Scenes from China: Tongue (tantalizers and of the Lake)

After a morning of exploring the morning market of Xizhou and walking about it was time to return to the Linden Centre for lunch and prepare for our afternoon outing. The food at the Centre was amazing and varied. According to our host, Jeannee it is based on traditional local fare but prepared using healthier methods. The diet in this area is heavy on the vegetables (many unique to China and the area) and often spicy (remember that crazy citron peppercorn? It was often joined with those little killer red chili peppers that I often see in Thai food!). We also enjoyed a variety of proteins including local fish, pork, chicken, beef, cheese and beans. The peanuts here were particularly delicious!

Pictured here: Puff-fried cheese, a local fish dish, a “frittata” dish with peanuts in the center, a chicken dish, steamed/stir-fried vegetable dish, and a pork dish.

The meals are typically served family-style and each platter offered enough for everyone to get a scoop and when combined with the sampling of platters yielded a generous helping and was quite filling. In addition, many meals were accompanied with a soup/broth, almost always enjoyed with tea, and followed ALWAYS with warm water, which is said to aid digestion.

Following this sumptuous lunch we embarked on a horse-drawn cart trip to the “Tongue of the Lake” a peninsular park jutting into beautiful Erhai Lake on its northwestern edge.

On this Sunday afternoon a light rain fell as we made our way through the narrow cobblestone roads of Xizhou and out to the periphery of the lake. The roads were busy with families and tourists making their way out to enjoy an afternoon outing on the banks of the lake, which often made passage through the tiny streets more difficult. The final approach to the lake was a long narrow path bordered by fields of garlic in harvest.Many horse-drawn carts and other small vehicles ferrying visitors to the lake lined the edge of the roadway. Upon our arrival to the park we were greeted by a variety of street vendors selling foods and souvenirs.

It was overcast and cool, but as we walked along the bamboo-lined footpath to the edge of the lake the heavy cloud cover started to break and beautiful rays of sunshine broke through the large banks of billowing clouds over the mountains that cradle the lake.

The lake as I said is a popular recreation destination for locals and tourists and is also popular with photographers taking pictures of clients. While on our visit we saw a couple of bridal shoots, family group photos and plenty of amateur photographers enjoying the views.

While milling around the park I was struck by the curious English translations of the warning signs along the paths and going forward at many of our destinations I started capturing these curious “Chenglish” translations.

Back at the entry to the park we stopped in several little boutique shops featuring local products, including tie-dye, handmade block stamps, and other items.

Manmade or natural the Tongue of the Lake Park was so inspirational and beautiful.




Scenes from China: To Market, To Market…(part 2)

The walk to the central market of Xizhou was maybe six or eight blocks but full of traditional artisanal skilled labor — keeping the embroidery art alive, preparing wares for the local market, and educating the passing traveler — and striking a balance between tourist show and subsistence — but as we turned the corner into the market this was a place for the local…a place filled with color, sounds, smells, and experiences outside the bounds of the traveler, but perfectly at home for the villagers, workers and homemakers who come here daily to pick up their supplies for the evening meal, a quick hot lunch or to fill their larder.

Fresh poultry

Fresh seafood – most from nearby Erhai Lake

This was our first up close encounter with the diverse population of the area, particularly the Bai and the Yi people. Being close to the people of Southeast Asia and Tibet, as well as having had influences from the Mongol rule of China, as well as the influx of the “traditional” Han Chinese people we could start to see the diversity in the faces, skin tones, as well as the obvious differences in dress.

Brown sugar cones and “rose sugar” crystals and white sugar crystals. The rose sugar is sugar infused and blended with rose petals, and we were told that it is often a home remedy for young women suffering PMS symptoms to suck on the crystals to ease their discomfort.

Everything but the kitchen sink!

Vegetables and spices…some familiar and some not — like the “infamous” citron pepper, which I later learned I did NOT like, but that locals enjoy flavoring their foods with! This peppercorn is used in primitive dentistry to numb the mouth, so imagine my shock, nay PANIC, when my mouth became numb and had an unusual bitter/medicinal flavor in it while eating my dinner one night!!! It is apparently a favorite with the locals…no thank you! I spent much of my remaining time picking through my meals making sure I didn’t encounter these potent little peppercorns in my mouth again.

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Random street scenes on our way through the market area

Xizhou’s famous street food — a Xizhou Ba-ba — a garlic and pork pancake like bread cooked over coals streetside and very yummy!


More random beauty on our way back to the Linden Centre for lunch

Lunch, a trip to Lake Erhai and a little history in the next installment of “Scenes from China”….stay tuned!

Scenes from China: To Market, To Market… (part 1)

I kicked off my first full day in China watching the sun rise over the valley and seeing the locals head off to work along the road in front of the Linden Centre. I watched as the streets came alive in bluish light before sunrise as the street sweeper and garbage man made their rounds and shop keepers slowly began opening their doors.

After my solo morning exploration I joined the group for breakfast. Breakfast was typically a selection of egg dish choices, congee (a thin rice gruel), pancakes/French toast, fruits, and breads and muffins.

The dining room and staff at the Linden Centre.

Artwork and artifacts that greeted us in the breakfast area.

Breakfast is Served!

We were finally ready to head into town and explore. Our first stop was to see a man making local cheese in a courtyard. A sole cow in a stall adjacent to the courtyard provided the milk to make the cheese, which was then thickened to produce the curd which the man then “kneaded” in a wok of hot water with a pair of thick chopsticks. He carefully stretched, folded, and re-pulled the chewy curd¬† to a proper consistency, then once removed from the water and cooled to a point, he carefully coiled it around poles placed near his work station in the courtyard to dry.

The courtyard where the man was making the cheese doubled as an open air market of locally made goods — embroidered purses and clothing, tie-dyed materials, and other souvenir trinkets.

As we went farther along on the way to the market we happened across some art students practicing their drawing skills at the entry to one of the ornate village homes.

Next we stopped in a traditional embroidery facility, where they are holding fast to the dying art of traditional Chinese hand embroidery techniques. It is getting harder to find young women willing to apprentice to learn this painstaking art form, but here they have managed to continue the tradition. They harvest the silkworm while in its cocoon which produces shimmery fine threads to “paint” the elaborate and colorful designs — many with Chinese symbolism and meaning — onto base fabrics or mesh. The larger pieces would go for hundreds of dollars, while smaller designs were considerably less. They also featured some designs which were “two-faced” so that the embroidery could be mounted in free-standing frames and could be viewed from both sides.

We were just around the corner from the market, but had one more stop to make before we would arrive there: the rice facility, where on this particular morning they were making rice buns, but on other mornings we stopped by they would also produce rice noodles and other rice products.

They would steam the baskets of white rice before tamping it into a grinding machine that would produce a rice pastry substance which would then be kneaded and shaped into sheets for noodles or filled (with bean paste or other fillings) buns (yes, that is a cigarette dangling from the noodle stretching man’s mouth!). Then once enough product had been made it would be carted around the corner fresh and warm for sale at the market.

In part two, we will finally get to the market and all the colorful and wondrous things for sale there…stay tuned!


Scenes from China: With Apologies

I’ll be honest…as I pondered how to tackle the monstrous task of sharing my thoughts, experiences and photographs of this trip to China, I struggled with how I would organize it. And frankly I don’t think I have a clear path for all of this, so bear with me as at times it will seem that I am bouncing around a bit with the information I share. For the most part I will share chronologically, but at times I think I will have to take a detour to share some parallel information, or retrace my steps, or repackage certain elements of the trip, because for example, I made several trips to the downtown market in Xizhou…it was vibrant, energetic, diverse…I could go on, and it just doesn’t seem fair to the experience to share it in a single post. And so it was with many of the experiences while I was there. We visited numerous temples over the course of several days, so there will be information worth repeating, or parallels I can draw from one experience to the other. So all this to say: bear with me…this won’t be a linear path, but rather a winding narrative. I’m crafting it as I go along, so it will no doubt ebb and flow and I suspect I will make personal discoveries along the way and share those as well. My only goal is to share my enthusiasm and love for this place and take you along for the virtual ride…perhaps piquing your curiosity about this place and at a minimum whetting your wanderlust appetite!

And while I’m apologizing…I realized I never explained how to pronounce the name of the little village we stayed in. Xizhou is roughly Shee-Joe, the J sound is more a ch/j sound hybrid. Now you know!

Xizhou Environs

The Linden Centre, once a large private estate home in the traditional Bai-style, is located at the edge of Xizhou and surrounded by agricultural fields, which during our stay were lush and green with garlic reaching its maturation and ready for harvest.

Garlic fields surround the high-walled estate that is The Linden Centre.

The village sits in the shadow of the Cangshan Mountains to the west and in the valley of Erhai Lake with another smaller range of mountains in the distance to the east.

Views of the surrounding mountains in early morning light.

The garlic harvest.

I mentioned in my previous post that the Yunnan Province, Dali and the area in general are popular vacation and romantic get-away locations for the Chinese, and many come here just to have their engagement and wedding portraits made. Also many advertising photographers and videographers stage activities in this area. While here we saw several portrait and commercial shoots. The beautiful soft “butternut squash” orange of the high walls of the Linden Centre are a popular backdrop for these photos.

A couple poses for portraits against the backdrop of the Linden Centre. A bride primps before her photo shoot along the side of the road, and a film crew directs actors in front of a local temple.

Another photo shoot we stumbled on as we toured the village!


To close out our first afternoon we strolled through the village to see a bit of the local scenery and get a flavor for it and toured the Linden Centre to learn about its history and the cultural artifacts there.

A sampler of the sites of Xizhou.

Architectural details.

Objets d’art at the Linden Centre.


Scenes from China: Welcome to Xizhou

Why Travel to Western China and the Yunnan Province?

First, let’s get our bearings: (Click image to see it enlarged)

Yunnan Province is west of Guangzhou, southwest of Shanghai, just east of Myanmar and southeast of Tibet. It is the last province to have been brought into the imperial Chinese fold.

Because of its geographic location and history, Yunnan is diverse Рethnically, geographically, and naturally. Cradled by mountains the province enjoys moderate temperatures year round, a long growing season, and biologically diverse landscape. It is home to highest number of ethnic groups among the provinces and autonomous regions in China. In the area we started our journey the Bai and Yi people are predominant and speak their own language as well as Mandarin. The religious beliefs of the region are equally diverse with many, including Buddhists, Muslims, and Taoists, as well as belief in Confucianism.

Because of its distance from the urban and political centers of eastern China, Yunnan has developed more slowly and retained a more traditional Chinese flavor than what can be experienced in the cities to the east. All of these factors make the Yunnan Province a vibrant, rich area of China to explore.

Erhai Lake is a jewel in Yunnan Province, and its surroundings attract Chinese romantics and vacationers, as well as foreign tourists.

Xizhou (Xizhouzhen)

Located an hour north of the airport we traveled by motor coach to the village of Xizhou. The roads leading from the airport to Xizhou were ample, modern and passed by many villages and fields at the height of the garlic growing season, but when we arrived on the outskirts of Xizhou we had to offload the motor coach because of the narrow roads that crisscross the village. Our baggage was loaded onto colorful horse-drawn carriages and while we were offered to ride on those to the hotel, we volunteered to stretch our legs and walk the short distance and begin immersing ourselves in the experiences of the village.

As we arrived we witnessed a funeral procession. Family and friends carry the deceased to the mountainside grave sites through the village playing music, setting off firecrackers, waving colorful banners.

It was a short walk to the Linden Centre, but an incredible sensory sampler of what awaited us on this journey. Incredible architecture, colorful people, rustic surroundings, simple beauty, the smell of fresh garlic wafting off the nearby fields…it made me giddy despite the heaviness of travel and sleep deprivation. I snapped images fervently never knowing if this would be the last time I would walk this way or that, excited by the newness and “different-ness” of it all, wanting to absorb it all through every pore of my being, wanting to soak in it, memorize the sensations and imprint them in my soul.


The Linden Centre

Our hosts for our visit to China were the amazing folks at the Linden Centre, a center for cultural exchange offering a truly unique opportunity to immerse the traveler in the local traditions and authentic everyday experiences of life in Yunnan. Jeannee and Brian Linden are pioneers in creating this type of travel experience with the approval of the Chinese government and preserving the heritage of the area as well as providing economic benefits and employment to the region.

The Linden Centre operates several properties in the area and has relationships with various local artisans and points of interest and offers a variety of cultural programs and activities, like our photography workshop, artists in residence, and foreign student exchanges. (Coming soon a culinary program!!)

The main Centre property where we stayed was a traditional Bai-style courtyard home modified into a beautiful guesthouse, library, bar, dining area, patio, and other community spaces.

Our rooms were spacious and comfortable.

Some of the infrastructure in China is antiquated and slowly being updated. Sewer system improvements were going on in Xizhou during our stay. We saw roads torn up to replace mains with larger, modern lines. In general the Chinese don’t usually dispose of tissue down their commodes and they encourage western travelers to be more modest with their use or abide by their disposal methods.

And speaking of toilets…every day as a sign from housekeeping that our bathroom and the commode had been freshened up they left a single floating blossom in the bowl. It kind of surprised me the first day, and when I saw that it was a daily ritual I decided it was worth documenting it. Yes, I photographed my toilet bowl every day!

The Linden Centre was our home base for our first week of excursions and a perfect sanctuary after the busy days of exploring and learning while in and around Xizhou. I highly recommend it and its resources to anyone wanting to get to know the Yunnan Province.

Click to learn more about the Linden Centre

Coming next: a closer look at Xizhou…

Scenes from China: And We’re Off…

Thirty days ago I returned from my trip to China, and while in some ways that seems a lifetime ago thanks to work and the demands of everyday life, I know that my experiences and memories are indelibly imprinted in my heart. And I am thankful that my photos will help to keep them fresh despite the passage of time.

The memories are packed in my head like fragmented, overstuffed cardboard boxes in the warehouse of my mind and potentially lost for all time, but the photographs, like a card catalog and my personal Dewey Decimal System, guide me to their recollection.

Sharing them here in the coming posts I hope to unpack a few for you…to share with you a moment, an encounter, a glance, the prayers whispered, my many steps (countless steps!!!)…and just a fraction — a tinge — of the emotions (joy, love, wonder…) and adventure of my journey. I hope my words and pictures do the memories justice and you feel my reverence, gratitude and love for the experience.

Airport in Guangzhou

The Longest Day

Traveling to Dali, China in the western edge of this massive country takes stringing together several flights and crossing the International Date Line, which results in “losing a day”…for me that was St. Patrick’s Day. In all it was a 32 hour grueling travel schedule, but the Adrenalin flow of anticipation and excitement, plus my overly prepared survival plan, helped to make the passage bearable. It’s no easy feat tricking your body clock to “spring forward” 12 hours through crowded flights, non-stop in-flight meals and snacks, seemingly never-ending waiting in lines, straining to understand safety and arrival information in broken “Changlish”, and the limitless sensory stimulation of new sights, sounds, smells and sensations.

How Do You Load the World’s Largest Passenger Plane (Airbus A380)?

Well, carefully and methodically, of course! I was impressed with the orderly process and the patience of passengers…unlike the frenzied rush of boarding American airliners, the China Southern Airlines staff line everyone up inside the terminal in reverse numerical order about an hour before departure (there are 550+ passengers after all) and expect the passengers to patiently and systematically file onto the plane from the back to the front through two entry points (left side and right side of the plane), stow their carry-ons and take their seats. It WORKS!! It makes so much sense and it works with few incidents, little frustration or aggravation, and in no time we were airborne and being plied with in-flight treats.

I managed to stick to my sleep/wake schedule and beg off many rounds of food and drink and ignore the tantalizing selection of movies and programming, and I did so rather comfortably in the middle seat of a three-seat configuration. It’s hard not to engage with your fellow travelers on a 15 1/2 hour flight, so during one of my wake phases I asked the Chinese gentleman to my right if he spoke English…he didn’t, but imagine my surprise when he said he spoke some Spanish!!! He works for a Chinese enterprise doing business with the Panama Canal and had learned that language instead of English, which is most often taught as a second/third language to the Chinese…after learning Mandarin Chinese, if that is not their native Chinese tongue. After a time I engaged the woman to my left who was from Mexico City and also spoke Spanish, so for the balance of the flight I practiced my Spanish extensively with my most unlikely travel companions.

Upon arriving in China via Guangzhou all passengers must pass through immigration, so those same 550+ passengers now have to funnel through that process, and unlike the aircraft boarding procedure this was a bit more chaotic.

Limited English signage and instructions to guide us through the large airport to the immigration process and onto our very tight connection required some athletic prowess and determination, and in fact, our workshop leader and a couple of our workshop participants missed the connection because of the challenge.

Following immigration, and even though we never left the secure areas of the airport, we all had to go through security procedures again, and this was one of the most thorough processes I have ever been through. I was made to open and unpack several pieces from my camera bag three times before I was cleared to pass. Lenses, battery

On the tarmac racing to board my connection!

chargers, and cords were examined thoroughly. Yes, it was a terrible hassle and ate up a lot of my limited precious time to make my connection, but I wanted no part of potentially triggering Chinese security so you quickly learn to suck it up and deal with the inconvenience. As a result I ended up being the last passenger to board that connecting flight…I was shuttled in a small coach to meet the plane out on the tarmac just moments before they closed the doors and the flight took off leaving behind our three participants in Guangzhou!

From Guangzhou we flew four more hours to Kunming where we had a short layover and then our final one-hour hop to Dali.

Up to this point all of our glimpses of China had been either the insides of terminal buildings or gray, foggy, hazy views of dingy urban areas surrounding the airports, so it was a welcome and beautiful sight to land in Dali where it was bright and sunny and breezy with temps in the high 60s. Here we were met by our host — Jeannee Linden and some of her staff who made quick work of loading our bags onto the motor coach and driving us an hour further north to the village of Xizhou, which would be our home for the next several days.

On the bus ride there I feverishly snapped photos of the roadside scenery unsure if we would pass this way again and not wanting to miss a thing. Here are a few of those glimpses…and yes, we never passed by these again during our stay in China.

Now, mind you it was only 11-something in the morning local time after 32 hours of travel, so our first day did not end here, but for the sake of your attention and my composition I will give us all a well-needed break.

Next up…the first impressions of our new home-away-from-home: the village of Xizhou and the Linden Centre.

Third Times a Charm…

It’s time…time to once again breathe some life into my sadly neglected blog. It’s been nagging me for some time to resuscitate it, but so many things get in the way of devoting the time to make it happen. So here I am for the third time waking it up from its dormant state.


With my recent China trip to write about and hundreds of images (okay, thousands is more like it, but I’ll spare you the travelogue!) to share, it seems that at least for the near future I will have plenty to fill this space, and perhaps while that flows I’ll find inspiration and fuel to drive this blog on a more consistent basis.

So starting in a day or so I will be ready to share my journey in China and get back to the task at hand and make this blog a place to share my adventures…in photography, travels, and life.

Hope you will come along for the ride.

Young, Beautiful, and In Love in San Antonio

On our final day together in San Antonio, our little 365 photo-a-day group took advantage of the fact that one of us had brought along her 20-year-old daughter, and her boyfriend joined them as well. and they were all up for a photo shoot along the Riverwalk. So with an entourage of about a dozen photographers trailing them these two strolled along, stopping to pose and model for us as we went along. We started photographing lovely Paige by herself…letting her boyfriend Max warm up to the idea of being “paparazzi’d” along the way.

Poor Max must have felt shunned by the camera at first, but we soon made sure he got his fair share of “on camera” time…

So sweet and romantic…

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The Riverwalk and its interesting architecture was a beautiful backdrop for these two…

Dance like nobody’s watching…

FB_Paige and Max_-A75A5082-2 FB_Paige and Max_-A75A5099-2 FB_Paige and Max_-A75A5102-2Thank you Paige & Max!



Closing Click Away 2015

The amazing Click Away experience came to a close on Saturday, but not before I had some more incredible opportunities to learn and practice taking photos of all kinds. I started the day with an opportunity to try my hand at Boudoir Photography. It is a genre I never thought I would like to try, but offered the chance I thought “why not?”, and it turned out to be such a beautiful experience and something I would like to pursue further.

Meet the beautiful Chae Chambers, our lovely model for this special shooting class:

The closing keynote was delivered by famed photographer Sue Bryce. Her empowering words were the perfect inspiration to close out the intense three days of photography learning and networking.

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And Click Away offered one more opportunity to play in San Antonio with an afternoon field trip. Our group chose to visit the Japanese Tea Garden, which unfortunately was being set up for a wedding, so our options were limiting, and the heat was oppressive!

Click Away was a great experience, and I can’t wait to hear where it will be held next year…and hope that I can attend!