rachel lee - a photo journey

Beijing (May 19-June 2)

I have finally found a way to compress the photos’ size for emailing!! An all-too-simple process that a Canadian neighbor, fresh from Everest’s Base Camp, showed me at our hostel near Tibet where I am currently resting. I recommend reading one text then scrolling to its corresponding picture. [Ed--click the images to view a larger version]

1) This photo depicts an industrial country with its factory stacks, concrete apartment complexes, and traffic. But the photo is deceiving...the fact that it is still makes it seem safe. Road rules in China are only recognizable if one were to consider driving without any rules whatsoever. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and motor vehicles intermingle with the confidence of cartoons. Lanes and lights are merely suggestions. I lived in this Beijing district with Anna Razeto, a friend and PhD candidate in comparative Silk Road archeology.

2) Weddings in modern China combine both traditional elements and elements influenced by the West. Typically, they can be summed up as a paper process and party followed with a romantic photo shoot. The actual civil ceremony consists of registering the marriage with the local registrar and is brief and done without much to do. I have not been to a wedding reception but Chinese say they are complex and elaborate. Custom requires honor to be paid to powerful guests and more food and drink to be displayed then could possibly be consumed. Just don't look to the wedding album to reflect anything that was done in the actual wedding. Here a bride poses in her rented gown in front of a Christian church on Wangfujing pedestrain street, downtown Beijing.

 3) Yonghegong Lamasery, a renowned lama temple of the Yellow Hat Sect of Lamaism, is a peaceful place to lounge and pray in the busy city. It was originally built in late 17th century as the residence for a soon-to-be emperor. After his death, his body was returned to the complex which was converted into a living quarters for large numbers lamas, Buddhist monks from Tibet and Mongolia. It's the largest and most perfectly preserved lamasery remaining in China. A mini dvd, given as your entry ticket, explains the temple's history.

 4) Many traditions were banned during the 1949 Communist Revolution, including the craft and use of the qipao (ch'ipau), one of the most typical costumes for Chinese women. Popularized by the Manchus from the design of a unisex tunic then modernized in Shanghai in the 1900s, over several thousand years it has become the archetypal dress for Chinese women. In keeping with Chinese eloquence, the design of the front of the qipao is said to depict the maturity of women properly, reminding people of the line of a Chinese poem 'A garden full of the beauty of spring can not be prevented from being enjoyed.' Embroidered silk, hand sewn to fit, this dress will be the most expensive in my closet costing just under $100 USD. The 80-year old tailor who does the cutting and fitting and his wife who does the hand-stitching live and work in this one room apartment in one of Beijing’s old alley community hutongs.

 5) Along with some weathered cigarette cases, two pairs of the common woman’s Lotus Shoes and are being sold at Panjiayuan market. The practice of foot binding was popularized during the 12th century as an erotic physical mutilation (similar to the 17-inch corseted waists popular in Europe). Binding girls feet came to an end during the Communist Revolution. The ideal foot size was about 4 inches created by breaking the four minor toes and wrapping them under the arch. The big toe was left protruding as an anchor for walking. While women with lotus feet were usually capable of walking and cooking, they were unable to squat which is the necessary position for many functions in China such as relieving oneself. Modern studies show severe life-long disabilities resulted from binding the feet, including hip and spine fractures due to low bone density in those areas, osteoporosis, and frequent falls. During the six months I’ve spent in China, I have seen only one elderly woman with lotus feet...she walked with a cane in her short deep shoes, stopping to sit and rest after every dozen steps. While most women with 80 years or more have bound feet, these women tend to stay indoors and in residential areas not commonly visited by tourists.

 6) A vendor at Panjayuan Market sells brushes for calligraphy and painting, each brush with a very specific use. One of my favorites is the large sponge-tipped brush that people dip in water to write fleeting poems on the city sidewalks. On the weekends, the market’s a great place to observe Chinese cultural minorities selling tattered textiles, production paintings religious icons, pottery, pearls and all manner of goods and bads. The rule is to only buy what you like, not what you think is valuable, since most of what’s for sale is neither precious or antique. Making a purchase in China can be extremely taxing to your wallet and your spirit I’ve found. Something worth 10 yuan can often be offered at a starting price of 400 yuan, and it is always "real," "best quality," and "very special." Buyer beware!!

 7) Protecting both the relics and the railings at the Summer Palace, my Fairhaven colleague Curtis snaps a photo. Curtis was visiting family and studying mandarin in Beijing when our college admissions office put us in touch.

 8) The Summer Palace is the second largest imperial garden remaining in China and an ideal place for Beijing locals to retreat from the hot summer. Opened to the public in 1924, the park entrance price has been reduced so that most Chinese can afford to enjoy what was once reserved for a Qing Dynasty empress and her elite associates.


9) This is Tiananmen Square, the heart of Beijing. Mao Zedong’s mausoleum is behind me and the yellow-tiled roofs of the Forbidden City - old Beijing - are just ahead. A 124-foot obelisk, the Monument to the People, is in the center of the square depicting revolutionary acts carved into granite. Tiananmen Square became infamous with Westerners in the late 80's after a series of political protest were violently squelched, and televised live by Western networks who had been invited to cover the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev. The trigger had been the expulsion of liberal General Secretary Hu in 1987 which gave opportunity to dissatisfied citizens to express their discontent with his successors by honoring him. Two distinct groups protested – an intellectual group who believed the Communist government had not reformed its social and political controls enough, and an industrial group who felt the economic reforms had gone too far so that inflation and unemployment threatened their livelihood. The government did have support from the rural population who had experienced an increase in their standard of living under communist rule, however this distributed population was hard to organize to the government’s defense. All told, injuries are generally held to have numbered from 7,000 to 10,000.

From the porcelain capital of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, I have visited Beijing, Hebei Province; Luoyang, Henan Province; Xi’an, Shaanxi Province; Jiuzhaigou and Chengdu, Sichuan Province. The succession of photo emails to follow will convey some of what I’ve experienced in China during this last leg of my adventure. I’ve bought my ticket home, flying July 9th!!

The Great Wall (May 26-27)

 10) See photos of the Jinshanling and Simatai wall segments in China’s northeast which I told ya’ll about in my last update 3 weeks ago.

I also attached a map of China so my passage will have meaning for you. From Beijing, I traveled by train through Zhengzhou and Luoyang, Henan Province, and on to Xi'an, learning about China's dynastic heritage and pottery traditions from local archeologists....then from Xi'an to Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou Bioreserve, Sichuan Province, where I am now enjoying a greener cleaner part of China. Tomorrow I will begin to travel down the Yangtze River, stopping in villages (upriver from Wuhan) that will be submerged by the dam project in the next few years, returning to Shanghai to revisit some surrounding ceramic centers, then flying home on July 9th.

Luoyang & Xi'an (June 3-9)

For the 2000 years that preceded the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 907, Xi’an and Luoyang were China’s greatest cities. The first thirteen dynasties chose to hold their power here which eventually resulted in this area becoming a trade terminal with Middle Eastern and Western cultures via the Silk Road. The most memorable dynasties include the Xia culture (unconfirmed 2070-1600 BC), Han-Wei (206BC-557), and Song-Ming (960-1644). Since Anna’s research focuses on the Han Dynasty which coincided with ancient Rome, we were shown around both historical cities by the Han archeology department heads. During the Han (206BC -220), paper was invented, Buddhism became part of Chinese culture, and for these reasons and more Chinese still occasionally refer to themselves as people of the Han.

Luoyang, Henan Province

 13) Han-Wei Museum: The head of the Han-Wei archeology department talks with Anna about the artifacts and layout of the Han city site. Too bad I don’t speak Chinese too. Luoyang has been a settlement since Neolithic times as well as one of China’s seven capital cities. For several centuries Luoyang was the gravity center of China.

 14) Han-Wei South Wall: He takes us to a vast area where wheat is being harvested and shows us remnants of the city wall. All the excavation that will be done on this site has likely been done already.

 15) Xia Shards: Under current excavation, the site of the Xia continues to yield tons of pottery shards. The experts are divided as to whether the Xia can be counted as China’s first dynasty, since king’s tombs have not been found. Until a discovery in the 1950s it was thought that the Xia were pure legend. This building is the artifact documentation center next to the dig.


 16) Xia Tripods: Notice that the pots can be more plaster than shard...it's part of the archeologists task to recognize patterns and use deduction to piece together the past. These tripod forms, I overheard a Shaanxi Museum tour guide say, depict the shift from matriarchal to patriarchal society. I can’t confirm it yet, but it will be interesting to know. The forms are sturdy and strong, vessels for alcohol and oil.

 17) Longmen Grottoes: During the Wei Dynasty, hundreds of caves containing over 30,000 icons were carved into the stone mountains along the Yihe River.

 18) Xi’an City Gate: Xi’an is the only city in China to have maintained its city wall, which is ironically protected by the growing city which surrounds it today. The original Ming Dynasty structure of compressed earth was built over with bricks in the 16th century.

 19) Terra Cotta Army: Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures of the opened, reconstructed pits that would be more interesting than what you’ve all likely seen. But I did get in for free with a special letter stamped by multiple officials...which was pretty cool. I can show you that sometime. This terra cotta fella is a common soldier, given away by his side knot of hair. I have to say that hyped attractions are typically a let down for me, even this impressive find that’s considered the 8th Wonder of the World. Neat that one of the largest archeological discoveries of the 20th century was found by some peasants while they were digging an irrigation trench for their wheat fields.

 20) Breakfast at the Institute: These lovely warm rice flour buns will make a gentle breakfast.

 21) Cheap Street Eats


 22) Xi’an Drum Tower: Not only can you buy and fly tissue paper kites, but you can telescope Jupiter or try pedaling a gyrocycle around the plaza.

Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan Province June 10-21

 23) Hostel Dumplings: I’m staying at a cheap and friendly hostel where it is possible for me to wash clothes, have a hot shower, work online, and watch DVDs. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is very convenient for the backpacker. I can deduce that this and other southwestern areas like Tibet are where foreign tourists are drawn. The places I have been living in and traveling to in China cannot be praised for natural beauty, they are rather used up, but offer history and structure. I hope to come back to China to experience the raw and pristine parts. I only have time for a trip down the Yangtze and quick visits to a couple more pottery research destinations near Shanghai before coming home.

 24) Flooded Town: Last week over 300,000 people were displaced and 269 killed by 2 major floods in China. Minor floods also took their toll on communities such as this one. I bussed above this ruined town in northern Sichuan Province on my way to a Tibetan community in the mountains. This is a tributary of the Yangtze River. Glacial runoff flows and pools harmoniously in the undeveloped areas, becoming increasingly swift, dirty, and angry as roads, bridges and towns cut into the mountains. China has a long history of human lives lost to flooding which it has tried to quell with retaining walls and now the world’s largest dam project at the Three Gorges on the Yangtze. I will go there tomorrow.

 25) Jiuzhai Valley: Jiuzhaigou has been home for a small Tibetan population for over 1000 years. About 20 years ago this valley was opened to ecotourism and put on the World Heritage and World Bioreserve lists. Tourists now flock in by the busload, however the crowds can be avoided simply by walking on the trails. It’s gorgeous to see the work of the river teeth landscapers, fallen trees that calm cascades and aquire aqua pools. Jiuzhaigou is the cleanest environment I’ve experienced in China.


 26) Juizhai Pool: The beauty of the environment reminds me of my home in the Great US Northwest...but my memory holds no ithe vivid colors and clarity of the pools is unrivaled.

 27) Jiuzhai Home: The style of this large family house is Tibetan, with its bright paintings and flapping prayer flags. Tibetans living inside the park are paid by the government to reduce their activities. Farming is not allowed and other work is regulated by outside officials. The residents sell tacky souvenirs or take money to pose for photos.

 28) Jiuzhai Group: Although it’s illegal for tourists to sleep inside the park, there is a quiet guesthouse run by a lama that is overlooked by officials. Two other tourists were staying there, and I met them at dinner. Oh, the pictures I could have taken!! I took only one after the other visitors took the risk first. I’ll never be a good photographer if I can’t rid myself of the guilt. The scenario at dinner was so stimulating to my senses, so new to my knowing. Lots of locals joined us, filled the room with their energy, then filtered away. I stayed after dinner, teaching the lamas the ABCs and them teaching me the Tibetan alphabet. The old woman stayed to watch TV, spinning her prayer wheel all the while. She got her prayer beads in a knot when I gave each of the lamas my sexy pottery portrait. But she kissed my hand when I said ‘goodnight’, so I don’t suppose the photo was unacceptable.

 29) Red Pandas: Cute little fellers, neither bear or racoon, pandas are in a family of their own. The Chinese name for this lesser panda is ‘hunho’ which translates as ‘firefox.’ The giant panda, ‘daxiongmao’ means ‘bearcat.’ Both types of pandas are endangered. They live wild in the areas surrounding the Himalayas where they can find the species of bamboo that constitute 95% of their diet.

 30) Panda Picnic: Pandas use their pseudothumbs to grasp the bamboo, and their teeth to peel the bamboo.


 31) Panda Pair: This adolescent pair was born at the Chengdu panda breeding center. If a panda can find a perfect mate, it will only copulate once a year. They are low energy creatures due to their low calorie intake. The youngsters are very playful, but with they flop around a lot...all the more adorable.

 32) Panda Pride: Pride is named for her sponsor, Pride cigarette company.

The beautiful valley community you saw in pictures will begin taking post graduate researchers next fall through the University of Washington who specialize in forestry, geology, engineering, medicine, and anthropology. This is the only part of China I would consider living in, so the program holds intrigue for both Ted and I.

Rachel Lee

© 1999—2024 Timothy Lee Russell


View Timothy Russell's profile on LinkedIn

profile for Timothy Lee Russell at Stack Overflow, Q&A for professional and enthusiast programmers