Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

The Sun Always Shines On The Great Wall of China

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Virginia BowerVirginia Bower is an expert on Chinese art and archaeology. Virginia did her graduate study at Princeton University, and is now an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia; she also teaches regularly at Rutgers University. 

Recently, Virginia led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a journey though Classic China and Tibet. This is her second of two posts from the trip. (See her previous post on Giant Pandas here.)


Mutianyu Section of The Great Wall

Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall. Photo by author

Originally we were supposed to visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall on Saturday, May 19, but drizzle and the forecast of a heavier rain caused us to postpone the trip to Sunday, our last full day in Beijing. As we made our way out of the city and headed northeast toward the predominantly 16th-century section of this famed structure, I glanced at the overcast sky and consoled myself with the knowledge gained after 14 visits to various sections of the Great Wall since 1980 that the Great Wall never fails to impress, even when enveloped in clouds or obscured by rain. However, our Tour Director, Mike Zhao, had predicted a bit of sun and perhaps even some blue sky for this visit to the Great Wall… and indeed, a few sunbeams appeared! Soon we were all admiring and walking on the Great Wall. And no, thank you for asking, I never get tired of visiting it!

The Great Wall

The Great Wall through the trees. Photo by author


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Classic China and Tibet tour here.

Black and White and Red, Too

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Virginia BowerVirginia Bower is an expert on Chinese art and archaeology. Virginia did her graduate study at Princeton University and is now an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia; she also teaches regularly at Rutgers University. 

This spring, Virginia led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a journey though Classic China and Tibet. See her post from the trip below:


As we drove toward the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding after arriving in Chengdu from Xi’an and having a quick lunch, we were informed by our Chengdu guide that because it was not too hot the pandas would most likely be outside and possibly even somewhat active, although not necessarily all that easy to photograph.

That proved to be true. Still, we all caught many glimpses of black and white Giant Pandas, not to mention the red raccoon-like Lesser Pandas, and managed to capture a few good snapshots to take home with us.

It was great to hear that the important research work done by experts at this site was now completely resumed after the major earthquake of May 2008, which had damaged so much of this region of China.


Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Photo by the author


Panda at play. Photo by author

Panda in tree

Panda resting in tree. Photo by author

red panda

Red Lesser Panda. Photo by author


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Classic China and Tibet tour here.

Color and Chaos on the Banks of the Ganges

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Minhazz Majumdar, Smithsonian Journeys GuideMinhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India. Most recently, Minhazz led Smithsonian’s “Mystical India” tour through Northern India.
Varanasi, the final destination of the Mystical India trip is one place on earth that cannot fail to move you. Love it or hate it, this city will leave its mark on you. A city that goes by several names, Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi, this site is believed to be the oldest continually inhabited place on the planet. Varanasi may be one of the most ancient cities in the world—but do not come here looking for old buildings or ancient ruins —you will be disappointed. Varanasi is all about ambiance, atmosphere, a certain mood, a vibe and the settings.

The ghats—the steps that lead down to the river—are the centers of life and action in Varanasi. And the river here is no ordinary river; it’s none other than Mother Ganges herself—the life-giving river, the holy river in which devout Hindus come to bathe and wash away their sins.

Along the ghat, one can see life play out in many ways. There are ghats where people come for bathing or a ritual dip in the river, for prayer ceremonies, for yoga, for religious training, for meditation and mindfulness. There are even ghats for washermen (dhobis) to ply their trade, washing all the dirty linen in the river. But most powerful are the burning ghats where Hindus are cremated. For devout Hindus, to die in Varanasi and to be cremated on the banks of the Ganga, with the ashes offered to the river is to achieve “moksha” or liberation from the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

The winding and crowded city streets of Varanasi are no less action-packed. Every day is a celebration in this City of Light, the city that belongs to Lord Shiva, the powerful Hindu God of Destruction. To get to the ghats for our evening boat-ride on the River Ganges is a full-on sensory experience. We take our final rickshaw ride here–the streets are crowded, colorful and virtually a cacophony of people, animals, vehicles of all sorts, some with powerful horns which they do not hesitate to use.

No words are adequate to describe this ride—it has to be experienced to be believed. You feel your eyes cannot take in the color and chaos any more; your ears begin to feel sound, going beyond hearing; your nose is beguiled by the scents and the dust. It is one of the most exhilarating rides of your life. Suddenly, the rickshaw stops and you have to walk—your being is jostled by the crowd heading to the same place—the ghats. You are safe, you belong here, you are part of a larger whole, alive like you have never felt before.

A few minutes later or perhaps an eternity it seems, you reach the ghats where there are scores of people milling around, getting ready for the evening aarti (fire worship) ceremony. There is such fervor in the air, yet a sense of calmness pervades—instantly the clamor of the city streets is forgotten.

You make your journey down the steps to the river where the boatman is waiting, the journey on the river akin to the journey of life—from life to death to celebration. But that tale will have to wait for another time. It is time to let the ghats of Varanasi get under your skin.

Floating on the Ganges River.

Floating on the “Mother Ganga.” (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Muleonor.)

Ghants along the Ganges River in Varanasi.

Ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user ruffin_ready.)

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi.

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi. (Photo by Sadie McVicker.)

Boatman on the River Ganges in Varanasi

Boatman on the River Ganges. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Vasenka.)

Man sitting on the banks of the Ganges.

Man sitting on the banks of the Ganges. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Arian Zwegers.)

Varanasi at night

Varanasi at night. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user AinisR.)

Check out the “Mystical India” tour page for more information on Minhazz’s next trip.

Exploring the Bustling Streets (and Waterways) of Vietnam

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Ann Marie Leshkowich, Smithsonian Journeys Study LeaderAnn Marie Leshkowich, a Smithsonian Study Leader and Associate Professor of Anthropology at College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA), has conducted extensive research in Vietnam on gender, marketplaces, economic transformation, middle classes, fashion, social work, and adoption. Read her post below about a recent trip to Vietnam with Smithsonian Journeys.

Throughout our Smithsonian Journeys tour of Vietnam, we witnessed the role of family as the heart of this society. Ancestor worship; weddings, funerals, and reburial ceremonies; preparations to return home to celebrate Tết, the Lunar New Year; and the idea of the country as itself a large, extended family (the word for country, quốc gia, literally means nation-family) – all provide evidence that family imparts a sense of self, identity, and belonging.

It would be misleading, however, to think of this family-centeredness as cloistering Vietnamese in some private world behind the doors and walls of home. Instead, as we walk along streets in Vietnam’s largest cities or cruise down its waterways (for, in Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta, water is, after all, a key thoroughfare), we see that the social world of the family spills out of the confines of the home and is intimately connected to the bustling activity of streets and markets. All the more so as Tết approaches.

Our journey begins in Hanoi about two weeks before Tết. Preparations focus on Ông Táo, the Kitchen God. Through his residence in the home, Ông Táo learns all a family’s secrets. On the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, Ông Táo will journey skyward on the back of a carp to give a full account of the year’s events to the Jade Emperor. A proper ritual send-off will sway him in making a positive report. Our first full day in Hanoi ends in the Ancient Quarter with an evening walk down Hàng Mã Street, which specializes in votive paper items and decorations that are used in offerings such as those that will soon be made to Ông Táo. Row after row of housefront shops take over the sidewalk with eclectic arrays of red lanterns, dragons (in honor of the upcoming Year of the Dragon), auspicious messages that can be hung on decorative kumquat trees, red and gold lì xì envelopes that will bear small gifts of money for children, and paper replicas of currency, clothing, jewelry, and electronics that will be burned as offerings to the ancestors. The group tentatively weaves through the traffic, as commuters on motorbikes stop on their way home to buy ritual or decorative items. Other residents perch on small stools to enjoy phở (noodle soup) or grilled meat at streetside cafés. Our local guide reminds us that Hanoi’s tubehouses – long, narrow multi-storied structures – can be cramped, so both socializing and domestic tasks move out onto the street.

Lantern shop in Hanoi

Lantern shop in Hanoi. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user mrbold_fickr.)

The next day, the group journeys through the drizzle to Ha Long Bay, where we witness a different sort of street life in floating villages formed by groups of boats anchored together. These villages include bank branches so that residents can conveniently exchange the money they receive from Chinese and other foreign fish buyers. We stop at the houseboat of one family, where three generations (grandmother, parents, and children) live in a series of one-room wooden structures linked by planks that surround enclosures for raising grouper or oysters. There is a roofed verandah for work or socializing, a drainage system for collecting rainwater, a generator to power television, lights, and other appliances, and a dog to patrol the entire compound. Both friends and customers can easily stop by.

Halong Bay

About a week later in Cần Thơ, we get another view of watery street life. Early one morning, we board a boat at the hotel’s dock to travel about 45 minutes to a floating market. For several hours each morning, boats congregate to trade the bounty of the Mekong Delta region. Produce sold here will be transported to markets throughout the country or exported abroad. Every boat has a bamboo pole for hanging samples of its offerings, including pomelo, turnip, star apple, shallots, garlic, scallions, melons, and squash. In the throng of boats, the poles help customers locate what they wish to buy; the hails used in land markets would be futile over the din of boat engines. We disembark to taste local fruit, including the infamous durian, at a floating store and phở restaurant. Back on our boat, a few detours down smaller tributaries yield a closer view of the houses that line the waterways, the narrow wooden monkey bridges that traverse the numerous canals, and the flowering water hyacinths and morning glory that make the scene so memorable, but which also threaten to clog the boat’s motor.

Fruit market, Cần Thơ, Vietnam

Market in Cần Thơ. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user dalbera.)

In Ho Chi Minh City, a.k.a. Saigon, the pre-1975 name that most residents still prefer, our group gets a different taste of street life. On one of our final days in Vietnam, a few of us venture to a boutique specializing in fair-trade handicrafts. Our excursion takes us through the Tết flower market in the large “September 23rd Park.” Families, couples, groups of schoolchildren, and tourists oggle displays of horticultural virtuosity: delicately patterned orchids, exuberant chrysanthemums, lovingly tended bonsai, and giant kumquats. Some plants are shaped like famous Vietnamese landscapes, while others take the form of a dragon in honor of the coming year. Even in a city as large as Saigon, an outing to the Tết flower market can be an occasion to bump into friends and acquaintances. As we get closer to New Year’s Eve, families and friends will pile onto their motorbikes to cruise around the downtown area – a chance to see and be seen while taking in the festive atmosphere of this most special time of the Vietnamese year. Although Tết is often described as a family holiday, the preparations for it that we witnessed on streets and waterways throughout the country underscore the intimate links between kin and community and between social and economic life in a country where a sense of cultural heritage is paramount.

A bridge on Nguyen Hue Blvd., Saigon

A bridge on Nguyen Hue Blvd. in Saigon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user HudrY.)

Flowers on Display for Tet in Saigon, Vietnam

Floral display for Tet, Saigon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Calflier001.)

Crowded street during Tet in Saigon, Vietnam

Crowded street at night during Tet, Saigon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user robertlafond2009.)

Read more about our small group “Discovering Vietnam” trip here.

First Stop: Beijing – The Imperial Palace

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Victoria Cass, Professor of Chinese StudiesVictoria Cass is a professor and author with special expertise in traditional Chinese culture. She has taught Mandarin and Classical Chinese language, as well as Chinese literature, at Johns Hopkins University, the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Minnesota; and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

She is currently in the field, leading our Classic China and Tibet tour. Read her post below detailing the group’s first stop: The Imperial Palace in Beijing.

The afternoon was brilliant—the gusting winds from the day before had cleared the air, making the immense spaces of the courtyards feel, if possible, more vast than what I remembered. I could easily imagine how exposed and how diminished some ambassador would have felt making that long center walk down the length of the vast reception grounds, tracking dead center to the red beamed halls that wait at the end of each of space. But we moved along the side pavilions, following the red bannisters that line the side buildings, looking down into the gigantic courtyards. We wanted to make sure we had leisure to enjoy what the Qian Long Emperor had enjoyed—the scholar’s garden in the very back of the royal compound. We were working our way back to his living quarters, through the chain of side passageways. We were essentially by ourselves, as we hugged the tall sides of the buildings, and I felt less like a tourist, and more—in the privacy of these side spaces—like a messenger. We entered the garden in the living quarters of the fourth Qing Emperor, and the sense of vastness and formality of the front grounds and grand halls vanished, as had the crowds. We entered through a simple small open gate, coming face to face with the pock-marked strange stones (guai shi) and weathered tree-trunks. Small pavilions were laid out as if in monastic retreat, and the small benches and low smooth stones made it easy to sit for a bit and sense the intimacy of the garden. The late afternoon sun felt lovely on our backs, and the trees caught the sounds of the remaining Beijing winds.

Dragon symbol at the Imperial Palace in Beijing

Image courtesy of Flickr user Mal B.

Learn more about future trips to China and Tibet.