Saturday, February 20, 2010

What Have We Learned from the Movie Avatar?

Floating Mountains of Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China

I’ve been struggling for weeks to put something “on paper” since I watched Avatar.

What started catching my interest was its use of the prototype of the rock formations in Zhangjiajie, a place that you’d only see in Chinese brush painting.  Since I had just visited this beautiful fairy-land in October 2009, I wanted to see how it was interpreted/presented in a Hollywood movie.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Chengdu, the Land of Abundance – Sichuan Province, China

Tea House, Chengdu - Sichuan (or Szechuan) Province, China 

Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan (or, Szechuan) Province, has long been a city that I look forward to visiting.  It has the combination of well preserved history, laid-back culture and great foods, the elements that make a city interesting in my mind.

Although, one can not be mentioned without the others, I will try to present each aspect of this wonderful city separately:

The History and Its Breakthrough

China Lane - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China (4) The city of Chengdu dates back to the early 4th century BC, when the 9th Kaiming king of the ancient Shu moved his capital to its current location from today's nearby Pixian (i.e., Pi County).  It’s unusual for a city to maintain its name for more than 20 centuries, through different wars, dynasties, and emperors.

If you think 20-something centuries is a long time, it’s an understatement that you will be surprised at how far back the civilization goes on this soil.

The Sanxingdui (Three Stars Mound, in Chinese) Culture

Traditional Chinese Handicrafts, Jinli Street - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China For the longest time, Yellow River was thought to be the “cradle of Chinese Civilization”.  Even the large stash of jade relics found by a farmer while digging a well in 1929 did not shake this belief.  Archaeologists searched the area to no avail.  However, this all changed in 1987.

In that year, artifacts accidentally being excavated about 40 kilometers north-east of Chengdu revealed previously unknown Bronze Age culture.  The astonishing artistic styles that dated back to the 12th-11th centuries BC was completely unknown in the Chinese art history.  The most striking Traditional China Hand-Made Candy, Jinli Street - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China among them were the dozens of large bronze masks and heads with exaggerating human features (some of which with gold foil masks attached). 

The finding of this archeological site proves that there was independent culture in different regions of China.  The culture that produced those artifacts are now known as the Sanxingdui Culture.

The Discovery of Jinsha

Jinsha Site Meseum - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China As if one accidental discovery was not enough for Chengdu, Jinsha came to light in February of 2001 during real estate construction.  Located just 50 kilometers from Sanxingdui, the burial objects of Jinsha dating back to 1,000 BC have great similarity to those found at Sanxingdui.

China Lane - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China (2) A visit to the western suburb of Chengdu is strongly recommended, where the 74-acre museum (i.e., the Jinsha Site Museum) is built on the site of the archeological findings, and new objects are still being discovered.

Chengdu – A City of Leisure

Giant Panda Likes it Easy Here - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China The fertile Chengdu Plain has long been dubbed “the country of heaven”, or “the land of abundance”.  People of Chengdu have a reputation in China for having a laid-back attitude and for knowing how to enjoy life and they can rightfully do so with the mild weather and the copious natural resources.  Chengdu was recently named the most leisure city in China.    

Two of the greatest poets from the Tang Dynasty, the "Poet God" Li Bai and the "Poet Sage" Du Fu spent some part of their lives in Chengdu.  Du Fu constructed  Sichuan Opera - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, Chinathe celebrated thatched hut in the second year of his  four-years stay (759-762).  In here, he undoubtedly spent the happiest and most peaceful period of his life, despite earlier unsuccessful attempts in the prince’s palace, disturbance due to the war and the famine.  In my opinion, he chose a perfect place to spend later part of his life.

Not only ancient poets, even giant panda knows well enough to have picked Chengdu to be its homeland.  Being the world's only giant panda breeding and research base, Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center is the natural habitat of giant pandas.

Szechuan Cuisine and Tea Houses

Chengdu Snack - Jinli Street, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China One of the most famous Chinese cuisine, Szechuan cuisine is well known for its pungent flavors, myriads of tastes and use of chili pepper.  One thing that sets apart Szechuan cuisine from others is its use of Sichuan pepper, which gives a flavor that can only be understood when tasted. 

Although there are many typical dishes like Mapo Tofu, Dan Dan Noodle and Chengdu Hot Pot, it’s the small tapa-sized snacks that make eating Chengdu food fun! 

Tea House, China Lane - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China Speaking of tea houses, it has to be pointed out that Chengdu outnumbers Shanghai in the number of tea houses and bars despite having less than half the population.  The saying “The sky is crowded with suns (note: in Chinese saga, there used to be nine suns); and the ground is full of tea houses” perfectly depicts the life-style in Chengdu. 

Places Representing All Three Elements of Chengdu

What better way to take in the leisurely ambience of this city than to slow down the foot steps?  Although more time could always have been spent in Chengdu, I’ve had great experiences with these two revived historical districts.

China Lane

China Lane - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China (3)China Lane, also called Kuan/Zhai Alleys is made up of three parallel alleys – Kuan (wide, in Chinese), Zhai (narrow, in Chinese) and Jing (well, in Chinese). 

In 1718, Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty sent three thousand Manchu troops to subdue the rebellion in Tibet.  Afterwards, one thousand of them were retained in Chengdu and lived in a “Lesser City” that they built. 

Today, Kuan, Zhai and Jing Alleys are the only three alleys, out of 42, remained with reserve of the past.  China Lane is the last survival of city layout of “Lesser City” and hundred-year architecture structure of old Chengdu.  It is also the only existing copy of northern courtyard architecture style (also called Hutong) in the south.

Brick Culture Wall, China Lane - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China (1)Thanks to a high-profile renovation project, China Lane remained true to its root and has become a representative of cultures of Chengdu.  Enjoying the food, the culture, shopping and having tea at a tea house afford a deeper understanding of Chengdu.  On a given day, you’d see local people gather around wooden tables and bamboo chairs at the sides of the street to enjoy a cup of tea and chatting. 

The repaired China Lane has retained the old elegance of Chengdu.  A 400-meter long brick culture wall has recorded more than a thousand years of Chengdu’s history.

Jinli Street

Chinese Embroidered Shoes, Jinli Street - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China Jinli Street dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221BC – 206BC) and was one of the busiest commercial boulevards of the Kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280).

It is located adjacent to the ancient Temple of Marquis Wu, which is in recognition of the leadership of Zhu Geliang, an outstanding politician and strategist of the Three Kingdoms Period.

Temple of Marquis Wu - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, ChinaThe renovation of the street was completed at the end of 2004 and the complex amazingly managed to present all aspects of Chengdu’s culture in every restaurant, store, handicraft booth and food stand.

Oh, did I mention that there is a Starbucks too?  Some of our “home-sick” tour mates dashed to it and came out with a content expression on their faces.

Will Chengdu Lose its Laid-Backness?

Starbucks Coffee, Jinli Street - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China As early as the Tang Dynasty (more than 1,200 years ago), Chengdu became one of the most commercial cities in China, second to Yangzhou (which I will write in a later post)In the Northern Song Dynasty (around 960 AD), the first widely used paper money in the world was born in Chengdu.

Today, with its well-developed transportation network, Chengdu is one of the favorite cities for investment in western China.  As of October 2009, 133 of the world’s 500 largest companies have subsidiaries or branches in Chengdu, including Intel, Sony, Toyota, Motorola, Ericsson and Microsoft.

While globalization of businesses is inevitable, will Chengdu find a balance between its laid-back attitude and the chase after profit?

Giant Panda's Home - Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mount Emei, We Will Be Back – Sichuan Province, China

The Roof That is Showing Some Age - Wan Nian Temple, Mount Emei, Sichuan Province, China

Mountain of the Eyebrows

Emei, meaning “Delicate Eyebrows” in Chinese, got its name from two peaks facing each other and looking like the delicate eyebrows of a Chinese classic beauty.
Flames of Hope from the Candles - Wannian Temple, Mount Emei, Sichuan Province, ChinaEver since I was a child, I’ve known that Mount Emei was reputed as one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, which have been important destinations for pilgrimage.  In fact, at 3,099 meters, Mount Emei is the highest of the four. 

In 1996, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for it breathtaking scenery, mysterious natural wonders, and historical Buddhist sites.  The truth is, I was not aware of this until I was on the mountain – one of the benefits of following a tour.

Beautiful Bamboo Forest - Mount Emei, Sichuan Province, ChinaAfter a dinner at the little town adjacent to the mountain, we checked into Hongzhushan Hotel, which is located right at the foot of Mount Emei.  Surrounded by nature, it was hard to refrain from checking out the night market and snack food streets within walking distance of the hotel.  But, we knew very well that we had “homework” to do before the group meets again the next day.

Option is Not a Good Thing

White Dragon Temple - Mount Emei, Sichuan Province, ChinaWe had two alternative ways to spend the next day - either half a day visiting Wannian Temple (with the rest of the day at leisure), or a whole day at the summit of the mountain.  Not knowing either option well enough, picking one seems to turn down the other great opportunity. 

Well, for those that know me from my first post, I’m a visual person.  Undoubtedly, I resorted to the photo books in the hotel room.  After all, it’s the history and the visual appeal that I seek wherever I travel to.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

From Chinese Brush Painting to Avatar – Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China

Avatar Hallelujah Mountain - Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China When I visited Zhangjiajie in November and wrote the blog post in December of 2009, I was only in awe of the natural beauty that my eyes encountered – the unique rock formation, the mist, the forest, and the Chinese brush paintings that kept on coming to mind. 

So wait, the "South Heaven Pillar" that I saw through the viewfinder of my camera became the floating Hallelujah Mountain in the movie Avatar?  And little did I know that Will I Find Na'vis from Avatar - Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, Chinathe government was this quick to cash in on the fame of this Hollywood 3D movie and changed the mountain’s name to “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” in an official ceremony yesterday. 

Does this mark the milestone of Hollywood having a hand in the Chinese traditional art?  Imagine how the paintings will be having descriptions of fishing boat, willow, stream, …, and Avatar.  This truly is a manifestation of a global village that we live in.

Now, feeling having missed the history by just one step, I regret not looking hard enough for the alien Na’vis behind those misty thick woods.

Are These the Floating Hallelujah Mountains - Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Jiuzhaigou, Here We Come – Jiuzhai Valley, Sichuan Province, China

Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China

October 20, 2009, we were flying to Jiuzhaigou.  For that, we did not have a good night sleep.  Yes, we were having an early flight.  But we were also excited, with all the reasons to feel this way. 

Is it Really that Great?

Entrance to Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China We had started hearing about this place a few years earlier and remained skeptical.  You know how some places can be “beauty in the eyes of beholders”, meaning for others, they are just over-rated.

So as we were passively been on the receiving side, all we heard about Jiuzhaigou was how beautiful it was and how it was like a place from the fairy tales.  The overwhelmingly positive feedback helped us make this trip.

Jiuzhaigou and its Fairy Tale

Jiuzhaigou means Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China (2)"Valley of Nine Villages" in Chinese.  The valley derived its name from the fact that there are 9 ancient Tibetan villages within it.  It is part of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous District and is located 100 km north of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province (or Szechuan, as put in the Western countries).  In English, Jiuzhaigou is officially known as Jiuzhai Valley. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hunan Cuisine – Are We Ready for It?

Yummy Street Food - Changsha, Hunan, China
Alright, alright, I give in.

If you’ve been following my last few posts, I’ve been trying to stay on the high ground, meaning keeping on the philosophical and/or spiritual subjects. 

Well, it’s undeniable that one cannot spend a day (comfortably) without food.  And one definitely cannot skip Hunan cuisine before leaving Hunan.

Moving Street Vendor - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaWhat’s the Big Deal about Hunan Cuisine?
China is covered by such a vast land that Hunan cuisine is one of the eight regional cuisines of China.  So one could imagine how diversely distinctive regional cuisines are from one another.  In all honesty, I did not get to taste Hunan cuisine before I made the “leap” to the US 16 years ago.

Yumm - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaBeing in gourmand's heaven, Los Angeles, I’ve visited more than one Hunan restaurant.  However, I was not 100% sure that I’d had the most authentic Hunan cooking.  They are all delicious dishes.   But the thought of how Americanized some Chinese food has become (orange chicken, everyone?) makes me wonder if the same happened to regional cuisines from all over the world to tailor to US consumer’s tastes.