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the great wall of china

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The Great Wall of China in Badaling, an hour north of Beijing, on a quiet day.

These days two other Chinese walls need to be mentioned as well, the Great Firewall and the Green Wall. Here's a fascinating article, 'Peering through the Filters', that brazenly frames China's internet censorship as an export product. Let's hope it proves as ineffective as the brick wall, which despite its fame never managed to stop any invaders.

Meanwhile, the Green Wall of China is the name for China's efforts to plant forests at an unprecedented scale to combat the invasion of the Gobi desert, which is expanding at an alarming rate and causing annual dust storms in Beijing.

Update: As this Economist special report explains in detail, Chinese online censorship actually consists of two "pillars of control":

...the Great Firewall, a Western name for a system of blocking foreign websites, starting in the late 1990s, which some believe has cost as much as $160m (the details are state secrets); and Golden Shield for domestic surveillance and filtering, begun in 1998 by the Ministry of Public Security and estimated to have cost more than $1.6 billion so far.

beijing advertising

The Magic Moment - Beijing subway ad

(No, that switchboard isn't part of the poster.)

beijing crowds

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Beijing's Forbidden City, the former imperial palace that these days is simply called the Palace Museum, draws tourists in tremendous thronging numbers. Much of its mystique, however, is preserved in the names of its many gates and halls, with nuances like the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, and halls devoted to very specific imperial activities like the Hall of Character Cultivation and the Hall of Mental Cultivation.

For a more heavenly vision of the Fobidden City, have a look at this fifteenth century 'Palace-City Scroll'.

xi'an stelae

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The most impressive museum in Xi'an, China's ancient capital of Chang'an, houses the Forest of Stelae, a vast collection of ancient literature and calligraphy, all engraved for eternity on huge stone slabs. The sheer physicality of the Four Books and Five Classics is really quite impressive.

One famous specimen is known as the Nestorian Stela, from the eighth century, which documents the spread of the earliest Christian communities in China. The stela states that "the Luminous Religion from Da Qin" (the Chinese term for the empire in the West, i.e. the Roman Empire, and later the Christians from Syria) reached Xi'an in 635 CE.

For more background, the first episode of the BBC's 'A History of Christianity' also explores the early Christian presence in China.

dunhuang desert & caves

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From Sichuan further northwest to China's traditional desert frontier, where the Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang lies on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert - quite literally, with large sand dunes bordering on the town.

From ancient times Dunhuang became a religious and cultural center for Silk Road travellers, as testified by the hundreds of caves decorated with Buddhist art, known as the Mogao Caves, the oldest of which dates back to the fourth century CE. The place is impossible to photograph, but this gallery gives some idea of its splendor.

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One fascinating illustration of culture spreading along the Silk Road is the motif of the three hares, which was first found in the Mogao Caves and spread westward through Central Asia and as far west as England and Wales. Interestingly, all major Eurasian religions - Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam - have used this visual puzzle, whose meaning is not quite known.

The Mogao Caves is also where in 1900 an astonishing collection of ancient documents was discovered in a cave that had been sealed for a thousand years. The find comprised some 50,000 documents in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit and a host of other languages from all over Eurasia, including Tangut, Khotanese and Syriac (a form of Aramaic). Besides Buddhist scriptures, the collection also included Taoist, Manichaean, Nestorian and Jewish texts.

At the time, many of the documents were carried off to Europe, but today the International Dunhuang Project is reuniting the collection online.

danba & kangding

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From the perpetually cloudy valleys of central Sichuan to the crystal clear air and high altitude sunlight of what is historically Kham, the Western province of the Tibetan empire. Photos are from Danba, the nearby village of Jiaju, Kangding and Paoma Shan.

Seen from Mount Paoma, among the snowy peaks in the distance is Gongga Shan, or Minya Konka, at 7556 meters one of the world's highest mountains outside of the Himalaya. (If I'm not mistaken it is the cloudy peak behind the first mountain range.)

Kangding, incidentally, is known throughout China as the setting of the classic 'Kang Ding Qing Ge' ('Lovesong from Kangding').

qingcheng shan

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Mount Qingcheng, west of Chengdu, with its steep gorge paths, vertical landscapes and timeworn shrines and temples, shows where classical Chinese painters got their inspiration. (Click to enlarge the photos to their portrait size.)

chengdu textures

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An impression of Chengdu's unlikely mixture of frenetic boomtown and contemplative tea gardens...

Update: In retrospect this image seems to sum up Spring in Chengdu much better...

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china trainscapes

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China's vastness seen through dirty train windows, in transit between Guangzhou and Chengdu.

guangzhou spring

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Guangzhou in early March, already shimmering with heat and hazy skyscrapers on the horizon, including the soaring curves of the Canton Tower.

macau deities

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Hidden behind its modern facade of dazzling casinos, Macau's old town offers a fascinating blend of Chinese and Portuguese culture and religion, symbolized by the ruins of St. Paul's, dating back to the sixteenth century.

The Cantonese-style Madonna with child is from Coloane Village, on Macau's southern tip.

hong kong fog

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Hong Kong in early March, both its iconic skyline and extensive mountain areas (great hiking territory!) shrouded in fog.

For proper Hong Kong photography, Michael Wolf's 'Architecture of Density' series remains unsurpassed.