If you're in the Pittsburgh area, you owe it to yourself to get to the Phipps Conservatory to see one of the most beautiful, imaginative exhibits ever. One of my favorite artists, Dale Chihuly, is currently exhibiting many of his installation chandeliers and other large glass pieces in the gardens of the Conservatory. At night, it is simply enchanting.
Phipps Conservatory is one of the jewels of American botanical conservatories. Built in 1893 by one of Pittsburgh's steel scions, Henry Phipps, it is a classic example of high Victorian glass and steel, and it's collection of plants and their presentation is really dramatic. I used to love going there as a child at Easter time with my mother and grandmother to see all the tulips and spring flowers.
This time around, it was Christmas time and I took my sister, her kids, and my niece's boyfriend (!!) to see the exhibit last night. It did not disappoint. I took most of these photos without a flash, so there is some slight blurring since it was dark and I had to leave the shutter open a while longer.
This is the main chandelier in the entrance pavilion.
Entering the Palm House, you are presented with this gorgeous standing chandelier in blues and yellows.
This rowboat of brightly colored glass balls in a reflecting pond was among my favorites.
The colors were almost too intense for the camera...
This spiny chandelier in the Cacti House was inspired.
And lastly, this blue installation in the Silver House made for a wonderful Holiday setting.
There were plenty of stand alone pieces, outdoor sculptures, and other installations. It took us a full two hours to see everything, and I would have loved to have walked through it again.
The exhibit runs through the end of February after being extended from Thanksgiving, so make an effort to get here if you can.
To see more (and better) photos of the exhibit and a nice five minute video, you can go to the artist's website to view them.
Santa came to my house today. All 425 pounds of him. Seriously.
Long white hair tied back in a ponytail, long white beard halfway down his chest ZZTop style, wearing a big red faded Henley T-shirt. Add a big laugh, a very gregarious personality, and you have Santa.
I think this Santa must have had a really good time in the seventies, he was kind of hippy Santa.
Hippy Santa tried to fix my oven. He got the oven to work (yeah!), but can't get the self cleaning cycle to work because he said the part they shipped him is missing some kind of connector thingy.
Hippy Santa waited patiently while I cleaned all the crap from out behind the stove while he told me about his wife and six cats, and then didn't charge me a penny for the call because he said he hadn't completed the job, and he'd be back after the Holidays since I'm going out of town.
How's THAT for Holiday spirit? How many appliance guys do you know that don't charge you for an hour's worth of work because they didn't have the right part? He'll have been to my house three times by the time this thing is fixed, and I'll owe him a whopping $60. That's it.
Ho, ho, ho. And if you need an appliance repair man - I've got a great one for you.
I bought $5 worth of chances on the $163 mega million jackpot yesterday, and hit 3 of the five winning numbers. Thinking that had to be worth something - right? I checked the prize page to discover that indeed I had won!
"Kashgar lies where the maps in people's minds dissolve. The Northern and Southern Silk Roads converge here, and the endless desert dies against looming mountains. Fifteen centuries ago, in its Buddhist days, its inhabitants were famously fierce and impetuous, and in time grew to be a champion of Islam. To Europe, it was barely known until the nineteenth century. Then as tsarist Russia pushed south and east, Kashgar became a listening post in the Great Game of imperial espionage, played out between the Russian and British empires beside an impoverished China." - Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road
A highway might be an odd thing to post about, but this is one road trip I'll not soon forget. There are basically three roads out of Kashgar: The Silk Road going north and east across the top of the Taklamakan desert, the Southern Silk Road heading south and east along the bottom of the Taklamakan desert (which by the way is presently closed to foreigners thanks to terrorist activities, you need an armed escort to travel there), and finally, the Karakorum Highway which heads south and hugs the border of Tajikestan before crossing into Pakistan at the Khunjerab Pass some 16,000+ feet above sea level. It is the highest paved international road in the world. Keep in mind that less than 72 hours earlier, I had been at some 505 ft. BELOW sea level, so this was going to be mind blowing - literally.
The highway is built in one of the most difficult regions of the world, geographically, and politically. This is where the continental plates of Asia and India collide, propelling the earth skyward into the Himalaya and Pamir Mountain ranges. It is also where the mild mannered countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Tajikestan and India are all within 250 km of each other. Not exactly the Swiss Alps.
The Karakorum highway was completed in 1986 after a 20 year building process which claimed over 1,000 lives. Plans were approved this summer to expand it to four lanes to promote commerce. The trip we took was about 4.5 hours to the lake. It used to take 4-5 DAYS before the highway was built.
One thing the Chinese have got right is their highway system. It's everywhere, and it's awesome. In even the most remote regions of China, you can now pretty much be guaranteed that there is at least one well paved and well maintained route everywhere. China has done this to promote commerce and tourism, but it also helps in keeping the people in check I'm sure. Gotta be able to move those tanks. In places like Kashgar, where a traffic jam is more than three cars on the same street, it is a bit overkill, but the donkey carts appreciate it!
This is pretty much the scene going out of Kashgar. Nice road, no vehicles. You can barely see the mountain peaks looming through the haze in the distance.
For the first hour or so, the road winds through farmland with poker stick poplars lining the road like a giant ghostly picket fence, you get glimpses of the rural village life here, and you immediately get an appreciation for the fact that these people live pretty much the same as they have for centuries.
Pardon my fingers in this shot - I took it from the bus.
After a while, the trees dissapeared and we began to head up. Straight up. We followed the river bed of the Ushmurvan river, a milky malt of glacial water which streams to the Taklamakan.
This being October, the river was just a pebble bed of trickles, but in the spring, large sections of the road are washed out every year, and they spend all summer replacing them so they can be washed away again. We spent time trying to navigate these washouts during this year's rebuild:
As we neared the Pakistani border, we had to stop at a Police Checkpoint, get off the bus, walk through the Police Station, and have our passports and visas carefully scrutinized.
Luckily, traffic is light on this road, so it wasn't a big delay, and it gave us time to look around.
I like this next photo because it shows a shepherd's hut located in front of the mountain which has a river of skree coming down the hillside.
Why these people chose to build their hut smack up against the mountain in front of the road is beyond me.
As we neared the lake, we drove past a large salt water flat. By the roadside, some native Kyrghyz traders has built a hut and were selling rugs and other handicrafts, so we stopped to stretch our legs and have a look. You can see the shifting sand dunes in the background of the mountains.
I actually got a better view of them on the way back when the weather started to change:
Perhaps the most serendipitous photo of my entire trip is this next one. As we were coming down the mountains from the lake, the weather got very stormy looking. We passed a very dramatic mountain pass where the light was just amazing, and I took a chance and grabbed a shot out the bus window. Most of the bus window shots by far were not worth keeping, let alone posting, but this one worked. It wasn't until I got home and downloaded it that I saw the Bactrian camel and her calf in the foreground. Sometimes you get lucky. This shot is much better viewed in its original size.
On a day as cold, windy, and rainy as this one, where all you want in the world is to curl up on the couch with a good book, a fire in the fireplace and a mug of something warm, my thoughts naturally turn to Chai Tea.
I've long liked the Orgeon Brand of Chai concentrate, but it is too sweet for me, and when mixed with milk, packs a whopping load of sugar calories per serving. They have a slightly less sweet version, and a sugar free version, but they just don't do it for me.
I already posted my favorite photo of the girl in the doorway, and some of the older Uyghur people who have the most fascinating faces, but the children of Kashgar were just delightful. Completely shy and curious, Westerners are still not very common here, and they just wanted their photo taken or to smile and say "Herroh". These were just some of my favorites:
This next one has a smoky haze because it was next to the blacksmith shop.
This little guy was having a much deserved "time out".
Faces of complete mischief
In contrast to the sweetness of these girls outside a home in one of the neighborhoods where we had dinner one evening.
Well, I have to tell you, this was definitely an experience. Outside of the markets of Morocco, the Kashgar Bazaar is probably the most famous marketplace there is - and rightly so. Anything you could possibly hope to find, you can find here. From beautiful carpets and fabrics, to musical instruments and spices, the Kashgar market has it all. The pictures speak louder than words:
First off, there are the hats. The Uyghur people love their hats. Small jewel box hats, tall fur hats, there are hat stores everywhere:
And where there are hats, there are hat mold shops too!
And the rugs... oh the rugs. I did not feel comfortable purchasing an authentic kilim rug because I don't know enough about the knots and patterns, much less being able to barter in Uyghur or Kirghiz, but the colorful Kirghiz camel felt rugs in their colorful patterns were pretty straight forward and less expensive, so I bought one of ones pictured below:
But it's the things you don't often think of when you're looking for spices and staples that catch your attention. Like this bucket of dried snakes:
Or the ropes of dried snakes and stacks of dried frogs and lizards to be had, although I did buy a big bag of the beautiful saffron pictured here next to the dead reptiles. The most expensive spice in the world, I got a 4 oz. bag of it for less than $40 US. We're having another paella party!
Often times, the people selling the goods were far more interesting than the products. Like this pomegranate vendor:
Or perhaps my favorite, this older couple at a hat shop that graciously posed for me. Two of the most beautiful, interesting faces I've ever seen:
And of course, what would any trip to the bazaar be without spices and fabrics?
That's silk. All of it. Total fabric porn.
Or in this case, fruits and nuts?
Shoppers paradise. Next up - the children of Kashgar.
Email exchange between myself and the Teutonic wonder known as Viddythis :
Viddythis: According to weather.com, we can play golf tomorrow!! Last golf day of the year! Please? Pretty Please? I got us a tee time for 11:20 AM.
Broadsheet: Ummm, sweetie, they are calling for a greater than 50% chance of rain tomorrow.
Viddythis: See, I see that as a 50% chance of sun! Sun and ponies! And rainbows and unicorns and strawberries and BLAM!!!
Well, I guess we're playing golf then.....
Can't wait to find out what BLAM is.....
UPDATE: Luckily, our relative levels of golf suckage were pretty well matched, so we didn't keep score and had a great time. I'm pretty sure that golf clubs are not supposed to look like gardening tools when you're finished playing. But ours did. We hit more dirt than balls.
Unbelievably, we did not hit a deer. Herds of them. Everywhere. I guess they were the ponies and unicorns Neckbone was hoping for. The BLAM was provided by the nearby pistol range. Can I just rave for a moment about how beautiful Pine Ridge Golf Course is? Surrounded on all sides by the Loch Raven reservoir, it is simply gorgeous. After nine holes, the weather tanked, temperatures dropped, and the heavy fog and drizzle rolled in. Neckbone and I hit a great Indian restaurant in Towson for curries and a beer afterward. Hard day at work I must say. A big thank you to Ice Queenie for loaning me her hubby for a few hours. I completely envy them their upcoming adventure over the Holidays to South Africa.
Saturday, Snay,ACW, JWER, NPR Junkie , myself, and neighbor Allison gathered to help Zenchick move all her earthly belongings across the hall into a big, spacious, TWO bedroom apartment. Hilarity ensued, and I believe there was general consensus during the day that ACW's wife is hot. Really hot.
I don't think we broke anything permanently, and we got Zenchick's computer and entertainment center hooked up and working before we left, but there were a few odd moments of conversation (taken completely out of context mind you):
Zenchick to JWER: Don't flick!!! Stop Flicking!!!
Anytime something needed to be cleaned (all of it): Allison!!!!
ACW: My butt leaks.
NPR Junkie: Big circles of foam - OHHHH (groaning in ecstasy)
Snay: ACW got white stuff to shoot out of it
Broadsheet: This is just gonna ooze out, create a little knob and get hard again isn't it?
ACW: It's just the screw going into the stud - don't worry.
Broadsheet: God - I could stick my finger in that.
Where do you shoot an epic film about 1970's Afghanistan? In western China of course! The film adaptation of the wildly popular book by Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, presented producers with a problem. Where can we recreate a version of 1970's Kabul, since getting into Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq to shoot a movie is - how shall we say - dangerous? Head to Kashgar, China.
[the produer] was initially attracted to Kashgar through the stories and pictures of backpackers, photographers and other adventurers, most of which he found online. “This place is a kind of Lonely Planet’s greatest hits,” he said. “The kind of travelers you see out here are basically people who rough it and Silk Road fanatics.”
Very quickly other charms came into evidence. Kashgar had almost no history of filmmaking, but China’s movie industry had started booming, and the authorities, eager to put the country’s far west on the map quickly, warmed to the idea of making “The Kite Runner” here. That in itself represented a huge turnabout. Not long before, foreigners were barred from traveling to the region, where separatist sentiments have long existed.
Another attraction to shooting in Kashgar was their ability to do wide shots with very little set preparation. Often times, film makers have to shoot scenes very tightly because the set prep can be extensive and expensive. In Kashgar, you can go for the wide shot for over a 100 yards, and all you get are dusty streets and donkey carts. Voila! Afghanistan.
So, if you want to experience the charms and atmosphere of Kashgar in more detail like I did - head to the theater this weekend and see "The Kite Runner". I know I will.
The China Chronicles - Id Kah Mosque and The Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine
Between battling a lousy head cold, the snow, hosting a luncheon, and intermittent Internet problems, it's been a slow posting week. Sorry about that.
Back to Kashgar. In the center of Kashgar, stands the largest mosque in China. The Id Kah Mosque.
Started in 996 AD, the current mosque and the grounds were built around 1442. It can hold up to 20,000 worshipers, and is a real landmark for the Uyghurs (WEE-gur). The Uyghur people, a Turkic tribe of Central Asia, have occupied this region of China since about mid 600 AD. The region used to be known as Chinese Turkestan, or East Turkestan. This name is now illegal and associated with terrorist organizations by the Chinese. Because the Uyghurs were so isolated, they were largely left alone by the Chinese until the Nationalists set up shop in 1911. Even then, the Uyghurs staged two successful uprisings against the Chinese in 1933 and 1944 and established their own republic - the Islamic East Turkestan Republic. In 1949,when the Communists came to rule, the PRC officially annexed the area with the help of the Russians.
Nonetheless, the Uyghurs are fiercely independent and many of them still consider the Han Chinese an occupying force. Their language is written in Arabic, and most of the people older than me do not speak or understand Chinese. Chinese is compulsory in all schools in Xinjiang province today.
9/11 provided the Chinese government all the opportunity they needed to continue a program of oppression against the Uyghur separatists, under the guise of anti-terrorism. The Chinese claim it is simply following "National Policy".
The point of explaining all of this is to underscore this "National Policy" in respect to this, and all other mosques in China. The local Communist Party leaders in Kashgar (which coincidentally are all Chinese - not Uyghur) select the Imams. This is like our elected officials picking Bishops, Cardinals, and even the Pope for the Catholic Church. Traditionally, the Muslims have the "official" Imam selected by the Party, and an "unofficial", or local imam selected by the people. This control has also been demonstrated more publicly with the Tibetans, where the Chinese government is now selecting lamas sympathetic to, or controlled by, the Party.
One of the more frustrating aspects of this portion of our trip, was that our handler, who was a Kashgar middle school teacher, and a Uyghur, was also a very ambitious young Communist Party member. As a result, we got the politically correct version of all the sites, with no reference whatsoever to any political strife or discord. We were even dismissed or admonished once or twice when someone asked a sensitive question. And yet, at this very mosque, a small riot broke out between the Muslims and Chinese officials as recently as 2003 when the government took over a rose garden to build a series of shops next to the mosque, and a number of men were executed as terrorists as recently as February of this year.
None of that drama detracts from the beauty of the mosque. Especially in the early morning light. And it was exceptionally early. In its governing wisdom, China has a single time zone throughout its enormous country. Therefor, places like Kashgar have a "local time", while government offices and public institutions run two hours later on Beijing time (BT). Our handlers kept us on BT, so we started touring at 10:00 AM, which was only 8:00 AM local time. At least the light was good.
The other important landmark, the site considered the most holy Muslim site in China, and a site which also drives home the different views of the Uyghurs and Chinese is the Abakh Khoja Tomb, also known as the "Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine".
The tomb houses her grandfather, the most revered Muslim in Kashgar history, and five generations of his family. The Concubine isn't even buried here, but the legend remains. The Uyghur version is that the Emperor Qianlong visited Kashgar in 1760 and was taken by a young girl called Iprahan known for her naturally pleasing fragrance. The Emperor steals her, and takes her back to Beijing. Loyal to her homeland, and refusing the advances of the Emperor, Iprahan conceals knives up her sleeves to ward off the advances of the Emperor. Eventually, she commits suicide rather than succumb to the Emperor, and becomes a martyr to the Uyghur people.
The Chinese version is that Iprahan was given by the Uyghurs as a gift to the Emperor to unite the people, and was carefully escorted back to Beijing. Upon arrival, she was inconsolable and homesick for Kashgar. The Emperor did everything he could to recreate Kashgar at the palace and finally brought her favorite tree, the oleander, to soothe her. Eventually, she fell in love with the Emperor, became his favorite, and was a symbol of national unity to her people. Upon her death, she was escorted back to Kashgar by 120 attendants in a procession that took three years. If she smelled good as a child, after three years in the desert being dead, I'm thinking she was not so fresh.
Depends on who you believe, and who is telling the story. I do agree that the legend's association with the tomb has somewhat trivialized what is otherwise a very holy Sufi Muslim site.
Regardless of who you believe, it is a beautiful place.
Two Uyghur men discussing life in the graveyard adjacent to the tomb.
I have no idea why someone felt compelled to do this, but I'm awfully glad they did. The folks over at Wishbookweb.com have scanned in entire select Christmas catalogs from Sears, JCPenney, Wards and Spiegel from 1945 - to 1985. If you want to walk down memory lane and are of a certain age - this is the place to go.
I vividly remember nearly memorizing the Sears Christmas catalog from cover to cover dreaming of all the things inside. Today, we make a list on Amazon.com and email it to everyone, but back then, we circled what we wanted and put our name next to it.
There was one Christmas in particular that I wanted nothing more in the world except for the silly stuffed Angora Cat pictured below. I don't ever remember wanting anything more for Christmas as a kid than this stupid cat. I got it of course, loved it to death, and had it for years. I have no idea what ever became of it.
I'll spare you the horrors of 1971 clothing, but there is a striped, hooded, monks bathrobe featured in this same catalogue that I also received that year. It was all the rage. What's the one thing you wanted most as a little kid and either did or didn't get for Christmas?
Sometimes I think I might be borderline manic depressive. Do you ever feel that way? One day, you're all gung ho and get lots of stuff done, the next - not so much. Take yesterday for instance. I woke up with a wicked sore throat and didn't feel well - at all. The weather was just AWFUL with the high winds and dark skies, so I promptly laid on the couch most of the day, drank tea and watched movies. I did absolutely none of the things on my "to do" list which grows by the day.
The only time I left the house was to head over to Zenchick's last night to help her prep her new apartment for painting and paint a wall. She rewarded me with yummy pizza.
This morning, I get up at the crack of dawn, still not feeling all that hot, but am wracked with guilt for blowing yesterday off, so I start in the kitchen: unloaded the dishwasher, cleaned up all the pots and pans from a cooking spree on Sunday so I could have healthy food all week prepared ahead of time. I even emptied out and reorganized the tupperware cabinet which had spilled all over the place in my search to find matching containers and lids to organize leftovers from said cooking spree (this also resulted in deciding to get rid of the microwave popcorn popper circa 1982, lots of yogurt containers and Whole Foods containers). Other plans for the day include the upstairs closet, a trip to the recycling center (see cleaning out tupperware closet) and cleaning the laundry room. This doesn't include 3-4 hours of desk time and phone calls for job hunting.
That was, until I thought it would be a good idea to also clean the oven so I could get started on Holiday baking. Cleaned up the stove, got it all ready, hit the self cleaning button and moved on to the next project. Came back 10 minutes later to the oven beeping and flashing an error message.
Try again - same thing. Double sigh. Try to just turn the oven on - no self cleaning - same thing. Triple sigh. Now even the oven is not working.
Head to Whirpool's website to look up user manual, get down on hands and knees with a flashlight to find model number and serial number to give to the support technicians, and yadda yadda yadda, now it's nearly noon and I haven't taken a shower yet.
After talking to Whirlpool and trying a few more things, I need every homeowner's worst nightmare - an appliance service call. Thanks to the wonderful folks at Angie's List (please get yourself a subscription if they are in your area - they are wunderbar! It would make a great Christmas gift for any homeowner), I got the most highly recommended guy on the site, who normally doesn't come in to the city, but agreed to take a look at it.
I really can't afford to have an appliance repair right now, but according to Whirlpool, it's just the door latch, and I really can't afford not to have a working oven right now with three weeks to go before Christmas either. If it's bad news, everyone gets microwaved treats this year....
Screw it, I'm off to get a shower and try to get the day back on track.
On Saturday evening, I attended a dinner party at the neighbors which is quickly becoming an annual tradition. This was the third annual "Dessert Dinner". Basically, invite a bunch of your friends over, serve a lovely, light meal, and follow it up with five or six courses of desserts and about an equal number of bottles of wine. Total decadence.
The theme this year was Italian, to represent their recent honeymoon to Positano, Italy. Nothing says Italian like risotto, so there was a lovely course of lemon risotto and asparagus followed by an awesome veal scallopini. Then things got serious. Beautifully presented homemade cannelloni, canoli, individual creme brulees, panna cottas and cake. It went on and on. Funny thing is - nothing was left at the end of the evening.....
Especially the wine:
Good friends, good food, good wine - mix well and serve. It's a good thing.