AUTUMN LEAVES

Beijing, 23 October 2013

It’s that time of the year in the northern hemisphere when the trees begin to lose their leaves. If we’re lucky, depending on where we’re perched on that hemisphere, we can witness the glorious spectacle of leaves turning intensely red, orange or yellow before they expire and finally float to the ground. My wife and I had such luck some thirty years ago, when we went “leaf peeping” in Vermont.

vermont fall foliage

We had such luck an equally long time ago in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan

hokkaido fall foliage

And I had such luck, alone this time, on my recent trip to Qinghai province, where the poplars were turning bright, golden yellow.

trees in fall

Alas, we have no such luck in dirty, dusty, smoggy Beijing. The leaves here go a little bit yellow, or just plain brown, before dropping miserably to the ground.

The partial exception is the ginkgo.  Ginkgos are popular trees to plant along streets. They tolerate well pollution and confined soil space, admirable traits for a tree growing in Beijing. And they look handsome, in the summer

ginkos 001

but even more so in the autumn

gingkgo trees autumn

Strange trees, ginkgos. The name already is odd. It was years before I realised that the “k” actually comes before the “g”. Who on earth came up with that spelling? A Dutchman called Engelbert Kaempfer, that’s who, back in the late 17th Century. He was the first European to see a gingko – sorry, ginkgo – in Japan. When he reported it to the European world, he seems to have stumbled over his transcription of the Japanese name ginkyō: what should have been written “ginkio” or “ginkjo” somehow got written as ginkgo.

That double-lobed leaf is odd, too.

Ginkgo Leaves summer

In fact, it’s unique among seed plants. Unique, because the ginkgo is a living fossil. This fossilized ginkgo leaf

fossil ginkgo leaf

is 40 million year old, although the ginkgo is far older. It first appears in the fossil record some 200 million years ago. It did nicely for the first 100 million years or so but then it went into terminal decline. Its range shrank and shrank, the various ginkgo species disappeared, until only ginkgo biloba survived, and survived only in China.

In fact, even the ginkgo biloba probably wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for Buddhism coming to China. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not the ginkgo trees currently found in the wild in China are truly wild or simply feral, that is, grown from seeds that wafted away from domesticated trees. What is sure is that Buddhist monks took to planting ginkgos in their temples as their local version of the bo-tree, the sacred fig tree under which it is said that the Buddha attained enlightenment.

sacred fig

and of course the ginkgo then got included in the Chinese Buddhist iconography – look at those ginkgo leaves peeping behind the buddha:

maitreya buddha under ginkgo

The ginkgo, having thus gained enormously in stature as a sacred tree, was carefully nurtured by all and sundry and survived – and got carried by Buddhism to Korea and Japan, where our friend Engelbert saw it.

So I suppose it’s really best to admire the ginkgo in the environment which saved it from probable extinction, a Buddhist temple like this one, Dajue temple in the western hills near Beijing.

ginkgo fall dajue temple

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Vermont fall foliage: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/dam/assets/120911072551-leaf-peeping-vt-jenne-farm-ed-sharron-story-top.jpg [in http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/21/travel/fall-leaf-peeping-autumn/%5D
Hokkaido fall foliage: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-HK-XCKr055I/UGvr1pwda3I/AAAAAAAAGc8/oe2ckytpNRk/s1600/%E7%A7%8B%E3%81%AE%E9%AB%98%E5%8E%9F%E6%B8%A9%E6%B3%892.jpg [in http://talk-hokkaido.blogspot.com/2012/10/autumnal-foliage-around-daisetsu.html%5D
Qinghai fall foliage: my picture
Ginkgo trees along the street: my picture
Ginkgo trees autumn: http://chinatour.net/member/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/gingkgo.jpg [in http://chinatour.net/beijing/tour/autumn/%5D
Ginkgo leaves summer: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f5/Ginkgo_Biloba_Leaves_-_Black_Background.jpg/400px-Ginkgo_Biloba_Leaves_-_Black_Background.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba%5D
Ginkgo leaves autumn: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/GinkgoLeaves.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba%5D
Fossil gingko leaf: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/Ginkgo_biloba_MacAbee_BC.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo%5D
Sacred fig: http://img.xcitefun.net/users/2009/09/117740,xcitefun-sri-maha-bodhi-tree-2.jpg [in http://forum.xcitefun.net/sri-maha-bodhi-sacred-fig-tree-sri-lanka-t38289.html%5D
Maitreya Buddha sitting under ginkgo: http://www.asia.si.edu/collections/zoom/F1911.411.jpg
Ginkgo Dajue temple: http://images.chinahighlights.com/2012/11/4c1ed9eaebda4d74a20d96f4.jpg [in http://www.chinahighlights.com/beijing/article-see-golden-ginkgoes.htm%5D

BACK OF BEYOND

Beijing, 15 October 2013

I’m just back from a business trip to Haixi prefecture, which is the remotest prefecture of that remote Chinese province, Qinghai. Squeezed between its better-known neighbours Xinjian, Gansu, Sichuan, and Tibet, Qinghai doesn’t get much press, which is a pity. To my mind, it’s one of China’s most beautiful provinces. Here’s a picture we took out on the grasslands when my wife and I, together with our son, went there a couple of years ago.

IMG00095-20110712-1113

As for Haixi prefecture, it hardly gets a mention at all in the world’s press. This is a great pity, because it’s a seriously beautiful part of the world; on the desertic side, but I like that kind of landscape.

landscapes 002

landscapes 007

My colleague and I were there to study what we could do to help the prefectural authorities build up a local brand in the organic production of wolfberries (we seem to be getting a reputation for agro-processing). I can perfectly understand it if my readers have never heard of wolfberries. Neither had I until I came to China and found them floating in various soups during banquets. But our ignorance is our loss. Wolfberries have had an honourable place in Chinese cuisine – and traditional medicine – for the last 2,000 years.

If one has seen them at all, it’s probably as dry berries

wolfberry-dry

although this is how we saw them during our trip, fresh

Wolfberry-fresh

on bushes in plantations

wolfberry-bush and fresh berry

OK, I probably shouldn’t say this, since one of the things the Haixi authorities would like us to help them with is to get fresh wolfberries into supermarkets, but I can’t say that I’m particularly impressed by the wolfberry. If I were standing in the fruit aisle of my local supermarket and had to choose between wolfberries and, say, blueberries, I would choose the latter every time. But hey, I’m not Chinese; they would probably make the opposite decision.

In any case, I will not dwell on the wolfberry, because my attention was captured by something else altogether. Haixi has a lot of sun – 300 days of sun a year, we were told. So quite sensibly, the government has bet on a solar power future for Qinghai. As we drove from wolfberry plantation to wolfberry plantation, and after passing several large photovoltaic arrays, we drew up here:

CSP 006

This, my friends, is a concentrated solar power plant (or at least one version of such). The hundreds of mirrors on the ground focus the sun’s rays on the luminous white spot at the top of the column. That spot is a boiler where the heat of the sun turns water into steam, which is then used to generate electricity. I tried to capture the beauty of that ethereally, whitely glowing spot of concentrated solar rays, but my iPhone camera simply wasn’t up to it. So I’ve added the  only other photo I’ve found on the web of this plant.

CHINA-QINGHAI-SOLAR THERMAL POWER PLANT (CN)

And I add photos of similar plants in other parts of the world. This one is near Seville in Spain

CSP spain

While this is one was in California’s Mojave desert (it was demolished a few years ago).

CSP US

Not clear if this approach will ever generate electricity cheaply enough. But who cares, like Concord, another technological has-been

concorde

it’s beautiful.

Soon after this brush with the ultra-modern, we came across a picture as ancient as China itself, a line of camels padding slowly into the setting sun. I didn’t get a photo, not with my iPhone, but I show a picture of camels taken elsewhere in Qinghai.

camels

I could have been in Tang China. I am moved to throw in a photo I took back in May in the Museum of the University of Philadelphia of Tang era sculptures of camels.

philly museum 004

Minutes after this close encounter with the age-old, we drew up at a freshwater lake for a dinner of locally caught crabs. To whet our appetite, we were taken on a short cruise across a magically still mirror of water

lake-fresh 002

as the sun dipped below the hills behind us.

lake-fresh 010

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Qinghai grasslands: my son’s picture
Wolfberry-dry: http://soni.monovee.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/wolfberry.jpg
Wolfberry-fresh: http://mingmingtea.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Wolfberry_extract.jpg
Wolfberry-bush and fresh berry: http://images04.olx.com/ui/2/98/54/13309454_2.jpg
CSP-1: my photo
CSP-2 : http://res.heraldm.com/content/image/2013/08/01/20130801000653_0.jpg
CSP Spain: http://www.finetubes.co.uk/uploads/images/gemasolar-2011-2_low_res.jpg
CSP California: http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/images/solar_two_barstow.jpg
Concord: http://s1.cdn.autoevolution.com/images/news/concorde-will-take-to-the-skies-again-21839_1.jpg
Camels: http://m1.i.pbase.com/g1/62/942562/2/146679881.nWrkycH7.jpg
Tang camels: my photo
Lake views: my photo