Tag Archives: history

Travel Writing and China: The Giant Dragon of Henan and More

dragon 2By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Kevin Dolgin, the author upon whose book this column embroiders, is fond of both dragons and statues. So, in a veritable explosion of inspiration, we Googled up “statue + dragon”, and found a story from the Xinjua News Agency. It’s complete with pictures, including one that looks like an aerial photo, but must be an artist’s rendering.

In the middle of China, in Henan Province, there’s a mountain called Shizu, with a long backboney ridge and an expanse of national forest around it. The entrepreneurial Zulong Company set out to build a 13-mile-long dragon along the crest of the mountain, pretty much like the Great Wall, actually, only this structure would have a 100-foot-high dragon head at one end and additional tourist attractions like museums and shops inside its body. The symbolic purpose would be to celebrate the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic.

The article reads:

Some 5.6 million pieces of white marble and gilded bronze are to form the dragon’s scales as a move that is “symbolic of the country’s 56 ethnic groups.” Display rooms offering themes of filial piety and patriotism are to be set up in the dragon’s hollow body. For a fee, people will be able to have their names and messages inscribed on the scales, and companies can advertise on the dragon’s head.

What an audacious concept! The company got as far as constructing half a mile of the body, plus a large portion of the head, when the press and the public got wind of it and started to raise hell. Bitter controversy ensued, with the opposing sides saying the same things opposing parties everywhere always say. One faction claims it’s a waste of money and bad for the environment; the other says tourists will come, and local residents will be employed. The builder says the government promised to support the project. But the government apparently changed its mind. (“One thing to keep in mind in China: never become obsessive about finding the answer to seeming illogical behavior. There’s so much of it that you could go crazy.” – Kevin Dolgin)

Okay, now the plot thickens. From a very official-looking web page simply titled “Tour,” we learn that Shizu Mountain and its surroundings constitute on official beauty spot, with a recreational park for “tourism and sightseeing, holidaying, and patriotism education.” But not, apparently, a giant dragon. What has been done or will be done with the parts of the dragon already built is a mystery. There is, however and incidentally, another dragon project mentioned on the page, this one in Puyang City, called the “Restoration Project of the ruins of the First Dragon in China.” It concerns the construction of a dragon theme park to include a sage’s musum, a sage’s temple, an ancient school, and best of all, a mythical paradise.

But there’s more on the Shizu Dragon elsewhere: a report by Jeffrey Hays called “Facts and Details” says, “The project was halted in 2007 for lack of a permit.” Such a shame, after all that work and expense, and besides, the trees were already cut down.

At “Eat, Run, Read,” Mollie shares her impressions of a book called Lost on Planet China: On Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation by J. Maarten Troost, with some interesting excerpts from Troost, and a yummy noodle recipe thrown in. In “Rumbles on the Rim of China’s Empire,” Edward Wong, who has written extensively on Asia for The New York Times, talks about the Xinjiang autonomous region and its troubles, some of which stem from the immigration of many former Henan residents (who might have been able to stay home, if the 13-mile dragon project had survived bureaucratic entanglements). There’s a marvelous-sounding book called Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China, that includes centuries worth of travel writing by Chinese authors, and can apparently be downloaded online for free.

Kevin has been to China, specifically to Grand Epoch City, which is the subject of one of his most entertaining dispatches in The Third Tower Up From the Road. The titular tower is part of the Great Wall, and what it’s up the road from is Huanghuacheng, in a section of the Wall that was only recently opened for public consumption, and it’s not the part that tourists usually visit. This tale is also dragon-related — not the long slinky fiery type of dragon, but the lady Kevin and his friend had to pay, so they could climb her ladder.

Do you have an example of the mystery and illogic of China? Send it in!

photo courtesy of gwydionwilliams , used under this Creative Commons license

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Travel Writing Highlight: Ibn Battuta

al_aqsa mosqueBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

So who exactly was Ibn Battuta, other than a guy who had a mall in Dubai named after him? We’re getting answers from a very extensive website called “The Travels of Ibn Battuta – A Virtual Tour with the 14th Century Traveler” that seems to be designed for grade school students. Frustratingly, many of the graphics don’t show up. But most of them do, and the text is thorough and clear. Nick Bartel is the author, and he says:

Ibn Battuta started on his travels when he was 20 years old in 1325. His main reason to travel was to go on a Hajj, or a Pilgrimage to Mecca, as all good Muslims want to do. But his traveling went on for about 29 years and he covered about 75,000 miles visiting the equivalent of 44 modern countries…

At Damascus, things really got serious — 820 miles to go to Medina, where the Prophet is entombed. Ibn Battuta saw Cairo, Algiers, Tunis, Anatolia, Delhi, even the ruined Alexandria lighthouse before its stones were recycled. He went just about every place that people knew there was to go in those times. This site lists of the types of foods a traveler in the old days would find in the various places, which is rather delightful.

Of course the fame of Ibn Battuta grew explosively with the release earlier this year of the 45-minute IMAX-format movie Journey to Mecca, which has by now been seen in every corner of the world. At Islam Online, the lecturer and aspiring filmmaker Azad Essa thoughtfully reviews that film and says the man’s knowledge and experience made him welcome in every country he passed through. “He functioned as a judge and ambassador for various rulers as his vast perspective as a traveler and his command of Islamic law held him in good stead everywhere…” In The Jakarta Post, Martina Zainal looks at the movie from the spiritual perspective:

For Muslims who have performed the hajj it is a nostalgic reminder of their own heartfelt quest for righteousness; for Muslims yet to go, a very up-close-and-personal look at what they can look forward to when they do make their own journey to Mecca.

Meam Wye also has plenty of good information and food for thought at a site called Shining History – Medieval Islamic Civilization, whose purpose is to focus on the contributions of Muslim innovators to the fields of science, technology, mathematics, astronomy, geography, and more. A very erudite look at the deeper meaning of Ibn Battuta’s influence is found at Pragati, written by Jayakrishnan Nair, who covers history, archaeology and current affairs. A fellow who calls himself Young B Emcee says “Ibn Battuta was probably the driving force in my exploration appetite. His writings intrigued me so much that I tried to recreate his steps…”

Naturally, not everything we hear is wonderful. Maryam Omidi, who writes from the Maldives, quotes Foreign Minister Dr. Ahmed Shaheed: “Referring to the Moroccan scholar and explorer, Ibn Battuta, who worked as a judge in the Maldives in the 14th century, Shaheed said a number of Maldivians fainted when Battuta ordered a thief’s hand to be amputated.” Timothy Burke says, “Read Ibn Battuta’s accounts of his journeys and you’ll see him offering distortions and exoticizations galore, generally based on surface impressions and gut reactions.” Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. At Rethinking Islam, he says “Ibn Battuta was, of course a bad traveller and a fussy tourist…” and also adds some even more unkind remarks.

Back on the bright side, publisher Marcus Wiener offers the traveler’s own book, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, translated by Noel Q. King and edited by Said Hamdun. Taylor Luck took a fine picture of an ancient fort in Jordan that Ibn Battuta visited. And Shari toured the Ibn Battuta Mall and posted some great photos of it. She describes the mall’s five sections: China, India, Persia, Egypt and Andalusia, and says, “This roughly covers the area that Ibn Battuta covered in his world travels, the entire known area of Islam in his time.” The picture on this page is not a mall, but Jerusalem’s ancient Al-Aqsa Mosque.

photo courtesy of hoyasmeg , used under this Creative Commons license

Naughty Mayfair, in London, England

Albany2

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Not long ago, we noted the popularity of London as one of Student Universe’s Top Ten Party Destinations. Taking a closer look, we find that the great British capitol has always been a place where young and old could find something disreputable to pass the time, especially if they were wealthy and titled. In “Mayfair’s dark secrets laid bare,” Jasper Gerard unearths some facts and rumors about a venerable building called Albany. He says:

So savagely do Albany grandees protect their privacy that even snappers photographing the place have found themselves at the wrong end of a porter’s boot… One resident, a Mr. Gundry, was so aggressive he horsewhipped someone in Hyde Park for brushing against his shoulder a year earlier.

That revenge for bruised honor occurred, of course, quite some time in the past. But that’s the point. This structure seems to have a cumulative history of anarchic behavior well cloaked behind a veil of respectability. Remember the Chelsea Hotel in New York, when all the rock stars stayed there? Albany was, in its glory days, kind of like that — only with servants who would carry an inebriated resident to bed and tuck him in. Hookers came and went freely and,  according to a certain painter who called Albany home for a couple of years, they still do. Tradition and discretion don’t come cheap; it costs about £1,500 or about $2,500 USD per week to live there.

The reason why all this came to Gerard’s attention is an art show that includes 40 paintings by Keith Coventry. The whole series is called “Echoes of Albany” and the pictures bring back the days of chippies, tarts, absinthe, serious recreational drugs, women who wore tuxedos and courted other women, and much, much more. If you’re in the neighborhood of Burlington Gardens, the exhibit runs through August 15 at the Haunch of Venison gallery.

Gerard, incidentally, has had an interesting and varied journalistic career. It’s easy to be sidetracked into something like, for instance, his interview with novelist Ian McEwan. But no. This is about the famous old mansion where three of England’s prime ministers have lived, along with a number of titled aristocrats and upper-echelon stage actors such as Terence Stamp. Antony Armstrong-Jones, the photographer who was married to Queen Elizabeth’s sister Margaret, once lived there. So did art historian Sir Kenneth Clark. The poet Lord Byron was once a resident, as were novelists Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene, playwright Terence Rattigan, and esteemed travel writer Bruce Chatwin.mayfair mural

Speaking of London nightlife, there’s trouble in paradise as burlesque dancers take to the streets to protest unfair laws that impede their ability to make a living and entertain the rest of us. And check out this site for a handy guide to “student nights” in London clubs.

And in the daytime, be sure to observe the statues. Yes, the sculptures in public places which, as we know, are of abiding interest to Kevin Dolgin as he makes his way through the cities of the world. In London, he found plenty to write about, in “Forgotten Heroes: London, England” which of course is one of the pieces in The Third Tower Up From the Road.

Albany photo courtesy of Wolfiewolf , used under this Creative Commons license. Mayfair mural photo courtesy of danielle_blue , used under this Creative Commons license