Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Altar of Heaven

The 15th century Altar or Temple of Heaven (天坛 or 天壇) - for me, the most iconic feature of Beijing (even more than the Forbidden City). 

Where emperors, the sons of heaven itself, would come to pray. 

And its circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿) - one of the most magnificent.  

My favourite look is winter, but this temple in spring was still awe-inspiring. 

Saturday, May 20, 2006

quick fun San Francisco visit

San Francisco... a natural stop-over for my trips between Beijing and Mexico City. And one of my favourite places on earth. In fact, probably the only place I haven't lived at where I actually have local friends. That special.

Armed with a map hand-drawn by one of my friends, with plenty of (also hand-written!) tips, I explored quite a few sides of the city in my brief visit. 

Winding streets

I mean, San Francisco's hilly and winding streets are almost clichéd. But they're still so much fun! Particularly this one here, Darrell, which was a mix of a street, a path, and steps. Loved it!  

the bay, the bay!

Cities by the water are my favourite ones. Period. Coupled with a view to die for (thanks to a brilliant tip by one of my buddies) of the city's tallest skyscraper - the Transamerica Pyramid - and gorgeous, sunny weather, this was one of the highlights of this trip.


Of course, a visit to a city this size and vibrancy couldn't be complete with a tour of at least one of its museums, like the de Young museum of Fine Arts. First of all, the building is beautiful. It's all covered in copper plates that, with time, will oxidize and give the building different shades of green, to echo nearby eucalyptus trees. The gardens around just add to the experience. Needless to say, the collections inside, which tale you through the Americas and Africa, can keep you busy all day long. Which is almost a shame with all there is to do in the city!

the cliché of clichés

What post about San Francisco would be complete without a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge? Even not including a photo would evoke it, as readers would probably wonder why there's no photo of the bridge. So here it is, yet another photo of probably the most recognizable bridge in the world.

and all the other stuff...

... that couldn't be captured by photographs, like lying in the sun on a hill, experiencing the city's liberal gay culture, the numerous homeless in search of a better life or escaping a worse one, and the unbelievable hospitality from the good San Franciscans I met. One of those trips that really does increase what good there is in your life.  

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Western Peace - Xi'an

Amongst the many things we did and saw in China, we only managed to make a rather quick trip to Xi'an (西安), in Shaanxi Province (陕西).  Yet, with so much to see and do in this vast country, I'm glad we got to visit at all!  And I discovered it had much more to offer than the single reason most people visit the city for - the Terracotta Army.

Muslim Xi'an

First off, the Muslim side of Xi'an. This city was one of the first Chinese cities Islam was introduced to, around the 7th century. Though nowadays the Muslim population is not that big - some 50,000 - it is still rather visible and, more importantly, is heir to one of the jewels of the city: the Great Mosque of Xi'an (西安大清真寺). What's so interesting about this mosque is that, except some small details you could easily miss if you were not looking carefully, it's a completely Chinese building. Of course, the small things are what make it the more special, as those are the ones that allow you to pierce the veil of China to peer into a parallel Muslim world... Arabic lettering in some corners, the skullcaps and hijab of women inside, the call to prayer by the muezzin... By the way, I must confess, I much prefer the Iranian style of the call to prayer, much more terse, velvety... But anyhow, all this, plus the strange peace and quietness you could feel behind the mosque's walls - coming from the busy and loud streets - added to the feeling of being in a different world. 

the streets

And talking about the streets, the ones near the mosque were so alive and colourful! The smells of spices (they like their food spicy in Shaanxi), the dumpling carts, the hustle and bustle... And then hidden somewhere a shadow puppet theatre where you could have your own personal show. And also hidden around any number of corners all the impossible-to-believe photo opportunities, as if you had walked into a quintessentially Chinese stage just waiting for you. A real pleasure to wander around, to see, to hear, and to smell!

Chinese Xi'an

What else you should not miss at all? The Drum Tower (西安鼓楼) and the Bell Tower (西安钟楼)! Smack in the middle of the city, these 14th century buildings give you great views of the city, contain numerous beautiful drums with Chinese calligraphy (the Drum tower, which used to sound the drums at sunset) and several stunning Tang dynasty bells (the Bell Tower, which used to sound the bells an sunrise).  Calligraphy, red, rusted green bells... beautiful!

Also, not far from the tower, there's this very famous place for dumplings: Defachang (德发长). I can say me and my partner have ample experience with dumplings (well, basically, they're delicious, and we totally love them, and we've etan aplenty, ok?). My partner doesn't eat pork. And we were pretty hungry, and looking forward to trying these. So, we sit down, place our order, making sure there is no pork in any of the dumplings we're ordering. And then wait. And wait. And wait a lot more. And when we finally - and starvingly - asked what the problem was, the waitress explained that, since the dumplings were boiled in broth that contained pork, they had had to make both broth and dumplings, from scratch, just for ourselves, so nothing would have been "polluted" with pork!  Whoa! How conscientious and attentive! And maybe this is the hunger we had speaking, but they lived up to their reputation.  

Dumplings aside, no really old and preserved location would be complete without some city walls, right? Though the present incarnation is relatively "young", from the 14th century.  Yet, it's one of those architectural elements that really transports me to another time and place. They seem so primal, and since most cities outgrow them and get rid of them, it's fantastic when you find places that have managed to keep them. 

Of course, we couldn't help but also attend a super kitsch show. You know, those that tell you the story of the place. Or, in this case, the GRAND story of the FABULOUS place, with countless dancers, and effects, and, well, kitsch, like I said. But still, it's part of a culture's retelling of its past to itself, so why not?

Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to take photos inside the Xi'an Museum. But this was one of my most eye-opening visits in the city. Dynasties tended to give a makeover to most structures to conform to their own style, which means most of the time your surrounded by Qing and Ming Dynasty styles, which is fine, but can be a bit tiring at some point. But at this museum, wow, I saw so much art from the Song Dynasty I had never seen! And it blew me away! I don't have the vocabulary to describe what differentiates this dynasty from others, but what matters is that it was new to me, that it was so refreshing, and that I personally found it so beautiful. So if you need a fresh look at Chinese art, this is one fantastic stop.

beyond the gates

Of course, not everything is contained within the gates of old Xi'an - which, by the way, is one of the oldest cities in China. And that means it's really, very, incredibly old. Anyhow, if you need some nature, there's the Huaqing Pool (华清池): a lush area with hot springs, views of the nearby mountains, and maybe just a bit too many tourists... Oh well, that's what you get when you visit super famous spots, isn't it!

And if you fancy pagodas, then there's the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (大雁塔). From the 7th century, it was used to hold sacred texts and Buddha figures brought straight from India. Personally, I particularly liked the square, solid, stern, heavy character of this pagoda very much.

Finally, the single reason most people visit Xi'an: the Terracotta Army (兵马俑). Frankly, I'll admit, were you to see one and one thing only, it should be this, as it's pretty unique. I mean, some 9000 life-sized pieces including soldiers, horses and carriages? and each of them different? and some 1800 years old? If you look at the picture, you'll see the sheer size of the place they were found. It's truly astonishing. What else can one say?

So, even if it was too short a trip, I got to see plenty, to see new things, and to keep marvelling at the richness, diversity and antiquity of this vast and almost unknowable country.