Monday, September 24, 2012


Xi'an, former capital of China

For my last trip around China, I tagged along on a Pottery Workshop trip to Xi'an.  It was the perfect final trip, and I was so impressed with Xi'an.  Xi'an, like many cities in China, has a very long history.  It was founded as the capital of the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE.

However, the very first dynasty of unified China, the Qin Dynasty, had its capital in a city very close by, and so the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, named Qin Shi Huang, built his mausoleum not far from present-day Xi'an.

This mausoleum is where the famed terracotta warriors can be found.   According to Wikipedia, the emperor had built "over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses."  Keep in mind that these are all life-size, and you get a sense of how impressive this is.

The pits in which the soldiers were buried are still being excavated, and you can easily see why - they're huge!

The soldiers are all individualized, and even bear different markings of rank and body positions to show their function (foot soldier, cavalry, archer, etc.)

Of course, this was a pottery-focused trip, so in addition to the terracotta warriors, we saw lots of museums.  The history of Chinese ceramics is incredible, and incredibly long, so there was plenty to see.   A lot of the pieces were really surprising - we normally think of the traditional blue and white porcelain when we think of Chinese ceramics, but there is so much more!

Above is a Tang Dynasty bowl, that looks an awful lot like it was tye-dyed...  This "tye-dye" glaze includes lead though.

Besides museums, we also caught a glimpse of Xi'an's still extant (but small) pottery-making community.  We visited an adorable village which housed lots of potters, similar to Jingdezhen.

Of course, we also saw some sights that weren't directly pottery-related.  We took a bike ride around the city wall...

... and saw the Great Mosque of Xi'an.  The Mosque, founded in 742 CE, looks very similar to a Chinese temple, until you look closely at the details.

The last place we visited was a bit less well known.  It's another mausoleum, of the Han emperor Jingdi.  Like Qin Shi Huang, he built himself a huge mausoleum, which includes the mausoleum for his empress.  The site itself was beautiful, and inside were more terracotta warriors!  

These terracotta warriors, as you can see below, are different from their earlier, and more famous, counterparts.  Each one was made, anatomically correct, but miniature.  Each little statue was about 2/3 feet tall.  When they were made, each one would have had wooden, posable arms and would have also been fully clothed.

You can see that in addition to the warriors, there was also plenty of replicas of livestock.

In addition to having a great museum and huge, beautiful grounds, many of the unexcavated pits have rose gardens growing on top.

Chances are good that my blog entries for the foreseeable future will be about travel destinations in the US.  I'm finally back.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Anji, Bamboo Forest

About a three and a half hour bus ride outside of Shanghai lies a huge bamboo forest, which many people know as the filming site of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's impressive flying fight scene.

My friends and I went to Anji for a brief overnight trip, and it ended up being one of the best short trips I've taken in China.  The forest was beautiful and not too crowded (unless you include the mosquitos,) and our guesthouse was fantastic.  The owners were incredibly friendly, and the local dishes that they cooked up were delicious.  Who knew bamboo could be cooked so many different ways?

The first day that we arrived it was raining and overcast, so we took our fair share of "misty mountain" pictures.  The second day though was all blue skies and puffy, clean white clouds.

You can see the difference a day makes in the same valley vista.

We hiked around, and it was easy to lose the other tourists and reach areas where you really felt in the middle of nature. This is no easy feat in most places in China, but - as we later learned - we had come to Anji during the off season.  The summer, with its unpredictably rainstorms and hungry mosquitos, isn't considered the best time of year to visit.  Better to come in winter, when snow decorates the mountains, or spring when you can try digging up your own bamboo shoots (for stir frying later.)  Try traveling to any well-known tourist spot during a national holiday though, and your trip will look like this.

This was my penultimate trip around China before moving back to California.  It was a very good one, although my last trip, to Xi'an, was fantastic as well.  More about that soon....

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

下海庙 Xiahai Temple, Shanghai

This is a long-overdue post about a day trip Ben, my cousin Andy, and I took around Shanghai.  We went to see the Xiahai temple, near Shanghai's former Jewish Ghetto (a fascinating story in its own right.)

The 下 "xia" in its name means "under," the opposite of 上 "shang," which means "on top of".  So while 上海 Shanghai translates to "on the sea," 下海 Xiahai translates to "under the sea."  I'm not sure where the name comes from, but it's a nice play on the name of its home-city.

The Xiahai temple is one of the most beautiful temples I've seen in Shanghai.  Most of the temples fall into one of two categories: beautifully restored but touristy, or authentic but simple or rundown.  In the case of Xiahai temple though, it's a magnificent temple that functions mostly for local worshippers and the Buddhist nuns who live there.


The temple has a lovely koi pond, with an abundance of beautiful fish.  Folk wisdom holds that if you feed the fish and let them "kiss" your hand, it will bring you fortune.  So, being good tourists, we bought a bag of fish food to see what would happen.  The fish obviously knew what was going on, because as soon as one of us approached, they would rush over, some of them nearly out of the water as they swam over other fish!


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Jingdezhen, Porcelain Capital of the World


Jingdezhen is akin to a porcelain enthusiast's Mecca.  THE place to go.  Jingdezhen has been famous for its porcelain ware for about 1700 years now (at least according to Wikipedia's entry,) and it's still producing unimaginable amounts of beautiful work today.  Since my boyfriend Ben is a potter, I was fortunate enough to tag along on tour there that he and his company organized.  Simply put, it was awesome.

One of Jingdezhen's most famous exports is a category of porcelain known as Qinghua, or Blue and White.   When most people think of Chinese pottery, they think of Qinghua.  We attended a lesson on how to draw with the famous blue pigment (see below) before seeing lots and LOTS of examples everywhere else we went in the city. 

The beautiful blue and white is everywhere, although my favorite was the giant Qinghua vases.   And when I say giant, I'm not exaggerating.  

One of the other tour participants who's on the short side was gracious enough to stand next to them for a picture to emphasize their crazy size, but they'd easily dwarf anyone.  These are the sort of pieces that only large corporations and hotels buy.  In fact, if you've ever been in a hotel lobby anywhere in the world with one of these giant Qinghua vases, it's probably from Jingdezhen.

We toured lots of factories to see the pots being made.  It was great to see every step of the process, and also made it obvious that the word "factory" here is not how we normally use it back home.  This was more like a collection of artisans who were all exceedingly talented at doing just one stage of the process.  There are lots of pottery-making professionals here, but few who control every step of the process like a pottery artist in the US. 


We also toured the fake antiques market, and saw first-hand how the "antiques" are faked.  Everybody knows that these are just reproductions, but in order to keep them as close to the originals as possible, we passed many a diligent worker rubbing ink, dirt, or other aging substances into pots, beating them with stones, or otherwise making these newly made (and often skillfully so,) works.  They were even happy to have their picture taken, or in Ben's case, a video. 

And, in the perfect way to round off the weekend, we even saw a bit of nature outside the city.  You can see some misty mountains in the background of this picture.  It was China to perfection.

Lastly, I'd like to highly recommend a recent episode of the fantastic radio program This American Life.  They did a show about Americans living in China, and it's spot-on.  But no, I've never been on Chinese TV.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Moving to Santa Cruz

For those of you who haven't heard, I've been fortunate enough to be accepted to UC Santa Cruz's history PhD program for this fall.  I can't wait to start school again, and I'm so excited to be moving to California.

However, this means that I need to find housing.  From Shanghai.  I've been spoiled with the rental system here: you go to a local realty agency, look at a few places, and generally are able to sign a lease to move in within a month.  It's all fairly straightforward.

Looking for a place to live in Santa Cruz has proved less easy though, so I'm looking for help.  If you have any contacts in Santa Cruz, or know anything about finding a place to live there, I'd be exceedingly grateful.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Home to Canberra, Part 3 of 3

Finally, the last installment of my Australia blog posts. I've been having some problems uploading pictures, and it seems that Safari isn't compatible with the new version of Blogger.  Firefox is though, as you can see below.

The last part of my trip took me to Canberra to see my host family from 5 years ago.  This was the original reason for my trip, and it was well worth it.  I was lucky enough to be able to spend Australia Day with them, and got a real Aussie-style experience.

 My host-dad, Dafydd, is the coach of a girls' rowing team, so my first morning in town we went out on a boat to watch the sun rise as the girls did time trials.  It was beautiful, obviously.  You can even see a hot air balloon rising over the lake.

 That night we went to a big Australia Day celebration.  It was incredible, and so different than what I imagine the Fourth of July in DC to be like.  Everyone just sauntered in - no crazy security, no ridiculous long lines for anything, no 45 minute wait to get out of the parking lot after the event was over.  Heck, it's quite a bit different than Fourth of July in Milwaukee even.

 In the picture above you can see the new Parliament House in the background, and the full crowd for the festivities.

The highlight of the night's performances was INXS, unveiling a new song, live, for the audience.  ABC, the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, broadcast the whole event live for the nation.  It was pretty cool to be at such a big to-do. 

The next morning we went for a complimentary breakfast and caught the citizenship ceremony.  Another incredible moment, as the Prime Minister herself was there, but again, no crazy security.

After that, my host family made a feast for dinner.  It was a proper Australia Day meal, with pavlova...:

...And lots of barbecued meat.  Overall, it couldn't have been a better trip.  My boyfriend also recently visited Australia (see his blog posts starting here,) and I'm glad that we're both building ties there.   That means more visits in the future....

Friday, April 13, 2012

My Great Ocean Road Adventure

“Kilometers are shorter than miles. Save gas, take your next trip in kilometers.”
-George Carlin

What an adventure it was! As I did research in preparation for my trip, I noticed that every travel site recommended seeing the Great Ocean Road if one was in the area. Which I was. The only problem? The best way to see the Great Ocean Road is, unsurprisingly, to drive it.

I should make it clear, I don't like driving under the best of circumstances. And, planning to drive in an unfamiliar place on the LEFT side of the road by myself, having lived in China sans car for a 2 and a half years, is definitely not the best of circumstances. Still, I knew I could do it, and I knew it would be amazing.

Turns out, I was right on both counts.

For four (five? I'm already forgetting) days, I and my driving companion (a little GPS unit) drove a sparkly little gold car along the magnificent Great Ocean Road. It was like living in a postcard. Large stretches of the Road are literally right along the ocean. One needs to be careful not to admire the scenery too much for fear of driving off a cliff. Everywhere I stopped though, I found pristine beaches with made-for-photography vistas.

I was so happy to have rented a car. It meant I had total freedom. I could stop anywhere I liked, go see whatever caught my fancy. I saw the famous 12 Apostles rock formation:

The Split Point Lighthouse at Airey's Inlet:

And so on. It wasn't all beach though, actually. I saw quite a bit of bush too, and even some rainforest. Little known fact: despite being the most arid continent on Earth, Australia is home to tropical rainforests. I did a bit of hiking in the rainforest that was nearby, but I'd love to go back and explore further.

The Great Ocean Road itself, despite its name, often vears into idyllic bush, and that was where I stayed. I rented an adorable little cabin about a 30 minute drive from the beach, with impressive views of its own:

One evening I took a stroll and got some beautiful sunset photos. I really love the silhouettes of Australian trees.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip. I'd never really done a road trip before, but I'd totally do it again. Although, given the choice, I still prefer driving on the right.