hunt, but not to move moai. The real culprits were Polynesian rats that had arrived with the settlers, possibly as stowaways on the canoes. They multiplied rapidly, and their favorite food? The seeds of the Jubea palms. Without seeds, no new trees could grow.

Also, says Hunt, there is no evidence of warfare: no remains of fortress-like buildings or weapons of war. And all anecdotal evidence points to a peaceful people who understood that in order to co-exist in an inhospitable environment—with no lakes or streams, poor soil conditions and inconsistent rainfall—they would have to get along or perish.

Next time: the moai—why they were carved. And did they, as the local folklore says, really walk from the quarry to their current locations?

Categories: culture, Easter Island, History, Photography, Stock Photography, Sunsets, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 47 Comments

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