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Detail of beaded crown

Ming Ritual Crown (detail), Changling Tomb, Yongle Emp. Zhudi (1360-1424)

(This is Part One in a series of photography blogs about my recent travels to China.)

I like going to China. I like watching the constant chaos of Beijing, where affluent modernism and something akin to centuries-old village life are all jumbled up together; where impressively aggressive sidewalk salesmen insist that I must buy five designer knock-off wallets right now, steps away from Burberry and Versace and in sight of a big red banner that extols us all to “Respect Intellectual Property Rights; Be Law-abiding Vendors;” where there’s food everywhere, and most of it delicious. Where western consumer-capitalism, Mao’s little red book, and 5000 years of civilization are all stirred together into something that’s clearly…well, that’s clearly something happening, although it’s hard to tell what, exactly, it currently is or may turn out to be.

Of course there are inevitable downsides, in human and political terms, to being the engine that feeds the world market’s insatiable desire for inexpensive clothing and shiny new electronics. And the air in Beijing can sometimes be so thick and gray that tunneling tools are necessary (the government insists that it’s “fog,” but it’s “fog” that’s been subtly scented by the five million cars currently clogging Beijing’s highways, and the coal-fired factories that ring the city). We’ve seen all this before, of course, with equally appalling results, in 19th century Europe and America when they were becoming the centers of world industry.

Anyway, maybe it’s the social effect of having forty years of isolation lifted (in historical terms) overnight, or maybe it comes from living in an economic behemoth that owns much of the rest of the world, or the confidence that comes from having had a thriving civilization at the time when my ancestors painted themselves with mud and threw rocks at each other, but I’ve found the people to be unfailingly polite and friendly and welcoming. And that’s nice for a yi-traveler like myself.

(This is as good a place as any to note that “yi”  is  , a term for “non-Chinese easterner” or “non-Chinese” or “foreigner” that was unfortunately (and perhaps not entirely accurately) translated by English missionaries as “barbarian.” As a result, the word became a bone of much offended contention between the British Empire and the Qing Dynasty. Eventually, its use was strictly banned by the British under Article 51 of the rather one-sided 1858 Sino-British Treaty of Tianjin. [John Keay, China: A History, 2009])

So I just got back from another business trip to China. While I was there, before the conference began, I had the good fortune to do some sightseeing, both on my own and with a personal guide named Jet.  (The Olympic Park was in the immediate area of my hotel, so there was that, too, which I’ll write about in a later post). Jet drove me out to the area north and northwest of Beijing to see sights outside the city: the Ming Tombs and what he assured me would be—and definitely was—a “non-touristy” part of the Great Wall. Photos happened. And thus, this blog.

So for part of the Great Wall to be “non-touristy” pretty much means it will be difficult to get to. Many of the “touristy” sections of the Wall, like Badaling and Mutianyu have cable cars to comfortably carry visitors up the mountainside to where the Wall sits nicely perched along the ridge, crowded with tourists and loud, flag-carrying guides. Not so where Jet took me, and I couldn’t be happier about that. We drove past the Ming Tombs (more on those later) into the countryside, stopping in the village of Heishanzhai (“Black Mountain Village”) where we accessed what could be optimistically referred to as a trailhead by passing through a farmer’s backyard and paying a small entry fee to the family. Then began a hike that was frequently up a 60° to 70° slope with a minimal path comprised of mud, big rocks, and brambles.

Dam in the village at the trailhead to the "Wild Wall"

Dam in Heishanzhai at the trailhead to the “Wild Wall” about an hour north of Beijing.

Doorway in Heishanzhai

Doorway in the small farmstead at the trailhead up to the “Wild Wall” in Heishanzhai, about an hour northwest of Beijing.

The climb to the Wall was not so much a climb as a scramble along a quasi-clearing in the underbrush that was, I suppose, a “path” in the broadest sense. Rocks were climbed over, and young trees were clung to, and bad words were possibly muttered by Your Humble Narrator from time to time. About a quarter of the way up I was chiding myself for failing to engage in more cardio work  at the gym. About halfway up the mountainside we encountered the family’s elderly grandmother, to whom we paid an additional small fee. It shamed me deeply, with my sweaty shirt and panting breath and pounding heart, that somebody’s grandma had trotted up here ahead of us, and I resolved to redouble my visits to 24-Hour Fitness in the future. (I should mention that at all points along this challenging climb, my guide was patient and considerate and did not point at me and laugh at any time, or make me feel like anything other than a seasoned mountaineer. I should also mention that I undertook this little adventure of my own free will.) At the base of the Wall, I was confronted with a near-vertical stone stairway, and that was deeply disappointing.

What was definitely not disappointing was the Wall itself. Once up the mountainside and up the stairs, panting and sweating in a most yi-like manner, everything was worth the effort. There, sprawling across the ridges, running horizon to horizon, sat the Great Wall. And this was no postcard-prettified, cosmetically-restored Wall, either: unreconstructed, marginally maintained, it’s sat there since the 15th century growing gracefully old. I loved that it was a little crumbly and worse for wear: that’s what a structure that’s 500 years old should look like, not the postcard-perfect version. Much as I’d cursed on the way up, I blessed my guide for getting me here. This “Wild Wall” was, in fact, pretty great. (It was Richard Nixon in 1972 who, during his historic visit to China, stood on the Wall at Badaling and announced, “This is indeed a great wall.” He later faced impeachment for obstruction of justice, but I think the phenomenal banality of that quote could have been sufficient on its own to justify removal from office.) I was even more impressed when Jet reminded me that people had carried each of the stone blocks up the mountainside to build the Wall’s 6,000 miles of fortification. “Many died during the work,” he said. “They are buried in the wall.” I stopped whining about climbing with a Nikon around my neck, silenced by the ghosts of an estimated 5 to 6 million builders.

China's Great Wall ("Wild Wall" area) near Heishanzhai

China’s Great Wall (“Wild Wall” area) near Heishanzhai

View from a watchtower on the Great Wall

View from a watchtower on the Great Wall

Watchtower on the Great Wall

Watchtower on the Great Wall

Our trip up to the Wall was bracketed by visits to two of the Ming Tombs (明十三陵; Míng shísān líng, “Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty”) . These are the last resting places of the Ming Dynasty Emperors: the Wanli Emperor Zhu Yizhun (1572-1620) at Dingling, and the Yongle Emperor Zhudi (1360-1424) at Changling. Architecturally, they look a lot like the Forbidden City, which was also built by the busy Mings, who if nothing else were aesthetically consistent. The Mings were intent on carrying their goodies with them into the next world, and so the tombs were crammed with the pottery, jewelry, decorations, and royal paraphernalia now on display in the Hall of Eminent Favor.  The Hall covers over 21,000 sq. ft, and  each of  its 32 huge pillars is made from a single tree trunk.

Ceiling and columns in the Hall of Eminent Favor, Changling

Ceiling and columns in the Hall of Eminent Favor

Empress's crown

Empress’ crown, unearthed from Dingling Tomb, displayed at Changling. The crown features blue bird feathers and over 3500 pearls.

jade tea kettle

Jade Kettle unearthed from Dingling Tomb, Wanli Emp. Zhu Yizhun (1572-1620) and displayed at Changling.

The Tombs are scattered over a pretty vast area, but there’s a common entrance that is suitably formal and serene, called the Sacred Way, or Divine Road. The willow-shaded road is lined with statues including a dozen large-than-life human figuress representing scholars, civil officials, and generals, along with  lions, camels, elephants, horses, and mythological xiezhi and qilin, each depicted in multiple standing and sitting poses. The archway at the entrance is the largest such structure in China. Needless to say, it was a photo opportunity.

Statues lining the Sacred Way, Ming Tombs

Statue representing a Civil Official, Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs (Changling Sacred Way)

Statue of a horse on the Sacred Way, Ming Tombs

Statue of a horse on the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs (Changling Sacred Way)

One final word about my guide. Jet was friendly and casual, knew his history (and his way up a mountainside), and was constantly thoughtful of my interests and comfort. He didn’t lead me on a rote tour, but lingered where I wanted to, passed by what he (usually rightly) suspected I didn’t really care about, and was unfailingly delightful to travel with. (He was also a very safe driver!) For me, traveling with a Chinese person was invaluable: he knew what restaurant to go to out in a rural village and what food to order; he knew how to negotiate with souvenir vendors and farmers by the roadside selling dates and chestnuts and persimmons; he wasn’t shy about leading me past (or through) the large group tours that clogged the Tombs—he was just generally terrific. If you’re planning a trip to China, and have time for a tour, I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about recommending him. You can get in touch with him here or by clicking anywhere on the photo below.

Jet at the Changling Ming Tomb

Jet patiently waiting while I take pictures of things at the Ming Tombs, Changling

Next time: Evan Goes to the Olympics

This weekend I went for a walk in a local forest preserve with Durrell, and as is usually the case I brought my camera along. One never knows, after all, when one will stumble across something photoworthy out in the big, broad world. Normally, I take a general-purpose lens, like a Sigma 70-300, or Nikon 18-105, because, as I said, you never know what you’re going to see rising up out of the marsh, or startled into flight from the tall grasses. Herons, turtles, the occasional snake or hummingbird: I’m all about the nature stuff. (Oh yeah: click on the images to see them embiggened.)

Red Skimmer dragonfly, up close

This time, though, I thought I’d try an experiment. I brought only one lens, a Sigma DG Macro 105mm 1:2.8. I’d been given this lens as a going-away gift when I resigned my previous job in Chicago before moving to sunny Southern California to take up a glamorous day-job in the nonprofit sector (oh just go read my bio if you care so much), and to pursue an increasing interest in semi-semi-pro photography as I prepare for those latter days that loom increasingly large and darkly ominous in my ever-nearer future.

I grow old…I grow old…I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Little blue flower, up close

Well enough of that; I apologize for the brief lapse into self-pitying literary allusion: it’s the fate of the liberal arts major to become ever more obnoxiously pedantic. There’s a direct relationship, I’ve observed, between the length of time since the MA was awarded and the level of showoffery exhibited by the erstwhile graduate student. Probably a not-so-subconscious desire to cling to the sunny intellectual days at the university coupled with the brain’s tendency to pay more attention to the increasingly distant past the closer to the inevitable end it is (“look at this shiny object over here, hon, and ignore the looming cold presence of inescapable mortality”).

Oh dear; how the hell did I end up on my deathbed? I think we were talking about macro lenses.

Bee on Salt Marsh Fleabane

So I decided this time to limit myself to looking closely at the little world of the forest; to eschew the bigger picture—the herons taking flight, the sun glinting on the algae-greened pond, the path winding through the shadows—and see what I could see when I was limited to peering closely at the leaves, watching for spiderwebs, and really just looking down.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Yikes, someone make me stop.

OK so where were we before we went to Walden? Oh right, the woods, with a macro lens.

Red Skimmer dragonfly on a dry stem

Once I got over the feeling of panic that I couldn’t photograph birds, or use the telephoto to capture dragonflies perched on dry stems by the pond’s edge, I settled in to a lovely and contemplative stroll, punctuated by long pauses to try to focus on vaguely wind-swayed flowers that steadfastly refused to come into focus and stay there while the shutter opened and closed. Durrell is ever-patient with my shenanigans and occasional outbursts, and so makes a perfect travel companion in all possible ways. (It must be pointed out that he, too, spent many long and seemingly interminable interludes with his camera focused on light-and-shadow patterns on the path, so we all have our little interests. I perhaps lack his patience and kind nature, and may possibly have whined and complained a bit about standing around places where there was nothing interesting for me to take pictures of.)

Close up of yellow primrose, with pollen on the stamen

So what did I learn from my foray into the Little World? Patience, in large part, and stealth. I was actually still able to photograph dragonflies with my macro lens, but I had to get much closer to them than I normally would. This involved sslloowwllyy maneuvering myself down rocks on the edges of ponds, shamelessly lying belly-down on the trail, striking alarmingly precarious poses, and generally showing little or no concern for my dignity. I learned to focus my attention more, to walk more quietly than usual (we are, generally, quiet hikers: we talk of course, but use our inside voices, and frequently the topic of our discussion is the unruliness of other peoples’ children, their insistence on beating the bushes with sticks, and their obnoxious screechings that frighten away the wildlife. Of course, complaining about families bringing their children to walk in the woods is perhaps as churlish and cranky as our grumblings about the omnipresence of infant annoyances at the miniature golf courses we occasionally frequent. Being annoyed that there are children at a place that features gaily-colored windmills and garish fiberglass dragons on the putting greens is, admittedly, perhaps not the height of reasonableness.)

red sap oozing from a tree, up clsoe

Flower parts. Busy bees. Oozing sap. A hike with a macro lens becomes less about the woods and more about the trees, as it were. Less about the big picture and more about the interesting beige stripe on the pistils in a white wildflower, or the suddenly visible bits of pollen in a primrose. It’s less about the majesty of a heron rising from the water, and more about the delicate stillness of a dragonfly, and the exposed wing mechanics on its back.

close up of beige-striped pistils

A walk in the woods with a macro lens is a reminder that we live in the little world more than we do in the bigger perspective; that we are tiny, tiny beings on the back of a whirling globe that spins around a star that spins around a galaxy that’s just one of billions of galaxies all hurrying away from each other. The spider in its web, the dragonfly on a leaf are riding that same rock with us, marginally aware of our existence only as large and probably threatening objects. We are the killer asteroid to their Earth, the black hole to their sun, the unknown and unobserved phenomenon. It’s all woven together, but we so rarely look at it. The little world or the bigger one, they’re all the same: repeated patterns and relationships, over and over again; ourselves as part of a patterns that’s at once so much smaller and so vastly bigger than we are. There’s the stuff of immortality; there’s a little joy for the Prufrock in me, and a dose of humility for my inner Thoreau.

Purple Sage plant

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