Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Floating Down the Yellow River on a Sheep Skin Raft-Oct.'07

The famous Yellow River in China is on the banks of Lanzhou (Lan-zjo), one of our main destinations for this trip to China. Lanzhou is a large industrial, 2000 year old city with plenty of pollution, and is the capital of Gansu Province. It once was called the Golden City due to discovering of gold close by. It has a population of about 3 million spread along a mountain valley formed by the Yellow River. Hence, some of the pollution problems are due to geography.

For centuries, Gansu and neighboring Qinghai Provinces were regarded as frontier provinces on the outer limits of ancient China and the vast desert regions to the northwest. Geographically, there is the Hexi corridor to the west, running about 750 miles between two mountain ranges dotted along with occasional oases. This became part of the Silk Road trade route between China and India and western Asia. The Great Wall also passed through here. The importance of the Silk Road can not be over emphasized regarding the spread of commerce, culture, and religion between Eastern and Western Asia and eventually into parts of Europe.

It is along the Silk Road that Buddhism spread from northern India where Buddha lived in the 6th century B.C. During the 1st century, it became very popular in China during a time of unrest and Confucianism’s support of authority became unpopular with the populace. It was eventually adopted by China’s rulers.

Lanzhou was a major stop along the Silk Road. There is a heavy Muslim influence and it can be seen in some of Lanzhou’s architecture and the amount of mutton and beef served at meals rather than chicken and pork.

As always our China trips begin with a workshop jointly sponsored by the China CDC, University of Nebraska, and the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC).
One of the attractions is the White Pagoda Hill Park, named for a 13th century pagoda that sat on the top of the highest hill on the other side of the Yellow River. There is a gondola lift we took to the top of the hill and walked down visiting various historical sites along the way.

Chinese doing Tai Chi along side the chair lift. The Yellow river is in the background.
Over the middle of the Yellow River riding in a chair lift.
When Genghis Khan was taking over parts of China, a religious leader from Tibet was sent to meet with him, but the lama died from disease when he got to Lanzhou. In 1228, the Yuan Dynasty ordered that a pagoda be built in his honor. The 7 story, White Pagoda stands 17 meters high and there are figures of Buddha and brick carved heads of dragons with an iron hell in each dragon’s month.

This photo was taken at the base of the White Pagoda. Professor Charlie Wood from the University of Nebraska is in the center with his wife Kathy to the right and Professor Susan Levy (no relation to Judith) from UIC. Charlie was been a tremendous help in making the China workshops run smoothly as he helps translate. Both he and Kathy grew up around Shanghai and hope to retire there.
While walking down the mountain, I took this picture of the first iron bridge built over the Yellow River in 1910. We eventually would cross it. Notice the smog.
One of the tourist attractions on the Lanzhou side of the river is a ride down the river on a raft kept afloat by nine good sized sheep skins filled with air and attached to a bamboo lattice with pads to sit on. Rafts like these were used in ancient time to navigate the river. Judith and I got on one and down the river we floated, staying away from the strong current. This was not a big adventure thing, but our host was pleased that we were good sports and I am always out to prove Americans are fearless and athletic. I was proud that Judith went along.

This statue is called Mother Yellow River and sits along the river side park. Professor Xu stands in front.
As we have traveled extensively in China, there are ways that indicate how much a local has advanced (by my western standards). One is the availability of Diet Coke or other diet drinks, American fast food restaurants or other restaurants serving something besides Chinese food, sit down toilet stools, the smoothness of toilet paper, CNN on TV, soft mattresses in hotel rooms, freedom from smokers, street cleanliness, lack of Internet censorship, and the availability of ATM’s. Lanzhou doesn’t fare too well in any of these items. On the other hand the food is excellent, there are KFC’s, and the people are very warm and friendly. Older children sometimes start a conversation in the street to practice their English which is being taught everywhere in China. BTW, Chicago’s Major Daly has traveled to China a few times and has been impressed sufficiently to set up a program in Chicago’s public schools to make Chinese language classes available to any child that wants to learn Chinese.

We visited the excellent Gansu Provincial Museum. We saw ancient pottery, dinosaur bones, fossils, and bronze artifacts, including a famous 2000 year old bronze statue, “Flying Horse”. Likenesses of this statue are being used all over China to symbolize tourism.

The horse, which appears to be flying, has one hoof resting on a swallow. The piece is actually a portrayal of a highly prized breed of horse that had been introduced into China about 100 BC. At the time of the Han dynasty, Buddhism had not yet been introduced, and tomb artifacts were considered important to the afterlife of the deceased.
And a mammoth skeleton is here that was discovered in 1973 along the Yellow River banks. Huge!!!!


After completion of Judith’s AIDS/HIV prevention workshop, we fly to Dunhuang at the western end Quinghai Province to see the caves where pilgrim Buddhist monks stopped along their way to India. The Maogo caves are full of Buddhist frescoes, scriptures, and carvings which celebrate the spread of Buddhism and date from the 4th to the 11th centuries.

Among the Americans is of man of Chinese descent, who grew up with Buddhist parents and during our visit to the caves, he told me much about the history and beliefs of Buddhists. Although there are now many different types of Buddhism, Buddhism is divided into two main divisions; Mahayana (the large boat) and Hinayana (the small boat). He was raised in the small boat Buddhism, which believes that Buddha did not become a god and in fact he did everything possible while he was alive to dissuade his followers to promote such notions. The small boat Buddhists believe you can row your own boat by the process of enlightenment of oneself. The large boat Buddhists believe that Buddha ascended to heaven (without having to endure the process of being crucified) and they pray to Buddha much the same as Christians do. Anyway this is the simplified version between the two.

Dunhuang is also along part of the Silk Road. This was an area where many races lived together. Chinese (in the ethnic sense), Mongols, Uighurs, Tibetans, Hsia, and others resided here. The town is an oasis town and one does not have to go far to be in sand dunes and isolation.

Our hosts took us just outside of town where tourists can ride in a camel caravan up the big sand dunes where you are taken most of the way up and climb up ladders to reach the top and slide down on sand sleds. If the climb up is too difficult men come down and help push. The orange things are booties which can be slipped over shoes to keep sand and camel dung out.
Notice that neither of us have the orange booties on. I still find a few grains of sand when I put these shoes on.
This is where the camels rested while people climbed to the top of the dune. Dunhaung and the oasis can be seen with the mountains as far background.
This is a small oasis which has a crescent-shaped pond. The Chinese promote this oasis very much and it is worth the walk out to see it. The dots on the dune behind are people sliding down on sleds. Not to worry, the winds blow the sand back up.
The Crescent-Moon pool with algae on top. The pool never dries up.
The Maogo caves (also called the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas) were discovered by accident in the early 1900’s. According to Tang Dynasty records, a monk had witnessed on site a vision of thousand Buddhas under showers of golden rays. Thus inspired, he started the caves construction work that spanned ten dynasties.

We had to check our cameras before entering the caves and guides led us to various caves and illumination was only the guide’s flash light. This precaution is done to protect the paint from oxidizing. If one wants to see some of the art, Google “Maogo caves Dunhuang” and some of the art can be seen.
The main Buddha, 113 feet high, originally was outside and in order to protect it, a building was constructed. Apparently size is important.

Our final tourist stop in Dunhuang is the Yangguan Pass(also called the Pearl Gate Pass), where remains of the Great Han Wall can still be seen. The questions is; when is a wall a wall? Or how do you build a wall in the Taklamakan desert?

It is not really a wall wall. Moats formed the main fortification and beacon towers were built where natural barriers were lacking. The Han Wall was built a little before 200 B.C. and most of the moats and beacon towers are gone. Beacon towers were built by making a frame and filling it will fine gravel and water and tamping it solid, layer after layer with willow reeds serving as reinforcing rods, and left to dry in the arid air. The beacon towers were constructed along the Wall at an interval of 15 to 30 miles. Columns of smoke were used to warn defenders of an attack. One smoke column meant an outpost was being threatened by a force of fewer than 500 troops and two columns meant an attacking force of fewer than 3,000. The Han found the beacon system relayed messages faster than a rider on a horse. Due to the dry climate the remains of these towers and even the firewood used to light the smoke can be seen.

The Han Wall qualifies as part of the Great Wall of China; it just doesn’t conjure up the images of the stone wall in the Eastern part of China. The Han Wall was an important gateway and defensive position along the Silk Road. There is a good museum at Yangguan Pass and most of the exhibits are in English. The main attraction are the vistas.

One of the beacon towers can be seen in the background.
Nearby is this overlook.
Looking to the west. The dark area to the left is an oasis.
Looking to the north-west. Look! You can have your picture taken on a horse.
I’m ready to attack. Someone wake up the horse!
Getting here from Dunhuang was a 45 mile ride. We went in October when it wasn’t oven hot. From the desert, we fly to Kunming, in Yunnan Province along the Southwest frontier.

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