Saturday, March 15, 2014

Afternoon View from the Train

Hangzhou, March 15, 2014

Afternoon View from the Train

We're cutting through the Chinese countryside at 300 km/h. The 15:05 train to Hangzhou left Beijing a couple hours ago. First were the plains to the south, now are some scattered hills and mountains. The sun is still shinning on the windows to the right, while the pale disc of the full moon already hangs on the gray-blue sky of the left-side windows. Here and there bunches of buildings rise in the middle of nowhere, 20 or 30 or more stories high, many of them under construction, as if the crane operators had gone completely insane.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Urban Bestiary (8)

Hangzhou, March 2, 2014

West Lake is Hangzhou's defining urban element, both physically and culturally. A major city in southeast China, Hangzhou extends between the eastern edge of the lake and the Qiantang River. Otherwise, the West Lake is surrounded by hills to the north, west and south. The lake originated as a shallow bay on the left back of the river, whose mouth was progressively blocked by alluvial sediments.

At least that is the geological explanation. But there are beautiful stories about about the mythical origins of West Lake. In the legend, the lake starts as shinning pebble in the sky. The Jade Dragon and the Golden Phoenix meet on a fairy island where the phoenix finds the pebble. They carve it, one with his claw, the other with her beak, grounding and polishing it until the pebble turns into a magic pearl. As they grow attached to each other and to the pearl, the dragon and the phoenix decide to live on the island forever. One day, the Queen Mother of the West sees the glow of the pearl and orders one of her guards to steal it. The dragon and the phoenix chase after the queen, and in the struggle, the pearl falls off to the earth.  As it touches the ground, it turns into the clear water of the lake to the west of Hangzhou. Unable to separate from the pearl, the Jade Dragon and the Golden Phoenix come down to the earth and turn themselves into hills, standing guard to their dazzling pearl.

(By the way, have you ever looked at the one-yuan bill? Yes, the front has Mao's ever-present portrait, but the back shows a delightful view of Hangzhou's West Lake.)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Urban Bestiary (7)

Becket, February 15, 2014

During the more than four centuries of Moorish domination (AD 714 to 1147,) Lisbon was variously known as Luxbona, Lixbuna, Ulixbone and Olissibona, names that eventually morphed into the Portuguese Lisboa. Most likely, the name evolved from Olissipo or Olisippum, the way it was known when the Romans established the city in 205 BC. From there, it is not such a long stretch to... Odysseus, who legend has it as the founder of Lisbon.

In his magnum opus "Os Luisiadas" (1572,) the Portuguese national poet Luis de Camoes writes that,

"... the city was founded by Ulysses on the exact spot
Where the Tagus mingles its fresh water
And white sands with the salt sea."

In the legend, the beautiful queen of the snakes, Offiusa (perhaps an incarnation of the nymph Calypso,) falls madly in love with Ulysses. Upon discovering that he fled her kingdom under the cover of night, Queen Offiusa chases after him, and as she races towards the Tagus, her long snake tail hits the ground with such force that the earth swells, forming the seven hills of Lisbon.

At he Castle of Sao Jorge, sitting at the top of the highest of the seven hills, the "Torre de Ulisses" memorializes in its name this mythical foundation of the city.