Pura Gunung Lebah, the Pura Dalem of Ubud, Bali, is nestled in a ferny canyon just across from the eternally revitalized Murni's Cafe, in Campuhan. I was attending this temple's Odalan festival when I made this sketch.


Before we go further...A Pura is a temple. Each village has at least three. The Pura Pusa, or Origin Temple, the Pura Desa or Town Temple, and the Pura Dalem. A Pura Dalem is a temple consecrated to the dead, and to dark forces that cluster at the downhill or "kelod" edge of town. Gunung Lebah means Small Hill. So the full name is Temple of the Dead at the Small Hill, which is a bit funky if you've been there, because it's...like...down in a canyon. An Odalan is a yearly temple festival, sort of like an anniversary. Every temple has one. They're almost always happening somewhere in Bali, although there is sort of a "season."

What happens to these Balinese temples during an Odalan is pretty intense. The visual transformation is profound, worth its own essay. There are endless ceremonies and performances that last for days. These are different than the dance shows you watch in town as a tourist. For one thing, they are often mercilessly long because they are being danced for the gods, not for you, so just chill. They are not even performed towards you, actually, but towards the temple center, which, being sacred, is not often a place where you can sit to watch, so you see a lot of the backside of Balinese culture. People in the audience are not reverently silent and glued to their seats like they're watching Ibsen or something. They chat and stroll around during the performances. And there are a lot of performances that you just won't be seeing at the tourist show because...well...because of the persuasive forces of consumerism. A creepy witch performance with a giant guy in drag is one.

This Joan Crawfordy-looking lady was part of a long performance that I think might have been funny?...because of the giant, lunkish, five-o'clock-shadowed drag-queen with ribbons in his hair who was her sidekick. Not the weirdest thing I'd ever seen after midnight in Bali, but then, that's another sketch.

Bundi is a town in Rajasthan that's just now awakening to the idea that people might want to visit. It has a generous helping of the requisite qualities that make such places into desired destinations: a huge ruined palace looming behind the town, street after street of unrepentantly picturesque buildings, a thriving market, temples, monkeys, a few locally owned and run nice places to stay, and a location not far from a major highway. Properly leveraged, this could be a nice addition to whatever trade currently animates the local economy, agriculture, I suppose. Improperly leveraged, it, of course, can suffocate the still authentic spirit of the place under a tidal wave of tourist buses, cheap backpackers bars, and ultimately the neo-colonialist invasion of ex-pat homeowners who drive up the cost of property until the locals have to bus themselves into their own town from some dreary socialist housing project ten miles away. I vote for number one.

Bundi is a wonderful place to visit for a few days as you make your way between the more famous destinations that dot Rajasthan from border to border. The city is pretty big, actually, but the older section below the ruined palace and fort are what people mostly mean when they say "Bundi." The palace alone is worth the trip. Filled with room after room of elaborately painted murals, it has only been abandoned for a generation or so. Electrical conduits run along the sixteenth century hallways to empty sockets, bats roosting where lights used to be. But this recent decline means that the ruins of the Bundi palace are easily visited: floors are flat, stairs in place, roofs mostly stable, and interior finishes, though mildewed and vandalized, pretty spectacularly intact. This view is from the roof of our hotel, the Braj Bushanjee.

I loved Bundi, more than Udaipur, more than Jaipur, more even than epic Jaisalmer, rising like a ship out of the desert. If you can visit, do. But please try to visit Bundi for what it is, and not be one of those wimps who ask, "Why can't they provide AC? Does everything HAVE to be vegetarian? Where can I buy SD cards? Can't we stop these monkeys from bothering us? Why don't they clean up this water?" and so on. Let Bundi be Bundi and enjoy it for what it is. It's not travel if you drag your lifestyle with you. It's infection.

I like griffons. I'm especially fond of the old bronze and terra cotta griffons that one comes across in Pre-Classical Greek art. I've heard that the legend of the griffon is based on rumors from Mongolia of the fossilized nests of Protoceratops, an early ancestor of the famous horned dinosaurs like Triceratops. Protoceratops had no horns, just the big parrot-like beak common to all the horned dinosaurs.

Apparently, in the Gobi desert, windstorms used to drive particulate grains of gold along with all the other dust until they would settle in shallow depressions. Some of these depressions were the fossilized nests of Protoceratops. Fossils in the Gobi are whitish, like old bone, not that coffee-black color we often see on fossils. Travelers coming across a nest would find the gold dust beneath the skeleton of a lion-sized animal with an eagle-like head. The very long shoulder blades could even be taken to resemble wings, although early representations of griffons have no wings. They really could be fanciful Protoceratopses. This sketch from the Met, I believe, though somewhere I have some from the island of Samos.

The Suliemanye district of Istanbul is mostly what you're imagining Istanbul is like if you haven't been there yet; the remnants of the Roman city and Hippodrome, the vaulting Blue Mosque, the cavernous Hagia Sofia, the maze-like  Topkapi Palace, the mysterious underground cisterns, narrow streets overhung by teetering ancient buildings, carpets, brassware, hookahs, the works. Crustiness, exoticism, and patina are the brand identity of Suliemanye. One could follow this observation into the depths of Edward Said-esque post-colonial Orientalism, but suffice to say, Istanbul is more than Suliemanye.

Istanbul itself, the real, whole city, is like a mash-up of Rome, for antiquities, Paris,  for elegance, style, and cafe society, Cairo, for mosques and markets, Los Angeles for hugeness and energy, and San Francisco, for the hilly seaside ambience, complete with red cable-cars, bow-windows, and seagulls. Despite creeping evidence of the increasingly dubious Prime Minister Erdogan's relentless drift away from the secular foundations of modern Turkey, (including the 21st century globalized weirdness of an Imam who lives in Pennsylvania as his most powerful ally,) Istanbul remains a vibrant, modern, European and Asian city, very chic, very contemporary, very interested in its own future.

But image counts. The owners, operators, vendors, and hoteliers of Suliemanye seek to provide what the visitors want, and ancient, crusty, crumbling antiquity is part of that. So, when the local architectural environment falls below a certain expected level of patina, some people resort to artificial cosmetics. Thus the surreal and ironic spectacle of a real, ancient, crusty, patinated window framing a set of faux fiberglass walls which themselves represent crusty, ancient, patinated stones.

I traveled and painted in two remote parts of Nepal on a three month journey in the early nineties. Fortunate coincidences led me to Mustang, one of the earliest visitors to that untouched medieval realm. My traveling companions and I made our way up to the capital, Lo Monthang, a fortified maze of flat-topped adobe buildings entered through a single gate. The skyline of the town is dominated by the mass of the palace, the temple of Champa Lakhang, and the 15th century monastic temple called the Thubchen. This ancient monastery is filled with delicately painted murals, which have been controversially restored since my last visit. The ceiling of the Thubchen is suspended by huge timber columns topped by cloud-shaped brackets. No trees of this size grow anywhere near the city, nor have in the past. The timber was hauled here from forests on the other side of the Himalayas. Ranks of Buddhists gods and goddesses are arrayed along the back wall, some quite large. In the interior of the Thubchen, I was allowed to set up my easel and make a painting. Monks chanted from prayers, block printed in ragged antique books, as I labored at the canvas. One venerable old lama, in order to read his text with failing eyes, walked into a beam of sunlight from the open air clerestory. That moment, a confluence of history, spiritualism, and simple mortal humanity is commemorated in the painting.

They say you can't take it with you, but Qin Shi Huangdi sure as hell gave it a try. He's the famous Chinese Emperor who, among other things, created the Chinese state, standardized the Chinese written script, created a national currency, connected the waterways of north and south China with a huge canal system, and started the great wall. That's a worthy set of accomplishments already, and there are many more, but the emperor is probably better known for his funereal eccentricities than for his life's work. He is the "terra cotta warrior" emperor.

Qin Shi Huangdi spent his life forging what had been a diverse set of warring kingdoms into a single unified Chinese state. It was neither a pleasant nor an easy task, though it was an utterly pivotal act in Chinese history. As Qin aged, he became obsessed with immortality. This might have been a reaction to the fact that people were constantly trying to assassinate him. The whole unifying China thing was pretty rough on the opposition. Anyway, by the time he died he had diverted considerable GDP into his gigantic, underground, mercury-filled memorial park and filled it with just a whole lot of life-sized warriors, musicians, and other courtly types who, being made of clay, would be less likely to argue with him in the afterlife than the troublesome living sorts whom he was always having to behead, or bury alive, or otherwise execute.

Outside Xi'an, in a rather theme-parkey archaeological park filled with souvenir shops and vast buffet restaurants, lie the partially excavated remains of his vast tomb complex. What is hard to grasp without seeing it is just the sheer size of the whole installation. It's a lots of stuff for a deceased person, and the main tomb has never even been opened. There must be some really cool stuff in there. Had Qin Shi Huangdi left his newly minted empire in great shape, as a prosperous, harmonious and well-running state, one might accept the funneling of so much wealth into a private black hole of self-glorification. But the China that the emperor left behind was kind of a mess. The first throes of nation building had not yet gotten much past the "forceful consolidation" phase. Not a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of the figures are warriors. They don't call it "The Terra Cotta University" or "The Terra Cotta Architects." It's warriors. He must have thought he'd need'em.

Most of the life-sized warriors are now standing where they were once excavated, having been reassembled from shattered fragments. Some are even still encased in the earth, broken and disarticulated as they once all were. This one was all cleaned up and lit in a nice case where you could see him really close up. We've all heard how every warrior is a unique portrait, how they are arranged in plausible military groupings, how the once held real weapons...and so on. Contemplated as a group, they quickly merge into the hyperbole of numbers, an overwhelming anonymous mass of armored golems. But looking at just one reveals a person, an individual whose face is preserved forever, as the emperors is not. Images we have of him are later inventions. For all Qin Shi Huangdi's grasping after immortality, it is his humble servants and loyal soldiers who truly live on now, people who lived lives we can imagine, greeting us all from the past with a humanity we can recognize, understand, and sympathize with.

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