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 across those distances.

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. 

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.,