Chuck Cook

I enjoy seeing the sights of the world and photographing them. I hope the photos and descriptions bring you joy.
Living in: Asheboro, United States
  • Oct20

    The Two Towers

    Yesterday in China ⋅ ☀️ 70 °F

    On this site in Old Beijing, Emperor Kublai Khan erected two towers, a bell tower and a drum tower. Of course, both were used as observation posts from which soldiers might keep an eye out for approaching intruders. Yet the towers served another purpose as well. The bell tower sounded every two hours to advise about the time. On sunny days a sundial kept time, but on cloudy days a water clock served as a backup. This tower remained in service until the eighteenth century when European clocks were imported to serve as the timekeepers for Beijing’s residents. The drum tower served a similar purpose. It signaled the population about special events or warned them of fires or other impending dangers. In some Chinese cities a curfew was imposed at ten o’clock at night. About a quarter hour before curfew, the drummer would begin very slow beats. By the 150th beat everyone was expected to be in their home. Between the towers we saw young children in an art class, drawing both towers under the instruction of their teachers. The two towers we saw today were not the ancient ones built by Kublai Khan. These are new ones constructed around the year 1200 AD. Today neither tower performs its original function, but the bell tower houses a lovely tea house where a charming young woman introduced us to the elaborate arts of Chinese tea. We sampled oolong and jasmine tea, along with a couple of other varieties. There were exquisite tea pots for sale, some made of semi-precious jade. One small jade teapot cost over $3,000. We learned that tea can serve as a relaxing beverage that offers a wonderful excuse just for hanging out with friends and getting to know new ones.Read more

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  • Oct20

    At Home in Beijing

    Yesterday in China ⋅ ☀️ 72 °F

    We were invited into the home of a woman who loves to entertain foreign tourists. She showed us her home, whose history is clouded in obscurity. Her family has lived in this house for hundreds of years, and their oral tradition holds that it was built for a nobleman and his family sometime around the sixteenth century. Perhaps the nobleman was a servant to the emperor. Their oral tradition may be correct since the house is in Old Beijing, a part of the city adjacent to the Imperial Complex and the Forbidden City. She and her daughter served us tea, Chinese cookies. She and her daughter are skilled artists who created lovely oriental scenes on glass bottles. The trick is that they must use tiny little brushes which they use to paint the glass from the inside. She showed us her work and told us that she has traveled to Indonesia, Singapore and the United States showing her craft. I will have more photos to post when we return home, but now I will simply show a picture of the kitchen of the tiny, ancient, gray brick house that is home to three generations.Read more

  • Oct20

    The Center of the World

    Yesterday in China ⋅ ☀️ 61 °F

    The Chinese name for itself is Jung Gwo, which literally means “the central kingdom.” Traditionally the residents of this nation have considered it as the center of the world, the focus of civilization. The farther from the Jung (center) you get, the more barbaric you are. Today we were at the Jung, the center, as we walked from Tien An Men Square through the Forbidden City, an area open only to the emperor.

    Since I became a beginning Chinese student in 1971, I have always wanted to come here, to the center. Today I fulfilled that dream. Our bus took us along the eight-lane highway where a lone student stopped a tank in 1989, and all the world watched. That road empties into the front gate, where a mile-long queue waited to view the preserved corpse of Mao Tse Tung. Some of the people we saw standing in line at eight o’clock this morning will stand in line until sunset. We absorbed the beauty of the seventeenth-century buildings of the Ming Dynasty, built on the site of the ancient capital of Kublai Khan six hundred years before. The detailed ornamentation was breathtaking. Finally we got to see the private residence of the last of the Qing Dynasty, who were forced to vacate their palace in 1924. The last emperor, Pu Yi, was crowned emperor of the Middle Kingdom at the age of three, was deposed in 1924, became the Japanese puppet ruler of Manchuguo during World War II, and ended his life in 1967 working as a gardener in Hawaii under the name of Henry Puyi. In this beautifully restored version of the Forbidden City it seems as though time has stopped. Yet moments after leaving we drove past shapely sky scrapers that surpass those being built in my home country. In Tien An Men Square it seems that time has stopped, but this stasis serves to remind us that everything changes. Nothing remains the same. There is nothing permanent except change. That is the lesson from Tien An Men—the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
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  • Oct19

    Pandas

    October 19 in China ⋅ ⛅ 59 °F

    We arrived in Beijing in smog thick enough to swim in. Everyone on the bus felt the sting in their throat, and half of us donned face masks. It took more than an hour in bumper to bumper traffic to get to the zoo. Charmed by the pandas, natives and tourists saw the zoo through their iPhones. Another forty-minute crawl brought us to a restaurant, a favorite of Ray, our guide, who is a Beijing native. We saw traffic tie itself into a knot on the way to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, but now we are here, travel weary, but happy to be in the capital.Read more

  • Oct18

    The Concubine Empress

    October 18 in China ⋅ 🌙 52 °F

    Tonight we saw a most spectacular dinner and ballet. At the Shanxi Tourism Group’s magnificent dinner theater we enjoyed delicacies including prawns, spiced beef and rice wine from the first nation to have its own cuisine. The choreography, live orchestral music and opulent costumes dazzled our senses. The Xi An Tang Dynasty Company presented in music and dance a visually stunning performance of the story of Empress Wu Ze Tian, based on historical events. At the age of fourteen in the year 637 Mei Nyang moves to the imperial palace to become one of several hundred imperial concubines. She attracts the attention of Tang Emperor Tai Zong, and her life is changed forever. She commits an infraction resulting in her imprisonment, but later during a battle, she is injured while attempting to save the wounded emperor’s life. Through her wisdom and diplomacy she wins the king’s heart to become his favorite wife and chief counselor. Emperor Tai Zong dies in 690 AD, and at the age of 57 Mei Nyang becomes China’s first woman emperor and assumes the royal name Wu Ze Tian (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_Zetian.) Throughout her wise reign China enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity. What a wonderful way to spend our last night in China’s ancient capital!Read more

  • Oct18

    Greater Dead Than Alive

    October 18 in China ⋅ ☀️ 57 °F

    Can an emperor be more important dead than alive? Around 205 BC the first Chinese emperor died. Though he had ruled for only fifteen years, he spent most of that time and most of his country’s revenue building his tomb. His mausoleum covered an area about four miles by five miles and contained more lavish treasures than one can imagine. Spreading out for more than twenty square miles, eleven stories underground, the tomb was laid out in the pattern of a miniature map of China, including two rivers and an ocean made of mercury. After two millennia they still contaminate the soil here.

    He buried his army with him, or at least a replica of it. While only 1600 terra-cotta warriors have been found, researchers estimate that when all have been unearthed a century from now, there will be over eight thousand infantrymen, cavalrymen, horses, chariots, archers and officers. Each face is different. The uniforms are accurate, marking each different type of soldier. Originally their faces and uniforms were all painted in lifelike colors. All except for the snipers, that is. One archer was found with a face painted camouflage green. His hands held a crossbow with a bolt that could kill at three hundred meters. Even though the soldiers are clay dummies, the weapons they hold are the real thing. Spears, halberds, longbows and crossbows were all made with interchangeable parts. The trigger of your crossbow gets damaged, install a new one and continue to shoot. Arrows were made with arrowheads that were heavier and harder than the shaft or the fletch, though all were made of bronze and welded into one piece. A sword was found that had molecular memory. A heavy soldier lay on it bending it for two thousand years. When the soldier was removed, the sword straightened into its original shape. Another sword was found without a flake of rust upon it. Metallurgists discovered that the weapon was made of bronze clad with chromium. The western world did not learn how to weld chromium to other metals until the twentieth century. To this day the only way we know to complete this process requires electricity. We don’t know how the Chin dynasty did it.

    The outfitting of this tomb and the conscripted labor required to build it so alienated the subjects of the Chin dynasty that they rebelled. Tens of thousands of workers died building the tomb, and their bodies were simply thrown into the nearest pit. At the emperor’s death the workers rebelled, smashed the clay statues, stole the weapons and revolted. Afterwards all that remained were the fragments of the clay warriors. Only one, the green-faced bowman, was discovered intact.

    The statues were found by accident in 1978 when a group of farmers dug a well. They found a clay soldier’s head and decided not to tell anyone about it. One farmer, however, did tell a local official, who notified the Chinese department responsible for archaeology and antiquities.

    Another minor miracle accompanied the discovery of these artifacts in 1978. Mao Tse Tung died in 1976. Had these remarkable remains been discovered before his death, they would have been obliterated as a part of his Cultural Revolution, and neither their discovery nor their destruction would have ever been reported to the outside world.
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  • Oct17

    Arrival in Xi An (Pronounced Shee Ahn)

    October 17 in China ⋅ ☀️ 63 °F

    We are in China is ancient capital of Xi’an. The Chin dynasty was founded here 200 years before Christ. It is from the name “Chin” that the word China is derived. Not only that dynasty but also the Han and the Tang dynasties made this city their capital. The Chin sold silk to Roman emperors for their togas. The Han have China the characters they still write. The Tang presided over an unbelievably enlightened period when women could be Emperor. There is even an ancient work of art showing women playing polo. The Dark Ages were dark only in Europe. Our hotel, the Hyatt Regency, is yet another palace.Read more

  • Oct16

    Ceng Gu Buddhist Nunnery

    October 16 in China ⋅ ☀️ 54 °F

    Shortly before he died some of his disciples asked the Buddha, “Teacher, shall we allow women into our number or not?” Gautama replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it, but, I don’t see why we shouldn’t.” So from the earliest days of the new religion, women were allowed on an equal footing with men. Today we went to visit a Buddhist nunnery located in a densely populated neighborhood in Lhasa. Before we reached the ornate ceremonial gate of the nunnery, however, we passed a number of shops selling women’s dresses, fruit and electric appliances.

    “These shops belong to the nuns,” my guide told me. “They raise money and it supports their work here in the community.”

    “What is their work,” I asked.

    “They have a small private school here, but their main work is to run their neighborhood clinic. They have a doctor trained in both traditional and modern medicine. Some of the nuns are nurses, other clean the facility, others are simply chore workers, but they do much good here.”

    A few more steps took me through an elaborate archway painted in ornate designs of blue and gold. It led to a plain courtyard whose main attraction was a tall staff that looked like a flagpole covered with a rainbow of prayer cloths. Tibetan Buddhists believe these colored, meter-square colored cloths represent prayers. They string them on lines draped from the top of the flagpole. Then at a religious celebration, the flagpole is twisted, and it becomes a color clad monument to the prayers they have offered.

    As I passed by an open door I saw that the nuns were filling a need in this poor community. A room full of older adults and children waited to see the doctor. We happened to arrive at lunchtime when the nuns were eating their common midday meal. The first red-robed figure I saw looked like a boy with shaved head. Then I saw that the monk had a beautiful face, and I realized that she was a nun, maybe sixteen years of age. I saw others whose gender was hard to determine. Nevertheless, they welcomed us with smiles and had already given our guide permission to allow us to photograph them at their meal. On several instances my eye caught that of a nun. Whenever that happened she would smile. I would nod, and she would return the greeting.

    Whatever their religion, I feel that God must be very pleased with the work these women are doing to help their neighbors. I can only guess what effect they may be having on the people in their poor community, but I know they certainly had an effect on me.
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  • Oct16

    Potala Palace--The Lost World

    October 16 in China ⋅ ⛅ 32 °F

    The Potala Palace was built in the eighth century and destroyed in the eleventh. It was rebuilt and stands today perched high upon its mountain. The 1.7 mile climb up is arduous but worth the effort. Unfortunately photographs were not allowed inside the former residence of the Dalai Lama. Even so, the pictures we were allowed to take on the outside of the building were remarkable. Until 1959 this was the home of the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, but when the fourteenth Dalai Lama was unwilling to embrace Maoism, he was spirited away by some of his followers across the border to India, where he set up a government in exile.

    The inside of the building is dark, smoke-filled with incense and festooned with colorful flags, pennants and banners hanging down from the roof and the rafters. Prayer wheels line the hallway leading to the Dalai Lama’s quarters. In his sitting room along the sides of the floors are colorful khangs, shin-high couches with velvet covered cushions. Some cushions are deep blue, burgundy, or even burnt orange. The thick incense smoke chokes visitors. Breathing is so difficult that the queue of tourists threading through the thirty rooms we saw stuffed handkerchiefs, scarves and masks over their noses. Dim, colored light that trickles in through elaborately patterned stained-glass windows. A knee-high table holds a book, a prayer wheel, and a pair of glasses. Money from all over the world, offerings from devout worshippers, litters the floor in front of the table,. A display case holding a golden statue of the Buddha and two companion covers the entire opposite wall. The statue was two hundred years old when Jesus was born.

    Adjacent to this room is the library containing ancient books, translations from the original Sanskrit writings transported into Tibet centuries before Christ. These books themselves are quite old. Tibetan paper does not change color or become brittle over time, and in this dry climate can books last for millennia.

    Other dimly lit rooms hold more statues of the Buddha, some life-sized, some much larger. Always the thick cloud of incense almost obscures the view. Some statues are made of gold, others of lifelike polychrome ceramic. Some are smiling, others displaying fierce faces ward off evil. There are even female Buddhas, reminders that the Buddha has been reincarnated many times, sometimes as male, sometimes as female. These motherly goddesses called Tatas are especially adored by people who need a compassionate friend in the upper world.

    One of the most attractive rooms in the building is the assembly room. Here the Dalai Lama lectured his student for two hours each day. The room is large and comfortable, with palettes and khangs spread all around the floor. Narrow walkways wide enough only for a monk’s foot allow access to the center of the room. The ornate painted and carved ceiling is supported by square burgundy columns, smaller at the top than the bottom. The borders of each face of the two dozen identical columns display royal blue with gold painted trim. As in all the other rooms of the palace, the view is obscured by billowing clouds of incense smoke and tiny colored windows that make seeing difficult. Multicolored banners and prayer flags adorn the cushions on the floor and sag from the rafters above. The room is cluttered with them. Nearby in an adjacent room is a huge golden statue of the Buddha accompanied by famous Bodisattvas of history. Connecting rooms contain huge stupas covering the graves of other beloved teachers who were incarnated as the Dalai Lama.

    Eastern theology tends to be more poetic than prosaic, so one should not be surprised to learn that there has only been one Dalai Lama. He has been reincarnated, however, in fourteen different bodies. Yet, whenever and wherever he lives, the Dalai Lama is believed to be the same individual. The current Dalai Lama is over ninety years old. When he dies it will be interesting to see whether he names the person whose body will house his spirit in the next lifetime. Will he rule the government in exile in India? Will he live in the United States? Will his death mark the end of the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. It will be interesting to see how all of these issues play out in years to come.
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  • Oct15

    A Different World

    October 15 in China ⋅ ⛅ 59 °F

    Tibet is on the opposite side of the world, but it might as well be on a different planet. Today we visited a house where the same short prayer is recited for two hours daily in a family chapel built into the house. We ate yak meat and sipped yak butter tea. We heard a debate between Buddhist monks. We saw a temple whose side chapels contained statues to ancient kings that had been canonized. I asked a woman, repeatedly prostrating herself before a statue of the Buhha how many times she had to kowtow. She said, “More than a thousand. Ten thousand, in fact.” That was just for this visit to the temple. Throughout her life she must do at least one hundred thousand prostrations or else she had no hope of improvement in the next life. Prayer wheels are spun by individuals until they get tired or otherwise occupied. Then their battery powered prayer wheels continue to spin and earn them merit. Sound recorders with endless loops offer mantras day and night. The gods like that too and offer benefits in exchange. We did all these things in a place that, according to the local residents, does not really exist. Culturally and intellectually I was forced to unhinge my preconceptions to enter a world with its own logic, its own assumptions and its own reality. I am not saying that the religion, government and society here are nonsense. Quite the contrary. Everything we saw makes sense, but only according to Tibetan rules. I can understand why Buddhists ask the classical question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” but I cannot understand the question itself. All reality is illusion, all matter is evil, all worry stems from excessive preoccupation with that which is not real. Even life itself is merely the continuation of life that has gone on before. Though the temples, monasteries and mountains here are stunning, so is Tibetan thought. In fact, despite the beautiful structures, art and people we saw today, perhaps the most stunning thing about Tibet is its cognitive and intellectual flexibility. In Tibet theology is not prose, it is, rather, poetry taken literally.Read more

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