Monday, August 27, 2018

Forgotten Story of Cai Lun, Creator of Paper

Scrolls of papyrus and bamboo shoots were cumbersome and heavy, silk was expensive. Cai Lun (61-121 A.D.) developed the solution, paper, and civilization has been grateful ever since.

Grateful, but forgetful. Cai Lun, ranked by experts as the seventh most influential man in history, is virtually unknown in the West. The Good Girls certainly had never heard of him and neither had our fellow writers and photographers who were along on this Shaanxi adventure. That is until we were taken to Longting Town, given to Cai Lun by the grateful emperor and where he is buried.

Officials at Longting waiting to greet us.
At the age of 15 he had been selected to work for the royal family and rose quickly in their esteem. As one of the emperor's most trusted eunuchs, he was invited to sit in on meetings and record them.

The story goes that on a rainy, muddy day, he had loaded a cart with important scrolls of bamboo strips to take home and read. En route the ox stumbled, the cart overturned and the scrolls fell out. As Cai Lun struggled to reload them, he decided there must be a better way to preserve documents.

There was. After much experimentation, he developed the methods for combining bark from trees, hemp, waste, old rags and fish nets, macerating and soaking it until it could be lifted out of the water and dried to form sheets of paper.

 He showed it to the emperor who issued a decree that the whole country should adopt it. Cai Lun was given a new title, Marquis of Dragon Pavilion, and a village, which quickly became a center of paper making. His invention was called the Marquis Cai Paper. 

Later, Cai Lun was accused of treasonous palace intrigue. Rather than go through an investigation, he bathed, dressed in his finest robe and took poison. Eventually he was absolved and reburied in a proper tomb.

The site is an humble one by comparison to others we had seen. You enter a memorial filled with

paper-making implements used during his lifetime,

 a portrait

and scenes from his life and paper-making.

You exit to a modest, tree-shaded garden.

Beyond is the grass-covered tomb. Very low-key for a man whose contributions out rank those of Gutenburg, Galileo, Aristotle, Pasteur and Einstein.

We toured through The Museum of Cailun Paper Culture next door to see Cai Lun's process at work.

From the collection of materials,

their soaking,
Debi tries out the maceration device.
 maceration, re-soaking.

Once an even sheet can be screened out,

 It is eased off the screen,

slapped on a wall to dry

and voila! Paper.

The director showed us the final steps; in summer, regular demonstrations are offered. There is a small store were visitors can buy hand-made paper, with or without Chinese calligraphy.

Paper is considered one of China's greatest inventions along with gunpowder, the compass and the printing process.

We left with respect and great appreciation for Cai Lun, especially since none of us could have learned, developed and practiced our skills without his world-changing process.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Hiking Huashan, the Sacred Mountan of Shaanxi, China

Huashan, which in Chinese means Hua Mountain, lies about two hours east of Xi’an, the city closest to the world-famous Terracotta Warriors. Huashan became a pilgrimage site centuries ago and is considered one of the five sacred mountains in China with its Taoist temples.

A temple part way up the trail.

As we approached it by bus, the landscape dramatically changed; all of a sudden giant granite boulders and huge mountains dominated the previously flat landscape. A sign at the entrance calls Huashan - the World’s Number One Precipitous Mountain. Not quite sure about that translation, but it is very steep and known to encounter quick weather condition changes. The mountain is a favorite of tourists, serious climbers and the intrepid who come for the plank trail - one of the most dangerous courses in the world.

See what I mean by going from flat to mountainous?  

Huashan has five main peaks and 36 smaller ones, described in park literature as “looking like a coiling dragon and crouching tiger.” A gondola or cable car line was imported from Austria and installed in 1996. The 6-person cable cars move up to 1,000 people per hour, and the vast majority of visitors take the gondola up to mid-mountain, about 3,500 feet.

The bottom of the gondola

A shuttle bus brought my group from the main parking lot to the entrance. I looked up at the gondolas and they appeared as tiny matchbox cars hanging high in the air. The end of the line disappeared in the distance, although the morning was foggy and smoggy.  I found the scene a bit disconcerting, but, of course, I would ride.
Riding in the gondola

I felt I was entering a ski lift, sans skis, as I sat down and was whisked off into the air and up the mountain.  The drop is indeed precipitous, but fortunately, there was no wind. During the several minute ride in the gondola, you look down on the super-fit or crazies who decided to walk up. The trek is long because a series of wooden paths and stairs crisscross the mountain face instead of a making a vertical climb.
Looking down from the gondola at the trail.

Once I exited the cable car, I joined others on a portion of the walkways. We climbed stairs toward a building that seemed magically glued to the sheer side of the mountain. The building is a rest area, scenic overlook and cafĂ©.  Many go no higher than this. They just sit and enjoy the view.

The hanging cafe, overlook point, food and rest area.

Front porch of the Overlook House

I was ready to hike up higher, aiming to reach the pinnacle of the less dangerous side. Much of the hike is on stairways, pretty easygoing except for the hundreds and hundreds of stairs. About halfway up this upper section, I ran into another house with food and a temple. Many Chinese pause and light candles, saying prayers to the Gods.

A closer look at the temple altar. 

I continued my ascent until I came to a near vertical series of footholds carved out of a boulder. I hesitated, but a rope handrail gave me encouragement. “Okay, I’ll I do this,” I yelled up, “ if someone takes my photo at the top.”  I did, and they did.

The vertical climb toward the peak.

I made it!

The view was spectacular, such an unusual arrangement of narrow peaks and amazing stairways. I saw people that looked like ants climbing in a row as they headed up toward the more treacherous side. If you plan to include the plank course, you need to spend an entire day. I’d love to say I did it—but no way!

The daring plank course!

I was happy to reach my goal, resting at the summit and taking photos. The climb is honestly very doable if you take your time.  When I started my descent, my legs felt a little weary. I reached the mid-station, sat with relief and enjoyed a snack. Our group reassembled and headed back down the gondola and to the bus.

The official top. Can't tell you what the sign says!

Huashan is an extraordinary landscape. I suspect a typical American tourist in China would never expect this radical experience.  Shaanxi Province kept revealing untraditional wonders and treasures to the Good Girls. Huashan is undoubtedly one of them.

Another stopping point on the trail.
The trail continues up- behind the pagoda.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Surprising Xi'an

Xi'an continues to surprise us.

This city of 12 million is remarkably clean thanks to the hordes of street cleaners perpetually sweeping up trash and litter in public areas.

Flowers and flowering trees abound.

Huge tableaux of giant flowers and cartoon figures spring up along streets and intersections, holdovers from Chinese New Year.

Wherever an area is walled off, either for construction or safety, handsome posters appear.

Like many Chinese cities, Xi'an is divided into rings, one being the inner part, then moving to two, three and more into the suburbs, each with its rules and limitations. For example, only small dogs are allowed to live in the second ring; large dogs may live in the third.

There is a Muslim population of more than 100,000; there's a Muslim Quarter and even a  "Muslim Street"  filled with food and crafts vendors. It is an extremely popular spot with locals and tourists.

"We show our respect for their habits, praying and food," our guide proudly told us. The university has a special dining hall for Muslims. There is no more room for the Chinese to be buried so all are cremated. However, because Islam requires burial, the Muslims have their own cemetery.

We were there twice, both for too short a time, so we recommend you take your time ambling along, people watching, sampling strange foods and enjoying the mob scene.

We were treated to a unique dining experience at Tang Dynasty Art Garden Hotel. Emperors used to stay here when acknowledging successful candidates who passed the imperial examination for state positions.

Now it is a boutique hotel nicely located east of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and adjacent to the famous Ci'en Buddhist Temple.

The whole area is a fairy land of lights and musical water show for strollers by day and especially at night.

We were ushered into the garden where some guests were preparing to dine, shown a room, took seats in the garden, were introduced to officials from our gracious hosts,  then guided to a banquet room with a huge, beautifully set round table.

Then the courses began coming

and coming

and coming

and coming

and coming.

 This was, we learned, headquarters for the Shaanxi Cuisine Research Institute and we were served the cuisine of aristocrats.

 Midway through our banquet a quintet of lovely musicians, the Xiang Fu Jasmine  Band, arrived with their traditional instruments to entertain us. As we had discovered at the "Everlasting Sorrow" performance, classical Chinese music is quite lyrical. A perfect exclamation point to a superb evening.

  Speaking of evening, Xi'an saves its biggest surprises for last. Just when you think your hotel's neighborhood is ho-hum,

night falls and the lights come on.