Sunday, May 28, 2017

Festival Time for Tibetans and Their Horses

                                      by Jim Goodman

mounted Tibetans on the highway in Shangrila County
       The high plains of Shangrila County, actually the southeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, have only been connected by motorable road with the rest of Yunnan in recent decades.   Before that was just a track.  It was a well used one though, for it was an important part of the Tea and Horses Road, wherein caravans carried tea up from southern Yunnan to Zhongdian, as it was then called, and beyond to Tibet and western Sichuan, and Tibetan horses came down from the Plateau to Yunnan, and then beyond to China.
       The trade began flourishing from the foundation of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the 7th century, whose territory encompassed today’s Yunnan, plus at times various areas beyond, as a result of its periodic wars with Tang Dynasty China.  Both these regimes collapsed early 10th century.  After some years of power struggles, new regimes established themselves:  the Kingdom of Dali in Yunnan and the Song Dynasty in China.
monk on horseback in the countryside
       The Song regime was less secure, for it faced a long-term problem on its northern frontier with mounted enemies.  Rather than try to conquer Dali, mindful that their predecessor had never succeeded in conquering Nanzhao, the Song Court pursued a policy of peace and trade.  China needed the horses for its own armies.   Tibetan horses had a high reputation for being strong, agile and easy to train for warfare.  The Song Dynasty would undertake no steps that might possibly interrupt this vital supply.
       Tibetan horses didn’t save the regime from its ultimate defeat, but on the Tea and Horses Road business persisted.  The route took on a new significance during World War II, after the Nationalist government relocated to Chongqing.  With the Japanese blockading all shipments from eastern China, supplies had to come in by land from Kalimpong, India, through Tibet, thence to Zhongdian and on to Dali and Kunming. 
       This was the last heyday of the Tea and Horses Road caravans.  Nowadays trucks bring in the goods over new highways, reducing the journey from Lijiang to just five hours.  When the county opened to foreigners in the early 90s, it took at least eight, and sometimes was halted for several hours to clear landslides.  Trucks and buses generally left in the morning from Lijiang, as well as from Zhongdian back to Lijiang, so from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, the highway was relatively traffic-free and the main movement along the road comprised Tibetan villagers on foot or horseback.
dressing up Lhasa-style for the festival
a day to wear the fox fur hat
       Tibetan villagers back then were fairly well off.  They had spacious barley fields and vegetable gardens, sturdy and comfortable houses, yaks and other animals, including the family pony.  Some owned tractor-trailers, useful for hauling field produce and going to the city market.  But for visiting other villages, only the pony would do.  Even monks rode them.
pony parked at the festival grounds
       Owners kept their horses well fed and groomed.  They used a heavy leather saddle for riding, but placed under it woven woolen blankets, with artistic motifs taken from their carpet designs.  There are times in the year when the men don’t have a lot of work to do, so they may use that leisure to improve their equestrian skills and try to train their ponies to do more than just carry them around.  And if they’re confident of their success, they’ll want to show off for the annual Horse Races Festival (Saimajie in Chinese).
       Events begin the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (this year 30 May), when the barley fields have already been sown, azaleas are in bloom, and work is slack until the rains begin.  Tibetans come from all over Diqing Prefecture to attend, as well as southwest Sichuan, joined by Naxi from Baishuitai, Yi from the southern mountains, Lisu from Weixi County and Bai, Han and Hui from the city.   The venue is the lap of Five Phoenixes Mountain (Wufengshan), just south of the urban area.  Most of the Naxi, Yi and Lisu, and the Tibetans from Tacheng district in Weixi, are members of dance troupes sponsored by the city government, which puts them up in hostels.
tent erected at the festival grounds
       Most of the non-local Tibetans bring tents and pitch them around the festival grounds.  Some Shangrila Tibetans will do the same, for that’s where they will rest and feast in between the festival acts, with meat, vegetables, snacks, fruits, jiu and plenty of buttered tea, dining on their finest old carpets.   They will use their best copperware and silver-inlaid cups and bowls, too, for at festival time one has to make a good impression. 
       Stylistically, the festival requires putting on your best ethnic clothing and jewelry.  Some women will wear the long chuba popular in Lhasa, with a multi-striped apron in front.  They may also deck themselves with the family heirlooms:  necklaces, pendants, rings and hair ornaments.  The men will don wide-sleeved Tibetan jackets, tight pants and fur hats or top hats of brocaded silk with fur flaps.  Village girls dress more simply, but in their newest and cleanest, with as much jewelry as they own.
Shangrila Tibetan girls
Lisu woman guest from Weixi County
       Besides the Tibetan fashions on display, visiting ethnic minorities have their own distinctive outfits.  The Naxi women from Baishuitai wear ankle-length coats, usually black, a few white, tied at the waist, a sheepskin cape and colored yarn braided into their hair.  The contingent also includes costumed dongba priests, from one of the few places where this Naxi tradition survives.  Yi women dress in bright, tri-colored skirts and the men wear wide-legged trousers, turbans and woolen capes.  Lisu women from Weixi dress in a long, flowing skirt and wear a tall, pointed cap, embellished with cowries or silver studs.  To a Western tourist, the outfit evokes the look of a medieval European princess.
masked dance by lamas from Songzhanlin
       In its pre-Shangrila days, the city had not yet built a stadium to stage the festival.  In 1994 there was just an oval track, 400 meters long, with some bleachers on the side.  City officials sat in the center, while local people occupied the other seats, lined up along the track or stood in trucks parked to the side.  Mid-morning the first day, following a few speeches, a riding exhibition commenced, with the horses sporting silver bridles and decorated with ribbons and pompoms tied to their manes and tails.  The riders galloped their steeds twice around the track, then reared up to a sudden halt.
       Next came the dance shows, beginning with a performance by lamas from Guihua Monastery in Songzhanlin, dressed in bright robes and grotesque masks.  This was the most interrupted dance, as Han tourists swarmed all over the troupe to get close-up photos of the masks.  Other Tibetan dances included one where women wave their ultra-long sleeves around like scarves and a few skits from the traditional Reba Dance set.  These featured lots of stooping and spinning by the males, vigorous drumming, women brandishing staffs and characters with animal heads.  In between the Tibetan acts were numbers by Hui girls and by Han schoolchildren.
dancer in the role of a yak
Reba Dance character
       From 1995 the county government began inviting performers from beyond the city’s immediate environs, such as Tibetans from Diqing and Tacheng, Naxi from Baishuitai in Sanba district, south of the city, and their Yi neighbors.  The Naxi dongba priests, mostly very old, in bright silk robes, wearing the paneled crown of the Five Buddhas and wielding swords, danced around the entire track, whirling and slashing at invisible demons along the way.  The Naxi youths, like the Lisu and Yi troupes, performed energetic dances lined up in ranks or joined in a ring.
local Tibetans watching the dances
       Other than the lama dancers, who only performed once in front of the stage, the other groups also staged their shows at various spots on the track, enabling the rest of the audience to see them.  When they concluded, the jockeys arrived for the preliminary rounds of racing.  Some of them rode on the heavy saddle and blankets.  Others used only a thin cloth under them or rode bareback.
       Four horses compete in one heat, which comprises five circuits of the oval track.  But not all four of the horses make a real effort to race.  In the distant past, Chinese valued Tibetan horses for their good response to training.  That’s not so with the contemporary breed.  Saimajie is the event that will demonstrate, to both their jockeys and the spectators, just how embarrassingly unmanageable these ponies can prove to be.
start of a men's race
       Four horses start the race, but rarely do all four complete it.  At least one will choose to trot, or even walk, not race, despite the frantic efforts of its rider thrashing it with his quirt.  It might even be lapped by the heat’s winner—and this is only a five-lap race!  Another horse might just wander off the track entirely or jump into the bleachers and scatter the spectators or throw its rider to the ground.
       Such antics certainly amuse the crowd, who may erupt in a mock cheer for the slowpoke pony that finally dawdles its way to the finish line.  Some of the races can be quite exciting, though, with the winner but a neck ahead of the second place finisher.  After several groups of male jockeys have made the rounds, the last event before a break is a race between two female jockeys, who make just three rounds instead of five, but in a contest as spirited as those of the best male riders.
women's race
       Besides the races, the program includes a demonstration of riding skill.  Jockeys ride at full gallop down the straight part of the track and lean way over to one side to snatch up white scarves lying on the ground at 30-meter intervals.  It’s not easy and no one succeeds in getting all the scarves.  And just as with the races, a few horses will refuse to run, only trot or walk, which of course gives the rider plenty of time to reach down and pick up the scarves.  The spectators just laugh.  Everybody knows how temperamental Tibetan horses are.
       More rounds of racing heats and scarf pickup feats take place after the lunch break.  Tibetan drama groups also stage plays in the field beyond the track.  These will be skits from the Reba Dance repertoire, a 900 year-old tradition that combines dancing, talking, singing, circus acts, comedy and high drama.  The cast will include lords and ladies, generals and ministers, deities and animals, clowns and peasants.  The show could take place under a tent roof, with the sides open to view, or out on the field, with the audience standing in an oval around the players.
picking up a scarf at full gallop
       Activities the second day back then resembled those of the first, minus the ethnic dances that opened the festivities.  Back in the city, however, crowds of outsiders roamed the shops to check out all the different items on sale.  Fancy, Lhasa-style robes, in wool or silk, with imitation leopard-skin cuffs and lapels, Tibetan-style wide leather belts, broad-brimmed summer hats, riding crops, daggers, boots, and horse trappings attracted the men's attention.  Women examined rings, necklaces, bangles, scarves, blouses, capes and earrings.  Besides the clothes, summer fruits filled baskets along the main road, small open-air stalls in the market sold basic noodle and bean gelatin dishes, while on the pavements lay displays of medicinal herbs, roots and animal parts. And in the streets some people were out just to stroll around and look at the variety of people in town, including foreigners.
Tibetan drama at the festival grounds
       On both evenings after it was finally dark, groups of Tibetan youths took over a few of the intersections on the main road and formed circles to sing and dance.  These were the most convivial hours of the festival.  Arms around each other’s waists, girls lined up on one side, boys on the other.   Usually one girl in the group selected the song because she knew all the verses (most songs are long).  So she led and the others followed.  The girls sang one stanza, then the boys responded with another stanza.  The dance steps were simple and each group blithely continued until no one remembered any more lyrics, at which point they picked another song. 
       In the 25 years since the county opened its doors to foreigners Saimajie, like the city itself, has grown bigger. The program has been extended from two days to three, with additions like a staged music show, extra dances and dramas and, incongruously for a festival showcasing horses, a cross-country motorcycle competition. 
       The essence of the festival remains the same, though.  It’s more organized, with a presentation that gets glitzier all the time, and attended by many times more outsiders than two decades ago.  But for the Tibetans, it’s the last round of fun and games before the more demanding work of the rainy season.  It’s a time to dress to impress, meet other Tibetans from other places, perhaps engage in romance, show off equestrian skills and demonstrate the close relationship they have with their horses—things they’ve been doing since long before the first foreigner came to see the festival.

TIbetans from beyond Shangrila attending the festival
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                        for more on Yunnan’s Tibetans, see my e-book Living in Shangrila


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Excursions in the Mountains of Peru

                                                       by Jim Goodman

highlands pasture near Chinchero
       While Peru can boast of many distinct ecological zones, the country can be divided into three basic geographical areas.  The east consists of the lowland jungles and rivers of the Amazonian region.  The west coast is mostly desert, with cities and towns sited in the narrow strips of fertile land along the rivers that tumble down from the highlands.  Dividing this very arid region from the lush vegetation of the Amazon River system is the longest mountain range in the world, crossing the borders of six countries--the Andes.  For most travelers, the main attraction in Peru, where they will spend the most time in their journey, will be the mountains. 
       That’s where cities have the most scenic locations; such as Puno, next to Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, very near the volcano El Misti, and Huaraz, in full view of the highest peaks in Peru.  Besides scenery, the Peruvian Andes are also famous for cities associated with the Inca Empire, like Cusco, Cajamarca, Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu.  Moreover, in the mountains travelers can observe the lifestyles of the Native Americans, descendants of the people who were living here long before the Spanish Conquest.
Huascarán, Peru's highest peak
       Three of the five highest mountains in Peru stand just north of Huaraz, 407 km north of Lima, on the Santa River after a slow ascent across a barren, dry set of foothills, with snow peaks towering beyond them.  Huaraz is a small, quiet city at 3091 meters altitude, all but bereft of old buildings, for it had to be completely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1970. 
       The central market square is the most interesting part of town, especially in the mornings, when Indians from nearby villages come to shop.  On a clear day one can easily see the two peaks of Peru’s highest mountain—Huascarán.  The southern peak, the nearer one, rises to 6768 meters (22.205 feet), while the north peak is only slightly smaller, at 6654 meters. 
crafts shop in Chuquibambilla
       Peru’s third highest mountain—Huandoy—reaches 6428 meters.  It stands north of Huascarán, due east of the town of Caraz, 67 km north of Huaraz.   Yet another massif—Alpamayo—is just a little further north.  At 5947 meters, it is the country’s fifth tallest peak.  Huascarán Mountain is a World Heritage Site and national park, containing 296 lagoons and 663 glaciers, offering plenty of hiking and climbing routes, with the bonus of condors flying overhead and wild vicuñas scampering on the slopes.
       For those with more limited time and ambition, a popular day trip is to Llanganuco, an easily accessible picturesque lagoon between Huascarán and Huandoy.  The excursion includes a stop at Yungay, also on the Santa River, directly west of Huascarán, famous as the site of one of the greatest natural disasters to befall the country.
       In 1970 a violent earthquake at Huascarán caused an avalanche that unleashed 80 million cubic feet of ice, mud and rock hurtling down the mountain at speeds of 280-335 km per hour, burying nearly all of Yungay and a nearby village.  About 20,000 people died.  The same number perished in Huaraz that day, as the earthquake demolished 90% of the city.
ruins of the Viracocha Temple in Raqchi
       Earthquakes are a common nemesis in Peru.  The major ones make international headlines, but there are tremors somewhere in the mountains quite regularly.  However, they are not so frequent as to scare off tourists.  Cities like Arequipa, Puno and Cusco host crowds all year round.  And bus journeys through the Andes from Puno to Cusco give travelers a view not only of the majestic scenery, but the lifestyle of its inhabitants, past and present.
       The distance from Puno to Cusco is 380 km, about five and half hours by car. The bus takes longer, for it stops at several places of tourist interest.  The first, 152 km from Puno, is Chuquibambilla, an experimental breeding station for alpacas and vicuñas.  It is also a handicraft production center, full of shops selling locally made textiles, ceramics, stone carvings and silver jewelry.
Quechua woman, Raqchi
village near Ollantaytambo
       Another 50 km further the road comes to La Raya.  At 4335 meters altitude, it is the highest point on the route, with a clear view of Chinboya, a snow peak of 5489 meters height.  From here the road begins a slow descent following the Vilcanota River, which later, as it flows closer to the Inca heartland near Cusco, becomes the Urubamba River.  In contrast to the rather drab, barren landscapes of the route until La Rasa, the scenery turns greener, with more forests on the slopes and long stretches of farms along the river.
the Urubamba River Valley
       The next major stop is Raqchi, 125 km from Cusco, 3475 meters altitude, and the first site on the journey representative of Inca culture.  Raqchi was a major Inca administrative center, featuring a spacious temple to the Creator God Viracocha.  The temple was 92 meters long and 25.5 meters wide, with walls 15 meters high.  It also had the largest roof in the Inca Empire. 
       The Spanish destroyed most of the temple when they conquered the city.  The roof is gone, but sections of three of the walls remain.  The lowest meter or so consists of stone blocks of irregular shape, fitted together to make a solid base resistant to earthquakes, a technique also employed in Cusco and other Inca cities.  The rest of the walls are made of adobe.  Subsidiary buildings, stone storehouses and royal baths lie in the vicinity, along with circular buildings with conical roofs that the Incas used to store corn and quinoa, to distribute in times of shortages.
the rooftops of Cusco
       Raqchi’s other attraction is its inhabitants, predominantly Quechua Indians, descendants of those who lived there in Inca times.  The women dress in the traditional ensemble:  long, bulky black skirt, long-sleeved red jacket, with bands of largely blue appliqué and embroidery on the lower sleeves, lapel and cuffs, and a large, circular, flat hat. 
       The last major stop on the route is at Andahuaylillas, a colonial era village 45 km from Cusco.  A quiet and pretty mountain village, its fame is due to its church.  The Jesuits built it from 1570-1606, deliberately choosing a traditional Inca sacred site.  On the outside it is just a modest village church, with whitewashed walls and a bit of decoration around the entrance.  Step inside and it’s the most spectacular and richly decorated church interior in the country, featuring baroque murals on the walls and a lavish use of gold leaf and silver on the altar, ceilings and rafters.  The furnishings are so valuable that local villagers volunteer for guard shifts 24 hours a day.
woman with her llama in Cusco
village woman in Limatambo
       The final stop is Cusco, the most beautiful city in the mountains and most popular tourist destination in Peru.  It lies in a valley at 3360 meters altitude, surrounded by hills, and is home to 350,000 people.  It is justly renowned for its colonial era churches, plazas and houses with carved wooden balconies.  But traces of its original Inca identity remain in some walls and foundations that feature the interlocking stone boulders Inca architects devised as defense against earthquakes.
the Inca city of Pisac
       Descendants of the Incas still live in villages near Cusco and some live in the city and work in the markets.  Others come to visit or shop, bringing their llamas to carry the goods.  The women dress similarly to those in Raqchi, but wear a smaller hat, also round, but shaped more like an upturned saucer. Indian women in towns north of Cusco also favor this style, but to the east, as in Limatambo, women favor a very different, and mixed, style of hat—derbies, tall top hats, and hats resembling those worn by Canadian mounted police.
       For those who can tear themselves away from the charms of Cusco, the next excursion will be what’s called The Sacred Valley of the Incas.  The route goes northeast of Cusco 32 km to Pisac, 3040 meters, on the river at the point where its name changes from Vilcanota to Urubamba.  The town holds market day on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, largely consisting of stalls selling handicrafts and souvenirs for the tourist crowds. 
the ruins of Pisac
       The town dates its founding to 1570, after the Spanish destroyed the original Inca city on the adjacent mountain.  Residents tend farms along the river, but originally the people constructed a long line of terraces climbing up the mountain, moving topsoil from the lower levels to the higher ones.  The terraces are still there, but too many recent earthquakes have rendered then too unstable to use anymore.
       On the slopes above these terraces, around the mid-15th century, the Incas built a fortified city.  A road takes visitors up to a point where it’s a short walk on a narrow mountain trail to the biggest set of ruins.  No intact buildings are left, but lots of foundations, walls, streets and gates, plus an extensive palace on a lower spur, indicating that Pisac was an important city back then.
Quechua boys in Ollantaytambo
       From Pisac the road continues along the Urubamba River another 55 km to Ollantaytambo.  Unlike contemporary Pisac, whose inhabitants live far from the historic city, Ollantaytambo was not destroyed and its original layout, of straight streets intersected at right angles, is still intact.  So are the ancient stone terraces flanking the city, though no longer in use.  The mountain next to the town features a huge carving of the head of the god Viracocha, as well as a few temples on the cliff.
       The road up the Urubamba Valley ends here and day-trippers then return to Cusco via Chunchero.  Further up the valley, but only accessible on foot or by train (the usual option), 80 km from Cusco, is Machu Picchu, the fabled Lost City of the Incas.  Starting near Ollantaytambo, the trek takes four to five days.  The early train from Cusco gets there in an hour and a half, but from the station along the Urubamba River one has to take a vehicle up a zigzag road, with a dozen sharp turns, that itself is an engineering achievement.
Machu Picchu in the morniung
       Whether on foot or by road, the entrance is slightly above the ruins, which lie at 2430 meters height, on a flat spur next to the cliffs of Machu Picchu Mountain and its smaller companion Huayna Picchu.  To the Incas who first built the city in the 1440s, the site had obvious security advantages.  The sides were very steep, affording a clear view of anything approaching it.  Access was only by a couple of suspension bridges between mountains, which could be dismantled if necessary.  The mountain behind the city was virtually impassable.  Springs above the city provided the water sources and terraces along the mountainsides grew more than enough food to feed its population.
       Other, more mystical considerations influenced the choice.  To the Incas, the shape of Machu Picchu Mountain resembled a crouching puma.  The hill jutting out slightly from the face of the mountain appeared to have a pair of ears at the top and a snarling mouth below, like the head of the puma.  To make the resemblance even more obvious, Inca stone masons crawled up the mountain and chiseled out of the rock a pair of eyes.     
stairway and water channel, Machu Picchu
valley view from Machu Picchu
       The long spur in front of the mountains seemed to be in the shape of a cayman—a South American reptile similar to a crocodile.  The Incas built their temples and administrative buildings on this stretch of land.  The peasants lived outside this area, near their terraces, in simple one- or two-story houses with sloping thatched roofs, models of which have been recreated in recent decades. 
houses and terraces, Machu Picchu
       Enemies never tested Machu Picchu’s defenses.  The city stayed aloof from the Spanish Conquest wars, but was abandoned around 1572, possibly because of a smallpox epidemic.  The Spanish never found it and vegetation swept over the ruins undisturbed until discovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.  He actually misidentified it as the Lost City of the Incas, meaning Vilcabamba, the hastily constructed last capital of the Inca emperors, further upriver. 
       The Spanish destroyed Vilcabamba but Machu Picchu, far more sophisticated a settlement, was soon recognized as something quite different.  Excavators cleared away the jungle, partially restored about 30% of the buildings and so now the city is easy to explore.  It became a World Heritage Site in 1983 and has been Peru’s major tourist attraction for decades.  Visitors numbered 400,000 in 2000.
       That’s a lot of people walking on paths in an area that is seismically shaky to begin with.  Worried that the area could not withstand such pressure indefinitely, authorities in 2011 restricted the number of visitors to 2500 a day.  Hopefully, this will help preserve the area.  After all, it was not built anticipating the presence of ten thousand people a day treading on its trails.  As for the lucky 2500 each day, they can continue to revel in what is the gem of the Andes, with a blend of scenery and mystery and an example of how man can transform even the most rugged, remote environment into a viable place to live.
ruins of the Inca city, Machu Picchu
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for more on Puno and Lake Titicaca, Ollantaytambo and Cusco, see under Peru in the Online Articles page

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Arequipa: the White City

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

the Convent of Santa Catalina
       After the conquest of the Inca Empire, Francisco Pizarro sent delegations across Peru to establish new cities and consolidate his acquisitions.  On 15 August 1540, a group of Spanish colonists under Garcí Manuel de Carbajal, established the new city of Arequipa in the far south of Peru.  It was partly a relocation of a coastal town called Villa Herosa de Carnana that had not been successful.  Settlers there suffered from fever and other illnesses and so sought a healthier, more hospitable location.
       Lying in a broad river valley at 2328 meters altitude, the new site was only sparsely settled by Native Americans and the Spanish had no trouble evicting then to make room for themselves.  Dominating the northeast skyline 17 km away was the 5825 meters-high mountain they called El Misti, a still-active volcano (last eruption 1985) in a near perfect conical shape.
the founding of Arequipa
       The original houses were made of mud mixed with sticks and had thatched roofs.  The first residents were nearly all Spanish, who viewed their city as an outpost of Spanish civilization, of which the Catholic religion was a key ingredient.  In fact, they founded the city on Assumption Day, an important date in the Catholic calendar.  With that in mind, the city’s settlers began constructing the Basilica Cathedral the same year of the city’s foundation.
       Besides the rich agricultural lands in the vicinity, Arequipa enjoyed a cool, temperate climate, with daytime temperatures all year in the low 20s C. and nights 12-15 degrees cooler.  It was also close to mines that were just beginning to be exploited.  Arequipa’s location put it on the trade routes to Bolivia and Chile and when the colonial silver trade developed the city began to prosper.  In that sense, it was a good site for an ambitious town.  But what its founders probably didn’t know is that it is also in a seismically active zone.  El Misti and the other volcanoes in the vicinity never erupted often enough or forcefully enough to threaten the city.  But earthquakes have wrecked Arequipa many times throughout its history.
Plaza de Armas, central Arequipa
       The first devastating quake struck young Arequipa in 1583, knocking down practically every building in the city.  Construction of the Cathedral had to start all over again.  Two more earthquakes in the first years of the 17th century impeded reconstruction and the Cathedral was not finally completed until 1656.  It survived the next major quake in 1687.
       With its obvious vulnerability to seismic disturbances, Arequipa needed a different building material.  From then on churches, public buildings and private homes began using sillar, a sturdy volcanic stone; soft, lightweight and weatherproof.  Because sillar has a white color, Arequipa became known as the White City.  Sometimes it is a cream color, other times nearly pink or a gray-white, and some buildings in more modern times have been painted red, orange and other colors.  But in bright, sunny weather, and Arequipa gets more than 300 such days a year, it’s the white buildings, in all shades, that dominate urban architecture.
carved church facade
Plaza de Armas building
       The Spanish designed the city as a checkerboard grid of 56 blocks.  The original layout is still in place in downtown Arequipa.  A few blocks were given over entirely to churches, monasteries and convents and became miniature cities within the city.  The Plaza de Armas dominated the urban center and today is still one of Arequipa’s main attractions.  It also makes a convenient landmark, for other sites in the city can be reckoned as so many blocks in a certain direction from the Plaza de Armas.
lanterns at Plaza de Armas
      Flanked on one side by the Basilica Cathedral and on the other three sides by two-story buildings in the classic colonial style, with arched colonnades, the Plaza is an open-air park in the middle of the city.   Its decorations include tall palm trees, a garden, a three-tiered fountain and ornamental street lanterns.  A few of the buildings are restaurants, where diners can indulge in their meal while enjoying the view from a balcony table
       Arequipa’s colonial-era buildings, while in the general Spanish style, differ from those of other cities in the country.  The high, vaulted roofs are rounder, more open space is incorporated into the design and more decoration on the exterior facades, for the volcanic stone was easy to carve.  The result was what became known as the “Arequipa School” of Peruvian architecture.
the Monastery of San Francisco
       This was not the only element distinguishing Arequipa from the rest of the colony.  It was also a bastion of stalwart support for the Spanish Crown.  Even as anti-colonial sentiment began spreading in South America, Arequipa remained loyal.  In 1805 the Spanish monarchy recognized this and awarded it the title City of the Faithful. Its distance from other Peruvian cities insulated it from the propaganda of the liberation movements.  And when José de San Martín’s army took Lima in 1821 and declared Peru’s independence, Arequipa remained under Spanish colonial administration until the Battle of Ayacucho in December 1824 destroyed the imperial army and confirmed Peru’s independence.
typical iron door on an Arequipa church
the Church of La Merced
       Loyalty to the Crown and the Spanish version of civilization also implied a strong and fervent commitment to the Catholic religion.  Pious pioneer residents began building the Basilica Cathedral right after the city’s foundation.  In the second half of the 16th century they erected more—the Church of St Augustine, the Church of La Merced, the Church of Santa Marta (Arequipa’s patron saint), the Monastery of San Francisco and the Convent of Santa Catalina.   When earthquakes damaged all or part of these churches, the people patiently restored them.
Catholic procession in Arequipa
       Unlike Cusco, Arequipa was not previously an Inca town and so it didn’t have leftover foundations of interlocking stone boulders that the Incas had used to stabilize their buildings against earth tremors.  Cusco architects originally ignored these foundations and built on fresh grounds in the European style.  After a major earthquake leveled an important church, they rebuilt it over the foundations of the original Inca temple.  It survived all subsequent earthquakes.
       Arequipa didn’t have that option and didn’t import the Inca idea.  The people simply reconstructed the churches in the way that they originally stood.  And they continued building more churches.  When the Jesuits (Society of the Company of Jesus) arrived in the early 17th century they commissioned their own Church of the Company, close to the Plaza de Armas.  Other churches went up in the following century, like the Church of Yanahuara and the Church of St. Michael the Archangel.
nun's residence, Convent of SantaCatalina
       Common to all these churches was the use of the white volcanic stone sillar.  Mud-brick like that used in some of the poorer houses was unacceptable for a House of God anyway, while wood was scarce in this part of Peru.  While the towers and steeples varied in size and shape, they all had high, vaulted ceilings, with walls sometimes decorated with religious paintings.  A couple of churches became famous for details of their interiors, like the altar of the Church of the Company, entirely encrusted with gold leaf, and the lifelike, graceful statue of the Virgin of Mercedes in the Church of La Merced.
chapel courtyard, Convent of Santa Catalina
       Church exterior walls were also embellished with low-relief carvings of various kinds.  Often these were religious scenes, but could sometimes be ornate royalist imagery, lush vegetation or carved animals.  Sillar’s soft quality made it easy to carve.  And local artisans devoted more of their time and skill to embellish the beauty of the churches than ever they did regarding purely secular buildings.
       In colonial Arequipa, it was the custom for families of the nobility to send their second son to a monastery or their second daughter to a convent for a life of religious service to the Church.  Sons generally went to San Francisco Monastery, while the most prestigious place for the daughters was the Convent of Santa Catalina.  A rich Arequipa widow, Maria de Guzman, founded the convent in 1579.  It was enlarged the following century to an area of 20,000 square meters, filling the entire block. 
       With its residential quarters, colonnaded walkways, gardens, fountains, parks, museum, library and dining halls, it was like a miniature city inside Arequipa.  And it was a Forbidden City as well, off-limits to outsiders until 1970.  The convent’s restrictions extended to what kind of people they allowed to enroll.  Santa Catalina was only for the rich nobility.  Each family had to pay a dowry of 2400 silver pesos, today equivalent to about $150,000, for the daughter to enroll.  The woman had to bring with her a statue, a painting, a lamp and some clothes.  (They weren’t required to wear nun’s habits.)
dining hall, Convent of Santa Catalina
       Their principal duty was the daily recitation of the Divine Office.  Also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, this entailed attendance in the chapel to recite or chant prayers considered appropriate for that particular hour of the day or night.  They wore a black veil at such sessions.
       Other than that, they were free to enjoy the convent’s facilities, admire the paintings, browse in the library, walk in the parks and dine in style.  They just had to stay within the walls of the compound and not wander the streets of the city.  Being upper-class women, they made their residence as comfortable as possible.  Besides the required items, they brought with them imported china, rugs and silk curtains, as well as servants and slaves.  At its peak, Santa Catalina Convent had 450 residents.  But only a third were nuns; the rest servants and slaves.
       Because it was sealed off from normal communications with the rest of the city, the convent aroused intense speculation about what really went on within its walls.  People alleged the nuns were not celibate and even got pregnant.  Lady Rumor insisted that the skeleton of an infant had been found inside a wall during a post-earthquake renovation.  That it wasn’t true didn’t stop people believing it.
colonial-era building in the historic center
       In 1871 Pope Pius IX appointed an abbess to reform the convent.  The dowries went back to Spain and all the servants and slaves were freed and given the option to stay as nuns or to leave.  By now, though, well into the Republican era, the tradition of committing the second son or daughter to a religious life was weak.  The convent never regained its colonial-era status and by the time it opened its gates to tourists and the outside world, only 20 nuns lived in a small, still-secluded part of the compound.
       Arequipa in the Republican era played a very different role in the country than in colonial times.  It always felt itself to be in cultural and political competition with Lima, founded five and a half years earlier.  Due to the twists and turns of post-Independence politics, Arequipa actually served as Peru’s capital 1835-1883.  Thereafter it promoted regionalism and tried to carve out its own way into the future.  Resistance to the dictates of Lima even led to occasional insurrections.
       By this time the silver trade had finished.  Arequipa’s new prosperity became based on camelid products:  rugs, ponchos, scarves, sweaters and so on from the wool of upland alpacas and vicuñas.  It suffered another major earthquake in 1863 but, as before, the people repaired the damage and carried on.  A railway opened in 1871 and the city began to grow beyond the original 56 blocks. 
       Even after the capital reverted to Lima, Arequipa continued to make its own distinct cultural achievements.  Noted Peruvian scientists, like Pedro Paulet, one of the first to study rocket propulsion, hailed from Arequipa.  So did many painters, composers, poets and writers, the most famous being novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel Prize winner. 
modern house in Arequipa
       Several city institutions promote cultural activities.  The Symphonic Orchestra of Arequipa, set up in 1939, performs the compositions of its native sons and preserves the local musical traditions, both classical and vernacular.  Universities frequently host cultural events ranging from painting and photography exhibitions to indigenous folk music shows.  The city remains as strongly conscious of its cultural heritage as it is of its architectural achievements.
       Politically and culturally, the city still maintains its rivalry with Lima, though the capital is now several times larger than Arequipa.  With a population approaching 900,000, Arequipa is Peru’s second biggest city, as well as its second most industrialized and commercialized.  Steel and cement production are the dominant industries.  The wool trade is still going strong and in recent decades tourism has played a growing role in the local economy.  In 2000 Arequipa’s historic center won recognition as a World Heritage Site.  After Cusco and Lima, Arequipa is the third most visited destination in the country.
       With majestic El Misti in plain view, Arequipa’s location alone would draw tourists.  (They can even take a two-day hike to the top of the crater.)  Yet the city itself is full of beautiful buildings, old and new.  And the churches, emblems of its society’s religious fervor, particularly stand out; painstakingly and lovingly restored after every earthquake, and as white as the hosts of Holy Communion.

El Misti volcano
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