Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"It's a dangerous business, going out your front door...

...you step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to." -- JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

I feel like I'm standing on the edge of a cliff, peering off into the unknown. In a relatively short time, I'll board a plane for Ulaan Baatar - hop a bus 1055 miles to Olgii - and spend the next ten months with a horse and golden eagle pursuing fox across the lonely Altai mountains. Even typing such a sentence feels surreal. I've been loathe to say much until recently, as such plans have a necessarily tenuous air to them. Even though the end result is something everyone is familar with - an eagle pumping across the vast landscape to collide with a fox - there are endless small details that will go into making those few heart-stopping moments. All the feelings of worry, uncertainty, excitement, and adventure are starting to coalesce in me now.

But now I'm in Scotland - and incredibly grateful to be here. Sometimes, I can't help but smile when a plane touches down in a particular place. Scotland is one of those places. Whether we expect or not - certain spaces become part of us, ingrained in us. Coming from an Air Force family, I've never really settled anywhere long enough to truly call "home", but I have those feelings of contentedness and belonging here. I can't seem to stay away.

The road leading up to a friend's farm, esconsed in the hills of western Scotland.

This is a place I enjoy sitting. The creek winds across the valley to the base of the hills. Unfortunately, the air was thick with midges.

Characterisitc thistles

The sheep were sheared yesterday...

Falcons at hack, destined for the Middle East, play in the air over hack tower.

A young female crowned eagle, bred here in Britain, gives a penetrating stare.

The thought of holding my own in Mongolia scares me. Hell yes it does. I'm terrified. Often I feel little stabs of doubt. What on earth do I think I'm doing? I'm not good enough for this. I don't have the skill, or the talent, or the strength...

Then again, there are days like today. I was lazing on the lawn with Floyd, a male golden eagle. How much I would have loved to stand up in heather, in deep winter, with hills and hidden hares before me. How much I would have loved to have been hunting, breathing frigid air and tensed for the slip. And then I feel excitement - I feel those familar butterflies before what you know will be a great day's hunting. I think, I can't wait to get started.

Across China - Part II

After a week and a bit in Xi'an, we headed to Kunming. Often called the "City of Eternal Spring", Kunming is a lush, rain-drenched city in south-western China and the capital of Yunnan province.

Incense burning at a Buddhist temple.

The view of Kunming, algal-blooms and all, from the Western Hills.

Some of the rich flora dotting the city.

The Stone Forest. As the name implies, large limestone pillars jut from the ground and appear to "grow" upwards into a labyrinth of sorts. To me, it was like a giant playground. Paths wound around towering stone formations and ancient trees. I felt like I'd landed on an alien planet. How a Star Trek episode was never filmed here boggles the mind.

Here stands a World War II monument to the Flying Tigers, an American volunteer group of the Chinese Air Force in 1941-42. The monument particularly commemorated the flights "over the hump". The Hump was a treacherous route over the Eastern end of the Himalayas, by which US pilots resupplied struggling Chinese forces.

A provocative painting on display at a local art museum in Kunming. The Bird's Nest stands in the background.

Interesting goblets on display at a local cultural museum. Made by the Yi people (a local minority), they are clearly supported on goshawk feet. Hmmm - can't say I'd fancy drinking out of that.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Across China - Part I

When I first arrived in Xi'an, near midnight and bleary-eyed from travel, I noticed this quote, attributed to Confucius, written across our dorm building.

Xi'an is a sprawling, dusty city. The capital of China during the prosperous Tang dynasty (618-907) today Xi'an is in a constant state of construction and flux. Plans to build a subway cause debris to ripple down the center of many major roads and driving takes on a new kind of chaos.

I strolled down the ancient city wall, erected during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and peered across the city. The virtues and pitfalls of a rapidly growing economy could be seen here. Every direction saw buildings being rapidly constructed - and just as common were giant office buildings being torn down, those left half-built and vacant, or newly built and clearly abandoned.

Despite being enveloped in a city, there are always spots to linger. In fact, on the XISU (Xi'an International Studies University) campus there was a large park where students gather Thursday nights to practice their languages. There I noticed that Kazakhs were an important ethnic minority at the school. One could hear Russian, Spanish, French, German, Thai, Japanese and various dialects of Chinese coming from clumps of chatting students. Though they never hesitate to involve you in conversation, it certainly made me wish I had a knack for languages.

Men crowd around an intense game of Chinese chess.

Survival Chinese scrawled across a chalk board.

Hasty brush strokes during an introduction to calligraphy.

One bright and blue-sky (for China) day our class was challenged to a basketball game by local students.

The game began to draw quite a crowd from passersby. It was the week for sitting exams; there was already a certain tension in the air.

Very close - in the end we managed to pull it off.

Of course, one can not visit Xi'an without visiting the legendary Terracotta army.

I was particularly struck by the fact that the horses were as individual as the warriors.

One note: I knew China was taking the H1N1/Swine flu seriously, but hadn't anticipated men in a sort of Biohazard suit filing into our plane upon landing. We were told to remain still while they pointed 'temperature guns' at our foreheads in order to detect fever. If anyone was deemed ill – that person and everyone three rows ahead and three rows back was to be carted away to quarantine. There was one older man who evidently had a fever and they spent a further ten minutes running some on-the-spot tests on. When one of the suited men flashed the thumbs-up, declaring the passenger OK for entry, there was a collective sigh of relief and enthused applause. A strange experience to be sure.