Monday, December 30, 2013

Gross National Happiness

We visited Bhutan, the country which aspires to the highest Gross National Happiness,  in November with Eyes On Asia.

  We flew into Paro from Singapore via Kolkata.  The flight was uneventful, but sort of exhilarating the last bit.  Coming up from Kolkata, we flew towards the Himalayas, seeing some beautiful peaks.    Then we started to descend to the airport, following the river upstream, between the mountains, looking down at the rice paddies as we turned following the valley.  It was an exciting start to a great week.

 I didn't know quite what to expect from Bhutan.  I hadn't had much time to do research before going, as it had been a very busy few months up to that time.  Basically what I knew, is it is a Bhuddist nation which is somewhat isolated by choice.  Basically visas were limited to reduce the tourism and maintain the national culture and identity.  So I was going in sort of blind so to speak, I just knew we were going for a photo tour (as we had done in Myanmar a year before).  Jamie and Felix had arranged it all, and I expected it would be as well planned as Myanmar was.

So the first day, after deplaning, and going through immigration etc, we found our guide Tenzin, and we were off.  First stop was the local market.  Markets can be great fun for the local color, flavor and getting an idea of the foods, but very hard to shoot usually as the light can be very difficult.   This guy was selling aluminum pots he made by hand.  Others were selling mostly vegetables.


After that we went on for lunch, wandered the town a little   and to our hotel.

Then we headed back into town to try to catch some good photos of the Dzong in the afternoon light. 
As it was already well into the afternoon, there wasn't much light inside the courtyard down below.    But there were some beautiful paintings on the walls.  We found out later on during our trip that many people still study to become painters and they then spend their lives painting such murals, or other paintings on people's houses.    Unfortunately we had arrived too late in the day to catch the dzong in all its glory in the late sun, because the parking was above, and by the time we had explored a bit inside, and gotten down below, the sun was already leaving the dzong, and we were too close to get a good view of it.  So we decided we would have to come back another day.  But the week was off to a great start, and we finished it with a tasty dinner of local foods in the hotel.

The next day we started with a tour of one of the local villages, and a visit to a farm house.   Here we got to try the local butter tea.  It seemed that everyone in our group didn't like it, except for Cindy, who learned to like it in Ladakh, and I. 

This was taken in their kitchen/eating area.  Here is the grandfather of the house, sitting by his bowl of rice, with his butter tea.  Outside, a couple of the local women were threshing grain, and our driver tried to give it a try.
   The ladies were laughing very hard because he wasn't too good at it.   The threshing machine was operated by foot, kind of like a treadle sewing machine.  You had to get it going the right way at the  right speed, and then hold the grain down over it to knock it loose from the stalks.

 There were a variety of paintings on the walls of many of the houses, this one was typical of one particular subject--the phallus which brings happiness.   I won't say more about it, there is plenty to read about on the web.

Originally we were supposed to go see a festival in another town, but the airport was closed just a few days before the festival, so we couldn't go.  Our host tour company arranged for a dancing group to perform for us in the villlage, so we would get a taste of that the festival had been like.

The local villagers came to watch as well, making it all the more fun for us.

And of course because it was done specifically for us, we also got the chance to ask for some poses to get some close ups of the dancers.

And they were relaxed afterwards, having some tea and treats, before leaving.  This was one of the musicians, just finishing up a call on his cell phone.

We also had a chance to try our hands at archery, the national sport, and then see some of the dancers try it out.

From Paro, we went on to Thimpu (the capital).  There we visited the big dzong where the king works.   During the week, you can only go in for an hour or so after working hours are over.

   We also visited a chortan where there is a constant stream of visitors coming to pray, or maybe just have a chat with a friend.

In the afternoon we visited an art school, where they had everything from painting to sewing (costumes for dancers etc), to sculpture.

And after that we went up to a small monastery on the hill.   We were lucky enough to find them making candles just outside the building.

Most of our group went early the first morning in Thimpu, up to the big buddha being constructed on the hillside overlooking the city.   I wasn't feeling too well that am, so I decided not to go.   Cindy and Felix wanted to go back the 2nd morning to get better light, they were just too late the first morning, so I tagged along the second time, and it was beautiful to see the statue getting lit up by the first rays of the sun.

We headed back to Paro that morning, and were lucky that one of the guides for the company we were with was having a house blessing.  We were invited to stop by.  This is a yearly event, and they invite most of their neighbors, and the local monks to do the blessing.
They also served some breakfast, so some of us had 2nd breakfast...
and Cindy got some more butter tea.
Our guide Tenzin and driver Sonam were like Laurel and Hardy, always joking around.  On the way down from the village back to the car, Sonam carried Tenzin down the steep rocky hillside.   Sonam was actually the funnier of the two, though either he was a bit more shy, or didn't feel good about his English, he was a bit quieter, but always with a twinkle in his eyes. Tenzin also liked to tell jokes, he told me several over the week.

We got back into Paro in time to find the right place to photograph the dzong.   Felix and I started at the bridge under the dzong, and then walked about a kilometer downriver, and tried out spots along the way, till we found the right angle.  Then we just had to wait for the right time at sunset to get the dzong in the best light. 

On our last day we hiked up to the Tiger's Nest Monastery.   We were served lunch up there, and then decided to wait till the sun was going down, again to catch the better light.  We had to hike back down (about 900Meters vertical) to get to the car, and it was almost dark by the time we go to the bottom.  Still it was worth the wait.

Yes, here you can see the last of the sunset hitting the mountains above the Monastery, and the moon coming up over the horizon.

All in all, it was another great trip to another interesting part of the world.  I think what I liked best is the good natured sense of fun, the fact that the country tries to keep some of there traditions alive, and the very open and sincere nature of the people we met.

As always more photos on Flickr.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A visit from my sister

My sister, Maya,  came to visit with her youngest son, Reed.  Reed had never traveled outside of the US, and for my sister it had been many years, maybe even decades.  We were very much looking forward to their trip.  We started out around Hangzhou.  We visited He Fang Street.   A local shopping street with lots of little tourist shops and restaurants.  2013-10-26 12.13.23  The street has been renovated to look like an older shopping street in Hangzhou.   We got there by walking down the little market street right around the corner from our house, where Reed was fascinated by the various animals on sale for food--turtles, eels, fish, etc.  We also saw the local fungus shop, fruit stands and the like.  He has specifically asked to go to a market, so we did this and satisfied his curiosity.

He Fang street is a delightful place to wander and enjoy the sights.  We enjoyed a visit to the Drum Tower, and the local Chinese Medicine shop.

The next day, I took Maya and Reed for a ride around the lake on bikes. MayaReedHangzhou-0726  We enjoyed sitting by the lake.  MayaReedHangzhou-0740 and taking photos of the scenery and all the other tourists.  Even though Maya and Reed thought it was crowded, it wasn't too bad by Hangzhou standards.  MayaReedHangzhou-0733 We went to the top of Lei Feng Pagoda, where Reed was asked to be in a picture with some Chinese tourists.MayaReedHangzhou-0741   Maya and I visited the local art museum, which always has interesting exhibitions.  This time there was an exhibition of Seals from various districts, which have been collected by Seal Societies.  Here are a couple of examples: 2013-10-27 16.13.21  2013-10-27 16.23.15  And there was some sort of fibre art exhibit, some if it was strange, other parts rather cool.

Maya, Reed, and Cindy had an opportunity to do some things during the first part of the work week while I was slaving away in the office.  They went for a couple of boat rides-- one on the lake, where you drive yourself (or at least Reed did), and one on the water taxi on the grand canal.  They also did some shopping etc.

For the 2nd half of the week, we all went to Beijing.   There we saw the Forbidden Palace, and the Great Wall.  This was my second visit to both, and I saw parts of the Forbidden Palace which I hadn't seen before.  Particularly the concubine quarters, and the house where the only foreign visitor stayed-- the English teacher for the last emperor.  Managing Reed in his wheel chair was a bit of work at times, but it made the whole day possible as he didn't get so tired from all the walking. MayaReedBeijing-9111

In the garden area behind the concubines houses: MayaReedBeijing-9175

Outside the palace, before we went in, we saw the guards practicing marching for their daily flag raising ritual.MayaReedBeijing-9095

The palace is a grand overwhelming place, constantly under maintenance and repair, with many colors, and shapes. MayaReedBeijing-9089

We had a guide for the day.   She was very informative about the palace and surroundings.   Here she is telling Maya and Reed about the bird statues which are also incense burners. MayaReedBeijing-9142

After we finished up at the Forbidden Palace, and had lunch.  Reed was tired out, so Maya and I went to the Lama Temple.   I didn't know in advance that it was built originally as quarters for part of the royal family, and later converted to a temple.  It was therefore very reminiscent of the Forbidden Palace, but on a smaller scale.  Still pretty big though.  MayaReedBeijing-9201  It is still very much a working temple, and full of people worshiping.  MayaReedBeijing-9213  There must have been at least 25-30 shops outside between the subway and the entrance to the temple selling incense and other religious items.

Next, we went to a Confucian temple just down the road.  It was much more quiet and formal seeming.  It was a very interesting contrast to the Lama Temple, and I would recommend visiting both.

The next day we went to the Wall, and the Ming Tombs.   Unfortunately we didn't bring the wheel chair with us so the tombs were a bit of a bust.  But the wall was beautiful in the fall colors, and we had a blast.  MayaReedGreatWall-9243  It is amazing how steep parts of the wall are.  MayaReedGreatWall-9256  Reed managed very well with his cane.

After coming back from the tombs, we let Reed rest a bit, and Maya, Cindy and I wandered the city a bit. 2013-10-30 17.03.49
These guys were a bit stiff and formal, but kind enough to pose with Cindy and Maya.

Then we picked up Reed for the final ultimate Beijing experience, which Reed had been planning for weeks before the trip.   The deep fried scorpions.  Go Reed!  2013-11-01 16.23.04

As always there are a few more photos on Flickr.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A peaceful trip west

Maya wanted to go see the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, and the Terracotta Warriors and Horses while she was visiting us in China.  So Cindy took her to Beijing for the first two, and then we all went to Xi'An for the weekend.  We had three days there (I arrived Thursday night, and they arrived Friday morning) so we got to see a fair bit of the city but there is definitely more to see than we were able to see.

Before Cindy and Maya arrived I took a short walk from our hotel to the West Gate. Xian-8645.jpg  It is obvious to see that Xi'An was a gateway to the western world from China.  There are definitely people with different facial structures, and the art is also a bit different from Eastern China.  I also noticed many people using the park which goes around the outside of the wall, like these guys playing a game on the sidewalk. Xian-8655.jpg

The first day, our guide MJ, who was absolutely wonderful by the way, took us to the Muslim quarter, and around a bit of the city.  We saw the Great Mosque.  It was really interesting because it obviously had some Chinese elements one would not normally expect to see in a mosque.   For instance there were carvings of animals on some of the walls.  I didn't get many good pictures in the Mosque.

Xian-8678.jpg But we did get to see much of the daily life going on in the Muslim Quarter, which literally was 1/4 of the old city, right around the corner from our hotel.  Xian-8677.jpg

We had a delicious local dinner that evening-- dumplings.  They served it at a restaurant in the hotel, where there was also a performance which hilighted the old court in the city, since it used to be one of the capitals of China.

Saturday we went to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, on the way to the terracotta warriors.  Xian-8709.jpgXian-8714.jpg
The story of the monk who went to India(basically fleeing) and how he spent time there becoming one of the highest deciples of Buddhism, and then his return to China is rather interesting.  He wrote a diary of his trip, and it is used by historians to understand life in those times.  He came back to China and once the pagoda was built, the Emperor made him abbot.  Xian-8718.jpg Many of the abbots' remains are buried here, some marked just by stones, others with slightly more elaborate markings.  The grounds around the pagoda are pretty, and I ran across this gate/doorway to the office, which I thought very beautiful. Xian-8719.jpg  I wish the entrance to my office was so nice...

From there we proceeded to the Terracotta Warriors and Horses.  The complex is large, and you have to ride up to the museum complex from the parking lot in small electric carts (or you can walk).  We got up to the main complex and went in to the first of the "pits".   The pits are exactly that, places where the archeologists have dug down to find the terracotta warriors and horses.  The main pit is huge, the building covering it is on the scale of an airplane hangar.  Xian-8738.jpg   This first picture is a view of about half the buiding, looking down the length of it.  There are thousands of these terracotta warriors, each of which has been painstakingly put back together after being dug up.  They were broken either by a mob which entered the tomb during an uprising shortly after the Emperor died, or by the collapse of the tomb from fires set by the mob.  Here you can see across the pit, at the front row. Xian-8736.jpg  These guys were made by hand,  Maybe some of the body parts were moulded but the heads and faces particularly were each differently shaped.  Some of the faces are definitely mongol in nature, others more "classic chinese".  MJ explained how you could tell the different types of warriors by their hair style and other attributes.   The infantry had one "knot" on the right side, archers wore it on the left so as not to interfere with the bowstring.  The higher ranks had two knots...  Xian-8782.jpg  This general was obviously fairly well off as he had a bit of a paunch, not skinny like the infantrymen. Fortunately we weren't there during a big holiday time as the crowds were manageable.  MJ said that Xi'An gets 10 million visitors a year, mostly Chinese.

After viewing the first pit, we went to lunch.  Outside the restaurant I caught this guy obviously waiting for his guests, riding a Jade Horse while texting on his phone. untitled-14.jpg

We saw two more pits after lunch, and then a short movie about the history of the place, and its importance as a historical site.  We also bought a book which was signed by the farmer who found the first shards and brought them to the attention of the government.  He's a bit of a celebrity in Xi'An because he helped establish it as a major tourist destination.

Sunday, our last day,  we started the day with a walk (and bicycle ride) on the city walls.  They are fairly well maintained and have been upgraded a couple of times.  They started out as rammed earth, then brickwork was added later, and finally there were rain gutters an other adornments added. Xian-8815.jpg Here you see MJ explaining to Cindy why the abutments (buildings on the wall) are spaced at even distance of 60 Meters all around the wall.   This has to do with how far arrows will fly for the defense of the wall. Xian-8837.jpg  It was a grey day, and was raining when we first climbed the wall.  But by the end it was dry enough for us to rent bikes and ride a ways around the wall.  Rather bumpy, but fun.  After going on the wall, we were taken to a local gallery where we had the opportunity to learn a bit about Chinese calligraphy, practice a bit ourselves, and see some of the local art.  We saw both folk art styles and more modern styles, though the folk art was more interesting to us.

Finally then after lunch at Grandma's Impressions.  We went on to one more Emperor's tomb (Hanyang tombs).   He came after the one who had the terra cotta warriors and horses we saw first, and since the economy wasn't doing so well, and he realized that maybe there would be another revolt if he spent so much on his afterlife preparations, all of his terracotta warriors, horses, pigs, fowl, courtiers, etc were scaled down.   The site was found in the 80's when the expressway was being built.   The government knew there were tombs in the area, but didn't know that they extended so far beyond the actual burial mounds which are still visible from a fair distance away.   The museum is much more modern, accessible, and the viewing of the artifacts still in the ground is much closer, but it would not be able to handle quite the crowds that the first site can.  Here are a few photos. Xian-8867.jpg
Then we had to go to the airport and fly home.  Again MJ was great.  We booked him through China Oddysey Tours.

And as always there's more on my Flickr.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Seoulful weekend

A couple of weeks ago, we went to Seoul.  Our youngest daughter was there at a summer session in Yonsei University, studying, among other things, Korean.  Since it is only a 2 hour flight from Hangzhou to Seoul, we decided to go visit her there at the end of her study session.   Cindy had more time in Korea, but due to work constraints I only had a long weekend.  Still it was a great introduction to Korea, and to Seoul.

On our first day there, we went to the Leeum Samsung  museum of art, while waiting for Maya to finish checking out of her dorm.  There we saw some interesting Korean and foreign art, including Calder exhibit.  After we met her and Jun Ho for lunch, we went to the National Museum of Korea. This place is HUGE, not just architecturally, which it is, but also in it's collection.  One afternoon was certainly not enough time to do it justice.  We could have easily spent a whole day there.   I particularly enjoyed some of the recent history, and the historical furniture on display.  Some of the art collections from around Asia were stunning as well.

Korea-8237.jpgThat evening we went to dinner in the Hongdae area, and afterwards we walked through the streets a bit. It was a very lively section of the city at night, but it was very hot and humid, so we stopped to enjoy a cocktail at a little tiny bar which serves drinks in plastic bags "to go" or onsite.  Korea-8247.jpg   There were also people entertaining.   This guy had a decent crowd around him listening to his singing.Korea-8243.jpg

The following day, we started off by going to see the palace, sort of the equivalent of the Forbidden City in Beijing.   It is much more approachable, and since it is smaller and there is more greenery, it is much more enjoyable to visit.   We arrived just as the guards were being changed.  But before we got there we walked up this big promenade which approaches the palace.   Along the way we saw the statue of the King who invented (or had invented) the current Korean Script. Korea-8256.jpg  And there were displays of the national flower and other things as well.  Unfortunately the morning was fairly grey and it started to rain just as we got inside the palace walls.  After seeing the changing of the guard. Korea-8289.jpg
So we headed off to the palace museum, where we got to see a lot of what life was like in the palace before the occupation by the Japanese in the early 1900s.  They even had old photos of some of the royal family being held hostage during the negotiations with the Japanese about the occupation.

The inside of the palace is very well kept up and a beautiful place to just wander around. Korea-8316.jpg


I liked this set of rooms, it was for the Queen, and sat just in front of one of the gardens, you can see the garden scene painted on the walls, and the actual garden behind.

Of course they had to change the guards again just before we were leaving.


  We spent basically most of a day there, and left only in time to meet some friends we had gotten to know in Bangalore, who are now living outside of Seoul.  We went to dinner with them after visiting a famous Buddhist temple close to the palace.

The next day, in the morning we visited some of the Tombs at Seolleung, which is near to the Gangam section of town.  The park is beautifully maintained, unfortunately some of the tombs are hard to get close to to really see, but this does help maintain them, so I understand.
It was really hot and humid, so we had a slow walk through the park, and saw all three tombs there.
Korea-8528.jpg As you can see, it really is right in the middle of the city, and accessible from the metro by about a 10 minute walk.
This was Jun Ho's last weekend of freedom before going into the Army.   We met with his parents for a delicious Korean lunch in Gangam after visiting the tombs.  Korea-8544.jpg 
It was very nice to visit with them and reminisce about Bangalore.  They had lived in Bangalore while we were there, and Jun Ho's father still runs a business there now.

Unfortunately I had to leave the next morning, so after lunch we made a visit to the old part of town, near the palace, where they still have some traditional houses available for viewing.  And then I had to get ready to go back to China.  Korea-8570.jpg
But I have to say, I enjoyed Korea, and Seoul much more than I thought I would, and would be happy to go back again.  As always, more photos on Flickr.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A week in Beijing

A week in Beijing is hardly enough to touch the city.   We managed to see many of the major sights, but not all of them.  Fortunately it had rained the days before we arrived, so the air pollution wasn't too bad.  We stayed in one of the Hutongs, not far from the Dongsi metro stop on lines 5/6.   We were able to walk to/from the metro in about 15-20 minutes, because we were down a small 1-way alley staying at the Double Happiness Hotel.  Beijing-7812.jpg  This was very close to the National Art Museum of China which had a wonderful exhibit.  We saw it on the 2nd day, and managed to get totally soaked on the way back because our umbrellas were not up to the rains. 

On the first day, we wandered down to the walking/tourist street to take in the sights.   It was interesting to see the locals dancing the shuffle, and skateboarding on the Church steps/square along the street.Beijing-7793.jpg  And of course seeing all the wonderful things to eat along the local food street.  No I didn't try either the seahorses nor the scorpions.  You could tell the scorpions were fresh, because they were still wiggling on the stick, before being deep fried for your consumption. Beijing-7797.jpg
The streets were fairly crowded with both locals and tourists.  And the food street was particularly busy.   We did buy some sort of dumplings which were stuffed with leeks, and also some sort of crepe like item with veggies in it.  They were both very tasty and enjoyable.

Of course we visited the Forbidden Palace.  First we went to the Tiananmen Square.  We were surprised at several things, 1) how big it is.  You don't get the scale of it without actually being there. 2) How many people came there to take pictures of themselves in front of the gate to the forbidden Palace, with the Great Helmsman, Mao, in the background. Beijing-7820.jpg And 3) how much security was there.   You had to go through metal detectors just to go to the square, and then there were obvious security everywhere, I suspect even more plainclothes security as well.

Once inside, there were lines and people everywhere.  Of course we were there on a holiday week, so it was probably extra busy.  Beijing-7834.jpgIt is an amazing place and my pictures probably don't do it justice.   I did take a number there, but the weather was very hot, dusty, and hazy, so the light wasn't very good for photos, and the numbers of people made it hard too.   Beijing-Palace-Panoweb  I think the thing that amazed both Cindy and me about the place, is just the sheer scale of it.  It really could have been a small city, and probably was with all of the people who were living there as part of his family, or to serve the Emperor.  It took us the whole day, and we probably only saw half of it.  There is one thing which is sort of a shame, many of the historical artifacts are no longer there.   Much of it was looted during various wars, or taken to Taiwan.  So you can see the buildings, but not much of how they actually lived.

I cannot really remember what we did on which day, as I'm actually writing this two months later.  I think the next day we went to the Art Museum, and then in the afternoon, we met up with a friend of Cindy's who had studied in Beijing a number of years ago.  She was visiting a Kung Fu master. 

We wandered up towards Beihai, along the way stopping at the Drum and Bell Towers. Beijing-7927.jpg  We saw a demonstration of the drumming which was fun.  Beijing-7909.jpg And we wandered some shopping streets.  We also had some of he best food that night because we just stopped along the way at a street restaurant and ordered local food.  It was delicious.

We of course also visited the Temple of Heaven, which is beautiful, but also interesting is what all goes on inside of the park.  We ran across people who were playing the accordion.  A whole group of them, maybe not all playing the same song at the same time.  Beijing-7979.jpg

We also saw different groups practicing dancing, and singing. Beijing-7991.jpg


And of course there were the ubiquitous couples posing for their engagement/wedding photos.  Beijing-8015.jpg

It was a very hot day, so Cindy went everywhere with her umbrella to shade her from the sun.  Beijing-8038.jpg

One day we visited an area which used to be all factories ( I think munitions factory), but has become the art haven of Beijing.  We wandered galleries and enjoyed the shops.  I didn't take many photos there as I was too busy looking at the art.  But we both thoroughly enjoyed the day.

Beijing-8063.jpgOn our second to last day we took the School House Bus to Mutianyu to see the great wall.  The Schoolhouse is now a restaurant / hotel which tries to operate sustainably.  We rode the cable car up to the top, and then wandered around the wall.   Some photos:

Cindy wasn't feeling up to a lot of hiking around on the wall that day, but I went as far as where it started to go UP the hill, and then went about 1/4 of the way up.   I didn't want to go too far so I turned around and came back down then.  Beijing-8066.jpg

Many people celebrate having climbed up and back down at this point.  Beijing-8103.jpg  You can see all of the beer and champagne bottles (yes there was someone selling said drinks) lined up along the base of the lookout post at the bottom point of the stairs leading up this hill. 
Beijing-8114.jpgAfter our wandering the wall for a few hours, we took the cable car back down, and on the car there was an inscription.  Apparently we have ridden in the same car as President Clinton when he visited the wall here.

On our final day we went to the park behind the Forbidden Palace to get a nice view of the city.   The weather prevented any stunning views, there were some nice surprises.   On our way up the hill we thought we heard accordions again, but couldn't see them anywhere.  After climbing up and seeing the view, Beijing-8143.jpg and being seen by the ubiquitous securty cameras.  We wandered down the hill to the back.   We ran across people playing in a band, and singing.Beijing-8161.jpg  Beijing-8217.jpg We found people doing aerobic dance in the park. Beijing-8182.jpg 
And we found those amplified accordions, only they weren't accordions at all, there was a whole group of people playing harmonicas, each had his own personal amplifier hanging from his/her belt.  It was really fun, there was one guy with them playing a sort of flute. 


And then we went to have lunch, and head to the airport.  It had started to rain, so we stopped at a small cafe in the alley on the way back to the hotel, before we left to go home.  As always, I have some more photos on Flickr.