Archive for the ‘Adventures’ Category

Let’s Take Our Picture at Tiananmen Square

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016


According to the state travel guide, Tiananmen Square has become a relaxing place for the common people to fly kites and walk. I didn’t see any kites, but they did have the biggest fake floral arrangement I’ve ever seen in my life.  And I saw a lot of visitors, many of whom were quite relaxed and presumably common.


Finding myself isolated in a huge crowd of people in the center of China at the start of a holiday week, I noticed that everybody else was taking their picture, so I thought, I’d take their picture, too.


There was some photo action around the flower pot, one of many in town for the holiday week, but the heaviest photo action was on the side of the square facing the Tiananmen Gate and the entrance to the Forbidden City. There were even a couple kiosks with professionals taking tourist snaps and printing them out on the spot.


I spent all of my limited free time in Beijing just looking for photo ops, so I don’t want to seem hypocritical by asking why anyone else is preoccupied with taking pictures.


I merely observe that having your photo taken in front of tourist locations, in a wooden pose, is characteristic of several flavors of Asian culture (they do make the cameras).


A steady stream of snapped shots carefully placed Mao in the background.


And of course, the ubiquitous camera phone makes it possible to take your own self-portrait with the Chairman.


It probably is just a rumor that ‘selfie’ is a Chinese word that means ‘Let’s start on a new photo album’.


Perhaps the ultimate selfie is the Mona Lisalike portrait of Chairman Mao, benevolently, steadily, and subtly smiling across decades of dramatic change. 


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

Hidden Views of Forbidden City

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

Large Stone Carving

Attempts to photographically capture a 1000-building palace complex can easily result in a cliché-like sameness, a sort of generic been-to-Beijing-done-that.  So I tried to see beyond the buildings, and take in some of the Forbidden City’s details, such as its gorgeous stone carvings.


A huge bas relief from the Ming dynasty has 9 stone dragons playing with pearls. The approach to the nearby Hall of Preserved Harmony sports 1,412 carved marble dragon head rain spouts. Their blunt noses reminded me of the dragon heads carved on the Mayan pyramids that Elizabeth and I saw on our honeymoon to the Yucatan.


The complex  has a lot of beautiful glazed tile works, mostly in yellow, with some green, often displayed against a ruddy background.  Dragons remain a common theme.


The rooflines were punctuated by long lines of fanciful ceramic animals, many of them dragons.


Hard materials like bronze, stone and glazed ceramic seem a good choice for a facilities nightmare like the Chinese imperial palace.

Faded Glory

Although all the buildings were intact, many of the details were in poor repair.  The Forbidden City has a lot of cracked and flaking paint, dim reflections of glory that faded before the first world war.

Detail of The Hall of Supreme Harmony

Only a few painted exteriors had been recently reworked, providing a colorful suggestions as to the elaborate level of decoration that must have greeted the Emperor and his concubines.

Emperor's Bedroom

There were several receiving rooms, ceremonial areas, and even some living quarters dimly visible through dingy windows, a disappointing reward for wading through the curious crowd.  The Emperor’s Bedroom was the most interesting of the interiors, with wall, bed and elaborately gilded ceiling in relatively good repair.


After a few hours of gold dragons, I worked my way to the end of the imperial grounds.


I walked through the Shenzen Gate, the interior lined with sleepy visitors on a bench, I checked my audio guide into a booth, and I exited the Shenwu Gate, and set out to explore Tiananmen Square.


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

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.

Split Point Lighthouse

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Split Point Lighthouse

Located in a dramatic location along the rugged southern coast of Victoria, Australia, the Split Point Lighthouse has provided continuous lifesaving service since it was first lit in 1891. Like the Cape Otway Lighthouse, this light house was mostly built from a kit, shipped from England.  One of several lighthouses punctuating the 244 kilometer Great Ocean Road, it was likely easier and less expensive to build than the other light house we visited, because the shell is composed of poured concrete, instead of laboriously cut and fitted stone.

Cast iron steps

All of the steps in the 112’ high lighthouse are made from a pair of identical iron castings, bolted together, and bolted to the cement interior wall.

Split Point Lighthouse

Other than the difference in wall and lower stair construction, the two lighthouses are very similar in configuration, topping the walls with an iron dome consisting of an exterior platform and interior operator’s area at the same level, providing a great view of the rocky coast.  In both lighthouses, an exterior catwalk one level higher facilitates dome maintenance and window cleaning, and a cast iron grid floor at the same level on the inside provides access to the lighting unit.

 View west from lighthouse platform

Originally lit by a fussy and messy bank of oil lamps, the working light station now uses a high tech LED unit (visible in the center of the photo below).  The Chance Brothers Fresnel Lens is a marvel of late Victorian engineering.  Composed of multiple segments of high-refraction flint glass securely mounted into an iron frame, Fresnel lenses were common in lighthouses, because their design was several orders of magnitude thinner and lighter than what would have been possible with a single piece of glass.

Fresnel lens, light, and red filters

Both of the lighthouses we visited had mechanically rotating light units, but the Split Point station had an additional visual element provided by red filters on both sides of the window.  When viewed by boat from the water directly in front of the lighthouse, the light appears white, but when viewed at more oblique angles, the light becomes red, helping mariners determine their position in the Bass Straight relative to the lighthouse. 

Split Point Lighthouse

The addition of the colored filters on the exterior window baths the interior of the light unit, and the iron floor, in red light, so make for a much more interesting photographic opportunity.

Chance Brothers

Cape Otway Lighthouse

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

Cape Otway Lighthouse

The Cape Otway Light Station might not be the most significant lighthouse in Australia, but its up there.  Cape Otway is the southernmost tip of eastern Australia, forming the northern boundary of the Bass Straight, a relatively narrow sea channel between Tasmania and mainland Australia that becomes even narrow between the cape and King Island. After several sailing vessels managed to get all the way from England to Australia, only to wreck along the rocky and windy southern shore of Victoria, the British government began building lighthouses.   The one at Cape Otway was built between 1846 and 1848.


Most of the walls, including the steps, are of masonry construction, with the carefully curved and fitted exterior stones cut nearby.

Platform Support

The topmost part of the lighthouse, along with the mechanisms, was provided in pre-fab form from England.  A large cast iron funnel, with a stack on top, provides the support for the rotating light mechanism on the level above.

Iron Eye

A metal rod (no, I don’t know what it is for) is contained within the cast iron tube, connecting the mechanism at the top of the lightstation with the cast iron eye set in the floor, beneath the winding staircase.

Cast iron steps

The steps leading up to the working level of the light house are made from cast iron, as are the railings, posts, the platform underneath the light mechanism, and apparently, the domed roof of the station.

Fresnel Lens

A rotating Fresnel lens, which was originally powered by a weight-enabled clockwork mechanism that had to be rewound by the keepers every day, was eventually electrified.


A wooden ladder leads from the cast iron grating immediately underneath the rotating lens mechanism, enabling the keepers to maintain the interior of the dome and the lighting mechanism. Like the ladder in a library, this ladder can be repositioned around the interior of the lightstation dome, hooking onto cast iron bars above the lens unit.

Elizabeth on the observation platform

The exterior of the light station has a platform, completely surrounding the station, made from cast iron.

Exterior catwalk

A secondary, and much more precarious platform, also made from cast iron, was used to maintain the exterior of the lighthouse, and presumably, to wash the salt spray off the windows.

New Lighthouse

The Cape Otway Lightstation was Australia’s longest serving lighthouse when it was finally deactivated in 1994, after almost a century and a half of service. The replacement is a surprisingly small construction, visible above from the lighthouse platform.