Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Revealing History in Shaanxi

Shimao dig
We learned about the origins of the East-West Silk Road early in our trek through Shaanxi Province, but at Shimao we learn about the North-South version, the trade route between Iran, Iraq, China and India that was used 5 millennia ago. That's 3,000 years before the birth of Christ.

Locals knew of its presence 100 years ago but the technology was not here to investigate. Excavation did not begin until 2012 and will take at least 50 years to complete.

Definitely off the tourist track, a delegation in a variety of vehicles drove us up a track too narrow for our bus. We wove across bare, windswept hills and mesas, past a fenced off area to our right and a large, tarp-surrounded pavilion-like structure to the left.

Palace excavation
 Just ahead we were ushered into the dig's headquarters where Associate Researcher Shao Jing gave us the slide presentation "Bridging Eurasia and China: Archaeological Evidence from Northern China during the 3rd millennium B.C.E."
Associate Researcher Shao Jing

Archaeologists - there are 50 people in all responsible for the site - have found evidence of a large outer city surrounding a higher, smaller inner city, pond and tower.

"At the top we believe they have found a palace. We are close to the rammed earth foundation. Similar sites are found in India and Iran," said Shao.

Dholavira, India
 Dholavira, in the state of Gujarat, India, on the Tropic of Cancer, discovered 1967-68, is one.

Others include Uruk of cylander seals and Gilgamesh fame in what is now Iraq; and Hatusa, which became the Hittite capital in Turkey. Similarities also were found in Jericho, Jordan.
Uruk, Iraq
 There is a noticeable cross-pollinization of building and decoration styles.

Beyond that, when materials and objects from each site were found in the others it further indicated trade and communications between them. For example, the ivory and crystal being found at Shimao.

"Connecting the Middle East and the Northwest China site is a very important discovery," Shao said.

So much so that they plan to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2019. The site is not open to the public but Shao hoped it might be in two to three years.

Let's see, given the wait for UNESCO status and the time to build facilities, mark your calendars for 2030. Another Chinese archaeological museum like the one we saw near Hancheng will be well-worth the trek.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Turbulence and Tenacity of Hukou Falls

The Good Girls were part of a group of American travel writers visiting tourist sites in Shaanxi Province. One dreary, gray morning the bus pulled into a parking lot near the famed Hukou waterfall. Despite the light drizzle, everyone piled out to get an up-close look at the largest waterfall on the Yellow River, the second largest in China. We carefully walked down the slippery path to the growling sounds of the falls. 
Walking the path toward Hukou Falls in Shaanxi Province

The water flowing in the Yellow River is indeed yellow, sort of an amber hue that’s mixed with mud and silt the river churns up. The color reminded me of the Colorado River in the Southwest of the United States. 

Water in the Yellow River approaching Hukou Falls

Despite its fame, the Hukou Waterfall has rather modest dimensions, about 100 feet wide, increasing to 164 feet during flood season, and only 65 feet tall. Yet, thousands of tourists come to see this waterfall and experience its thundering roar, especially during the flood or rainy season when the waterfall is at its mightiest.

Any currents in the Yellow River

The waterfall forms as the Yellow River approaches Hukou Mountain. There it becomes blocked on both sides and squeezes through a narrow valley called the Jinxia Grand Canyon. The riverbed abruptly narrows down from nearly 1,000 feet wide to less than 164 feet turning the calm river to turbulent rapids. The roaring water then plunges about 65 feet over a narrow opening on a cliff. It gets the name Hukou (literally, "flask mouth") because someone thought it looked like water pouring out from a huge teapot.

The wild Hukou Falls

If you’re looking for a dreamy yet dramatic waterfall like Niagara or Iguassu, the Hukou Waterfall won’t do. The raging river doesn’t cascade over the rocks, no, the choppy Hukou feels angry. It ferociously roars without a care about anyone or anything. I don’t use these words frequently, but I can best describe the attitude of Mother Nature as screaming, “F you, get out of my way.” 

I worried about this little boy on his own near the falls.

And, you had better heed the warning as the agitation would likely be deadly for anyone who fell in. 

The water sprays up from the falls getting onlookers wet. 

My group meandered around the edge of the falls and left feeling disappointed that Hukou was not the most spectacular of nature’s gifts, but certainly worth a stop for those passing nearby. If you come during flood season, I suspect you might feel differently. 

A much calmer section of the Yellow River.

To increase summer tourism to the area, the local Chinese folks decided to bring a live musical/dance performance to the rocky shores on something like a natural stage. When we were there in early April, the cast was rehearsing several numbers, but in jeans and light jackets. Knowing how spectacular Chinese costumes and performances run, I am confident the show will be a stunner. 

Dance Practice

When their rehearsal was finished, we got a bonus – a brilliant festooned group of drummers. Shaanxi drumming groups are typically local clubs who meet and train to perform traditional dances. They show extreme passion while striking the beats with whole body intensity and passion. Their bodies seem to lift off the ground as if being pulled by puppet strings. Each performer appears to love every minute of the exhausting routines. We loved them, too and loudly cheered.

Look at the intensity on the drummers face. 

How do you say Ta Duh in Chinese? 

With that, we took off for our next stop further along the windy roads in Shaanxi Province. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Hancheng City: Hot New Tourist Destination, Part 2

 Sima Qian Temple and the park that surrounds it is a typically large complex.

For some reason we were met by a small troupe of clowns riding trikes and manipulating fanciful figures.

Sima Qian (145-87 BCE), China's most lauded historian, served as royal astronomer during the Han dynasty. His duties included determining the timing, setting the emperor's calendar of rituals, recording court events and reforming the calendar.

His passion was writing the history of China from the beginning up to his own time. So passionate, that when he committed the capital offense of defaming - disagreeing with - the emperor, he chose castration over execution so he could finish his history. His Stiiji, "Historical Records," provided the pattern all future Chinese historians followed.

The park is filled with gigantic but uninspiring statuary tableaux and brightly colored kid-friendly figures amid concrete plazas and carefully tended greenery.

We much preferred the human-sized path, Tang-era bridge and more natural pathways up to the tomb itself.

Debi decided to take the climb to the top to see Sima Qian's memorial and tomb.
I took one look at the ascent and the path to it, thought of my dicey hip and stayed below.

This is how Debi describes it.

The path is rocky, uneven and steep - much more so that than it looks in this photo.

 The route includes hundreds of stairs.

You pass through many gates, and keep climbing. 

 Finally, you find a colorful temple at the top of the hill.

 Behind the temple lies Sima Qhian's tomb. 

After a short bus ride back to town we stopped at the top of the old city for an easy, winding walk down. Along the way, we went by

a children's park,

a small zoo,

through temple walkways

and by fascinating historic architecture we wanted to know more about.

Eventually we came to what our guides called "gourmet street,"  a pedestrian-only lane lined with two-story buildings.

Stalls, stores and restaurants on both levels offered delights from beer in a bag - so-so - to barbecued lamb-filled soft "tacos" that were delicious.

Much, much more, too, but our feet were aching, rain was starting and our energy was sapped despite how much we wanted to explore and wander. We were given loaded "credit cards" with which to buy our dinners (return them and anything not spent is reimbursed.)

A beer and a snack or two at a picnic table with friends was about all we were able to handle.

We were even more annoyed at our lack of endurance during a short stroll through another visually appealing area.

Finally, there was our gorgeous hotel across the street.

Just thinking about Hancheng makes me itch to return. A bullet train in 2020, anyone?

Our colleague, travel writer Susan McKee, was with us in Shaanxi Province and allowed us to link to her hotel review to further whet your appetite.,

Monday, October 1, 2018

Hancheng City; Hot New Tourist Destination, Part 1

A just-opened museum showcasing artifacts from one of the country's Top 10 archeological finds,

a beautiful hotel,

a classic village unchanged for 670 years,

enthusiastic drummers and dancers,

classic architecture

and, are you ready, an outdoor market with Chinese pizza for breakfast.

What more could you want.

Well, how about a new airport and high speed rail station expected to open in 2020?

Hancheng was our favorite find outside of Xi'an (125 miles northeast) and has the makings of a must-see addition to tours of China. Put on the list of "Prime Tourist Cities of China" in 2007 for its historic mansions, streets and over 140 protected historic sites from Tang to Qing dynasties, it is still under the radar for most. Come along on our exhausting but exhilarating day.

After a remarkable breakfast buffet (best sesame buns of the trip) at the beautiful Wenyuan Pavilion Hotel, we made an all too short stop at the outdoor market.

With vendors setting up displays of the familiar and unfamiliar, all of it intriguing, we scattered like camera-clad, pent-up kittens.

I gravitated to the aromas emanating from the far side and found myself in the "dining" area. Cooking noodles, vegetables and meats sent up clouds of steam, but what caught my attention was a couple making what looked like pizza.

One draped freshly kneaded dough over a large, circular convex grill, adding a tomato sauce and  spices as it cooked. When he deftly took it off, his companion chopped the "pie" into bite-sized rectangles. As customers came by, she scooped the squares into plastic bags for a portable treat. A hot, spicy, satisfying one.

From there we headed to the Relics of Rui Museum at Liangdai Village, but instead of a brand new museum, we were met by Northern Shaanxi Dancers.

This mostly female troupe of drummers dancers, pennant wavers enchanted us with infectious smiles, energy and rhythm.

The museum turned out to be a stunner, built over the 1,300 tombs and 64 horse and chariot pits that were discovered in 2005. Considered in the Top 10 of archaeological discoveries in China, it provides insight into the country's early culture from the Zhou Dynasty (1046 - 256 B.C.).

It still had that new building smell when we entered and immediately were in a world of spaces that lifted the spirit then focused the attention on the exhibits, much enhanced by the lighting.

We encountered a

• jade pig dragon, symbol of potent, auspicious power over, among other things, water, rain and typhoons.

• a 3,000-year-old empress who collected antiques, including one 5,000 years old.

• Chariot and horses' tack in a royal grave. Evidently burying the emperor's carriages along with him goes back a long, long way.

• Gold and jade jewelry, some redesigned and repurposed from older pieces.

• Temple bells and an interactive display to hear how each one sounds.

Just beyond the museum is the overlook to Dang Village. Built in 1331, it is home to 320 families, 1,400-plus people, most with the surnames Dang or Ji.

A few rooms are open for visitors to visit, but we were treated to a lively Chinese marriage show

complete with narrator and entertainment. It brought color to a gray day in a gray and brown toned village.

I suspect most of us would have preferred time to photograph the old architecture and perhaps interact with some of the residents of this living fossil. But then who wants a bunch of foreigners wandering into their courtyard and compound?