Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tatler (Hong Kong) Mar 09 - spread

(photos: Edmon Leong; text: Jenn Chan Lyman)

Tatler (Hong Kong) Mar 09 - text

The Road Most Travelled

It’s a clear September morning when the eight of us arrive in Xi’an. Eyes puffy from the early flight over, I shrug on my windbreaker and breathe in the crisp autumn air, which at 19 degrees Celsius is considerably nippier than the 26C we’d left behind in Hong Kong. I was grinning a little too broadly given the fuzziness in my head, but this was the first leg of our much-anticipated Silk Road tour and I was ecstatic. Known as Chang’an in ancient Han times, Xi’an was once the capital of China and the heart of the Middle Kingdom’s contact with the West. At its height, the Silk Road spanned more than 7,000 miles from Chang’an all the way to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).

Our first mission was to visit the legendary Terracotta Warriors, tribute to one of China’s most infamous emperors, Qin Shi Huang. Often characterised as a ruthless despot, he unified China, initiated the Great Wall, standardised language and measurement, and implemented civil examinations more than two millennia ago, changing Chinese society forever. The emperor was also completely obsessed with death and immortality. Doctors and alchemists were ordered to find the elixir of life, while more than 700,000 men were commanded to build an army of thousands to help him rule in the afterlife, just in case the elixir was discovered too late. The carefully preserved relics at the Terracotta Army Museum are breathtaking. As I switch from wide angle to closer shots, I’m awestruck by the unique facial features of every individual soldier I bring into focus.

Next, we’re whisked to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, where resident monks commingle with bronze buddhas and bodhisattvas, faintly green from centuries of oxidation. Rising seven storeys above the city, the pagoda is the warden of many sacred figurines brought to Chang’an by celebrated Buddhist explorer Xuanzang circa 7th century AD. Transported from India over thousands of miles along the Silk Road, Buddhism remains one of China’s major religions, along with Islam. We spend the rest of the day taking in the cityscape, its quaint pagodas reminding me of the Cantonese costume dramas my mother used to watch when I was a kid. We stay the night at the Grande New World hotel, advertised as a four-star but more on par with a three-star hotel.

The following day, we take a two-hour domestic flight past the Yellow River and Hexi Corridor to Jiayuguan city, a trip that once took days astride horses, camels or donkeys. After an achy night on a lumpy mattress at the disappointing Jiayuguan Hotel, we drive west to the Jiayuguan Pass. I feel an exhilaration shared by centuries of travellers when I spot the Jiayuguan Fort in the distance, a mirage across the vast golden barrenness of the Gobi Desert. Those coming from the west would have endured perilous deserts and treacherous mountain passes before reaching this western-most outpost of China’s Great Wall, also known as the First Magnificent Pass Under Heaven “天下第一雄关”.

Six hours of camp songs later, our minivan finally reaches Dunhuang in the early evening. We were in for a treat. The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel, built in the style of a Tang Dynasty palace with enclosed courtyards, takes us back in time with its mud walls and replicas of antique furniture. We feast on skewers of the most tender lamb I’ve ever tasted, slurp lamien noodles and sample countless Gansu delicacies, one of which is camel toe. Only available in Jiayuguan according to our tour guide, camel toe is possibly the most malodorous dish I’ve ever experienced. Giddy from gorging and exhausted from the long and bumpy ride, we’re happy to call it a night and retire to our well-appointed rooms.

We wake up early, refreshed and ready for adventure. Nearby, packs of two-humped Bactrian camels await, tied together by large nails through their nostrils, so that if one moves, the rest must follow. We’re helped up by our tour guides and then led single file towards Echoing Sand Mountain, which arcs majestically in the distance. As we sway closer, I hear a yelp from behind me, seconds before I glimpse the remarkable sight myself. At the foot of the giant dune lies a delicate and seemingly improbable oasis. A graceful pagoda stands still, set off by the shimmering waters of Crescent Moon Spring.

We trek onward to the Mogao Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. Generations of Buddhist monks sequestered themselves within these grottoes in search of enlightenment. Over the course of a thousand years, the Mogao Caves amassed one of the largest libraries of Buddhist scrolls and sutras in the world. In 1907, British explorer Aurel Stein discovered the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest known printed book, in Cave No 17. The site’s preservation is remarkable. Thousands of cave murals are being painstakingly restored to their original lustre. Ducking into the grottoes, I’m humbled by the sight of the prehistoric paintings. For a brief second, I feel, or imagine, a spine-tingling energy from centuries of spiritual inhabitants ascending to nirvana.

That evening we take a surprisingly comfortable sleeper train to Turfan heading north-west towards the formidable Taklamakan, a punishing desert that’s known as “the place of no return.” Its shifting sands have swallowed many foolhardy explorers. In the days of the Silk Road, merchants travelled either north or south around the Taklamakan, often on routes marked by the skeletal remains of camels and travellers who had perished along the way.

We awake to a brilliant sun and the arid flats of the Turfan basin. It’s a comfortable 23C and the terrain here is rougher. It’s hard to imagine that grapes, Hami melons, and watermelons are among the main exports of this region. We learn that the Karez water system, dating back to the Han dynasty, enables the necessary irrigation through a web of underground channels. We head towards the foothills of the red sandstone Flaming Mountains to see the Bezeklik Caves, similar to the Mogao Grottoes, but on a much smaller scale. We return to Turfan, where our guide shows us the Uyghur mosque, in particular its most striking feature, the Emin Minaret, which stretches 44 metres towards the vivid blue sky.

From Turfan, we caravan to nearby Urumqi to catch an evening flight to Kashgar (modern-day Kashi), where the northern and southern routes of the Silk Road converge. With the Taklamakan to its east, the Tian Shan, Karakoram, and Pamir mountains to the north-west, and the Kunlun mountains to the south, Kashgar is a unique crossroads, where a wealth of animals, textiles, gems, precious metals and other goods have been bartered for centuries in its famous bazaars.

The Kashgar bazaars are bustling to this day. Their overflowing stands and colourful wares transport us to the height of the Silk Road in the 13th and 14th centuries AD. I’m fascinated by the myriad of vibrant hues everywhere,which are in stark contrast to the ochre landscape. Brilliant fabrics showcase elaborate embroidery originating from the delicate handiwork of the ancient Chinese, while other textiles feature ikat patterns, similar to today’s tie-dye, which travelled east from India centuries ago. Intricate patterns woven into smooth silk and soft cotton display symbols of different cultures and religions, capturing the spirit of the Silk Road itself.

As we tour through Kashgar’s Old City, we notice immediately how friendly the local community is. Lively and curious children pose happily for photos and are fascinated by their miniature images on our digital cameras. The alluring scent of baking bread holds us captive as we wait beside a large tandoor oven for fresh bagels and naan. Elderly folk amble along the lanes and soak in the sunshine on benches and chairs outdoors, their lined faces telling stories of their fathers and forefathers before them. I feel strangely comfortable in this city of friendly strangers and could have stayed for days capturing expressions and personalities of the young and old. Sadly, our Silk Road tour has come to an end. Leaving the Old City, I turn back for one last shot of the mossy emerald doorway and am surprised to see a small crowd of kids waving to us from the threshold. I couldn’t have asked for a warmer farewell.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Life In Stereo - Mar 2009 Issue

I knew this day would come. It was clear from the start, but I ignored the neon warning signs and charged ahead. Straight into the arms of someone else’s man. Am I a total fool? Yes. A selfish, self-indulgent bitch? Yes. Damned to the cheap lace hell of adulterers? I certainly hope so, sir. Pleading guilty to all charges. Going down in a flash of someone else's fireworks.

She will love him, surely. Most likely, she always has. He will play the good husband, married to the perfect lady. A couple inspiring future generations of perfect couples. They will have well-behaved, perfectly-mannered children a la Emily Post. They will attend charity galas and host holiday gatherings.

I, however, am single at 41. Not the best odds for chocolate Labradors and white picket fences, returning home to a full house, and retiring early in a nice New York suburb located within a fantastic school district. Whoopee. Instead, chocolate martinis and white leather barstools, turning the lock to a silent home, and retiring early to the latest New York Times bestseller on my bedside table. At least I will be well-read in my old age.

I am not complaining. Didn't make a bed, don't have one to sleep in. Father Nirrem will be so pleased come confession after Christmas mass. Time to consider a few charitable contributions to even out the scales. Doubt God is really paying attention anyway.

I never meant to feel anything. Ah, who am I kidding? But, I never meant to fall in love. I'm no Diane Lane or Kyra Sedgwick looking 35 at 45. I'm just me, having an affair with my 34 year old VP. Just about as classy as the 200 dollar Bloomingdales's gift certificate my assistant picked up for Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Greer.

They'd planned a spring wedding because Jessica wanted tulips and April was the month for tulips. So Wayne and I had given ourselves a deadline. Deadlines for affairs of the company; deadlines for affairs of the heart. It had seemed so efficient then.

And now it was spring. Neither of us said a word, but the snow had receded weeks ago and Manhattan was blooming. Wayne skipped a few meetings to attend fittings. Then a couple more for rehearsals. Early this week he'd applied for vacation. And now, here we are, on the front steps of St. Patrick's. He's not even Catholic. Or Irish.

Walking up the steps, I rearrange my expression to one of polite joy that is expected of a boss. Wayne breaks into a smile when he sees me. He gives my arm a meaningful squeeze, except I can't be sure of the meaning. We'd never discussed the end. This could be goodbye, for all I know. I squeeze back.

"Thanks for coming, M," he says, all smiles.

I break eye contact and continue past him to make way for others, heart clenching. I didn't think it would hurt this much. Did he hurt, too? God, I’m pathetic. The lady at the reception table asks for my name.

"Matilda. Matilda Gallagher."

"Here you are," she says, crossing my name off a list. “Groom’s side.” I redden. 

"Plus one, or?"

Should really be Minus One, given the circumstances. I flash a smile in case she detects the heavy dose of guilt mixed with the heady pulp of a mangled heart.

"No. Just me," I respond. 

Leaving the spring sunshine behind, I enter the chilly cathedral and pray for grace.

Click here to see the full issue of Life in Stereo digital magazine. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

Life In Stereo - Jan 2009 Issue

Resolution - a microstory

He was staring at her with that stupid eyebrow cocked at a funny angle. She knew any reply would be better than silence, but nothing came. She felt the self-righteousness pulsating from his face, slightly pink with frustration.

“Well?” he barked, nose squeaking. Mark had a tendency to squeak when things weren’t going his way. It was either from his sinusitis, or an Asperger’s tic. She winced at the familiarity. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

Her mind raced in slow motion, like when you’re trying to run in a nightmare. She could pull out her default, which went something like, “Okay, sorry. I should have ran it past you. I didn’t think you’d mind. I’m sorry.” Then perhaps a conciliatory hug, maybe even a peck on the cheek, and he’d be back to studying his crossword puzzle with his feet up on the coffee table in an hour or so. She’d take a long bath after dinner, stare into the steamy mirror at the lines trekking painstakingly across her face, and wonder at what point in her 36 years had her life derailed into such tedium.

Or, she could screw the norm, take a deep breath, and retort, “What do you mean ‘well?’ Are you a complete moron, or just pretending to be? Who cares if the curtains aren’t exactly periwinkle? What kind of guy says ‘periwinkle’ anyway? Why don’t you shove that Panda Express up your ass and get the hell out of my house. Yes, my house. Don’t forget, I paid for this goddamn place.”

She bit her lip, undecided. Mark wasn’t a bad guy after all. Just, dense. A bit frayed for forty. Completely OCD. And apparently obsessed with interior decorating. But he wasn’t the worst guy she’d been with. At least he didn’t lie to her face or sleep with her sister. Yes, that did happen. She shuddered, remembering.

“Emily, are you going to say anything, or are we just going to stand here while the food gets cold?” he demanded. “Dinner was $15.80 by the way. You can’t get anything decent without shelling out at least 15 bucks these days.”

She instinctively reached for her purse on the counter, then hesitated. Her hand hovered for a second, before pulling out the counter stool. She scooched onto the seat, legs dangling before finding the footrest. Mark’s face contorted impatiently.

“Mark, I think you should go.” The words sounded foreign. Exes usually left her long before she even realized those words needed to be said.

“What did you say?”

She gripped the edge of the counter to steady her resolve. “Mark, you need to leave. This isn’t working out anymore.” Oh, the cliché.

He glared at her for a good three seconds, slammed the take-out bag on the counter, and furiously removed what must have been her half of the dinner. He paused expectantly.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said under her breath as she rummaged through her bag, counted out eight dollars, and shoved them across the countertop.

“Fine. Thanks.” He hesitated. “You’re gonna regret this, Em. You keep thinking you’re going to find someone better but you won’t. Women like you never do.” He emphasized the “you” by throwing his laptop bag a bit too brusquely over his shoulder.

She didn’t respond until he’d slammed the door behind him.

“You may just be right,” she whispered, smiling to herself.

Click here to see the full issue of Life in Stereo digital magazine. 

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Life In Stereo - Dec 2008 Issue

I am caught in a time that only I can remember, because this time lives only in my memory, my memory and yours. But your memory is gone, dissolved away as you did, not too long ago. And it wasn’t too long ago, was it, since the last time you reached out for my hand? Not too long ago since we fell, careening into a happiness I never knew could exist.

And then I was frozen. It happened in a millisecond. The air hangs still. You can almost see the frozen molecules clinging to one another, forming a quiet nothingness that preserves you lying there, and me standing here under a megaton of realization waiting to fall upon my head. I am afraid to exhale, to bring me into the next moment that follows this one: the moment in which you are pronounced dead. “Are you sure?” I blinked against the fluorescent lights. “Yes, ma’am. He was dead upon arrival. We’ve tried everything we could for the past half hour. He’s gone.”

I have been holding my breath for the past year and nine months. Sometimes I wonder if anyone notices. I like to pretend that they don’t, that they cannot know the difference between the me going about my business everyday, and the popsicle me inside, dead amongst the living. The core of me lies with you, interred in a cement grave beside a silver urn of your ashes. What are ashes, anyway? Remnants of molecules reconfigured into a desperate preservation of that which was you. But the dead are most finely preserved in memories. Wayward, inconstant memories that deceive and give an approximation of truth, leaving you wholly dissatisfied, frustrated in its evanescence, pissed off in its perversions, angry in its clarity, and ultimately, fiending for more.

I can live with your blue shadow forever, can’t I? There’s no compelling reason for me to join the real world, beyond this comforting subterranean chill. I used to abhor the cold, but now I look for solace in its twilit corners. Swathed in indigo gauze, I am lulled to sleep by whispers and echoes of you.

Click here to see the full issue of Life in Stereo digital magazine.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tatler (Asiawide Distribution) Aug 08 - spread

(photos: Edmon Leong; text: Jenn Chan Lyman)

Tatler (Asiawide Distribution) Aug 08 - text

Jordan: A Photographer's Perspective

When I arrived at Queen Alia International Airport, the first impression I had of Jordan was its rather intense dedication to tourism control. Beyond the normal rigmarole of customs and immigration, the tourism police meticulously compared our documentation with the itinerary we submitted during our visa application. If any divergence from the original plan was suspected, we would be put right back on a plane with not so much as a glance of Jordan.

Armed guards reminded us that conflict was no stranger here. Jordan is a relatively peaceful land wedged between states known for discord. Syria and Iraq form its northern borders, while Saudi Arabia wraps around the east and southeast. Israel and the West Bank share the Dead Sea to the west, while Egypt lies across the Gulf of Aqaba in its southwest corner. When it comes to political turmoil in the Middle East, Jordan is squarely in the line of fire. Watching tense officials riffle through our paperwork underlined that we were about to venture into the danger zone.  

After we received the stamp of approval, we headed into the capital city in a chartered minibus. As we drove along the dusty roads towards Amman, I was struck by the sheer vastness of the sky above us, an immaculate azure dome above the desert plateau and its swirling sands. Most of the structures in the city reflected the tans, taupes and khakis of the desert, forming a neutral background for colorful storefronts and advertisements. We checked into the Marriott, passing through metal detectors that guarded each entrance, an understandable safeguard for a hotel that has been bombed three times in the recent past.

Once on the streets of Amman, I quickly noticed the lack of panhandlers and peddlers that you often encounter in large cities. As much as I’d read about the Muslim practice of hijab, it was still a shock to see women covered from head to toe in the dry heat, with their long, loose-fitting jilbab, and only their eyes visible under their niqab veils. Many women averted their eyes, especially when they saw that I had a camera. Only husbands are allowed to photograph their wives. Aware that I might inadvertently offend someone, I shot with my camera at my hip and relied on telefoto for tighter shots.

After one night in the capital, we drove south towards Mount Nebo. From the summit, our tour guide led us to the banks of the Jordan River, flowing down from the Sea of Galilee. It was incredibly unreal to be standing beside a river of such historical and religious significance. Friends in our tour group more religious than I were visibly moved as they touched the waters at al-Maghtas, the site where Jesus was baptized. Bearing precious water in an arid land, the Jordan River and its tributaries are critical to the torso of the Fertile Crescent, much like the Nile in the southwest and the Euphrates and Tigris in the northeast.

Heading downstream, we reached the eerily quiet waters of al-Bar l-Mayyit, the Dead Sea. There was not a bird within hearing range or any sign of life, other than a handful of tourists bathing in the buoyant waters. As the sun submerged, a soft mist rose above its spectacularly still surface. We stayed for two nights at the Mövenpick Resort & Spa, designed to resemble a seaside village with its low, sandstone structures and clean architectural lines.

Next, we headed for Petra, my most anticipated destination by far. Petra has held a place in my imagination since I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a kid. We were finally on our way to Harrison Ford’s Holy Grail. Soft, shifting dunes lounged lazily beside rough limestone steppes as we drove down the King’s Highway. Gazing upon this land of the Bedouins, I wondered if much had changed from the days when this area was first dubbed the Fertile Crescent, the Levant, even the “cradle of civilization”. The harsh contrasts of sand, rock, and shadow are inspiring for a photographer, but not exactly a lush Eden. After a full day’s drive, we reached Petra at nightfall.

The next morning, we set off towards Al Siq, a protective gorge forming the only entrance to Petra. Walking in the morning light, I was mesmerized by the pastel palette of sandstone layers around us. Pinks, purples, mauves, and all sorts of nameless colors wove along the weathered walls inside the narrow canyon. Shallow niches had been carved into the wall by pious hands commemorating the dead. The smell of camel and donkey dung stung our nostrils as the upper walls of the gorge closed in, leaving us in long shadows.

Just as the gorge was becoming slightly claustrophobic, we caught a glimpse of cobalt blue sky and an elaborate structure ahead. Set several meters deep into the rock face, Al Khazneh al-Faroun, the Treasury of the Pharaoh, has welcomed visitors for centuries as they entered Petra, the stronghold of the ancient Nabateans circa fourth century BC and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s not easy to give justice to a two-story building carved deep into stone over two thousand years ago on a 35mm, but I clicked away regardless. The kid in me wanted to clamber up the intricate façade to find that secret switch that would reveal the Pharaoh’s treasure. The adult in me wanted to genuflect at the accomplishments of a clearly sophisticated civilization.

As with most buildings in Petra, the Khazneh is a monument to the dead. An entire city devoted to honoring ancestors is difficult to imagine today. The Nabateans must have spent the greater part of their lives chiseling and honing to form these exquisite tombs, whose glory can only be imagined now. Brightly colored stalls lined the ruins, with friendly shopkeepers who smiled at us, while their children scampered happily along the sandstone mounds. Much to our relief, we were neither harassed nor ignored.

We continued along the natural curve of the hillside towards the four Royal Tombs on the city’s main promenade. Each of these illustrious monuments features specific architectural styles, from traditional Nabatean to Greek Hellenistic to the more modern Doric. In a breathtaking blend of nature and man, tombs materialize out of the rocks as far as the eye can see. Gaping cavities endure, paying silent homage to their late inhabitants. We trekked northwest for two hours towards the largest and loneliest of Petra’s edifices, Ed-Deir, the Monastery. With its predominantly Nabatean elements and distinctive disc engravings, some archaeologists believe it to be the tomb of the last Nabatean king.  

On the second morning of our Petra adventure, we hiked to the summit, astutely referred to as the High Place. The journey up the face of the mountain was sweat inducing to say the least as we swayed on donkeys up a narrow path. Any misstep of two or three inches would have been fatal, but these donkeys knew what they were doing. Perched on the Attuf Ridge, the High Place overlooks the entire canyon of Petra and formerly served as a sacrificial site for ancient worshippers.

After descending the mountain on foot, we hopped aboard jeeps for the final leg of our Jordan journey, the Wadi Rum. Famously featured on the silver screen in the 1962 epic, Lawrence of Arabia, the Wadi Rum is the largest and arguably most stunning of Jordan’s wadis, or valleys. We stopped to rest at a teahouse set in a traditional Bedouin tent, with three walls of heavy carpet and one open face. Our host regaled us with song and dance, and I felt my eyelids getting heavy in the afternoon heat.

Lulled by the lilting melancholy of the oud, the lute’s Arabic predecessor, I felt myself submersed in the surreality of Jordan. In just six days, I had traversed far from my initial impression of tension and conflict. I peered across the sandy sea as evening winds brushed new waves along the dunes, and reveled in the feather-light sense of freedom that washed over me.

(submitted June 22, 2008, 1348 words)