Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Red Cliffs

The Battle of the Red Cliffs was one of the great battles in ancient China, and one of the most famous episodes in the classic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In fact, John Woo is releasing a movie about the battle. What follows are some excerpts from Wikipedia article on the battle. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to that page. For more information about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, click here:

The Battle of Red Cliffs, otherwise known as the Battle of Chibi, (Chinese: 赤壁之戰; pinyin: chìbì zhī zhàn) was a decisive battle during the period of the Three Kingdoms in China. It took place in the winter of 208 between the allied forces of the southern warlords (Liu Bei and Sun Quan), and the northern warlord Cao Cao. Liu and Sun successfully frustrated Cao's effort to conquer the land south of the Yangtze River and reunify China. Despite being one of the most famous battles of Chinese history, descriptions of the battle differ widely on details; in fact, even the place of battle is still fiercely debated.

The decisive blow to Cao came shortly afterwards, though the sources vary on whether Liu or Sun struck it. The most detailed account comes from the biography of Zhou Yu, which details how the Sun commander Huang Gai planned an attack on Cao Cao with fire ships, by pretending to surrender to Cao Cao. The source tells of the devastation wrought in the Cao camp by the fires. In any case, a general order of retreat was given to Cao's troops, and it is likely that the northerners destroyed a number of their own ships during the retreat. There are hints that the northerners were at the time already plagued by disease and low morale.

Many other sources indicate that a combination of Cao Cao's underestimation and Liu's deception resulted in the allies' victory in the Battle of Chibi (Red Cliffs). Cao Cao's generals and soldiers were mostly from cavalry and infantry, and almost none had any experience in battles on the water. Immersed in his victory over Wuhuan, Cao Cao simply assumed that superiority in number would eventually defeat the Sun and Liu navy (the ratio of the naval forces on the two sides are estimated as 120,000 to 50,000). He converted his massive infantry and cavalry army into a marine corps and a navy, which was his first tactical mistake. Even with only a few days of drills before the battle, Cao Cao's troops were already decimated by sea-sickness and lack of water experience, as many of his "fresh" crew could not even swim. Tropical diseases to which southerners had long been immune also plagued the soldiers of the north, and were out of control in Cao Cao's camps.

Extremely worried that his troops would be debilitated by the unfamiliar environment, Cao Cao decided to chain his entire fleet together with strong iron chains. Within days, sea-sickness was drastically decreased, as the ships would rock less when chained together. However, this seemingly beneficial act would eventually cause the destruction of the fleet.

At the same time, the commanders calculated that at this time of the year winds would only blow in the direction of northwest (which was called a southeastern wind). Cao Cao's fleet, which was anchored in the northwest relative to Sun and Liu's camps, was then thoroughly exposed to a fire attack. They bet on this South-eastern wind to even out the chances of the Sun and Liu's inferior forces. However, Cao Cao, unfamilar with the southern weather patterns, was unaware, since most of the season it was the northwestern wind that blew.

On the eve of the battle, Cao Cao realized that the southeastern wind disrupted his entire fleet movement, as his fleet could not advance against a wind blowing straight towards it. A general retreat order was issued, but as his fleet was chained tightly to one another, panic broke out and prevented the fleet from retreating effectively. The entire fleet of 2,000 was then trapped in the middle of the Yangtze river with restricted mobility.

In a desperate effort, Cao Cao called for an attack against the allied force. However, the arrows from Cao Cao's fleet could not reach Sun and Liu's fleets, as the Southeastern wind blew the arrows away from their designated targets. Cao Cao's strategies of overwhelming the Sun-Liu navies with boarding parties had failed as soon as the fleet was immobilized. The Wu forces, aided by the wind, launched arrows with fire tips at the hapless warships of Cao Cao. A combination of volleys of "fire arrows" and attacks of the "fire ships" led by Huang Gai eventually destroyed most of Cao Cao's ships. Then Sun Quan's main forces, on the southern side of the river, crossed the river while Liu Bei's forces marched towards Wulin, defeating Cao Cao's forces on the way. Seeing that the situation is hopeless, Cao Cao burnt his remaining ships and retreated towards Jiangling via Huarong.

Due to famine, disease, and skirmishes along the way, many of Cao Cao's remaining forces perished. However, Zhang Liao and Xu Zhu soon came to the rescue and Cao Cao was safely escorted back to Jiangling. Cao Cao then retreated back north, leaving Cao Ren and Xu Huang to guard Jiangling, Man Chong in Dangyang, and Yue Jin in Xiangyang.

Never again would Cao Cao command so large a fleet as he had at Jiangling, nor would similar opportunity to destroy his southern rivals again present itself. Therefore, the Battle of Red Cliffs and the capture of Jingzhou confirmed the separation of Southern China from the northern Yellow River valley heartland. The battle not only formally established the division of China to the Three Kingdoms, but also foreshadowed the north-south hostility of the later centuries.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Dao De Jing: chapter 16

The Dao De Ching is one of the world's classics. It's also one of the foundational documents of Daoism. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to an online version.

16. Decay and Renewal

Empty the self completely;
Embrace perfect peace.
The world will rise and move;
Watch it return to rest.

All the flourishing things
Will return to their source.
This return is peaceful;
It is the flow of nature,
An eternal decay and renewal.

Accepting this brings enlightenment,
Ignoring this brings misery.

Who accepts nature's flow becomes all-cherishing;
Being all-cherishing he becomes impartial;
Being impartial he becomes magnanimous;
Being magnanimous he becomes natural;
Being natural he becomes one with the Way;
Being one with the Way he becomes immortal:
Though his body will decay, the Way will not.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


The following is an excerpt from an article in the LA Times about the changing face of their Chinatown. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article, which includes more pictures.

A Community's Ethnic Tradition in Transition
L.A.'s old Chinatown of family shops and traditions is grudgingly giving way to galleries and lofts. Even Quentin Tarantino is buying in.

By David Pierson
Times Staff Writer
July 25, 2006

During the day, the faded red lanterns that crisscross Chung King Road in Chinatown dangle listlessly above a row of Chinese antique and trinket shops that have seen better times.But on a recent Saturday night, after the gates on the Chinese shops were pulled down, another Chinatown sprang to life near L.A.'s downtown.

Modern art galleries that have filled Chinatown's storefronts in recent years opened, and the red lanterns were illuminated. A mostly bohemian crowd jostled to view abstract drawings and photographs of Brazilian prostitutes. Amid the fashionably dressed visitors drinking Mexican beer and smoking cigarettes, an elderly Chinese woman scoured the street for empty cans, even accepting ones out of the hands of art patrons.

These days, there are two Chinatowns — one on the rise, the other on the decline.

The old Chinatown — the one established as an entry point for Chinese immigrants, made up of long-standing family associations and shops that celebrate China's traditions — is struggling. The population is aging, merchants are starved for shoppers and the associations can't attract younger members.

The new Chinatown — the one of art galleries, loft developments and trendy boutiques celebrating modern Asian fashion — is booming. It's a community more about style than tradition, created by a mix of white artists and second- and third-generation Chinese Americans who came from the suburbs to form their own vision of Chinatown.

The transformation has been occurring gradually over the last six years but now appears to be shifting into overdrive. Loft conversions, mixed-use projects and luxury apartments are on the horizon. Director Quentin Tarantino has even bought an old theater where he plans to show Asian films.

The situation has created a culture clash. Some old-timers complain about the rowdy behavior of the new patrons. There are periodic flare-ups over art shows that some longtime Chinatown merchants consider too racy. Some elderly residents worry about being pushed out by gentrification.

"They're North Pole and we're South Pole," said Michael Han, a jade cutter whose jewelry store, Win Sun Co., has been a mainstay on Chung King Road for 30 years.

"There's no way for the two to get together. They've got people with nose rings, earrings, all those things. They come in here asking if they can use the restroom. I'm not offended; it's just the trend."

In the back room of his jewelry store, Han was playing a noisy game of mah-jongg with three elderly friends and bantering in Cantonese. The septuagenarian also speaks Mandarin, Taiwanese and Toisanese — a true mark of an old-timer, because some of Chinatown's earliest settlers were from an area in southern China's Guangdong province where it is spoken.

Though he is ethnically Chinese, Han grew up in Burma and left for the U.S. in the 1960s. He landed in Chinatown, like most Chinese immigrants of that time. He fondly remembers the 1970s, its boom period.

"It was so busy I never had a chance to have lunch," said Han. "Jade was very fashionable."

Han's store is on the ground floor of a peach-colored building. He rarely sits behind his glass counters, which display hundreds of jade and gold necklaces, earrings and bracelets. He's lucky to get one customer on some weekdays, so playing mah-jongg in the back room has become part of his daily routine.

Han still sends out 500 Christmas cards each year to the regular customers he's accumulated in three decades of business. Many haven't been to the store in years.

In Chung King Road's golden era, Han's business was one of many high-end dealers in art, furniture, ceramics and jewelry. But by the end of the 20th century, many patrons had passed on, and reproductions of Chinese antiques were being mass-produced.

Most of the merchants' children have college educations and little interest in taking over the stores. Han's son is a robotics engineer and his daughter is a teacher.

Shop after shop has closed on Chung King Road, leaving behind only some of the more well-known businesses, such as F. See On, the Jade Tree and Fong's Oriental Works of Art.

By the late 1990s, property owners were desperate to lease out the empty storefronts, so they took a gamble. They lowered rents and leased the spaces to rising artists, who considered the rents a bargain compared to places like Santa Monica. Over the next few years, the scene took off.Today there are about a dozen art galleries on the street. They have formed one of the most talked-about contemporary art scenes in the world.

Han and other merchants were optimistic when the galleries arrived, hoping they would bring more customers. But they soon realized that the galleries were not going to substantially boost business, in part because many drew crowds only for Saturday night exhibitions.

Monday, July 24, 2006


The painting is a Cormorant, by Musashi. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to a more lengthy article at Wikipedia.

(This is from the official website of the town of Musashi)Miyamoto Musashi was born in the twelveth year of the rule of Tensho(1584), in Miyamoto, Ohara town. The grandfather, Hirata Shougen, is descended from the nobility of the old area, Harima. Musashi's father, Munisai, and Grandfather were both in the service of the Shinmen family, who controlled Mimasaka county from Mt.Takeyama castle, as protectors and trainers of the forces.

Musashi's mother, Omasa, soon died sfter giving birth to him. He was raised by his stepmother, Yoshiko, just like a real son. In the end though, when Musashi was very young, Musashi divorced Yoshiko, and she returned to her family home.        

The Shinmen family's forces lived through many hostilities, and it was said that Munisai was particularly strong, perhaps the storongest of all. Munisai was a extremely harsh father, raising Musashi very strictly.

Because of repeated friction with his father, he was very lonely and lived unhappily when he was young. However, as he grew up he was not defeated by his father's strictness and showed rare ability in the Martial Arts. Musashi decided to declare his own name, and taking the name from his birthplace, he introduced himself as Miyamoto Musashi.

Ohara(Miyamoto) has many historical places. Near the big maiden hair tree there is a carved memorial stone marking the place where Musashi was born. This stone was carved by Hosokawa Morishige, the feudal lord of Kumamoto. Behind the stone is a short biography describing evevts in Musashi's life from when he was a child. Near the stone is Musashi's birthplace. In 1942(Showa 17) The birthplace caught fire and burned down, but a large building nearby was spared damage. This building contained a large number of items pertaining to Musashi. When Musashi's elder sister(Ogin) married she moved into the Hirao household. This house is the oldest thatched roof house in Ohara. The garden of this house contains Tarayou and Utsugi trees, which are several hundred years old, and give a sense of old days.

Other sites include Aramaki Shrine, where Musashi observed drum movements that inspired him to create Niten Ichiryu, the two-sworded fighting style.(The shrine is now called Sanomo)

There is also the Musashi shrine which celebrates his mastery of the sword. Three places were built (Musashi Dojo, Gorinbo, Museum) by the townspeople to commerate his philosophy.

Miyamoto village remains in the image of Musashi, but it is an understated image.

When Musashi was younger many fighting styles and tactics prospered. At the age of 13 Musashi fought Arima Kihei, who used the Shintouryu style of sword fighting, and defeated him.

After this figtht Musashi left his hometown behind and departed for his travels. He travelled to many districts, improving his sword technique. When he was 29 he fought against Sasaki Kojiro at Ganryujima Island near Kyushu. He fought over sixty duels and he was never defeated. He usually risked his life without ever thinking of death. He was a master swordsmen as well as an artist.

In later years he made many sculptures and drawings that still remain. With the same spirit he used to master the secrets of the sword, becoming a swordmaster, he concentrated on making works of art and he made drawings of grass, trees, and birds (ROGANZU, KOUBAIHATOZU) that are very spiritual and first give off a feeling of warmth. From his lifetime works of art that reflected his quiet mind, we can continue to investigate his soul, heart, and mind and reach the depth of his soul as they are expressed in his works.

Musashi wandered about for a long time, and when he was over 50 years old he enjoyed the patronage of Hosokawa Tadatoshi, the feudal master of Kumamoto. As a guest swordsman he was able to live in peace during his time in Kumamoto. He was able to pass his name to posterity by shutting himself in a cave and writing his famous book of tactics, The book of the 5 rings, and people say the view from Reigandou cave reminds us of how Kamasaka pass looks.

Miyamoto Musashi died in Kumamoto, having never returned to his hometown of Musashi. His bones were brought back to Ohara to be interned in a tomb near his parents.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Moon in the Water

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to a page of Zen resources. The specific page is full of Zen poetry and koans.

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Afraid to Give Up the Ghost

This is the first page of a story about the belief in ghosts on Taiwan. For the full story, click on the title of this post, and you'll be directed there.

Afraid to Give Up Ghosts
Mainland China may have left otherworldly beliefs behind, but in Taiwan ... well, you'd better just do what the spirits say.
By Mark Magnier, Times Staff WriterJuly 18, 2006

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Chin Wei considers for a brief moment a blockbuster American ghost movie and scoffs. "I saw 'Ghostbusters,' but that's not how it's done," says the author of several ghost books and the host of various radio and television paranormal programs. "You can't get rid of ghosts that easily, especially with those funny, weird machines. That's just comedy."

In Taiwan, ghosts are rarely a laughing matter. On TV, in daily conversation, at temples and in the deepest recesses of the unconscious, they maintain a firm grip on island society. Taiwanese are ghost-crazy — or rather, crazy to avoid them. A recent survey of Taipei college students found that 87% were believers, and some say that could be on the low side.

"I'd say the other 13% would probably hedge their bets if you questioned them closer," says Marc Moskowitz, an anthropologist at Lake Forest College in Illinois who has studied Taiwan's spirit beliefs.

"Many Taiwanese feel it's best not to anger the ghosts, just in case they do exist."

Ghosts have been an integral part of Chinese culture dating to at least the Shang Dynasty, with 3,500-year-old oracle bones from the period depicting a big-headed, bent-kneed phantom.

But China has seen much of its otherworldly belief system erode under the Communist Party's assault on religion and superstition. That has left Taiwan, which split from China in 1949 after civil war, a rich repository of this living tradition, one that draws scholars eager to study Chinese ghost practices in their purest form.

"On the mainland, we're more cut off from our culture by socialist education and propaganda, and I don't believe in ghosts," says Wang Shen, 28, a Beijing-based website designer.

"That's not necessarily a good thing, though. People here aren't as nice as they were before, when they feared retribution."

Up four dirty flights of stairs in a north-central neighborhood of Taipei, past grungy walls with peeling paint and landings with missing lightbulbs, is the Tian Yu Tang spiritual center. It's a rainy weekday, but several people wait in the anteroom for their consultation. An oversized TV blares beside a large Buddhist altar bedecked with five candles, a porcelain tiger and a revolving prayer wheel. Nearby sits a Tweety Bird coffee cup and the Chinese version of Elle magazine.

Fifty-four-year-old Liang, who declined to give her first name, is here to connect with her mother's ghost, who keeps visiting her during the night asking for money. Liang says that when she offered her jewelry, the ghost said she wanted only cash. Parapsychologist Hsu Tzu-he fixes Liang with an intense stare and informs her that jewelry is indeed no good down there. Mom's spirit is trapped in a ghost channel unable to transcend to the next world, she adds during the 15-minute, $15 session.

With a few prayers and a proper funeral ceremony, however, Mom can be elevated out of purgatory. Hsu hands Liang a tissue as tears of anxiety and relief course down her face. But there's more. Liang's dead father has been reborn and is now a 1-year-old Japanese boy, Hsu adds, occasionally glancing at a computer screen with rows of numbers.

For those looking for an out-of-this-world experience of a different sort, the company also offers a 20-stop tour of hell, including a review of the punishments evildoers can expect. The company says the experience prompted one fashion-obsessed customer to become a monk.

"After you tour hell, you can better appreciate paradise," Hsu's mother, who helps out with consultations, said, asking not to be identified.

Those not under direct attack from the netherworld can watch those who are, on numerous TV variety and ghost shows. No friendly, pudgy Caspers here. Late-night programs, timed to avoid scaring children, include amateur and professional video of haunted houses, sightings and other unexplained phenomena, helpfully explained by paranormal, feng shui and religious experts. Some say the small screen goes too far.

"Most of the time you don't want to bother ghosts," says Wang Jun-kei, 38, an employee in the telecommunications industry.

"With all those reporters chasing the ghosts around, no wonder they get angry and stirred up."

Ghosts don't just attack people's psyches, they might even be threatening Taiwan's military security. Ghost experts say some Taiwanese soldiers believe that certain vehicles, weapons and flags of military units, particularly units that suffered horrific casualties during the war against the Communists in the 1930s and '40s, have ghosts attached to them. The military brass grew concerned several years ago after learning that some soldiers were afraid of the dark and were trying to appease the spirits of their broken weapons and disabled vehicles with prayers before ordering up repairs, says Chen Wei-min, host of the popular TV ghost show "Passing Through Yin and Yang."

"Commanders became concerned that soldiers wouldn't dare stand outside at night or use their weapons," says Chen, author of 14 ghost books, including "Ghost Talk in the Army."

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The 36 Strategies: #16: When you want to take captives, leave them on the loose for a while.

Next to The Art of War by Sun Zi, the 36 Strategies is most widely known book of strategic thought. It is a good idea to understand strategy, if for no other reason, to recognize when someone is trying to implement a strategy on you. Here is number 16.

16. When you want to take captives, leave them on the loose for a while.

Fleeing enemies may turn again and strike desperately if pursued too hotly. If they are given room to run, on the other hand, they scatter and lose their energy. Then they can be taken captive without further violence.

In other words, it may be advantageous to allow the opponent to thrash around a bit before making one's move. There is no need to be in an unneccesary hurry.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Who needs fiction: Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing

Click on the title of this post for the story ...

"Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you've had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean."


If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the original Wikipedia article, which has more information, links, etc.

Built in 998 in the Heian period, Byōdō-in (平等院) is a temple in the city of Uji in Kyoto Prefecture in Japan. The most famous building in the temple is the Phoenix Hall or the Amida Hall. It is a Buddhist temple, established by Fujiwara no Yorimichi in 1052: the former owner, Minamoto no Toru, used the building as a country villa. Additional buildings making up the compound were burnt down during a civil war in 1336.

Byōdō-in consists of a central hall, flanked by twin wing corridors on both sides of the central hall, and a tail corridor. The central hall houses an image of Amida Buddha. The roof of the hall displays statues of fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix, called hōō in Japanese.

The Phoenix Hall (鳳凰堂 hōō-dō), completed in 1053, is the exemplar of Fujiwara Amida halls. It consists of a main rectangular structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor, set at the edge of a large artificial pond. Inside, a single golden image of Amida (c. 1053) is installed on a high platform. The Amida sculpture was executed by Jocho, who used a new canon of proportions and a new technique (yosegi), in which multiple pieces of wood are carved out like shells and joined from the inside. Applied to the walls of the hall are small relief carvings of celestials, the host believed to have accompanied Amida when he descended from the Western Paradise to gather the souls of believers at the moment of death and transport them in lotus blossoms to Paradise. Raigo paintings on the wooden doors of the Phoenix Hall, depicting the Descent of the Amida Buddha, are an early example of Yamato-e, Japanese-style painting, and contain representations of the scenery around Kyoto.

There is a garden with a pond in front of the building, which in 1997 was dredged as part of an archeological dig.

Japan commemorates its longevity and cultural significance by displaying its image on the 10 yen coin. In December 1994, UNESCO listed the building as a World Heritage Site as part of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto". The Phoenix Hall, the great statue of Amida inside it, and several other items at Byōdō-in are national treasures.

A full-size replica of the temple was built in 1968 at the Valley of the Temples on O'ahu, Hawaii. See Byodo-In Temple.

Monday, July 10, 2006

300 Tang Dynasty Poems: #17 The Beautiful Xi Shi

The Tang Dynasty was considered a high point in Chinese culture. Poetry was especially esteemed. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to an online version of the famous anthology, 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. #17 follows:

Wang Wei

Since beauty is honoured all over the Empire,
How could Xi Shi remain humbly at home? --
Washing clothes at dawn by a southern lake --
And that evening a great lady in a palace of the north:
Lowly one day, no different from the others,
The next day exalted, everyone praising her.
No more would her own hands powder her face
Or arrange on her shoulders a silken robe.
And the more the King loved her, the lovelier she looked,
Blinding him away from wisdom.
...Girls who had once washed silk beside her
Were kept at a distance from her chariot.
And none of the girls in her neighbours' houses
By pursing their brows could copy her beauty.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Media weekend

On Friday, I picked up a book at Barnes and Noble for $14.98: 100 Views of Edo by Ando Hiroshige (ISBN: 0760772916). It's a beautiful volume. Each of the woodblock prints faces text which describes the scene, what it was like in Hiroshige's time, it's significance, etc.

I saw the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It was a lot of fun, but I was disappointed that there was no fencing sequence that even came close to the one in the first movie; and the ending left me unsatisfied. Kiera Knightly could use to eat a sandwich. Lovely girl, but way too skinny.

Finally, I saw The Last Samurai on cable. The cinematography and costumes were fabulous. I only wished the fighting sequences were a little less flashy, and more "classic." I was able to pick out some words in Japanese, so I'm coming along on that front.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Journey Across the Roof of the World

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.

Journey across the roof of the world
By Jane Macartney

There's a train that puts Tibet in touch with the outside world - and more firmly under China's grip

As the train climbed towards the highest railway pass on Earth, funny things began to happen.
Pens leaked. Air-tight bags of crisps and peanuts burst open. Laptops crashed and MP3 players stopped working. Passengers began feeling nauseous, and some reached for their oxygen masks. A few were sick.

But few of the 500 passengers on board were complaining. For railway buffs, this was as close as it came to paradise. We were on board the first passenger train to journey the 4,000km (2,500 miles) from Beijing to the ancient Tibetan capital of Lhasa and the final 1,110km yesterday took us up through the 5,072m (16,640ft) Tanggula Pass and across the roof of the world.

As the 19-car T27 train climbed around hairpin bends on banks and bridges, Ivor Warburton could hardly contain his excitement. “This is everything I had hoped and a bit more,” the former British Railways executive exclaimed.

Outside the sealed windows, protected by ultra-violet filters, shaggy yaks ran startled from the train, rare antelope grazed on the grasslands, snow-capped peaks glistened in the sun and fat marmots scampered into their burrows.

This journey was made possible by what President Hu of China called a “miracle” of engineering.

“We have the courage, confidence and ability to stand among the advanced peoples of the world,” he declared when he officially opened the line on Saturday.

It took more than 30,000 workers five years and more than £2.3 billion to build. About 550km of it runs over unstable tundra, requiring raised causeways and underground cooling pipes to prevent the ice melting. It is the world’s highest railway, surpassing Peru’s Lima-Huancayo line, which reaches 4,800m, and the highest station is in Nagqu, a town at 4,500m (14,850 ft).

Chinese officials consider it a testament to the success of their country’s economic reform and its rise as a major world power. State-controlled newspapers published pictures of villagers waving at the pssing train, and television showed President Hu congratulating workers who built the line.

But the line is also a political statement. It cements Beijing’s writ over Tibet, 56 years after the Chinese army marched into the remote Himalayan fastness. Along the line, paramilitary People’s Armed Police were stationed at intervals of about a kilometre, each standing at attention, back to the train, gazing out over grasslands where scarcely a human being was to be seen.

“The People’s Armed Police are here to protect the railway” read a banner at one station, though they may be more worried about scavengers eager to steal the rails than saboteurs wanting to disrupt services.

Previously, the journey from Beijing to Lhasa would have taken days, if not weeks, by road and rail. It can now be completed in 48 hours, for a fare of as little as £25 for those prepared to sit bolt upright on hard-backed chairs.

The one-way air fare of more than £200 is beyond the reach of most Tibetans and Chinese, and hardly an adventure. The rail journey takes you from one of the most densely populated parts of the planet, through endless hours of farmland, and then up through the rocky desert of the Himalayan foothills into boundless grassland.

Yesterday the train left Golmud — once the last station on a line that used to end abruptly in the sands of Qinghai province — at dawn.

It stopped to change its ordinary locomotives for three diesel-powered 3,800-horsepower engines made by GE in Erie, Pennsylvania. The engines had been adapted to pull 15 carriages and a generator car up from 2,816m to altitudes of more than 5,000m where the lack of oxygen reduces power by as much as a third.

Mr Warburton, whose company RailPartners hopes to launch a luxury tourist train along the line by late 2007, admired the achievement as we climbed at a gradient of one in 50. “This is brilliant because the climb is relentless,” he said.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Teahouse in HangZhou

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to a photo essay with narration, which describes a teahouse experience in Hangzhou which is unlike any other you're likely to encounter.