Monday, January 14, 2019

Exploring Shaanxi's Natural Wonders

Near the end of the Good Girl’s trip to Shaanxi, China, we stopped at two places that reminded us of National Parks in the southwestern United States: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands. 

After our stop at Hukou Falls, we traveled to Yanchuan County, some 90 miles northwest of Xi'an, to a giant horseshoe curve in the Yellow River. Visitors stand above and gaze downward. I immediately thought back to my trip to Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, near the Grand Canyon. The Chinese have built a safe viewing platform and a nearby pagoda at the top of a hill. In Arizona, on the other hand, you have to hike about three-quarters of a mile to the overlook. 

A Horseshoe Bend in the Yellow River
The Heaven and Earth Pagoda

Unfortunately, the day we visited was cloudy, and the recent rains gave the water an unappealing muddy hue. Nonetheless, the site is one of those natural wonders that are hard to forget. Yanchuan County is off the beaten tracks, near a number of old cave homes. 

Homes built into the side of a mountain.

The second attraction was a dramatic valley situated in Jingbian County in northwest Shaanxi province. “The Wave” is a sinuous sandstone landscape similar to the Wave in Arizona or slot canyons in Utah. The Chinese refer to these undulating areas as Danxia formations. 

Entering the Wave Valley

I’ve never been to the U.S. site, but a hike through the Wave in Shaanxi province offers eye-popping views of geological wonders. First, you descend many flights of stairs and then follow walkways as you explore. The metal pathways are excellent and safely constructed. Just remember you will have climb back up all those stairs on the return.

Overlooking the canyon.

Descending many flights of stairs.

The panorama constantly changes as do the shadows and sunlight bouncing around the formations. 

Sometimes the canyon walls are close enough to touch, and other spots lie open to the sun. I let my imagination run free and saw many shapes, as the face in this photo below. To me, the profile on the right (below) looks like someone is whispering in another's ear. Do you see the man in profile? 

I call this "The Whisperer."

The sun shining down creating reflections.

If you continue to the end of the trail, you will find a surprise: a small lake and a boat dock. 

Canyon walkways

Lake and Boat Dock

I wished we’d arrived earlier or later as the sunlight was harsh for photography, and the long return became overly hot. Take water, but don’t miss China’s Wave; it’s spectacular and worth the effort. The landscape is brutally dry, but you can easily imagine how it would vibrantly change during or after a rain shower.
Striations of Color

One of those serendipitous travel moments occurred at the very top of the stairs on my return to the overlook area. Huffing and puffing, I spied an elderly man with the most magnificent beard and facial features. He was dressed like a character out of a period movie and smoked a long pipe. I asked if I could take his photo and he humbly obliged. Of course, I had to ask someone to take my picture with him as well. 

Me and my new friend.

China is a country where you must expect the unexpected. Each day brings new knowledge of interesting culture and its long history. While life in China’s million-plus populated cities has become westernized, the outlying regions,like those in northwestern Shaanxi province, still cling to the old ways. The area provides a delightful mix of young and old, hardworking and friendly people. 

A Chinese family exploring the Wave.

Seems trite, but China is a massive country and requires multiple trips to even to touch the highlights. An itinerary that concentrates on Shaanxi province guarantees many rewards and lasting memories. We had quite the adventure from visiting the Terracotta Warriors in Xian and the artistic production of Everlasting Regret, to hikes in towering Huashan (mountain) and the roar of Hukou Falls. We'd be thrilled to return to China again. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Dancing to Drums, Singing to Sweethearts

Do not miss the bright and lively Ansai Folk Culture Museum in north Yan'an City. Naturally, the coed Ansai Waist Drum troupe greeted us in the forecourt with a lively performance of leaps, kicks and turns.

You would think we might find these groups rather ho-hum by now but that isn't possible. Each is unique, participants are enthusiastically engaging and the sight and sound is irrepressible. It's a show that injects endorphins into the audience.

The museum's contents were a perfect match. Ansai is known as a center for folk art - the dance we had just seen, paper cutting, embroidery, songs and so-called "farmer paintings".

The paintings grab your eyes. In the 1950s. the Communist party encouraged residents of farm communes to try painting. Some did, some didn't, but today's artists, many of them women, produce charming depictions of rural community life.

People, animals, legends, everyday activities are portrayed in vivid colors. Initially seen as naive and simple, they represent an uncanny sense of complex design, tonal balance and skill.

It is hard to tell which came first, these sculpted clay animals and creatures on display or Maurice Sendak's creations.

Nothing is too mundane to be embroidered with colorful designs. Shoe insoles,

wall hangings


hanging ornaments,

toys, nothing escapes the needle workers' enhancements.

Debi follows directions.
After trying our hands at paper cutting, it is impossible to conceive of the patience and skill required to make any of the mural-sized creations on display. Debi completed hers - I believe it was referred to as "window blossoms" - but I had tried during an earlier visit to China and chose to watch.
Our teacher, reputedly the best in the area, displayed a one-of-a-kind silk scarf done with paper cut art and farmer paintings.

This is an area of hills and valleys and over the years sweethearts developed the art of singing love songs to one another.

We were treated to an example.

Meanwhile, members of the waist drum group gathered in the museum and began showing our colleagues how it is done.

We wanted to to stay longer but in Shaanxi there is always more to see.

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.