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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

“Japan,” someone told me, a few days before I left, “can be an acquired taste.”

Well yes.

Sensory overload, to put it mildly. I do not speak Japanese (well, other than a mangled arigatou gozaimasu and the occasional konnichiwa, which, while rendering me unfailingly polite, somewhat severely limits my normally sparkling conversational skills), so I found myself suddenly, virtually illiterate upon my arrival in Fukuoka, some 550 mile southwest of Tokyo on the island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is the eighth largest city in Japan (metro population 2.5 million, which makes it roughly the size of Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S.).  Perhaps as a result, the city is not really focused on the tourist trade, so helpful non-Japanese signage and speakers were not in the abundance they might be in Tokyo, for instance.  (Although the Convention and Visitors Bureau says Fukuoka is second only to Tokyo for convention business in Japan, so what do I know?) Still, the city was clean and attractive, and literally everyone I came into contact with was warmly polite and pleasantly patient with my hopelessly incompetent efforts to navigate my way around. Local residents happily participated in various spontaneous acts of international street mime (it’s astonishing how much information about local-versus-express trains can be communicated without words) and responded in a friendly and helpful way to my mute map-pointing and no doubt hysterically amusing pronunciations of place names.

The dominant language at my work-related functions was technically English. I say “technically” only because the subject matter was well outside my scope of comprehension—I was there in a staff capacity to support one of our sponsored techical conferences, not as a subject matter expert. The presenters, while obviously brilliant and eloquent, were talking about the theory, design and application of computer networks and distributed computing and information systems, referring to PowerPoint slides that that might as well have been in Kanji (and occasionally were) for all they made any sense to me.

Keynote Presentation with PowerPoint slide

Prof. Shoichi Noguchi presenting the Day 1 Keynote, "The Design Principle of the Robust Information and Communication System under the Great Natural Disaster" at AINA 2012, Fukuoka, Japan

But the conference was well-attended and smoothly-run; the banquets and dinners were delightful and collegial; the organizers and participants cordial and very interesting to talk with. I was able to do some operational good, solve a problem or two, hear some important concerns raised, and generally managed to not get in anyone’s way or unduly embarass myself, so I’d call it a rousing success.

But sensory overload, to say the least. I was very much a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by signs and announcements and graphics and flashing neon things and television broadcasts that made very little sense to my parochial mind. Where signage was in English, it was often in very random English, seemingly selected for how the words looked more than what their normally-intended meaning was. (The same presumably goes, perhaps, for all those Kanji tattoos that are so popular amongst the denizens of Southern California; oh sure the tattoo artist says 愚か means Luck and Prosperity, but you can’t run your bicep through Babelfish once it’s inked.)

I don’t like being illiterate. I really, really don’t. I’m not illiterate when I’m at home. It makes me nervous. I’m not xenophobic, but I am all about words, all about the ongoing narrating of my life that goes on somewhere in the back of my brain, so I suppose I’m naturally illiteracy-phobic. For a guy who loves photography, I’m still all about the words (those of you who bravely plow through these blogs know that by now).  If I’m all about words for the most part, then I’m pretty lost without them. In Europe and South America I may not speak the language but I at least recognize the letters as words, and the convenience of common Latin and Nordic and Romance roots makes the experience a little less like being on another planet. Combine the linguistic illiteracy with an accompanying cultural illiteracy (the book I read about Japanese history prior to my trip proved to be little help at all when, at dinner one evening, I was served a still-very-much-alive squid, its tentacles waving about as chopsticks descended) and I was very much adrift.

Like any other business trip, though, I made sure to make some time for me and the Nikon to wander about. And Fukuoka, while not necessarily a tourist magnet, has a lot of remarkable treats to offer the wandering photographer. And pictures, as we know, can be worth more than words—a comfort to the struggling foreign illiterate.

I also found that it helps, when feeling overwhelmed by a culture and language well beyond one’s comfort level, to go small. That’s often my tendency in photography, anyway: Look for patterns in the details, for pieces of the whole that make sense on their own, and focus on that. Vast landscapes, wide-angle street scenes—those don’t tend to be my interest or, particularly, my forté. Focusing more on the small stuff helped me feel more comfortable in a very large and confusing place. Looking for pattern and detail helped isolate the cacophony of image and sound around me, and eased me more gently into my environment.

Roof beams, Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Door to Buddhist Cemetery in Fukuoka, Japan.

Incense sticks in a large bronze urn, Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Green demon-mask at Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan

Conveniently, it was the beginning of cherry blossom time in Fukuoka, which provided the opportunity for different details. (Even more conveniently for the detail-minded, it was not yet full-blown cherry blossom time, so there were no breathtaking vistas of low-hanging pink and aromatic floral clouds lining park paths and creating landscape temptations.)

Cherry blossoms in Maizuru Park, Fukuoka, Japan

Of course, that’s not to say that some things weren’t well worth the risk of standing back and taking in the whole picture. Sometimes, I suppose, one has to take a deep breath and be very brave and look beyond the micro to face the big, scary world outside the details. There’s a lot to be seen in bits and parts and pieces, in the close-in and carefully-framed; it would seem, though, that there’s also something to be said for sometimes standing up and taking a good look around.

Setting up a Shinto wedding photograph at Kushida Shrine, Fukuoka, Japan

Orange pagoda tower at Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Samurai warriors in Maizuru Park, Fukuoka, Japan

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