Going in curves
Speaking of going places, I celebrated a birthday – #51, on Sunday. In honor of the occasion, the sun came out – its first appearance in a couple of weeks. I took this as an auspicious sign, and packed up my camera bag for a photo shoot. I roamed around some old sections of Chengdu, getting used to using a “real” camera again, one that weighs quite a bit with its zoom lens attached. I found some historic areas that were in the process of demolition, with enough architectural details remaining to give me a sense of traditional Chinese design. I shot pictures of archways, doors, crumbling walls, and narrow alleys. I even shot a couple of young boys who showed an interest in my camera.
My walk took me to the area of Da Ci Si, a Zen Buddhist temple that was once the largest in Chengdu. It was re-opened in 2004 after decades of neglect. The temple is surrounded by destroyed areas bounded by walls with tile-decorated tops in Chinese “roof” design. I admit that I stole a piece of China’s heritage: after a careful search, I found a piece of 19th-century decorative tile that had come loose, pried it off its wall, and stuck it in my pocket. I would have taken more, but I didn’t have big enough pockets.
The temple itself is pleasant, but actually dates from the 1870s. Temples here have had a tendency to burn down at various points in their history. This one has a statue of Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha) which has a strange fascination for me. It radiates an incredible sense of peace and calm, with its serene posture, downcast eyes, and right hand raised in a “let it be” gesture of benediction. I also call it the “Talk to the hand” Buddha.
Speaking of “talk,” I went to a bakery called Bread Talk, where they make some decent whole wheat and rye bread, and bought a birthday loaf. It can be hard to get decent bread here, because the flour is so heavily processed, bleached, and refined that there’s no taste or substance left to it. Sometimes, just to amuse myself, I pick up loaves of bread in grocery stores – they’re weightless.
I shopped half-heartedly for a new sweater, but good clothing here is tremendously expensive. I relaxed at Starbucks over coffee and cookies, then bought myself a birthday present, a lightweight camera tripod. On the trip home on the double-decker #1 bus, I actually got a seat upstairs, another auspicious sign.
Learning Chinese – in French
I’m taking a Chinese class through the Alliance Francaise. It’s taught in Chinese with explanations in French. I had to come all the way to China to improve my French. The class was difficult for me because I seem to be the only absolute beginner, and the teacher asked me questions that I had no way of understanding. After my first class last week I joined the other three students for dinner in a freezing cold restaurant close by. They all work as French instructors with the Alliance.
I’ve watched a couple of fascinating movies this week on DVD: La planete blanche (The White Planet) and Russian Ark. La planete blance has some of the most extraordinary nature photography I’ve ever seen. The icy splendor of the underwater scenes are otherworldly, and they brought back childhood dreams of crystal-blue ice palaces. Russian Ark, filmed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, has the distinction of being the first feature film ever shot entirely in one take – a single shot that lasts over 100 minutes. It sounds very practical: the filming took exactly as long as the movie runs. Its vignettes move among three centuries, musing on art, history, and symbolism.
How I’ll spend my winter vacation
Practicing the guitar, learning Chinese, working on my photography and pen-and-ink drawing, and starting to exercise again. I’m doing some volunteer work for the Kham Aid Foundation, typing letters into my computer. The letters are from Tibetan middle-school students to their educational sponsors, and I’ll be transcribing the handwritten English translations of the originals. I’m very excited about being of service to this organization, which helps to preserve traditional Tibetan culture, and provides educational opportunities for young Tibetans, among other activities. Visit them here