Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

Russia: Under Construction

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Dr. Pamela Kachurin is an art historian specializing in Russian and Soviet art and architecture. Having first traveled to the Soviet Union before 1991, Dr. Kachurin has been able to witness the remarkable metamorphosis since then. She has traveled and worked in Uzbekistan, Belarus, and the major cities of Russia. Here, she shares her reflections on how Russia has changed since her first visit, based on her most recent travel to Russia as Study Leader with Smithsonian Journeys.

Smithsonian Travelers at the Yaroslavl Chapel of St. Alexander Nevsky. Photo: Pamela Kachurin.

Smithsonian Travelers at the Yaroslavl Chapel of St. Alexander Nevsky. Photo: Pamela Kachurin.

I made my first trip to Russia in the 1980s, and have returned multiple times over the last four decades. I have been able to witness the dramatic changes that have taken place, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

One need not look any further than simple transactions to track the changes since the end of the Soviet Union. In summer of 1994, barely three years after the Soviet Union collapsed, I wanted to buy a cake to bring to a party I was attending. The bakery door was open, but when I went inside and asked for a particular cake, the woman behind the counter refused to sell it to me. The reason? She was on her break. So she sat there, refusing to sell the cake to me, and explained to me that I would have to wait the 15 minutes until her break was over. Neither of us budged. I waited, and she waited. Finally, 15 minutes later, she sold me the cake.

But in summer 2011, I decided to purchase a watch in St. Petersburg. I found a lovely watch shop in St. Petersburg’s oldest mall, and the saleswoman was cheerfully helpful. “I need a watch, but something less expensive than what is on display” I said in Russian. She shooed away her friends that were blocking the case, and showed me several options, explained their pros and cons, and even gave me a discount. Then she wrapped up the watch, told me about the year guarantee (!) and sent me on my way. The whole transaction took 10 minutes. Progress…

Change in the countryside is harder to notice. Young people still search for mushrooms with their grandmothers; kitchen gardens still grow outside dachas, most of which have no electricity. Poverty is the norm, and human services are practically non-existent.

However, village children will learn English in secondary school, and carry cell phones by the time they reach 14. Churches, once abandoned or destroyed have been reclaimed and restored, and cater to young and old alike.

Traditional Russian homes, with their brightly painted yellow, red, and blue wooden trim, contrast with monochromatic newer homes. Cranes and bulldozers are as common as cars in this country that is most definitely “under construction.”

Russia is a nation on the move, a fact that becomes clear even after one visit. This massive country is dynamic, and its resilient population constantly strives to improve its own lives and the lives of others. Although most Russians hold their country’s history closely, their eyes are not on the past, but decidedly on the future.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Kachurin and here for our Russian adventures.

Book: Vietnam, Rising Dragon

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Required reading for any curious traveler to Vietnam, Bill Hayton’s Vietnam, Rising Dragon takes the reader through the culture and history, as well as complex politics and burgeoning economy ofo this changing nation. A BBC journalist, author Hayton is an expert craftsman who weaves anecdotes from everyday life into a larger narrative of where Vietnam has been, what social and economic changes mean, and what’s next for this magnetic, engaging country.

Explore Vietnam with Smithsonian Journeys—click to learn more about planning your next adventure there.

Click to see all of our blog posts on Vietnam, from our experts who have traveled there.

An Unexpected Afternoon in Yichang, China

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Study Leader Diane Perushek has traveled to China more than sixty times over the past few decades and is current Director of Global Relations at the University of Hawai‘i. Here, she shares a surprise adventure in Yichang, China, a happy occurence on our Classic China and Tibet tour.

Temple to Buddha in Yichang, China

Photo: Diane Perushek

The day our Classic China and Tibet group left the Victoria Liana, the riverboat that took us down the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Yichang, the flight we were scheduled to take to Shanghai was changed, leaving us with an unexpected four hours in Yichang. This city of 4 million+ individuals boasts some very important historical sites in its environs, but our group did not have quite enough time to see any of them. So we turned to Yichang itself for entertainment, something American tour groups are rarely able to do.

The highlight of the afternoon for most of us was a stop at the “Old Buddha Temple” after a visit to the local history museum and before whiling away some time in a coffee shop. Even our local guide, Ginger Jiang, was surprised to find the entrance to the temple totally transformed by a new building site where the temple approach had once been. But once inside we found a very lively scene as numbers of Yichang women, dressed in gauze Buddhist robes, busied themselves with preparations for a special ceremony for the Medicine Buddha.

We saw a wall of incense, some in brilliantly-colors pink coils that, when suspended, hung down some three feet; and we were treated to many photos with the priest, who was dressed in his finest red-patterned robe. Upon departing from the temple, the priest wished us well and encouraged us to visit the local Christian churches, which some of us did on that Maundy Thursday. Before we left the temple compound, one of our group bought “spirit” money from a vendor that could be burned to send up to ancestors in the other world who might be in need of some cash. This unexpected afternoon turned into a unique and most memorable experience for us all.

Travel is all about rolling with the unexpected. What’s your favorite serendipitous travel moment?

If you’re interested in travel to China, please click here for upcoming tours.

The History of Hoi An, Vietnam

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Mark McLeod is currently researching intersections between culture and politics in 19th century Vietnam. He is an expert on Vietnamese history since 1802, so Smithsonian Education Manager Sadie McVicker took the opportunity to get his thoughts on Hội-an, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Q. Hội-an is a World Heritage Site, essentially a living museum of what was one of the most active Southeast Asian seaports of the 15th-19th centuries. Can you tell us something of the long history of its rise to that preeminence? And why it fell out of favor over 200 years ago?


Woman in rowboat, Hoi An, Vietnam.

A. In addition to the advantages presented by the port itself, the Thu-bồn River system, which has its origins in the Annamite Range and drains into the South China Sea (which Vietnamese call the Biển Đông or Eastern Sea, not wanting to concede China’s ownership of it), forms one of Vietnam’s largest river basins, which served to link local, regional, and international trade. Furthermore, the surrounding area, roughly comprising the area of modern Quảng-nam province, in addition to natural products such as cinnamon and ginseng, was an artisanal producer of textiles and ceramics, which attracted foreign traders, Asian as well as European.

Evidence from shipwrecks demonstrates that Việt and other Asian ceramics, shipped from Hội-an, traveled at least as far West as Egypt! It is no wonder that 18th-Century Chinese and Japanese merchants considered Hội-an Asia’s premier trading destination. However, trade declined from the late 1700s with the Tây-sơn Rebellion and the resulting conflicts that were not settled until the founding of the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802. After that, for political as well as practical reasons (the mouth of the Thu-bồn River silted up, blocking access to larger ships), the focus of trade shifted southward to Đà-nẵng. This trend has continued to the present, as Đà-nẵng is now Vietnam’s third largest port, after the ports of Hồ Chí Minh City and Hải-phòng, whereas Hội-an now survives primarily as a tourist attraction, thanks to the well-preserved architectural structures, museums, and crafting traditions, the value and interest of which have earned it the status of United Nations World Heritage Site. Indeed, Hội-an is one of the most successful examples of preservation of an area of cultural and historical value in contemporary Vietnam. One measure of their success in this regard is the fact that modern filmmakers desiring an unspoiled or colonial-era setting often film at Hội-an. For example, many of the urban scenes of the 2007 Vietnamese-American historical epic The Rebel (directed by Charlie Nguyễn) was shot in Hội-an rather than Hà-nội.

All of this makes the city a treat for travelers, who can visit museums and architectural attractions by day and enjoy tea by the river in the evening, watching the sun go down behind these beautiful buildings. Among the sites of interest, I enjoy the Chùa Cầu, literally the “Bridge Pagoda,” but usually called the “Japanese Bridge,” which was founded by 17th-Century Japanese traders. It is a “covered bridge” of lacquered wood, very solidly built and well restored over the years. Although it is called a pagoda, it was not devoted to Buddhist worship, but rather to local animistic spirits, with the two entrances being guarded by statues of monkeys and dogs.

Ready to visit Hội-an? Click here to see our journeys to Vietnam.

Book of the Week – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret FanOur book partner, Longitude books is always searching for new books to inspire and inform your travels.

This week, they recommend you spend an hour or two with Lisa See’s novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Set in 19th-century rural Hunan China, the book traces the lives of two women living with foot-binding, arranged marriages, and war.

Our travelers have always been and remain fascinated with China, one of our most popular destinations. Learn more about traveling to China with our experts.