Archive for February, 2016

Entering The Forbidden City

Monday, February 29th, 2016


My recent business trip to China was a very short one, but with an entire sunny Sunday to spend wandering around Beijing, I didn’t feel I had any choice but to spend a day as a tourist. I told the staff at the hotel where I wanted to go, they handed me a piece of paper with Chinese-languages instructions, and a map, for the return trip, and they stuffed me into a taxi, which dropped me off in the general vicinity of the Forbidden City and  Imperial Palace.


One of the reasons I limited the length of my trip was because it took place during a holiday week, the Mid-Autumn Festival, which would be crowded and put a strain on all the tourist locations.  Unsurprisingly, security was tight.  I lined up at a checkpoint along the impossibly wide West Chang’an Avenue between Tian’anmen Square and the Tainanmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace, under the benign oversight of Chairman Mao.


A huge crowd lined up to get tickets. But it only took 10-15 minutes to get to a cashier who happily accepted my Mastercard, and I was ready to wait for the entrance line.

Picking up my audio guide

I waited in yet another line (note the umbrella) to pickup an English-language audio guide. 45 minutes after being dropped off on a side street, I finally entered the imperial compound.


Serving as the emperor’s palace, the ceremonial and political center of China for just shy of 5 centuries, the scale of the thing was immense. I’ve been to a LOT of palaces and fortified cities in Europe (and England, for those who’d prefer to think it isn’t in Europe), but nothing quite compares to the sheer bulk of the Forbidden City, which consists of 180 acres (for the record, this is over 3X the land mass of Heiser Hollow) of imperial grandeur.

Roof Details of The Hall of Supreme Harmony

It is a massive complex, filled with intricate and ornate buildings, all of which cried out ‘maintenance headache’ to me.   And it was packed with people.  Lots of people. Hot people. Touring people. Baby people. Old people. Even a few non-Chinese people. But when you are a country of 1.4 BILLION, your domestic tourists dwarf those from the rest of the world.


I wandered from building to building, working my way from A to B, through E, F, G, H, N, L, E, and M, taking in the geometric complexity of the spiritual heart of the middle kingdom, sometimes stopping at kitschy souvenir shops, stopping for some food, and looking for a Chinese toilet and hoping for no unexpected surprises.

I think the Forbidden City must be a lot like bluegrass music. If you are really into the genre, it probably offers huge variety and ever-changing interest. But if you aren’t, then all the songs pretty much sound alike. There was a certain oppressive sameness to the buildings, and an architectural consistency that to my Occidental eyes seemed boringly consistent for five hundred years of effort on the part of multiple dynasties.


I’m sure that the symbolism and subtleties of the place were more obvious to people who had grown up in China, but I had the impression that the heat and bulk were tiring for everyone, including the locals starting out a week of holiday.  All of that said, it was a fascinating place, and I’m glad that I had the pleasure of visiting it. My next blog entry will dive deeper into some of the details.

[The first post in this series of  Beijing blogs can be found be clicking here]

Beijing Brollies

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016


I had an all-too-brief Sunday free during a quick business trip to Beijing last fall, I grabbed my camera, hopped a cab, and headed for the Forbidden City.  Waiting in line to get through Tiananmen (which counter intuitively means the Gate of Heavenly Peace), I quickly noticed several things.


There were a lot of people. Security was tight. There were a lot of people. Everybody but me had an umbrella. There were a lot of people.


There were elegant umbrellas.


My Little Fellows

There were cutsey pooh umbrellas.


There were entire families with umbrellas.


Rain wasn’t in sight (well, let me get back to that in an upcoming blog). These were sun blocking bumbershoots.


Although Beijing often has air quality issues resulting in pea soupish smogs, my visit to historic Beijing was a crystal clear, sunny and hot day.


Flocking to a national landmark on a holiday weekend, both men and women were shading themselves from the sun with colorful brollies.


A few of the men had a less traditional approach.


I wished I’d brought a hat.

Frozen Falls Frustrate Fotography

Monday, February 15th, 2016


Enjoying the constantly shifting patterns of water, rock, and ice, is one of the special pleasures of living within 5 minutes hike of several hundred feet of a stair stepping sandstone falls.   Sometimes I visit the falls several days in a row. I always see something different as winter works its magic on sedimentary stone, but I continue to struggle to share the beauty and wonder of my favorite part of our property.


If the falls have any potential as a landscape shot, I really haven’t figured out how to depict it. The base of the falls remains a beautiful and mysterious spot, but my attempts to capture the totality of the thing are insipid and uninspired. Framing out 10 foot long sections that have interesting angles helps, but still doesn’t result in a picture that I would want to hang on my wall.


I’ve decided that the trick the trick to compelling photos of our falls is to move in closer, finding the small compelling dramas of ice and ever-eroding sandstone.  Are those flows of water, or icicles? Aren’t icicles just flows of water that are trapped in a different time stream?  As the photographer can manipulate the experience of time, so does the nature’s cycle of freezing and thawing manipulate the experience of water.


Sometimes spraying water freezes into hanging globules that I call isticles. Chains of moss anchor these frozen chunks of water until the next thaw. A little more than an inch in length, its almost impossible to capture sharp images of such small objects without using a tripod.


The steps and landings comprising the most interesting part of our falls are cramped and awkward places to work, making it difficult to hand hold a camera, and often impossible to setup a tripod.  Sometimes I use a monopod, and I take a lot of shots, hoping the camera will be still enough to capture the textures of ice and stone.  Wavy ice of varying thicknesses creates a focusing challenge that is only partially compensated for by small apertures.


The water continues to flow, even when its below freezing, and you can almost see the stalactites and stalagmites forming before your eyes.


Sometimes the spray and overflow coat the surface of a sandstone boulder, the pinched and dimpled ice trapping moss, air bubbles and sediment, making a marbled pattern. Placing the camera within a few short inches of the surface provides a random abstract of green and brown swirls.


A dedicated macro lens allows me to get even closer to a congealed horizontal pool, a higher level of magnification providing a totally different abstract of sharp angles and jagged crystalline lines.