Travels with Susan Spano

People, Places, Stuff

China via Peter Hessler

May 24, 2013

Tags: China, Peter Hessler

When I started reading River Town, by Peter Hessler, I little expected that I’d get hooked. But after finishing his first book about serving with the Peace Corps in Sichuan Province, I went on to Oracle Bones which weaves deep Chinese history together with the author’s experiences living in Beijing, covering the dramatically-changing PRC for The New Yorker. His greatest gift is the way he tells the stories of average people—from students he taught in Sichuan to migrant workers—upending many assumptions proliferated in news reports about the lives and feelings of contemporary Chinese. Country Driving,Hessler’s third book, depicts the automobile revolution in China, with millions of newly-middle class people now buying cars and highways unfurling all across the country, a phenomenon that mirrors what happened in the U.S. some 60 years ago.
Now Hessler latest, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, published earlier this month, is on my list, too. Required reading for China-watchers.

Beijing Ivory Tower

August 10, 2012

Tags: University, China, Beijing

First time visitors to Beijing spend their time visiting the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, then take a day trip to the Great Wall. Of course, with a population of 20 million and massive urban sprawl now encompassed by a half dozen ring roads, there’s much more to see in Beijing. One site usually passed by on the obligatory trip to the Summer Palace is the Peking University, China’s Harvard or Yale, occupying a beautiful, leafy-green campus in the city’s far northwest corner.

Opened in 1898, during a brief period of Western-style reform cut short by a coup d’etat that gave the power behind the Peacock Throne to ultra-conservative Dowager Empress Cixi, its past is brief compared to that of the nearby Summer Palace. But the university--Beida, for short--played a signal role in the tumultuous modern history of China, breeding dissidents who fought for modernization in the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square; others helped to launch the Cultural Revolution which began as an ideological cleansing of the Communist Party before it spun out of control. To tour the campus now is to remember the country’s wild ride through the 20th century, from fabled Oriental empire to revolutionary Peoples Republic built by Mao.
Start by taking the Metro from central Beijing to Wudaokou Station in Haidian, home to Tsinghua, Renmin and other smaller universities that make the district the Cambridge, Mass., of China. Wide Chengfu Road goes west from there past student-friendly cafes and apartment complexes, bookshops and movie theaters, finally dead-ending at the walled campus of Beida. Apart from its fascinating past and current educational importance, Beida is one of the loveliest places in the capital, a quiet oasis with trees labeled in the nomenclature of Linnaeus and ornate Ming-style architecture.
Walk northwest from the gate, past intriguingly-named buildings--for instance, the Research Center for Deng Xiaoping’s Theory at the College of Marxism--to Weiming Lake, circumscribed by a network of paths and overlooked by Boya tower, a replica of the capital city’s oldest and tallest pagoda built in the Tongzhou District across town. The lake is decorated with pillars and fish sculptures removed from the ruins of the nearby Old Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan, looted by English and French soldiers.
On the south side of the lake it isn’t hard to find tomb of journalist Edgar Snow, marked by a tablet that calls him “a friend of the Chinese people from America.” He earned that epithet by writing, among other books, “Red Star Over China,” one of the first accounts of the nascent Communist movement and its long battle with the Nationalists before and after the Second World War.
Walkways lead from there to Beida’s west entrance, a striking, classical Chinese red gate guarded by stone lions, Qing Dynasty gardens, the traditional courtyard-style China Center for Economic Research and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, built by the American physician and philanthropist in 1986 to house the university’s extensive collection of artifacts and train students in museum management. Its galleries are open to the public, displaying bronze, jade, ceramic and bone artifacts, some almost 300,000 years old.
America’s contributions have continued since Snow and Sackler with partnerships between Beida and U.S. universities. Completed this year near the Art and Archaeology Museum, the new Stamford Center at Peking University serves as a headquarter for 7 foreign study programs in fields ranging from medicine to sustainable development.
There’s even a conference center hotel on campus, Shaoyuan Guest House where no-frills doubles cost under $50--not a bad choice for travelers who want to stay in a Chinese ivory tower.
From the first annual SPEAK UP! contest, June 23, 2018, Muhanga, Rwanda

Syracuse Archaeological Museum, Sicily

Proshyan School bathroom with water tank

Takar and Kataro are my favorite Armenia reds

School time in Armenia.

Garni Temple, Armenia

Big Sur from Soberanes Point


Artichoke Pickers by Henriette Shore

On the way to the beach

Jalama Beach, CA

Hello, little sea urchin!

Famous Jalama Beach Burger

Three by Peter Hessler

Spring time on the Big Sur Coast


Jalama Beach, CA

Motya Charioteer. Image from

Laboratory for Atmospheres, NASA

Homesick for Rome

Therme Vals in Switzerland

At Vogelsgang

National Socialist Party poster from Vogelsgang

Palm Springs

Image courtesy of Tylas at English Wikipedia

Vintage Naples Historic District

From Palm Cottage

Borobudur frieze; Buddha's life

Borobudur at sunrise

Shikellamy State Park in Pennsylvania

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Image courtesy of Politics and Prose

Image courtesy of John Wehrheim.

Lotusland in Montecito, CA

Ganna Walska of Lotusland

Image courtesy of Flickr user ViaMoi.

Conques Church. Image courtesy of Flickr user Seligr.

Weiming Lake, Peking University. Image courtesy of Flickr user ImGump.

The Coral Casino at the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel near Santa Barbara

Agrodome, Rotorua, New Zealand. Image courtesy of Flickr user _gem_.

Vandalized images at Painted Rock

Painted Rock, Carrizo Plain National Monument

Mesa Verde National Park. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons user BenFrantzDale.

A map of Chicago, Illinois, imprinted in 1913 from the United States Geographical Survey’s historical topographic map collection. Image courtesy of the USGS.

Image courtesy of Flickr user hattiesburgmemory.

Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy of Flickr user alobos flickr.

Image courtesy of Flickr user joiseyshowaa.

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Selected Works

Nonfiction, Travel, Human Interest
A new collection of travel essays by Susan Spano
Tracking Colette in Paris and Burgundy
A draught sinks Lake Powell, revealing lost wonders of Glen Canyon
Rome's Most Roman Neighborhood
Studying Mandarin in Beijing
Around the world and back to New York
Nonfiction Book
Divorce. Why do we do it? And what does it do to us? fourteen prominent writers have pondered these questions and have set down heir thoughts and personal stories, in this gathering of sometimes irreverent and always intelligent essays. "A disarmingly candid, invaluable collection." --Publishers Weekly
"Anyone who doubts that men, too, suffer in divorce should be required to read this." --Glamour Magazine "A rare, unusually focused anthology of original essays that both entertains and instructs." --Publishers Weekly

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