Colors and patterns, and winter

Downtown building – colorful windows

Poles and lines

Expressionist patterns – wall surface

Concrete block patterns

Neon patterns – sign on the Second Ring Road


With winter comes a shift in mood, and a turning inward. I’m reading Alexandra David-Neel’s My Journey to Lhasa, an account of the explorer’s 1923-24 trek, in disguise, through the forbidden kingdom of Tibet.

The sky is a leaden gray, and there is sometimes a smoky smell to the air. I have heard that people burn coal for heat in winter; that may account for some of my allergy/sinus problems, or maybe the smog just becomes worse with the cold weather. Last weekend I was sick, and this past week I have been medicating myself with herbal tea and dusty-tasting preserved orange rinds with added Vitamin C.

Today I hopped on a bus downtown, and visited a large herbal emporium. I had made notes with both the Latin names and the Chinese characters for Kava kava (piper methysticum) and Panax ginseng. These I showed to the staff, who determined that there was no Kava kava there. Ginseng they had in abundance, but only in its full-root form, in deluxe wooden presentation boxes and priced at a king’s ransom. I settled for some herbal tea and a jar of honey. My botanicals will have to be ordered on ebay.

The downtown crowds were too much to deal with. I walked away from the humanity, and inhaled the fresh cold smell of the winter air. I suddenly recognized the scent of snow – a dim memory from my Midwestern days. What I felt occasionally on my face may have been snowflakes mixed with sleet, or maybe it was just smog particles. There was no mistaking the snowy smell, however.

I walked in the crisp, gray atmosphere to another of the “destroyed” neighborhoods I visit sometimes – acres of rubble, bricks, and chunks of concrete. In the midst of the destruction was an open-air market. This area has many narrow lanes between high plastered-brick walls, with the occasional small building with decorative carving that demands to be photographed, before it’s lost forever.

Yesterday (Saturday) I visited the Sichuan Art Museum, in the center of town not far from the giant Mao Zedong statue. The museum was displaying paintings by two Russian artists. In a third-floor gallery (up two flights of curving stairs hovering in the middle of a large atrium, giving me vertigo) I was fascinated by a display of calligraphy mounted on scrolls. The museum also has a great book shop with very cheap used items, and – wonder of wonders – the first genuine art supply store I’ve seen in Chengdu. I mused over technical pens and calligraphy supplies.

My poor feet had taken a pounding that day, and I had finally located batteries for my Pentax film camera. I rode home on the most crowded bus I believe I’ve ever been on, squashed against a window and hoping for safe deliverance.

The semester is winding down. I have now given my final assignment: group presentations about “Adventure Holidays” to the destination of the group’s choice. The idea came from a teacher who had previously taught in Chengdu, and with whom I once corresponded by email before coming here. We have three weeks left, and I finally finished grading all the written essay exams. I estimate that by semester’s end I will have read about 1,200 pieces of student writing. No wonder I’m tired. I have never before had to keep written records of scores for 300 students, a process that can be scary at times.

For miles we proceeded under cover of gloomy, silent, and mysterious forests. Then, an unexpected clearing suddenly revealed, behind the dark line of tall fir trees, extraordinary landscapes of shining snow-clad mountains, towering high in the blue sky, frozen torrents and glittering waterfalls hanging like gigantic and immaculate curtains from the rugged rocks. We looked at them, speechless and enraptured….

-Alexandra David-Neel, My Journey to Lhasa


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