Three doors and a window

Every Chinese garden has doors: either the mystic moon doors, or the mysteriously locked doors of various pavilions. The Ming era Zhan garden of Nanjing was no exception. This is supposed to have belonged to the first Ming emperor, the Hongwu emperor, who then gave it to his general, Xu Da. This one also had ornate windows in pavilions where you could sit and look out at the garden (featured photo). The pavilion faced a beautiful pool, and the view out of the window did not look that good.

One of my favourite photos of doors I this garden was of this unassuming door at the side of a large pavilion which contained part of the museum of the Taiping revolution. It wasn’t the door itself which fascinated me, the the beautiful courtyard, and the view into the illuminated space of the museum.

This black stained door in a white wall, with brass fittings and a lock was exactly the kind of mysterious door I had noticed elsewhere. What could lie behind it? Historical archives or gardening tools? There is nothing that tells you about the space behind. Quite mysterious.

This looked like a special moon gate to me. Most moon gates are simply round openings in walls. This has a couple of extra notches cut into it. Is that meaningful, or just a decorative touch? I don’t know.

A small exhibition

Inside the Zhan garden in Nanjing, I came across a little exhibition of arts and crafts. All I could tell was that it was not in a contemporary style. The labels on the exhibits were written in calligraphic Chinese, which I find very hard to read. If you are able to read the poster in the gallery below, I would be very glad to have your help in learning more about what I saw.

I’m always fascinated by the Chinese imagery of horses. The rest of the world divides horses into two types of symbols: those of speed (think race horses), the other of plodding power (think of a draft horse). The Chinese view of horses is that of nearly untamed power; it is an achievement to tame it. I looked carefully at all the horses on display. Chinese calligraphic art makes it way into the design of plates. I love the acute observation and wonderful execution of the pictures of flowers and birds that you can see.

Zhan garden

One of the walks I’d planned in Nanjing included one of the five most famous gardens of Southern China: the Zhan garden. This Ming-era garden was given its present name by the Qing-dynasty Qianlong emperor when he visited the garden, perhaps in the mid-18th century. I’ve been walking through Chinese gardens, puzzling out their aesthetics, and a chance question by a colleague allowed me to reflect on what I’d seen. Sharing a taxi to the airport, he asked “Are they like Japanese gardens?” I thought for a while. Yes, perhaps in their cultural importance they are. But architecturally they are different.

They seem to be laid out in a series of areas connected by passages or moon gates. The most popular area in the Zhan garden is near the western entrance, with a large pool, multiple pavilions, willow trees drooping gracefully into the water (featured photo). This is a wonderfully pretty spot, and a magnet for people taking photos of loved ones, or selfies with them. But linking different scenes is part of the architectural design. So you can walk from here into the southern rockery, with its massive pile of stones and trees. Once you get past that you are in a pool again, surrounded by rocks. This pool held a couple of very sleepy black swans. You could walk across stones into a pavilion, and pass through it into a bamboo grove where a large tribe of sparrows were chirping and flying around. Then somehow there was the sound of falling water, and I walked through a moon gate to see an artistically constructed waterfall in front of me. Trees, flowers, birds, even a cat or two, still and flowing water, a succession of sounds, these seem to make up Chinese gardens. Now that I’ve started paying attention to these gardens, I think I have to keep looking at more.

A fun show

At one end of Wuhan’s Han Street entertainment area is the Han Show Theatre. Modeled after Chinese red lanterns, the architects Steven Chilton and Marc Fisher (who was the director of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics) created a theatre that made it difficult not to have my jaw drop. What looks at first sight like a grandiose stage swings away to create a deep swimming pool. The front seats draw back from the pool area. Behind the immense stage three screens descend to form a backdrop on which videos play.

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I got to see the Han Show, crafted by the Belgian theatre director Franco Dragone. While watching the spectacular acrobatics and aquatics show I thought to myself that this was the Cirque du Soleil on a really grand Chinese scale. I was happy to find later that I was not mistaken; Dragone was one of the creators of the Cirque du Soleil. Given a 2.5 billion RMB investment from the Wanda group, the architects and directors created a ninety minute show that leaves you with a great big smile on your face.

At a late point in the show I realized that I did not have to take stills. So here is a video of a part of the show that was fun. Not as impressive as the forty meter high dive (one of the photos in the slide show above), but great fun.

Seeking comfort food in China

I find that I can eat healthy in China. I can pile a breakfast plate full of steamed and sauteed vegetables, select a couple of dumplings, and add a few pieces of tofu for extra bite. When I feel like eating some more protein, there is often some yogurt at hand. The food is not deep fried or full of rice like a lot of Indian breakfast. Nor is it full of sugars and starch and highly processed like most western breakfast. I like this breakfast, but it is not comfort food.

After all I am hardly likely to get khichdi in China. But usually I can find a bowl of rice topped with sauteed vegetables and fried meat. This extremely common Chinese combination (I don’t know whether it has a name) is close enough to my childhood comfort food to keep me happy. This time around, after a day spent walking across the Purple Mountains of Nanjing, I was unable to find a simple bowl of rice. After some search I found instead a plate of roasted pork knuckles and sauteed vegetables. Accompanied by a large bottle of cold Tsingtao beer this came close to a second style of comfort food. On cold evenings in Germany I’d learnt to seek out comfortable kneipers’ which could serve a large schweinshaxe with potato and gave you a half liter of beer to go with it. The effect of this Chinese combination was strangely similar. The bowls of soya sauce and a spicy powder also made it reasonably close in taste to modern Indian food.

Train to Nanjing

One of the things I like to do in China is to take a train, the high speed G train (高速动车组列车, Gāosù dòngchē, or simply Gāotie). I took one such from Wuhan to Nanjing and back. Amazingly, the train sustained a speed of 247 Kilometers an hour for a substantial portion of its 500 plus kilometer route. The result is that the two and a half hour run easily beats a car or a plane for its convenience. From the first time I took a Gao train, I’ve been impressed by its stability: a bottle of water set on a table in front of you barely has ripples on its surface.

In the early 90s, when China started developing its own high speed trains, the average speeds of Chinese trains were 48 Kilometers an hour; as a result cars and flights had begun to carry larger fractions of long-distance traffic. There are no direct flights between Wuhan and Nanjing, for example. With over two thirds of the world’s fast trains, Gaotie is China’s contribution to green travel.

In keeping with this marvelous achievement, the new train stations are monumental (see the entrance to the Nanjing South station in the photo above). Since I planned my travel to maximize my time in Nanjing, I found it very convenient to find a marketplace inside the station.

Dancing in the breeze

After three weeks of traveling on work and sitting in day-long meetings, it was nice to take a long weekend off to sit in the sun and watch grass flowers fluttering and dancing in the breeze. These are no daffodils, but in the cool breeze of interior Karnataka’s winter, they managed to fill my heart with pleasure.

When The Family decided to plan a break in Hampi, combining history, art, and architecture with nature and bird watching, I thought it might get a little overwhelming. But the weather turned out to be wonderful, if you were in the shade. Hampi is a small town near a nature sanctuary. A five minute drive takes you into a countryside full of scrub forests. The bird life you see here is not as rich as that in the coastal rainforests, but there are scrubland species which are hard to see elsewhere. I will post about that later.

For the moment, I just show you a simple video of house sparrows (Passer domesticus), Indian silverbills (Euodice malabarica, white throated munia), and scaly breasted munia (Lonchura punctulata) feeding together. I liked the commotion as they peck at grains. The sound is mainly due to the silverbills, which like to flock together and chirp to make sure that they are in contact. All three species are seed eaters, and therefore able to survive across a range of ecologies, including the dry scrublands of the interior of India.

A gate to history

Walking along Zhonghua Avenue in Nanjing, I paused at this imposing European style gate to take a photo. It is unusual to find architecture like this in China. Even though the lock on the gate was executed in a Chinese style, the whole appearance screamed Europe. A little plaque on the wall next to the gate gave a brief time line of this school established by American missionaries at the very end of the 19th century.

Christianity has been present in Nanjing since the 14th century, and even seems to have influenced the Taiping revolution in a small way. But the presence of American missionaries between the mid-19th century and the Rape of Nanjing is now an obscure chapter in the history of Nanjing. Their arrival in the wake of the shameful Treaty of Nanjing causes official Chinese histories to ignore them. At the same time, their help, meager through it was, during the Rape of Nanjing is acknowledged. The result is a parsimonious acknowledgement as in this plaque, or the recently installed bust of Pearl Buck in the grounds of the university. I did not have time to explore Nanjing very well, but I can imagine myself tracing such histories in future.

Days and nights

The first thing that strikes you about nights in China is how well-lit they are. After all, the magic of bright lights cannot have escaped a civilization which descends from the one that invented fireworks. I walked along a river and took this photo of a completely still evening.

Eateries are kitsch country. Wouldn’t your ice cream taste much better with a bunny in pain holding a plastic cone? And isn’t it necessary to create a garden, complete with butterflies in a restaurant?

Daylight reveals a more refined touch. Equally kitschy perhaps, but understated. One side of the river wears the look of a traditional garden, complete with weeping willows drooping down to the water, magpies in trees, banked moss, and flowers drying in the late autumn. A crew boats along the river, picking up trash and cleaning it. I’m always amazed by the fact that China, whose citizens litter as thoughtlessly as Indians, has conscientious cleaners who keep public places clean all the time. Money has to be invested in cleaning, and there has to be accountability at work. Magic works in strange ways.

Silversmiths

Chinese shops often employ people to stand outside on the road and announce the deals that you’ll miss if you walk past. Since I follow very little Chinese, most of this is lost to me. But a jewellery shop is different, and I have paused at many to take a look at the fellows working away in full sight.

This time I remembered to take a video. The loudest noise comes from the guy whose job it seems is to hit his hammer on the anvil, and never make contact with the piece of silver he holds.