Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

In Search of First Growth Green Tea

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Lee,-Rose140Rose Lee is an art historian, curator and editor of Asian art whose focus is on the material cultures and societies of North Asia.  With a working knowledge of Chinese, Korean and Japanese, she has lived and worked in Asia for over twenty years.  Formerly a curator of Chinese art at the Denver Art Museum and the National Palace Museum of Taipei, Rose has also taught Chinese art history at Colorado College and Soochow University. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. and edits exhibition catalogs and journal articles on Asian art.

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Most of us had stayed up almost to midnight aboard the Victoria Anna to experience the thrill of passing the first of five locks that would take us through the Three Gorges Dam, the largest water control project in the world. This morning, under a mimi (“light mist”) rain, we were at the dam itself to admire its awesome twenty-six hydropower generators and scenic beauty. But first I had to hunt down something more important, a supply of the newly harvested green tea from the verdant mountains framing both sides of the upper reaches of the mighty Yangzi River. Known by Chinese tea connoisseurs as Ming Qian or “pre-Qingming” tea that is harvested before the Qingming Festival that usually falls sometime around the fifth of April, this first-growth tea has grown on me ever since I first sampled it at the Yichang Airport enroute to Shanghai three years ago. Green tea picked after Qingming is considered by tea people as less desirable because its essence gets washed out by the rains that come with the start of the monsoon season in the Yangtze region.

Photo courtesy of wikimedia

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Like all Chinese green teas, Three Gorges green tea is processed by lightly tossing or steaming in a wok over hot flames shortly after picking to stop the natural oxidation process.  This ensures that the tea will retain a high concentration of vitamin C, amino acids, and catechins—the antioxidant that gobbles up free radicals that damage body cells and contribute to cancer, blood clots, and blocked arteries.  When seeped (at 80 to 85 degrees centigrade, please!), the tea reveals a beautiful yellow-green color and has a grassy taste with overtones of freshly roasted ginkgo nuts. I drink coffee to jump-start my system and get going in the morning.  When I need to calm or clear my mind for serious thinking or writing, I always turn to leaf green tea.  This is something known to Chan (Zen in Japanese) monks who regularly undergo long bouts of meditation.

Along with a fellow Smithsonian traveler, a retired mid-wife who proclaimed green tea one of the most potent antioxidants around, I was very happy to find Three Gorges green tea that was harvested just a few weeks ago in a shop close to the dam.

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To learn more about our Imperial China and the Yangtze tour click here.

Bali High: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

richard-kurinDr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along!

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Dispatch #3: Bali High

Bali is special. Think of the island as one big cultural festival of art, performance, architecture and ritual. Everywhere, everybody seems intent on turning everyday experiences into an artistic activity. Every house has a temple marking a daily connection to a rich, eclectic form of Balinese Hinduism. Women weaving, men carvings stone, villagers gathering for a temple festival with leaf sculptures, decorative cloths, food offerings, and a gamelan (gong, xylophone and drum) orchestra. Dance dramas abound—whether recreating scenes from ancient India’s classic Ramayana to Bali’s own indigenous Rangda and Barong masked dance.

Our group settled in Ubud, Bali’s artistic village, at two fantastic hotels—with spacious villas, private pools, and inspiring views of Bali’s rich, tropical, well-forested fertile landscape. Some of our travelers rode elephants, while others rafted down the Ayung River, bounding along the white water rapids. Most visited a butterfly farm, the Batukaru temple up in the mountains, and then visited a local school.

The butterfly farm proved especially interesting. A tremendous variety of Balinese butterflies are bred there—many with interesting colors and patterns and sizes—the larger ones as big as the span of an outstretched hand. We also saw adaptations of beetles and grasshoppers and other critters that mimicked various branches, leaves and other plant parts apparently to avoid predators.

Smithsonian travelers visit the Batukaru temple

Smithsonian travelers visit the Batukaru temple

At the temple we saw Brahmin priests—albeit on a lunch break in the sacred sanctuary of the temple that houses the sculptures of deities. Village women were weaving temple decorations from palm and leaves, while Balinese visitors were making offerings, some after having ended the grieving period for dead family members. Wearing a sarong is mandatory for those visiting the temple—our group included, and we did the best we could—looking like a somewhat rag-tag bunch, but nonetheless one respectful of local tradition.

Women at the Temple

Women at the Batukaru temple weaving decorations

Smithsonian travelers enjoy an open-air ride around town

Smithsonian travelers enjoy an open-air ride around town

After the temple it was off for an open air ride in Volkswagen 4-seaters up and over the ridge to another valley and Jatiluwih where we visited an elementary school. Teachers greeted us with huge garlands formed of scores of giant marigolds as young boys played in a gamelan orchestra and the school girls danced. One of our group wisely noted that the gamelan orchestra is kind of like Mickey Hart’s drum circle, with people playing percussion instruments and finding their harmony and rhythm. We distributed backpacks filled with books and school supplies to the school’s 150 students—part of the travel program’s philanthropic side.

Smithsonian travelers at a Balinese school

Smithsonian travelers at a Balinese school

An evening program started with a welcome greeting by Don Washington, the public affairs officer at the U.S embassy in Jakarta and a talk by I Wayan Dibia, a native Balinese dancer, choreographer, and professor, who earned a PhD in ethnomusicology decades ago at UCLA with support of a Fulbright fellowship. Dibia, Don, and I worked together on a Festival of Indonesia program in 1991 that brought more than 100 Indonesia artists to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It was a lovely reunion, and demonstrated how links between the Smithsonian, the State Department, American institutions, and local ones—in this case Balinese, help build important relationships for educational purposes—and help make friends around the world too!

The finale was a dance performance by a Balinese group in an over-the-top setting at the hotel. Led by torch bearers, we entered a Balinese outdoor courtyard with characteristic architecture and friezes, lit up with lights and a bright spring moon. We enjoyed a lovely meal and a colorful dance performance.

While Kyoto’s pavilions and gardens, and Nara’s temple represented oases of peacefulness, contemplation, and traditional culture in the midst of a sprawling industrial society, Bali by contrast, save for its capital Denpasar, is still mostly rural, and still offers an abundant and almost sensually overwhelming canvas of local cultural expression. Though there are many changes since I first visited Bali some four decades ago, it is reassuring to see how local culture is flourishing in both traditional and contemporary ways.

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Read Dr. Kurin’s previous dispatch from Japan: Connecting in Kyoto: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin”

The Southward Journey Through Vietnam

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Ivan Small first became interested in Vietnam during a family trip in 1993. Fascinated with the social and cultural transformations that have accompanied the rapid pace of capitalist transformation, Ivan has continued to be professionally and academically involved with Vietnam over a twenty-year period.  Ivan will receive his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and Southeast Asian studies in May 2012 from Cornell University. As a Fulbright-Hays fellow and visiting research scholar at Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City from 2007 to 2008, Ivan conducted extensive research on the social dynamics of migration and remittance economies.

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Group Photo, Hue
Photo courtesy of Ivan Small

Over two activity filled weeks, our Smithsonian study tour followed a route parallel to the one historically traversed by the Vietnamese people from north to south. After three days visiting the ancient capital of Hanoi and the sublime islands of Halong Bay in the north, our group flew south to Danang, into the heart of what was once the Champa Kingdom in central Vietnam. The landscape, cuisine, and climate were dramatically different than what we had experienced in the wintery north. After a relaxed afternoon at our charming beach side hotel, the group enjoyed a delicious seafood buffet dinner over high spirits and animated conversations. The following morning we started out early – our bus driver awaited with fresh incense on the front bumper to protect the voyagers from malicious spirits that might cause a traffic accident. We began with a visit to the Cham relics museum, displaying artifacts of the lost Cham civilization carefully collected and curated by French archaeologists during the colonial period.

Cham statue at Danang Cham Museum
Photo courtesy of Ivan Small

Afterwards, the travelers clamored for more adventure and so we decided to detour along the scenic shoreline to find the source of a towering Buddhist statue visible from a distance. Winding along the seaside cliffs, the bus arrived at a majestic Buddhist temple complex, replete with holy bodhisattvas, ringing gongs and burning incense. Visiting pilgrims meandered through the courtyards, behind the temple wispy clouds hovered over mountaintops and before the Goddess of Mercy’s gaze a blue ocean horizon stretched out for miles.

Buddhist Temple, Danang
Photo courtesy of Ivan Small

We would continue on that day to visit the ancient town of Hoi An, once a thriving seaport in the 17th Century frequented by merchants and traders from across East and South Asia. Many of the wooden houses and even bridges from that era built in Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese architectural styles remain. Wandering along the pedestrian streets of the town, our travelers discovered a variety of material and culinary wonders, from a busy fresh produce market to local restaurants selling regional food specialties such as the delicate white rose dumpling. Later we would partake in a cooking class, learning about and using a variety of fresh local ingredients, waiting in savory anticipation as our food cooked and sizzled before us, and finally partaking in the delicious fruits of our labor. Afterwards folks strolled in smaller groups through the lively streets of the town, transformed at night by colorful lanterns and playful children, before returning to the hotel to retire for a good night’s sleep in preparation for the next day’s adventure.

Night Lanterns, Hoi An
Photo Courtesy of Ivan Small

Although not yet the midway point of the trip – many interesting historical, cultural, and geographical sites lay ahead including the grand old imperial city of Hue, the laid back Mekong River Delta town of Can Tho, and bustling Ho Chi Minh City – this midpoint of travel in central Vietnam impresses upon my senses as a memorable moment in our Smithsonian journey together. It was a brief pause where delicious food, beautiful scenery, rich history, lively traveler camaraderie and curious anticipation for what lay ahead came together quite magically. As a study leader, to share with and live vicariously through others experiencing and discovering Vietnam for the first time is one of the greatest rewards.

River boat trip, Can Tho
Photo courtesy of Ivan Small

“Trip to Da Nang”
Poem written by Smithsonian Traveler Marsha A. Temlock  after traveling with her husband on the January 2013 “Discovering Vietnam” program

The road that rims the mountain
Precipitous and blind.
Below the verdant valleys
awake with morning glory.
Purple, white bauhinia
above the peaks of trees
Distant in the sunlight
Sway gently in the breeze.

Mountains veiled in fog,
Rice paddies, streams and bogs,
A peasant thins rice seedlings.
A child squats in mud.

Floating markets
Flower markets
Ancestral altars
Emperors Temples
Sampans eye the shore.

Lanterns gleam
Incense furls
Cables crimp
Steam swirls
A rice paper sky.

Monks chant
Bells chime
Silk spins
Girls stitch
Fingers fine as pins

Babies rock in hammocks
Grandpa sips snake tea,
Grandma fixes pho,
Girls in red neckerchiefs
Bow heads to Uncle Ho.

Napping cyclists
Speeding bicyclists
Couples clutched on Dreams.
Sleeping dragon
Spanning dragon
Bridging old and new.

Honk, honk
Make way, make way
Bodhisattva on the hill
Statuesque and calm
She’ll reveal what we feel
Visiting Da Nang.

Lotus sown in mud
Blooms fragrant in the morn.
Vietnam is a country,
Vietnam is not a war*

*  “Vietnam is a country, not a war.” Le Van Bang, Former Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States.

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To learn more about our Discovering Vietnam trip click here

Exploring Kalakho

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Rita Rodha, Mystical India Study Leader with Smithsonian Journeys

Rita Sodha, a lecturer in the Department of Art History at the University of Baroda’s Faculty of Fine Arts, is an expert on Indian painting and contemporary art, holding degrees in both art history and fine arts.

Rita recently led a group of Smithsonian travelers in Northern India.

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Midway through our Mystical India journey, after our exciting stay at the tiger reserve in Ranthambhor, we set our sights on our next destination, the Dera Lake View Retreat in Kalakho. We were all looking forward to it, and the drive was picturesque, as we travelled through small hamlets and large stretches of green wheat fields.

We passed men, women, and children doing their morning chores, brushing their teeth with the neem tree twig, giving fodder to the cattle, and preparing breakfast in the open courtyard on little stoves made of clay and cow dung. Older men and women were seen with their hookahs, as their daughters-in-law prepared breakfast. They all seemed busy but were excited to see our coach pass by, and they waved happily at us. Their laughter and energy were delightful.

We drove past a morning vegetable bazaar bustling with activity, and saw people driving their locally made vehicles, called jugads. We also drove past a medieval fortress, perched on a hilltop, appearing formidable and recalling the bygone age of heroic stories, tragic deaths, poignant sacrifices, unheard valor, and romantic poetry.

Later on, we drove past a bigger village, where our enterprising tour director, Karni Singh, spotted a village movie theater. In no time, we were all out of the coach and Karni was negotiating with the theater manager to screen a Bollywood song for our group. We all went about peeping into the projecting room and the private viewing boxes, and then we enjoyed an impromptu Bollywood song!

At around lunchtime, we reached our breathtaking retreat, Kalakho. Situated in the middle of farmlands and close to a monsoon lake, it is surrounded by mountains on all sides. We disembarked from our coach and were escorted in several jeeps to the beautifully set retreat. After a traditional welcome with marigold garlands and the tika (the red mark of vermillion applied on the forehead), we freshened up in our cozy cottages and went for lunch.

After a superb lunch, we enjoyed a henna session. Henna is traditionally used to decorate the palms and feet of Indian women during weddings or festivals. Then it was time for a very special visit, to a nearby hamlet, on camelback. The camels and camel carts were assembled, and we proceeded to the hamlet through narrow tracks amidst the fields.

Camelback, Mystical India tour with Smithsonian Journeys

The hamlet comprised about ten to twelve houses, with courtyards and a row of adjoining rooms. The children had just returned from school and many of them were still in their uniforms. The families gave us a tour of their beautiful and fascinating village. We saw their homes, their outdoor kitchens, their grinding stones, and hearths, and enjoyed festive dancing and chatting.

Village - Mystical Indian Tour with Smithsonian Journeys

Dancing, Mystical Indian Tour with Smithsonian Journeys

After all the merry making, it was time to return to our retreat, where a local troupe had been invited to perform for us. Our visit to the village offered us a warmth and familiarity that remained with us long after we departed.

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You can read more about our Mystical India tour here.

The First Emperor’s Army of Life-Sized Terracotta Soldiers

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Ingrid Larsen is an art historian and specialist in Chinese arts and antiquities. Her current research is focused on the formation of Chinese art collections in American museums and private collections during the 19th and 20th centuries. Ingrid has been traveling to China for three decades and has spent five years living in Beijing––most recently in 2009–2010.

This Fall Ingrid led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a trip to Imperial China and the Yangtze.

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The Chinese like to call Xian’s famous terracotta army the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The terracotta warriors created over two thousand years ago by the First Emperor of China hold many wonders. Each time I visit Xian, I’m reminded about how unprecedented the Qin emperor’s army is in the history of Chinese tomb sculpture. It baffles me that there are no life-sized naturalistic human figures in Chinese tomb art before the First Emperor and no life-sized soldiers in the archaeological record following his reign.

Terracotta Horse and Chariot.

Terracotta horses and chariot shown here add to an estimated 130 chariots with 520 horses, plus 150 additional cavalry horses. Photo courtesy of Julian Mason.

Who was this extraordinary emperor? The basic facts of his biography are well known. The First Emperor, or Qin Shihuang, was not only a brilliant military tactician who overwhelmed six rival kingdoms and unified China under a centralized authoritarian bureaucracy, he built a network of roads and canals strengthening communications throughout the empire; he standardized the coins, weights and measures, the writing system, and the legal code; he also engineered grand scale architectural projects, built gigantic palaces in his new capital and extended the Great Wall. And — as if that wasn’t enough — shortly after taking the throne, he commenced work on a grand underground palace replete with the luxuries he enjoyed at court and an army of roughly 8,000 life-sized terracotta soldiers, 670 horses, and 130 chariots to protect him in the afterlife.

Terracotta Soldier

Each Terracotta Soldier has their own individual features and details, making each of the 8,000 soldiers seemingly unique. Photo courtesy of Julian Mason.

The scale of these projects is unfathomable — as is the beauty and quality of his terracotta army. Each soldier is the work of a master craftsman who fashioned individual features, postures, and uniform details to indicate age, attitude, and ethnicity, as well as the rank of high officials, generals, cavalrymen, and infantry. Each face has a slightly different shape. Some with high cheek bones and a square jaw; others with broad foreheads and a flat nose. Each figure conveys a unique personality.  Some appear stern and stoic while others seem humble and sympathetic. Despite concentrated efforts and many return visits, I have never found two alike. To my eye, the diversity in facial features and physical attributes imbue the clay figures with humanity. Some scholars speculate that each sculpture was indeed modeled after a living soldier in Qin Shihuang’s vast army. If true, the terracotta warriors are as much a tribute to those 8,000 men as they are to their supreme ruler. Still, there is no tradition of life-sized naturalistic sculpture in China before the Qin emperor. Where did the idea come from and why didn’t subsequent Chinese emperors follow Qin Shihuang’s lead? It truly is a wonder.

Terracotta Soldiers - Smithsonian Journeys

Terracotta sculptures depicting the soldiers of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor to rule over a unified China. Photo courtesy of Julian Mason.

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Learn more about our Imperial China and the Yangtze tour here.