Sunday, November 29, 2009

319 Amherst, SE

We closed on our new house on Monday morning and started moving in that same afternoon. There are still a few pictures to be hung and a few odds and ends to be arranged, but for the most part we are now at home at 319 Amherst.
The house has four small bedrooms. One is a study for Steve, one is for Susie, one is a guestroom and TV room, and one is for sleeping. There is also a large garage with a workbench and lots of storage, and a huge pantry and utility room off the kitchen.

We are located on a quiet street at the top of Nob Hill only a few blocks from the UNM campus and Central Avenue, the "main drag" with many shops and cafes and restaurants. Looking out our rear door, we can see beautiful sunsets and the lights of the city twinkling across the Rio Grande valley.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Amherst Street: ABQ

We like to think of ourselves as a perpetually moving target. To that end, we have just submitted an offer to buy a little bungalow in Albuquerque -- and the seller has accepted! If all goes as scheduled, we'll take possession at Thanksgiving.
The house is on Amherst Street, three blocks south of the University of New Mexico campus. It is within easy walking distance of the library and concert hall. Central Avenue, the main drag through campus, has all of the amenities of urban living that we have come to enjoy along Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C.

These four pictures were taken by our realtor. The furniture is just staging, but the pictures should give you an idea of what the place looks like. Come see us!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bippity .... boppity .... BOOH!

One visit from the King of Construction, JD, and see what you get (with a little hard work).

Sunday, October 11, 2009

OMG ... more construction!

Susie returned to New Mexico in early October for the last phase of the cabin renovation. Jon Lloyd & Michele McGrath were co-conspirators and invaluable help. The task at hand was to remove the remaining walls on the interior of the original cabin, to make it one large open space. We attacked with the big guns -- sawzall & sledge hammers.

The first phase of that project was the easiest part .... DEMOLITION!!!! We attacked the least complicated walls first and left the walls with all the electrical outlets until the very last. We have had quite a time keeping all the wiring sorted out, but we still have working outlets & overhead lights, so we must have done something right. Our electrician, Joe Garcia (Little Joe), will have a time sorting out this wiring arrangement.

During the removal of interior walls, we discovered the "winter stash" of one of our woodland furry friends. Very interesting melange of bedding and nuts.

The cabin is now a lovely, open space with (as they say on HGTV) great flow. We get lots of interior light from all the windows, and the cabin is much brighter. Obviously, there is not much substance to the space at this time. Tune in again to see the newly rearranged kitchen area.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Build-o-Mania 2

Despite some rain days and a small hitch with an inspection, the building project moves steadily onward. Here are a few pictures of the current status. The foundation has been backfilled and a new parking area has been graded and graveled. We moved some big rocks to mark the edge of the parking pad. On the exterior, we now have siding on two of the three walls. We'll stain it to match the logs on the exisiting cabin. On the interior, the wall studs are all up and most of the insulation is in. Wiring and plumbing are almost complete -- and the new jacuzzi bath has been installed. Susie can't wait to start tiling the floors and walls.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Los Alamos Rodeo

A few weeks ago I posted a few pictures and videos from the 4-H Junior Rodeo in San Isidro, NM. This past Sunday (August 9) I went to the Open Rodeo at the Los Alamos County Fair. It was attended by about 200 spectators, equally divided between ranching families and physicists. There were only a few contestants in some events (bull riding, chute dogging), but there was plenty of action in two of my favorites: team roping and barrel racing.

In the former, a two-person team consisting of a "header" and a "heeler" must rope a very fast steer. The header lassoes the steer around the horns or head and then takes a "dally" (wrapping the rope around the saddle horn) and turns the steer for the heeler. The heeler then ropes the steer's rear legs and also takes a dally around his or her saddle horn. The ropers then turn their horses to face each other and pull back to stretch out the steer. The fastest time wins. It is the only event I can think of where men and women can compete on the same team.

In barrel racing, women riders must race their horses in a set pattern around a course consisiting of three 55-gallon oil drums. Fastest time wins (duh). Here are eight short videos to give you a little of the flavor of the afternoon.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


The construction project at 476 Horseshoe Loop is making incredible progress. Here is a little slideshow to give you an idea of what has been done in a very short time. Our builders, Nick and Ted Bennett, are incredibly skillful, cooperative, and hard-working. We also have had the good luck to engage the services of the electrician ("Little Joe" Garcia) and plumber (Mike Tomatowski) who helped us with the initial renovations of the main cabin. Susie supervises and coordinates everything, discussing changes and solving problems on the fly.
When it's finished, the new additon will have a main bedroom (with a real closet!), one and a half baths (including a large whirlpool tub!), and a large entryway/mudroom. Then we will take down the inner partition in the old cabin, eliminating the original bathroom, enlarging the kitchen, and turning the whole space into one huge open cooking/dining/living area.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Rock Art

On Sunday, Will, Maya, and I took a hike along a couple of trails at Petroglyph Monument on the western outskirts of Albuquerque. About 150,000 years ago, lava flows on West Mesa created a layer of basalt that has now crumbled into large boulders and slabs forming a dark, jagged escarpment overlooking the city. Native Americans created fascinating rock art by pecking, chipping, and incising the dark patina of the basalt, revealing the lighter gray rock beneath.
Today, Petroglyph Monument preserves more than 20,000 sacred images cut into the black stone. Some are easily recognizable images of animals, birds, snakes, and people. Some are geometric figures: spirals, circles, rectangles, stars, and crosses. Others are unidentifiable biomorphic hybrids, deities, and mysterious figures drawn from the artists' vision-quests into the spirit world. Some may be 2000 years old, but archeologists think that most were made between 400 and 700 years ago. Spanish explorers and settlers carved their marks into the rocks as well.
Whatever their original meanings may have been for their makers, these thousands of examples of rock art offer precious, beautiful, baffling, and at times amusing glimpses into our shared past.
For a fascinating account of an individual's efforts to protect the rock art at Mesa Prieta, see Katherine Wells's book Life on the Rocks: One Woman's Adventures in Petroglyph Preservation (UNM Press, 2009). Our friend Jan Stone is an active volunteer in this project.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Independence Day

The little village of Jemez Springs (pop. 375) is the smallest town every to win an "All-American City" award. I think the pictures of our July 4th celebration will show you why. The day begins with a homemade parade -- flags, marching band, floats, vehicles, rodeo queen, and all -- at 10:00 sharp. Don't be late, because this year's parade ended at 10:18. After the parade, everyone goes to the plaza in front of the library, bath house, and community building for speeches, food, games, flea market, arts and crafts, pony rides, etc. The day ends with fireworks at 9:00 PM. Volunteer firemen climbed up on the cliff behind the town and shot off $3500 worth of spectacular rockets. We didn't let the light evening rain dampen our spirts.

Monday, July 6, 2009

On the Move: Jemez, Los Alamos, Chimayo

Will and Maya came on July 1 to join us for a week at Horseshoe Springs. Their arrival coincided with the acquisition of our new Honda ATV. The first few pictures in this album capture the maiden voyages of the yellow ATV. A trip to Los Alamos (about 30 miles east of here) included the must-see landmark known as The Black Hole, a surplus market for discarded equipment from the labs. We also took a drive up the Taos high road to Chimayo, a village famous for its weavers and for the pilgrimage site known as the Santuario de Chimayo.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

4-H Junior Rodeo (San Isidro, NM)

The village of San Isidro lies at the foot of our valley, about 30 miles from Horseshoe Springs. On Saturday (27 June), it was the site of a 4-H Junior Rodeo. The contestants ranged in age from 6-16 years old and competed in age groups in a variety of riding events ("mutton busting," saddle bronc riding, bareback calf and steer riding) and racing events (pole bending, flag racing, and barrel racing). The animals and riders all displayed incredible skill and athleticism. The hotdogs were tasty as well.

This set begins with two still photos. The rest are videos, so you might have to be patient while they buffer.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Drum Corps

On 23 June we went with our friends Ralph and Jan Stone to the town of Rio Rancho, a suburb just northwest of Albuquerque. The event was a Drum Corps competition featuring six groups from Colorado, Arizona, California, Ohio, and Wyoming. If you haven't witnessed this particular American sub-culture, you don't know what you are missing. Each group consists of a marching drum line and a huge brass section (no reeds allowed), a stationary percussion section on the sidelines playing vibraphones, tympani, bells, etc., and a "corps" of dancers, twirlers, and flag-tossers. The music is superb and the band is in a constant swirl of highly choreographed motion, an overwhelming feast for eyes and ears. I would have made videos, but only still pictures were permitted.

The members of each drum corps practice 10-12 hours a day for months on end, then travel to various competitions before the national championships in early August. All participants are in their teens and early 20s. The man sitting behind us was an original member of the Blue Knights from Denver, founded in 1958.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Acoma Pueblo

For obvious reasons, Acoma Pueblo is also sometimes referred to as Sky City. The pueblo was settled sometime before 1150 AD and (along with Taos Pueblo) claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited site in the United States. The mission church and residences of Acoma are nestled on top of a mesa with extremely steep cliff sides rising more than 365 feet off the flat desert floor. Three miles away is Enchanted Mesa, the legendary home of the Acoma people. As a particularly sacred site, it is off limits to all visitors.

Most of the Acoma people now live in small villages scattered across the reservation, but about a dozen families -- the heads of the various clans -- occupy the mesa year round. The pueblo still serves as the center of tribal life on ceremonial occasions. There is no electricity or running water. Firewood and propane must be transported in; water is collected in cisterns and in hand-dug pits in the rock floor of the mesa.

When Coronado's soldiers first saw Acoma in 1540, they reported that it was impregnable. In 1598, however, Spanish troops managed to scale the cliffs and slaughter hundreds of pueblo inhabitants. The captured women and children were sentenced to 20 years of slavery; Acoma men were subjected to the amputation of a hand and foot and 20 years of slavery. Relations were not improved when Acoma men were forced to construct the massive mission church of San Estevan del Rey over a pre-existing kiva in the early 1600s, including the requirement to carry massive ceiling beams all the way from Mount Taylor (50 miles away) without allowing them to touch the ground. Today, Acoma people practice a combination of Catholicism and native religion.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Easter in the Jemez

Easter fell on Sunday, April 12. We celebrated by watching the snow fall in the woods. We got several inches and so we stayed indoors by the fire for several days -- except when Susie had a project to complete!

Saturday, April 11, 2009


We came back to the States in early March. Since then, several of my students have kept in touch with me via e-mail. They are halfway through the spring semester now, studying hard for the national examinations they will have to take soon.

Some of my students have sent me pictures of themselves, their classmates, and their lives in the dorms at Liaoning Normal University. I think the pictures make an appropriate postscript to our stay in Dalian. These young men and women touched my heart and enriched my life. I'll never forget them.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Two Videos: Carnival at Limoux

Two of our previous entries described our visits to the town of Limoux in order to get a little taste of the pre-Lenten celebrations that take place on the town square. Here are the links to those entries and picture galleries:

I also tried to take some video footage using our little camera. I'm still a total amateur at this and I haven't tried to edit the files yet, but you can click on this link to get a quick taste of Carnival in Languedoc. When you get to the album, click on view all to see the links to both files.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cathar Castles

Languedoc is known as the Land of the Cathars. Catharism was a dissident religious movement arising in the 12th century that mixed traditional Christianity with imported forms of Middle Eastern dualism, seeing the world as a perpetual combat between a good spiritual world and an evil material world. As fierce Occitan regionalists, the Cathars rejected the authority of the French king. As austere quasi-Christian ascetics, they rejected the efficacy of the sacraments and the authority of the papacy. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) enlisted the support of northern knights to eliminate the separatist heretics.

The Albigensian Crusade (named for the city of Albi) was launched by the pope in 1209. Under the brutal leadership of Simon de Montfort, the Cathars were slowly eradicated in a series of genocidal campaigns characterized by various atrocities: sieges, famine, mass mutiliations, and outright massacres. After the military defeat of the Cathars, the papacy sought to win hearts and minds by establishing the Inquisition under the leadership of the newly established Dominican Order. Secret inquiries, torture, confiscations, and executions were common over the course of more than a century. The last execution of a Cathar by burning took place in 1321; the last community of Cathars (at the obscure mountain village Montaillou) was eliminated by the Inquisition in 1412.
Today, the most famous signs of these tragic times are the numerous ruins of Cathar castles, usually perched on steep cliffs in the remote foothills of the Pyrenees.

Return to St-Martin-des-Puits

The tiny chapel of St-Martin-des-Puits, perched on the side of an isolated one-lane road south of Lagrasse, exercises a magnetic attraction on our imagination. The snug rectangular nave is actually pre-Romanesque, divided from the small nave by a Visigothic outrepasse arch resting on a pair of marble columns rescued from some lost Roman building. The south transept, dating from the 11th century, has a single small arched window. The north transept has been demolished. The choir is decorated with damaged but still stunning 12-century frescos. The iconographic program is very unusual -- we're still working to decipher parts of it and to make sense of the arrangement as a whole. On our first visit (see blog entry from 11 February), we mostly took pictures of the extant architecture and artwork:

On our return trip this week, we spent more time examining and lamenting the state of disrepair. The abandoned building is badly damaged. The heavy wooden door is always unlocked and the windows have no glass, leaving this priceless gem exposed to potential damage from visitors and inclement weather. There are a few pathetic signs of attempts at stabilization -- it would be too much to call it restoration -- but the interior continues to deteriorate. Here are some pictures from our second visit. We hope the situation will improve, but the signs are not encouraging.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Limoux: Return to Carnival

Our blog post for 6 February describes our first trip to Limoux, a town of 9000 people nestled in a narrow valley about 20 miles south of Carcassonne. In the pre-Lenten season, the townspeople of Limoux celebrate their own distinctive form of Carnival. This weekend, we decided to go back and experience the event again.

Two troupes of costumed and masked "fecos" dancers enter the town square from opposite sides. Each troupe is accompanied by its own brass band that follows along behind playing a distinctive (and seemingly endless) tune. The masked celebrants move in a clockwise procession under the arcades around the square. Sometimes they dance with onlookers or shower them with confetti. This late-winter ceremony culminates with the ritual burning of the Winter King a few weeks from now.

St Papoul, Caunes-Minervois, Rieux-Minervois

Carcassonne is the perfect home base for taking day trips throughout the region. One day we drove up to Saint-Papoul, a twelfth-century monastery northwest of here. The exterior of the apse preserves two capitals carved by the Master of Cabestany, the late 12-century sculptor whose work we have tracked throughout Languedoc (St Hilaire, Lagrasse, Rieux-Minervois, etc).

Our travels northeast of Carcassonne took us to the monastery of Sts Peter and Paul at Caunes-Minervois, dating from the 11th-13th centuries. The most amazing building we visited, however, was at Rieux-Minervois. Rather than being rectangular, the beautifully preserved 12th-century sanctuary is septagonal. The domed vaults rest on seven pillars arranged in a circle. To top if all off, several of the columns have incredible carved capitals, including a masterpiece by the peripatetic Master of Cabestany.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Niaux: Prehistoric Cave Art

One of our most memorable trips has been to Niaux, a large cave in the in the steep foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains that contains amazing prehistoric artworks. There are actually many caves containing prehistoric art in this part of France, but most are now closed to visitors. Niaux is one of the few that can still be seen.

In order to preserve the art, small groups of twenty are allowed to enter with a guide. The entrance to the cave is in a sheer cliff high above the Vicdessos River. Using only flashlights, we hiked about 900 meters back into the unlighted cavern. The most remarkable part of the tour is the Black Chamber, whose walls are covered with beautiful and highly detailed images of prehistoric animals -- bison, horses, and ibex -- painted in red and black. These drawings date from the Magdalenien Period of the Late Stone Age, meaning that they were created about 12,000 years ago. It is difficult to imagine our ancestors working their way so deep into the cave complex by simple torchlight in order to create these incredible red and black drawings.
(The pictures of art from inside the cave weren't made by us since photography is not permitted in order to preserve the delicate works.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Another day trip, another abbey. This time we drove east through the vineyards of Corbieres to the Cistercian abbey of Fontfroide. Our tour gave us a look not only at the cloister and church, but also a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life for the lay brothers, dining in the refectory, and cooking in the kitchen.


One of the most moving places we have visited is the remote rural chapel of St-Martin-des-Puits. It is located in a steep, wooded river valley, along the side of a rutted one-lane country road. The rectangular choir of this tiny building is pre-Romanesque, divided from the 11th-century nave by a horseshoe-shaped Visigothic arch supported by a pair marble columns taken from an unknown Roman site. The choir is decorated by magnificent but badly damaged 12-century frescoes.

The entire structure is rapidly deteriorating. There is no glass in the windows, so the interior (including the fragile frescos) stands exposed to the weather. The chapel is hauntingly beautiful and slowly disappearing.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Toulouse: Augustinian Museum

A second trip to Toulouse took us to a museum of medieval art housed in a former Augustinian monastery dated from the early 1300s. The museum is especially noteworthy for its collection of medieval sculpture -- tomb covers, free-standing figures, and the carved capitals from 12th and 13th-century columns.

Vals: The Tabby Tour

Vals is a mere speck on the map, a cluster of a dozen farmhouses on a one-lane road about 10 km west of Mirepoix. It is the site of a very strange and incredibly ancient subterranean church. You enter the pre-Roman crypt through a spooky cave-like opening in the solid rock, then climb through an interior divided into separate chambers on three different ascending levels. There are even more surprises in the form of 11th and 12th-century frescos on the ceiling vaults.

We were privileged to take a special Tabby Tour of the premises. Susie befriended a lovely mottled cat in the churchyard. The cat proceeded to lead us through the passageway into the church and then gave us a tour of the entire structure. Our feline guide skipped from one dark room to the next, expertly taking us into every nook and cranny, before leading us back out into the warm sunshine.


The village of Mirepoix suffered a massacre of its Cathar residents at the hands of the Crusaders and was later ravaged by a flood. The exisiting village dates from its re-establishment as a "bastide" in the year 1290. It is famous for its town square which is surrounded by broad covered walkways in front of handome timber-frame houses. The ends of the beams supporting the 14th-century Council House feature 150 carved wooden heads, each one a work of art in its own right.

Narbonne, Lagrasse, and Carnival in Limoux

Jan, Susie, and Steve took a number of short day trips throughout Languedoc. One was to the small coastal town of Narbonne, once a Roman provincial capital and a medieval trade center. We loved strolling through the streets and visiting the unfinished Gothic cathedral and a fine archeological museum with exhibits dating from the Stone Age through the Gallo-Roman period. We also drove to the walled village of Lagrasse to visit the abbey and its small museum devoted to the works of the medieval sculptor known as the Master of Cabestany, whose masterpiece we had seen at the abbey of St-Hilaire.

A high point of our trip was the chance to experience a little bit of the pre-Lenten revelry during the annual Carnival celebrations at Limoux. In the weeks before Lent, the town square is the site of music, comedy, and dancing by various troupes of masked celebrants.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Two Romanesque Churches

A day trip due south of Carcassonne took Jan, Sue, and Steve to a pair of small Romanesque churches in lovely settings. The first was the abbey of St-Hilaire, where our guide Fabien gave us a tour of the church, cloister, refectory, abbot's lodgings, and the hand-dug cellar where sparkling "blanquette" white wine was first discovered in 1531. The church houses a 12th-century masterpiece, a marble "sarcophagus" carved by the Master of Cabestany.

Our second destination was the rural church of St-Polycarpe, dating from the 11th century. In addition to the beauty of the building itself, the small sanctuary also contains two ancient carved altars and some 12th-century frescoes.

Carcassonne: The Cite

Our snug, two-story flat is in a handsomely renovated medieval building in the narrow rue de Gaffe in the town of Carcassonne. It lies at the foot of the fortified cliff known as the "cite," a UNESCO world heritage site. Carcassonne was settled as early as the 6th century BCE, but entered its medieval Golden Age in the 12th century. The citadel was besieged and captured in the year 1209 by Simon de Montfort, leader of the brutal Crusade against the Cathars. It eventually passed into royal hands and was extended throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. After falling into disrepair, it was rescued and rebuilt by Violet-le-Duc over several decades in the 19th century. It is now an incredibly picturesque location, a kind of fairy-tale city in the sky.

In addition to many shops and cafes and the castle itself, the walled town is also the site of the church of St Nazaire, formerly the cathedral of Carcassonne. St Nazaire is a late 11th-century building that underwent considerable renovation in the 13th century, resulting in the combination of a Romanesque nave and a Gothic choir, but without the jarring asymmetry that we saw at the Cathedral of St Etienne in Toulouse.

Another day trip took Jan, Susie, and Steve north to Albi, where we strolled through the medieval quarter, toured a musuem devoted to the works of native son Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and visited the fortress-like red brick cathedral church of Ste-Cecile (late 13th-14th century).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Day in Toulouse

We arrived in Carcassonne in Languedoc on Thursday and spent the next day learning our way around our new neighborhood at the foot of the enormous fortified city that gives the town its fame (more later). On Saturday the 24th we drove to the airport at Toulouse (about 50 miles way) to pick up our friend Jan Stone who was arriving from New Mexico as part of her 80th birthday celebrations. Extremely violent winds closed the airport all day, so her arrival was delayed by 12 hours, giving us a chance to spend a very windy day in Toulouse while Jan whiled away the hours in Amsterdam.

The first place we visited was the 13th-century cathedral church of St-Etienne, a strange asymmetrical combination of what are essentially two separate Gothic churches. A plan to replace an older structure with a newer church ran into an impasse due to financial difficulties, with the result that the church consists of two connected but totally different sections that are not even aligned on a single axis.

Later that afternoon, we were deeply moved by the breathtaking beauty of the basilica of St Sernin, one of the largest and most beautiful romanesque churches in Europe. Begun in 1080, it is a masterpiece of simplicity and quiet grandeur.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Interlude in Lauterbach

On January 16, we flew from Dalian to Frankfurt. Our destination was the little town of Lauterbach where Steve was an AFS student in 1967-68. The town itself dates from before the 8th century and received its town charter in 1266. Today, the population is around 14,000 -- it was about half that when Steve lived here 40+ years ago. It is a beautiful rural town of narrow lanes and half-timbered houses about 20 miles north of Fulda, near what was once the border with the former DDR.

In 1996 while living in the Netherlands, we took a trip through Germany and detoured through Lauterbach. That's when we reestablished contact with our good friends Wolfgang Kniepert, a former classmate, and his wife Beate. We have renewed our longstanding friendship and visited one another several times in Germany and in the USA during the intervening years. The Knieperts were kind enough to host us for five days at their home in Lauterbach, giving us lots of time to stroll through their lovely hometown, walk in the snowy woods, attend a mini-reunion of former classmates in a medieval watchtower, and drive to the nearby town of Alsfeld where dramas were performed on the marketplace in the late Middle Ages.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Video: Tai Chi

It is a common sight to see people doing exercises outdoors, either individually or in groups. One evening in Guilin, I came aross two groups practicing tai chi in the park. Bear in mind that these are not performers. They are just men and women doing their usual evening exercises. This is my first attempt to shoot a videos and post them to the blog, so this is a technical experiment as much as anything else. Clicking on the image will start a 30-second video clip.

Monday, January 12, 2009

On the Money

Apparently, we have unwittingly planned our travels according to the pictures on the backs of Chinese banknotes. Here are pictures of the 100, 50, and 20 RMB bills and the corresponding pictures from our blog. If we continue to follow this currency-driven itinerary, it appears that we will visit Xihu Lake in the southern city of Hangzhou (1 RMB), the peak of Taishan Mountain (5 RMB), and the Three Gorges canyon on the Yangtze Valley (10 RMB).

Guilin: Wedding Culture

This gallery begins with a few final pictures from Yangshuo and Guilin, but most of it concerns the topic of Chinese weddings. The wedding business has become an enormous industry in China. Shops for wedding consultants can be found all over Dalian. In good weather, at least a dozen of them are crowded together in the outdoor market area at Victory Square. The wedding consists of three main phases: legal registration with the government, several days of professional portrait-making in different locations and different costumes, and a banquest that combines various Western and Chinese customs. Because of its ideal climate and scenery, Guilin seems to be a favorite wedding destination.

Our friend Steve Keith has told us that in Dalian's Laodong Park anxious parents gather on weekends with posters of their single adult children, trying to accomplish a little old-fashioned parental match-making. Maybe we will witness that when the weather thaws out a bit.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Li River Cruise

A cruise down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo takes about four and a half hours but provides a lifetime of memories. The wide, shallow river cuts through incredible limestone formations for mile after mile. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. It turns out that the fantastic cliffs seen in traditional Chinese scroll paintings are not imaginary after all.

The river is not just for tourists. Many people live and work on the water. We saw farmers on the shore, fishermen with trained cormorants, and intrepid ferrymen on bamboo rafts.

Guilin: Jinjiang Prince's Palace

In 1372, a palace was built in Guilin for the princes of the Ming dynasty. Jinjiang Palace served as the home for fourteen successive princes and later became the headquarters of Dr Sun Yat Sen. Today, the palace grounds form part of a green, peaceful university campus. Solitary Beauty Peak rises more than 700 feet above the palace grounds. A path leads to the summit and affords fantastic views of the surrounding city.

Guilin: Street Scenes

From Pingyao, we traveled to southern China and set up our base camp in Guilin, a city of 600,000 in the midst of China's amazing karst landscape. Karst peaks are limestone formations created by subsiding caves and sinkholes underground and by rapid erosion above ground. The peaks rise like a stone forest above the Li River valley. They have inspired poets and painters for centuries. Guilin is nestled among these peaks at the confluence of two rivers.

Guilin itself is a clean, modern city characterized by lakes, rivers, bridges, and limestone peaks. The name "Gui Lin" means "Osmanthus Forest," and many of the city's broad avenues and lakeside walkways are shaded by these sweet-smelling fruit trees. The streets are filled with quiet electric scooters instead of madly honking cars. In short, it is a very attractive small city in a warm, damp tropical climate.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Pingyao: Walls and Doors

The characteristic type of architecture in Pingyao is the courtyard complex like our inn. Essentially, a high wall faces the street, behind which one finds a series of interlocking courtyards surrounded by small rooms and outbuildings. As a result, when you walk through the streets of Pingyao, you often see little more than high brick walls punctuated at long intervals by doors and gateways. Here is a little gallery showing some of the variety of entrances into the hidden worlds of the courtyards.

Pingyao: Church and Temple

In addition to its ancient temples and shrines, Pingyao also has a Protestant and a Roman Catholic congregation. This gallery includes a few pictures of the Catholic Church and its Christmas decorations and a nearby Taoist shrine which has become something of a repository for damaged sculpture. The statues now sit in a stoneyard awaiting repair and restoration.

Pingyao: Two Temples

In the southeast corner of Pingyao are two important temple complexes.  The first is a Confucian Temple where scholars came to sit for the imperial examinations.  A good result assured the candidate of lifetime employment in the government, an earlier manifestation of the "iron rice bowl" enjoyed by today's public employees in China.  Students still come to the temple to leave prayer slips in hopes of good university examination scores. The main building was established in 1163, although it has been restored several times since then.

The second temple complex is a series of shrines associated with the worship of the City God, the deity that protected the walled city of Pingyao.  A series of rooms depicts the tortures inflicted on the ghosts of evil humans, but the complex is presided over by shrines devoted to the City God and to the benevolent Kitchen God (Zao Jun) and his wife.

Pingyao: Street Scenes

From Shanghai, China's largest city, we traveled to Pingyao, a small town of about 40,000 southwest of Beijing in Shanxi Province.  Going to Pingyao is like taking a trip in a time machine from China's sleekest, most modern city to a small town preserved in the past.  During the Ming and Qing dynasties (ca. 1350-1900), Pingyao was a powerful banking center, but when the Qing emperor abdicated, the city became a provincial backwater.  As a result, much of its earlier character has been preserved virtually unchanged.  The town is still surrounded by massive Ming-era defensive walls built in 1370.  Inside the walls, more than 3000 historic homes, shops, and temples have been preserved much as they were a century or more ago.

In keeping with the town's historic atmosphere, we stayed in a rustic inn in a quiet little alley.  The inn is built in a traditional 18th-century courtyard house, with each room looking out onto a stone-paved open courtyard.