Monday, January 12, 2009


During the winter break between semesters (about seven weeks), Elva and I are touring China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Our first stop was Shanghai. To us this is like a mystery city. It has such an exotic name and appears in Western literature as a far away place in history where the ordinary rules of society do not apply: opium dens, Charlie Chan, coolies, queues and gang pressing of thousands of Chinese to build the Central Pacific railroad. It is still possible to see old films of turn-of-the-century Shanghai with old cars, trolleys, and other modern features that the British introduced into China. But of course today Shanghai stands on its own two feet and has little that it needs from the West. The thing that met our eyes after stepping off the airplane was a modern airport as nice as any we have ever been seen anywhere in the world. Once in the city, we were overwhelmed with the skyscrapers. No only are they tall, they are beautifully designed with some of the most innovative architecture I’ve seen anywhere. We went first to the Oriental Pearl Tower,

which as I understand it was inspired by a Chinese poem about pearls dropping one by one. From the observation deck on the uppermost “pearl” we could see over the whole city and the river below. Unfortunately it was smoggy and the tall buildings loomed out of the dirty brown air like specters.

The next day was better—clear and cold. This made for better pictures, but we were very uncomfortable. Shanghai is the largest city in China, currently estimated at about 18 million, so there were hundreds of buildings that soared into the sky and had some architectural features that

were worth photographing, but eventually we had to give our cameras a rest. The more prominent buildings, in addition to being tall, all had something unique in the way they were designed that was intended to set them apart. For many of them it was the way the top of the building was designed. They were pointed, or had unique antennae or towers, or had spacecraft-like saucers on top. You

can see what I mean from the photos accompanying this blog. We also visited some old neighborhoods with the traditional Chinese architecture. In most cases, however, when photographing the old-style roof line, in the background you could see a modern building peeking

out above it. This is one on the paradoxes of China—the old and the new together. In addition to the skyscrapers, we were next most intrigued with the Shanghai Museum. It was a beautiful building as architecturally unique as all the rest although not a high rise. It was the ceramics gallery that went to our hearts. We have some appreciate for ceramics because of our son Jared who during high school created beautiful pottery in our basement and fired it in our back yard. So we know what it takes. In this museum we followed the development of pottery from its first development in

prehistory down through the various dynasties to the porcelain China is famous for today. Viewing it was much like photographing the tall buildings: each time you turned the corner there was another

vase more beautiful than the one before. There was no way you could pick a favorite. Nevertheless, we have picked a few for you to consider. Please feel free to make a comment and tell us which one you favor. So this is our take on Shanghai: amazing skyscrapers and a first-class museum.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Fall Day on the City Wall of Xi'an

When people think about Xi’an, China, they usually think about the terracotta warriors, but a sometimes overlooked fact is that Xi’an has around it an ancient wall just like the Great Wall of China. It looks very much the same. It’s as tall as the one guarding the northern approaches to Beijing and even wider. The construction is the same: a rubble and rammed-earth center fronted and topped by gray stone.

It has the same crenelations and watch towers as the Great Wall. The major difference, of course, is that it is not nearly as long. While the Great Wall stretches for about 4000 miles, the city wall of Xi’an is only 11 miles in length. Its main purpose was to surround and protect the city, just like many walls around ancient cities. But it is the best preserved city wall in China even though it is almost 700 years old. The city fathers have done their best to make it a tourist attraction. It is lit at night and a beautiful park has been created between the base of the wall and the old moat.

The city wall also serves as the site of many civic events. In early November, the city holds a marathon race on the wall. We’re not talking about a real marathon of 26.2 miles. Rather there are different distances one can run, or stroll, or slowly amble: 5K, 10K, or longer. It is a fun time.

Many of the foreign teachers from our university participated, including Elva and me. (You can guess what distance we chose.)

Our bus load of teachers looked like a miniature United Nations. While nearly all the foreign teachers speak English, their native languages are German, French, Russian, Hindi, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, Arabic, Thai, and many others. It’s really interesting to hear us all talking at once on the bus.

The race on the city wall is a great civic event. Thousands attend from the local area, and there are dedicated long-distance runners who fly in from other parts of China and other countries to race. Many nationalities are represented.

In addition to the racers, many other civic organizations participate just to add to the festivities of the day. There was a senior citizen drum band with the participants all dressed in ancient Chinese costumes. Another group of retired men demonstrated spinning tops. They spun them on strings stretched between sticks and tossed or balanced the tops. There were musical bands. It really was festive.

We each got a number to pin on our chests and were divided and started out in small groups. The young ones ran off at top speed; we older ones paced our selves—meaning we walked the whole way. It was a beautiful fall day, clear and mild. Flags were flapping in the slight breeze. The sun was warm on our faces as we walked along. About half way to the turn-around point near one of the old watch towers, the real racers passed us on their return trip and cheers went up from spectators.

along the route. Eventually we completed the circuit and returned to the starting point, although the crowd had largely dispersed by then. We felt a little like marathoners who arrive at the finish line after everyone’s gone home. But that’s okay; we had a great time.