Monday, March 26, 2012

Shanghai: Trip to China 1995

Dragon, Yuyuan Gardens, Shanghai
In the summer of 1995, we traveled to China, visiting Shanghai, Beijing, and Xian.  In Beijing and Xian we had an official Chinese tour guide. In Shanghai, we were on our own.  We visited an American friend who was living there while in a cooperative venture to build an auto repair shop in anticipation of the time when more people would own cars.  At the time, the streets were still filled with bicycles and rickshaws, with the primary motorized vehicles being trucks and buses. When I returned to Shanghai ten years later, in 2005, the city had totally changed, with cars jamming every road, and double layered freeways connecting the far reaches of the ever growing city.  Now, as I read my diary from the 1995 trip, and compare our experiences with my trip in 2005 and Sara Kras’s trip to China in 2011 (guest blog post Jan 9, 2012) I am amazed at the contrast.  Here are some excerpts from our first day in Shanghai in 1995:

To begin with, it was arranged that the company driver would take us to the tourist office where we needed to get tickets for our next flight.  We proceeded into central Shanghai, the driver dodging between buses, cars, pedestrians, bicycles, trucks and pedal carts.  The streets are packed and driving impossible, but no one ever gets going fast enough to create any real damage in a collision–although we did see two bicycles run into each other.  Everyone uses their horns constantly.  David had a car come into the shop that had 6000 miles on it and needed to have the horn replaced because it was worn out!  Bicycle riders included both men and women dressed to go to work–women often in stylish clothes.  Although a few wore high heels, most had flat shoes.  We saw few children–just a few babies strapped onto their mothers’ backs or young children riding on the bar in front of their parents’ bicycles.
Walkway along the Bund
The Bund
After leaving the tourist office, we set out on foot to meet a young Chinese girl, Chen Ci, and her father, acquaintances of our American friends, who had offered to show us around. We had arranged to meet them at the door of the Peace Hotel on the Bund. [The Shanghai Bund, on the banks of the Huangpo river, was the financial hub of East Asia at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, with imposing structures that housed banks and foreign offices.  Today it is a commercial center with a walk and park along the river.]   At first we walked along city streets, where people spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of small shops.  They were cleaning vegetables, washing clothes and dishes, sitting on chairs and playing cards, tending small gardens planted around the trees next to the street. Our route was clearly not one that foreigners usually took and eyes followed our every move.  At the end of the street we found ourselves at the river about a half mile south of the Bund, so we walked north until the riverfront became a park.  In the river were a variety of watercraft–from sightseeing boats and ocean going vessels to barges and sampans.  The weather was so smoggy and overcast that everything disappeared into a grey Turneresque mist not far from shore.
Watercraft in the Huangpo River
Huangpu Park
We found Chen Ci and her father as planned.  Chen Ci, age 7, had been learning English at school since she was two and was amazingly fluent, unlike her father, who had studied Russian as a student.  We walked with them along the Bund to Huangpu Park.  Apparently, during the colonial era, this was a park for the British only and a had a now famous sign at the entrance that said “No dogs or Chinese allowed.”  Chen Ci (pronounced Chen Suh) was so excited by our visit she could hardly stand still.  As we passed statues of the first mayor of Shanghai and of Mao, she insisted on imitating their heroic poses and having us take her picture.
In the Yuyuan Gardens

Yuyuan Gardens
After the park, we headed for the Yuyuan gardens, a maze of traditional buildings and waterways. [The Yuyuan gardens, built in the 16th century for a government officer of the Ming Dynasty, were restored in the 1950's and opened to the public in 1961.]  When we arrived, we found ourselves in an ornate alleyway with red-painted shops on either side.  It led to another alley and finally out to a courtyard around a small lake crossed by a zigzag bridge.  There were various food stalls around the water, but Chen Ci’s father led us to a stairway up to a second floor restaurant overlooking the lake.
The waitress brought glasses with printed napkins tucked inside, which Chen Ci promptly put into her bag as a souvenir. The menus were in Chinese so we let Chen Ci and her father do the ordering.  When they asked if we wanted one or two dumplings, we said two, thinking that meant two apiece.  Instead, we got two round trays with twelve dumplings per tray!  Each noodle wrapped dumpling was filled with pork and had been steamed.  You put the whole slippery dumpling in your mouth (after you’ve grabbed it with your chopsticks), bite down, and the hot pork juices squirt into your mouth.  The dumplings came with vinegar/soy sauce, but also tasted good with the red sauce that came with the beef.  We also got a plate of tiny shrimp and Chinese peas.  We drank green tea, which Chen Ci kept pouring and wanting us to clink our glasses and say “kempe”, meaning “to your health.”
Zigzag bridge in the Yuyuan Gardens
After paying for lunch, we went across the zigzag bridge and into the Yuyuan garden where Chen Ci jumped on the rocks and posed beside statues for more pictures, chattering all the time.  We briefly latched onto an English speaking tour group, whose guide said the rocks, which had been imported, were fastened together with some kind of rice paste.  Then it was time to say goodbye.  We found a taxi, showing the driver a printout of our friend's address to tell him where we wanted to go.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Oakland Zoo: New Baby Giraffe!

Maggie, two-month old reticulated giraffe at the Oakland Zoo
Trips to the zoo are a favorite outing with my grandchildren and an excuse for me to go to one of MY favorite places as well.  I always love to watch animals.  Most often, we go to the Oakland Zoo, nestled in the hills of Knowland Park, not far from central Oakland.  It is a medium-sized zoo, with animals displayed in large, naturalistic enclosures and, at the lower end, a children’s zoo with plenty of animal themed climbing structures (such as a giant rope spider web) and hands-on displays (such as the large hollow rabbit head that you can stick your head into and find out how a rabbit’s large ears help it to hear even very tiny sounds.)  The zoo has upper and lower parking lots and entrances.  We always go in at the lower entrance and work our way up the hill.
American Alligators and turtle
Our most recent visit was in early March, on a bright, sunny day.  The animals were active, seeming to enjoy the nice weather.  In the children’s zoo we stopped to watch the otters, always entertaining, as they slid in and out of their pool and performed underwater acrobatics in front of the glass of their tank, just inches from where we stood.  We then checked in on the alligators, basking in the sun, and the lemurs, who only come out where you can see them on warm days. 
We then began our walk up the hill, stopping on the way to watch the squirrel monkeys, who were scampering about the branches inside their enclosure.  It was a good day to be a primate.  The chimpanzees next door were all outside, one of them drumming enthusiastically on a tub (perhaps auditioning for a future chimp rock band) and the siamangs were busy foraging on their island.
Giraffes and Elands
At the top of the hill we passed the sun bears, flamingoes, and tigers on our way to the African Veldt, where we got our treat for the day–a new baby giraffe!  The young giraffe, born January 12, 2012, was just two months old.  Weighing in at birth at eighty pounds and seventy-two inches, the healthy baby, named Maggie, was born to Twiga (Mom) and Mabusu (Dad) after a 15 month pregnancy. Maggie is the first female giraffe born at the zoo in nearly a decade.  When we first saw her, she was resting on some straw, but then she unbent her spindly legs and stood up (a feat in itself) and followed mom to the food bin.  Although Maggie is still drinking milk, she will begin to nibble leaves when she is about four months old.  Did you know that giraffes have blue tongues?  We saw them in action. Giraffes use their flexible tongues to grab leaves and pull them into their mouths. I learned about giraffes when I wrote my book Giraffe (Morrow, 1987), illustrated with photos by Richard Hewett. That book was researched at a wild animal park in New Jersey.  When I was in Africa in 1971, I saw wild giraffes in Kenya in Nairobi National Park.

Other animals in the African veldt enclosure at the Oakland Zoo include Egyptian geese, gazelles, and elands, a large antelope.  While we watched, two eland sparred in a shoving match, butting one another with their heads and horns.

We hadn’t seen everything at the zoo, but it was time for lunch.  So we made our way back down the hill, stopping for one last crossing of the (cement) lily pads in the children’s zoo and to look at the pot bellied pig before heading home.  We knew we’d be back another day

Rides: You can take a short train ride around upper part of the zoo.  A Sky Ride takes you across the zoo in a chair-lift for a birds-eye look at the animals.  However, it has not been operating almost every time we have been at the zoo.  At the upper entrance, there is a small amusement park with a carousel and other rides suitable for young children.  We usually bypass this attraction in favor of spending more time watching the animals.

Getting there: Take the Golf Links Road exit off Highway 580 and turn East following the sign to the zoo.  The zoo entrance is one block from the freeway.

Zoo hours: 10:00 am – 4:00 pm, daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ireland: Megalithic Passage Tombs to the Book of Kells

Newgrange Passage Tomb, circa 3200 BC
In October 2004, we took a short trip to Ireland in conjunction with a scientific meeting for Art in Dublin.  We spent three days in the countryside, and then three days in the city.  Here are my notes from the trip.

Day 1.  We arrived in Dublin, picked up our rental car and drove north to our bed and breakfast, Rossnaree, a beautiful historic private house, chosen by us because it was near the World Heritage prehistoric sites of Newgrange and Knowth, which feature megalithic passage tombs dating to 3200 BC as well as standing stones (similar in concept to Stonehenge) and stones with elaborate concentric engraved designs.  Both Newgrange and Knowth were visible on the other side of the Boyne River from our bedroom window.  The sites can be seen only on tours, so we went to the visitor center, got our tickets for Newgrange, visited the museum, and took the tour.  By afternoon, jet lag had caught up with us and we returned to Rosnaree for a nap.

Day 2.  The next morning we woke up to a light rain, which soon cleared to patchy sun.  We booked a tour of Knowth for 11:45 and then picked up picnic food for lunch.  After the tour, it began to rain again, so we ate our lunch in the car in the parking lot at remains of Mellifont Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland, founded in 1142.  When the rain let up and we walked around a bit before taking back roads to Monasterboice to see the high crosses and round tower.

Proleek Dolmen
 We then drove north to Dundalk to see the Proleek Dolmen (circa 3000 B.C.), located on the grounds of the Ballymascanlon House Hotel golf course.  Following signs along the cart path, we walked about a quarter mile to the fifth green, to see an immense stone balanced on top of two triangular stones.  We tossed several pebbles onto the top for good luck.  According to legend, a wish is granted if your pebble stays on top and doesn't roll down.  For dinner that night we stopped at the Gallery Forge restaurant, where we ordered a brace of quail.

Celtic Cross, Monasterboic

Day 3.  After breakfast we drove south through Dublin to Enniskerry in County Wicklow where we visited Powerscourt Estate and walked around the formal gardens.  (It was reminiscent of visiting the Huntington gardens in Pasadena.)  We looked briefly in the Avoca shop on the main floor of the house and bought an excellent scone.  We then drove past the waterfall and along a back road to Glendalough where we took a tour through the abbey ruins. (It dates back to the 6th century!)  We then walked around the upper lake.  After tea in the hotel we drove back to Dublin via Sallygap, a narrow road across the high heath.  We saw a few sheep, almost no cars, and evidence of peat cutting.  All in all, it was a desolate place.  We arrived in Dublin, checked into our hotel, and went to the local pub to watch the Ireland/France soccer match.

Day 4.  While Art was at his meetings I went to the National Museum to see the real finds from Newgrange and Knowth–the visitor center at the site only had reproductions–and a huge collection of Celtic gold jewelry. In the evening, we took a chartered bus to Dublin Castle for a reception.

Georgian House, facing St. Stephen's Green, Dublin
Day 5.  After lunch we set out for a walking tour of Dublin.  We went past St. Stephen’s Green to the Natural History Museum; Powerscourt Shopping Center (mostly eating places, antiques and clothes); to Avoca (bought two teapots and tea towels); through Temple Bar (cobblestone streets and pubs); to Liffey Bridge to Christ Church Cathedral (site of the first performance of Handel’s Messiah); to Dublinia Medieval Heritage Center; to Jurys Inn Hotel for coffee; to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Evensong service; and finally, to dinner at La Mere Zou on St. Stephen’s Green for mussels and cherry beer for Art and parsnip soup and lamb for me.
Day 6.  On our last day we visited an exhibit of the Book of Kells at Trinity College. It was the perfect ending to a short, but full visit to Ireland.

(update June 2012)
Summer Solstice
Here's a recent note from an Irish friend about observing the summer solstice in Ireland.
The Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is on June 20th at 23:09 UT/GMT this year. In Ancient Ireland many of Megalithic Monuments were aligned to the rising or setting sun on key solar points in the year. In the Boyne Valley we have the famous Winter Solstice alignment at Newgrange. Townleyhall a small passage tomb located just north of Newgrange is aligned with the rising sun at the Summer Solstice
At Carrowkeel in the west of Ireland, Cairn G is aligned with the setting sun at the Summer Solstice  

(update August 1, 2012)
My Irish friend recently wrote to me about another festival, Lughnasadh.
Lughnasadh (pronounced Lou-na-sa) the Celtic Festival falls at the beginning of August, midway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox
In Celtic mythology the god Lugh established the Lughnasadh festival as a funeral feast and games commemorating his foster-mother Tailtiu. She died on August 1st of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Brega for farming. The first Teltown Games (√Āenach Tailteann) were held where Tailtiu was buried.

(update October 31, 2012)
The Origins of Halloween
My Irish friend Michael Fox sent me this Halloween message:
As millions of children and adults participate in the fun of Halloween tonight, many will not be aware of its ancient Celtic roots in the Samhain festival. In Celtic Ireland about 2000 years ago, Samhain was the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter)
Back 5000 years ago in Stone Age Ireland at this time of year there were sunrise alignments at Loughcrew and the Hill of Tara
Best Wishes from the Boyne Valley,
Michael Fox

(update from Michael Fox, Feb 3, 2013)
Celebration of Imbolc

Imbolc has been celebrated since ancient times, it's a Cross Quarter Day,
midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, this year it
falls on the February 3rd. The ancient Celts celebrated The Goddess Brigid
at Imbolc which in Christian times became St. Brigid's Day. At the Mound of
the Hostages on the Hill of Tara the rising sun at Imbolc and Samhain
illuminates the chamber. With the ongoing conservation works at the Mound of
the Hostages, there won't be any access to the entrance this Imbolc

Best Imbolc Wishes,

Michael Fox 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Phillip Island, Australia: Koalas, Kangaroos and a Penguin Parade

Woolamai Peninsula, Phillip Island
Excerpt from my diary of our three month trip to Australia in 1999.  Our trip to Phillip Island was in late February.
On Sunday we took a day trip to Phillip Island, which is about two hours south of Melbourne.  It is mostly agricultural, but people have summer cottages there and it is also a good place to see wildlife.  By the time we arrived it was lunchtime, so we bought some food and took it to the beach on the Woolamai Peninsula for a picnic.  The long sandy beach faces the Bass Strait (the body of water that separates Tasmania from Australia) and we watched the huge waves come crashing in and the surfers trying to catch them. 
Mother and baby koala take a nap
In the afternoon we visited a Koala sanctuary, where you can see koalas both in their natural state (where they look like furry lumps high in the treetops) and up close in a special enclosure.  We also went to a wildlife park where you can walk among the kangaroos, emus, deer, and other animals.  When you buy your ticket they give you a bag of food for the animals, so if you hold your hand out, the animals will come and eat.  Some of them are more aggressive than others, and one emu actually pulled the bag of food out of my pocket when I didn’t offer it anything to eat.
A young grey kangaroo waits for a snack
We had an early supper at a supposed Tex-Mex restaurant (it lost something in the translation) and then made our way to the Penguin Parade, Phillip Island’s most famous wildlife feature.  Every evening at dusk, hundreds of fairy penguins come in from a day at sea, waddle up the beach and into their burrows in the sand dunes.  During nesting season, which is just ending now, the plump chicks wait at the entrance of the burrow for their parents to come back with dinner.
Waiting for the penguins to come ashore
Fairy penguins are the smallest of all penguins and stand about a foot high and are quite charming, especially the superfat ones which have put on extra weight to give them energy while they stay ashore for several weeks and molt.  The unfortunate thing about the Penguin Parade is that it has been over commercialized and they let too many people in to watch.  More than two thousand tourists sit on bleachers and wait for the penguins and then rush around trying to see them next the boardwalk when they come in.  Rather amazingly, and luckily, the penguins don’t seem fazed by all the human activity.  We had a nice, relatively warm evening, perfect for penguin watching and sunset at the beach, but I suspect that when the weather is less hospitable, far fewer people are willing to sit out in the cold and the birds are less bothered.
Fairy penguins return to their nests after a day at sea.