Cono Sur of Patagonia

October 30th, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

Dr. Jeffrey A. Cole is a Latin American historian. His interest in the region was kindled at the University of Connecticut, where he completed a B.A. and M.A. in history, including a semester at the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, México. At the doctoral level, Jeff focused on civil-military relations in Argentina and Chile, the archaeology of the Americas, modern Chinese history, and – primarily — colonial South American history. He won a Fulbright grant to complete his dissertation research in Perú, Bolivia, and Argentina. Upon receipt of the Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, he taught at Tulane, SUNY, Cornell, the University of Massachusetts, and Smith College. Jeff also served as Associate Director of the UMass exchange program with Argentina from 1985 to 1991, during which time he taught at the Universidad de Buenos Aires as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer. His last full-time job was as Director of International Programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. For the last twenty years, Jeff has served as a Study Leader for Smithsonian Journeys (nearly sixty in all) and as a lecturer on other academic excursions to Latin America.

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This departure of “Patagonian Explorer” was special for three very unusual reasons, all of which were unplanned and, as our Argentine Tour Director Gastón Mc Kay put it, “espontaneous.”

The first, of course, was that our group was witness to the inauguration of the first South American (and Argentine) Pope, Francisco I, and the celebration of the events of his first week in that role by the people of Buenos Aires and Argentina as a whole.  The obelisk in the middle of the “9 de Julio” avenue was draped in yellow and white (the Papal colors), the Plaza de Mayo was packed – from Monday evening to late Tuesday morning – with people following events at the Vatican on large television screens flanking the Cathedral, and the city as a whole showed symptoms of hope for the future than were absent as recent as a month ago.  No Argentinians were more proud than the fans of San Lorenzo, the new Pope’s favorite football (soccer) team; indeed, the supporters presented Francisco I with a team jersey with his name and a halo as his number!

pope

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

The second grand surprise was the morning of our landing on Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan, just north of Punta Arenas, Chile.  Disembarkation in zodiacs for this visit to a huge Magellanic penguin colony always comes early, as the winds tend to be lighter and the waves lower in the morning, but on this occasion we were treated to a spectacular sunrise over Tierra del Fuego to the east and a bath of golden sunshine flooding the penguins ashore and in the water.  There was no wind at all, and even the ship’s crewmembers were on deck taking pictures.  As we all sat down to breakfast later that morning, there was an enthusiastic comparison of photographs to see who had taken the best image.

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Third, Easter Sunday brought a forced change of plans caused by the closure – probably because of an accident – of the Pan-American highway south of Santiago.  We were returning to town after a wonderful visit to the Haras de Pirque winery, when access to the highway was closed off.  Taking side streets to get back into town, we were destined to miss our appointed times for a visit to “La Chascona,” one of Pablo Neruda’s homes.  Tour Director Gastón Mc Kay, local guide Iván Bustamante, and I agreed to go instead to the Museum of Remembrance, which chronicles the military coup d’état of 11 September 1973, which toppled the government of Salvador Allende, through to the removal of Augusto Pinochet by the 1988 plebiscite which told him “No” to his staying in power until the end of the twentieth century.  Iván’s family had been forced into exile in Britain as a consequence of the coup, and his guiding of the Associates through this powerful museum was extremely moving.

The Patagonian trip offers Smithsonian travelers many different dimensions of two wonderful countries, Argentina and Chile, including landscapes and nature, but we never ignore the terrible moments in their recent histories, for the two peoples’ ability to recover and progress despite those events are all the more remarkable after we learn what they have suffered.

So, by the time we traveled from Valparaíso to the Santiago International Airport on 1 April, we all knew that we had been witness not only to Buenos Aires and the Argentine tango, fabulous Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia aboard Vía Australis and in Torres del Paine National Park, as well as the pleasures of the Chilean Lake District, but also to three different experiences that were unplanned and unexpected, but very special indeed.  Such surprises are often the most memorable moments of a tour.

I am sure that the 2013-14 season of “Patagonian Explorer” will bring similar “espontanous” experiences, and so am already looking forward to my return to the Southern Cone and Cape Horn.  My license plate and its frame say it all:cono sur

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To learn more about our Patagonia Explorer tour, click here.

Poulnabrone Dolmen – The Stones of Ireland

October 29th, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

Miriam C. Davis has an M.A. in medieval archaeology and a Ph.D. in medieval history. She is a professor of history at Delta State University, where she teaches European history and the history of Christianity, and has participated in archaeological excavations in Mississippi, Alabama, England, and Scotland. In addition to her scholarly publications, Miriam has written for the popular press on archaeology, history, and travel. She has lectured throughout the U.S., Great Britain, and Israel.

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Silhouetted dramatically against the horizon, it’s a stark reminder of past millennia, millennia that we know too little about.

We pile out of the bus and begin the short walk up the trail to our destination. Our tour has taken us to Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare, one of the most famous portal tombs in Ireland, and a relic of the Neolithic Age. “Neolithic” means “New Stone Age,” when agriculture emerged in Ireland. It’s also the period of the megaliths, the great stone monuments that dot the landscape of Western Europe.

At Poulnabrone, as we circle the tomb, taking pictures from different angles, we must step carefully. Deep fissures fracture the ground; it’d be easy for the careless visitor to trip or twist an ankle.

That’s because we’re in the Burren, a stretch of land in northwest County Clare in the west of Ireland. Long ago, erosion carved deep grooves in the limestone pavement, leaving a jagged moonscape. But the Burren can also be surprisingly green, as grass readily grows between cracks in the rock due to the mineral-rich soil.

The dolmen itself is made of limestone slabs. A pair of portal stones – that is, large upright stones at the dolmen’s entrance – and two smaller standing stones support the capstone, which slants downward from the front to the rear to create an 8 x 4 foot chamber. (In the 1980s, one of the portal stones was replaced because it had cracked; the original stone still lies nearby.)  Originally, a low, oval-shaped cairn, or man-made pile of rocks, surrounded the dolmen to steady the whole structure.

“How did they get the big stone on top?” someone asks. It’s a good question; twelve feet long and seven feet wide, the capstone weighs over 3,000 pounds.  Probably a mound of dirt was constructed and the slab pulled up it using rollers made of tress. No doubt it involved a lot of sweat. And cursing.

And manpower. It’s no accident that the megaliths (“big stones”) appear in the Neolithic period, after the introduction of agriculture. Hunting and gathering during the Mesolithic Age had supported only a very small population, eight or nine thousand in all of Ireland, living in family groups of about twenty-five. But the coming of agriculture about 3500 BC brought food surpluses that supported larger populations, providing the manpower necessary to erect the dolmens.

We know the dolmen was a tomb, because archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of at least thirty individuals. From the bone fragments we can tell that the dead bodies were already decomposed when they were interred in the chamber around 3000 BC. Why were these particular individuals chosen, and why was so much effort put into their interment? We don’t know.

While its ritual and symbolic functions remain unknown, Poulnabrone Dolmen continues to exert a powerful attraction in the modern world, drawing in thousands of visitors each year. As we walk back to the bus, past the sellers of Celtic crosses and other souvenirs who congregate at the entrance to the site, I think of these long-ago people, whose names we’ll never know. We, with our modern technology — our smart phones and our laptops – we can still be awed by what people did 5000 years ago.

That’s not such a bad thing.

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To learn more about our Emerald Isle tour, click here.

Climbing to Great Heights – The Potala Palace

October 28th, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

Ingrid Larsen is a Chinese art historian and specialist in early Chinese painting. She did her doctoral training at the University of Michigan and Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and received national scholarships from the National Academy of Sciences and the Fulbright Commission. While a Chinese language student in Taiwan in the 1980s, Ingrid worked at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and more recently was a consultant for the permanent Ancient China exhibition in the newly opened National Museum of China in Beijing in 2010–11. From 1997–2007 she worked on the project to catalogue the Song and Yuan dynasty paintings in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, and has published on the formation of Charles Lang Freer’s Chinese painting collection. In 2012 she served as editor for a catalogue and exhibition of modern Chinese calligraphy at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University entitled Pictures of the Mind: The Art of Wang Fangyu. Her current research focuses on the emergence 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 spent five years living in Beijing––most recently 2009–2010.

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IMG_4890-Potala515

Lhasa, a trophy destination for 19th century explorers, is still a remote and mysterious place. When I first visited Lhasa in 1984 we endured a three hour bus ride on a bumpy dirt road from the airport. A new highway and tunnel has cut that trip in half.  Back then, Lhasa was a dusty, dilapidated town with wild dogs and open sewers. Today the city is much tidier. Paved roads, traffic lights, sidewalks, and public parks are signs of progress. Despite change, nothing can diminish the towering magnificence of the Potala Palace that tapers towards the sky and reaches an altitude of 12,500 feet on a mountain in the center of Lhasa.  The Potala was the winter residence and political-spiritual nerve center for successive Dalai Lamas who ruled Tibet since the 17th century.  Its fortress-like architecture comprised of the Red and White Palaces embellished with brilliant gold roof tops, is a beacon for Buddhist pilgrims and travelers from around the globe.

IMG_4702-SI-group-at-Potala515The morning our group visited the Potala, we joined the flocks of Tibetan pilgrims and began to climb the zigzagging stair ramps that lead up to the Palace. Feeling the altitude, we paced ourselves and rested on the landing of each stair set before pushing on to the next. Local pilgrims caught up, urged us on with their smiles, and then scampered upward with sure feet and adequate oxygen. At last we reached the top where a family of pilgrims sat on the final steps––savoring a snack and a spectacular view across the Lhasa valley. The women were striking, each wearing three large salmon-color coral beads woven into their hair. Tibetans cherish coral for its medicinal qualities and treat it as a hereditary gem. Our local guide identified the pilgrims as a tribe from a distant region in Tibet. For them as for us, this was a once in a life-time experience.IMG_4711-Pilgrims-climbing-to-Potala515

After reaching the top, we were first ushered into the White Palace to view the Dalai Lama’s main ceremonial hall and throne, private rooms, and a library lined with Buddhist sutras and historical texts. As our eyes adjusted to the interior light, every surface was super-charged with an explosion of color. Painted murals and hanging scrolls dressed the walls with Buddhist deities and historical scenes. Fabric banners and canopies embroidered or appliqued with the “eight auspicious symbols” were draped from ceilings and pillars. Thick Tibetan carpets woven with wool from highland sheep covered the floors and cushioned the seats where monks meditate daily. Here color seems equivalent to spiritual energy.IMG_4717-SI-traveler-climbing-stairs-at-Potala515

Then, through a tunnel-like passage, we entered a more sacred space in the Red Palace and were dazzled by the halls containing lavishly decorated burial stupas with the remains of past Dalai Lamas. Here the pungent smell of yak butter and incense smoke bespoke the daily rituals of monks who worship their past spiritual leaders. One of the most impressive and sacred stupa tombs belongs to the fifth Dalai Lama who is credited with initiating the construction of the Potala Palace in 1648. Standing 41 feet tall, the stupa is adorned with turquoise, coral, pearls and semi-precious stones and gilded with roughly 3,700 kg (8,157 lbs) of gold––amounting to 150 million US dollars at current values for the gold alone. Much of the wealth of Tibet is concentrated in these halls.IMG_4876-Potala515

As we left the Potala and started our descent into Lhasa city, one person puzzled about what happened to all the cultural and historic relics in the Palace during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) when the Red Guard demolished many monasteries around Tibet. The Potala was spared at the insistence of Chairman Mao’s comrade, Zhou Enlai, who reportedly deployed his own troops to protect it. Zhou Enlai is also the patron saint who saved the Forbidden City.

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Read more about upcoming departures of our Classic China and Tibet tour.

Standing In Awe of Buddha

October 25th, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

Carol Morland is a Japanese art historian, with special expertise in the painting of the Edo period. She has taught courses in East and Southeast Asian art at the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, Nanzan University (Nagoya, Japan), Temple University Japan (Tokyo), and the University of Hawaii. In addition, Carol has been an editor for Orientations in Hong Kong and has translated Japanese articles for that magazine and other publications. Most recently, she was an assistant curator at the Honolulu Museum of Art, where she focused on the museum’s collection of ukiyo-e. Carol holds an M.A. in Japanese Studies and a Ph.D. in Japanese art history from the University of Michigan. She has two decades of experience living, working, and studying in Japan and China. Current research topics include the changing concepts of Japanese portraiture in the early modern period and the rise of amateur painting circles in the Nagoya area during the 19th and 20th centuries.

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The smell of incense and the sound of chanting fill the air, as we step into the huge space of the image hall at Todai-ji temple in the ancient capital of Nara. Our eyes are immediately drawn upward to the face of the principal image of worship, the Great Buddha Dainichi, one of the largest bronze statues in the world. The original sculpture was cast in the 8th century by Emperor Shomu, who wished to proclaim both his devotion to Buddhism and his own imperial power. Standing before this Buddha, even hundreds of years later, we can understand the awe felt by the Nara period worshiper.

Like devotees of earlier eras, we reached the Great Buddha Hall by proceeding down a long, wide walkway that passes through two gates: the outer South Gate, an important architectural monument in itself, and a smaller gate that leads into the inner compound. We have been greeted along the way by the many tame Sika deer that roam the temple grounds and are considered sacred. While we have visited many temples on our journey, it is here at Todai-ji that one can truly feel the power that Buddhism wielded in Japan. And the grand scale of the site and the setting of the Great Buddha Hall within a series of enclosures give us an understanding of the experience of worship as no description, photograph, or museum display could.

A short bus ride brings us to another important monument in Nara, also located within Deer Park: Kasuga Shrine. While the Todai-ji compound was open and level, organized symmetrically in the Chinese fashion, and hot in the late morning sun, the approach to the Shinto shrine draws us into a very different world. Walking up a stone pathway that cuts through a forest of enormous cedar trees, the air is cool and damp. We pass by hundreds of large stone lanterns (there are more than 2,000 in all), some dating from early in the shrine’s history and covered with moss, and others from later years. Kasuga Shrine is, in fact, famous for its lanterns, both these and the many smaller bronze lanterns that hang in the shrine building itself. Kasuga was founded in the 8th century, but its continued importance to worshipers is everywhere apparent. Many of the stone lanterns bear paper squares with the names of recent donors, and among the popular auxiliary shrines are those dedicated to finding love.

After a delicious lunch of Japanese noodles, we return to Kyoto and visit one last temple. Kiyomizu-dera is perched high on a hill, and walking out onto the broad porch extending over the valley, it feels as if we are suspended in air. The road up to the temple is crowded with young women in bright kimono and alive with the sounds of shop keepers hawking their wares. There are many stores selling ceramics and local specialties, including yatsuhashi, a triangular treat made of pounded rice filled with a sweet paste. Perhaps best of all is the soft-serve ice cream flavored and then sprinkled with matcha, the powdered green tea introduced into Japan in the 12th century and used in the traditional tea ceremony—a particularly successful combination of East and West, past and present.

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To learn more about our Eternal Japan tour, click here.

A Multitude of People

October 24th, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

Robert W. Foster has been fascinated by Chinese culture since he first read a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching in high school. Since that early encounter with a strikingly unfamiliar worldview, he has spent his academic career developing a better understanding of the history of one of the world’s great civilizations. After receiving a B.A. in History from Kenyon College in Ohio, Foster pursued graduate work at Harvard University, where he earned his Master’s degree in East Asia Studies (1990) and his Ph.D. in Chinese History (1997), during which time he was an exchange student at Peking University (1990-1991). Since 1997, he has been a member of the faculty of the Department of History at Berea College, where he created the Asian Studies program. Although his courses at Berea focus on Chinese and Japanese history, Foster has also developed a broader understanding of the cultural interactions throughout East Asia and between China and Central Asia. Foster has been a participant in National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes on the Silk Road sponsored by the East-West Center in Hawaii and seminars on modern China at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria. Foster has worked to make Chinese culture more accessible to a Western audience. He has translated key Classical Chinese texts, has written on China’s relation to the Silk Road, on Confucian philosophy, and on the modern use of Confucian imagery in the PRC and Japan. Recognizing the value of directly engaging Asian cultures, he has taken student and faculty groups to the Peoples’ Republic of China and Japan. He has served as Smithsonian Lecturer in China and has led workshops on Asia with organizations as diverse as the U.S. military and secondary school educators in Kentucky.

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Smithsonian Tour on the Bund, Shanghai

Smithsonian Tour on the Bund, Shanghai

People. No matter how often I visit China, I am always struck by the number and variety of people. Standing in Tiananmen Square, outside the Forbidden City in Beijing, one finds all kinds of people at the symbolic heart of China. Foreign tourists, Beijing locals taking the air, and Chinese tourists visiting the capital all mingle in the Square. Eventually, all visitors forge ahead into the Forbidden City in a good-natured crowd funneling through the massive Gate of Heavenly Peace. We all find each other interesting. Every so often, a Chinese tourist shyly approaches me and gestures a request to take a photograph with me. When I respond positively in Chinese, we strike up a conversation about our various travels. Usually the photographer is from a part of China where foreigners are less common. After the snap, we smile, offer best wishes, and return to viewing the architectural splendors of the Forbidden City.

Artist’s studio, Beijing

Artist’s studio, Beijing

These encounters happen regularly on our trip: at the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army, in villages along the Yangtze, and on the Bund in Shanghai. Some people surreptitiously take pictures, some make polite requests. All are happy to have a memento of their travels. I imagine them going back to their hometowns, showing their photos and pointing at the one with the tall, bearded foreigner who could speak some Chinese. “Amazing!” say their friends. I, too, regale my friends and family with vignettes of the people I have met: the northeastern farmers on the Great Wall, the family of artists who welcomed us into their Beijing hutong courtyard house, the groundskeeper in the Great Mosque in Xi’an, or the elderly gentleman sketching a copy of a landscape painting in the Shanghai Museum. Each of those encounters breathes life into my visits to China. Each connects me to China’s past and present.

Copying a landscape, Shanghai Museum

Copying a landscape, Shanghai Museum

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