The Itchiku Kubota Kimono Exhibit At The Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto

I knew I had to see them for myself as I looked at the screen of my wife Laila’s iPhone. She had just come home from the Itchiku Kubota exhibit at the Textile Museum of Canada on Centre Street in downtown Toronto and the two dozen images she had snapped were stunning.  As she gave me a rundown of the work involved in making the kimono(s) , the cliché that came into my head was the classic – “I don’t know much about (textile) art, but I know what I like!”


 Exhibit open until May 13, 2018!

I spent the next day net surfing my way to some articles on the elaborate and multiple time-consuming steps Kubota took to create his kimono art. I bumped into lots of Japanese terms which led to more reading – and to the outline of his biography.

Leaving school at 14,  he spent the next six years learning the basics of his craft with  a master kimono painter. It was a visit to National Museum in Tokyo when he was 20 which would set the course for the rest of his life. What he saw was a piece of textile done in the lost traditional fabric dying technique (Tsujigahana).  He would later write –

“Restraining the pounding of my heart, I gazed intently at that small piece of fabric exuding a subtle and profound atmosphere (…). It carried a quality that was almost plaintive and mysterious. In the hall which was practically devoid of visitors, I continued to look at that small piece of fabric, as if placed under a spell, for over three hours”.(Itchiku Kubota, in “Itchiku Tsujigahana : works of Itchiku Kubota”, 1979

By the early 1960’s – he was now in his forties – he accepted that he could not recreate the old technique so he turned to innovating with modern adaptations which included using

  • a silk crepe fabric instead of the traditional nerinuki fabric and
  • synthetic dyes instead of natural ones.

His first kimonos were put on public display for the first time in 1977 when he was sixty!  In all he would create over 120 of his kimono masterpieces,  of which 41 are on display at the Toronto exhibit.

The very first one you see – it is on the second floor near the steps leading to the third floor exhibition space where the rest of the collection hangs – is perhaps the most traditional one of them all.

Up the stairs and a turn to the right and more wow!

Kubota’s Symphony of Light: The Universe – Ha:A Curling Wave of Magma

Kubota Symphony of Light the Universe En Chuu/ A Blazing Passion kimono

Kubota Symphony of Light the Universe En Chuu A Blazing Passion kimono

Kubota Symphony of Light the Universe En Chuu A Blazing Passion kimono

Kubota Symphony of Light the Universe Zu Dragon Head kimono

What Goes Into The Making Of A Kubota Kimono:

Kubota – Production Techniques

Kubota – Steps 1 and 2

Kubota – Production Techniques continued

The Mount Fuji Kimono Series:

Mount Fuji series of kimono – #2

Mount Fuji series of Kimono – #3

Kubota – Mount Fuji series – #4

Symphony of Light series – a set of six kimono

Symphony of Light Seasons - series of 6 kimono (1983-1986)

Symphony of Light Seasons – series of 6 kimono (1983-1986)

Kubota Symphony of Light The Seasons side view

Kubota Symphony of Light The Seasons side view

Symphony of Light The Seasons - first two kimono

Symphony of Light The Seasons – first two kimono

Kobota - Symphony of Light - Seasons kimono 3 and 4

the middle two panels of Kubota’s Symphony of Light: Seasons – 3. Kougaki/A Tapestry of Colour (1984) and 4. Benigara/The Purple Hour (1984)

Kubota – Symphony of Light – the Seasons – Kimono 5 (Kamimurasaki / the Uncertainty of Evening (1984) and 6. Jo / Autumn Prologue (1986) and 6.

Another set of three kimono from the 1986-1987 Symphony of Light: Seasons period is titled:

  1. Ryou / Certitude (1986)
  2. Hour / Change (1986)
  3. Hin / Nostalgia (1987)

All feature tie-dyeing, ink painting, and embroidery on silk crepe which has been woven with gold wefts.

This set of three kimono is followed by a couple of other sets in the Symphony of Light: Seasons series, the first a collection of four focussed on late autumn and early winter –

info panel for the set of four kimono – Symphony of Light – Seasons – Late Autumn et al

Kubota – Symphony of Light – Seasons – four kimono – Late Autumn to Sudden Snow

another set of four kimono from Kubota’s Symphony of Light – Seasons – series (1987-1988)

An hour later I was back to the beginning of the exhibit.  I did another go-round, this time looking for detail as opposed to overview shots.  Here are a few of the sixty or so I took!

detail from Kubota kimono

Kubota kimono detail

Kubota kimono detail – dancing flames

Mountains beyond mountains – a Kubota kimono detail – portrait view

The Itchiku Kubota Art Museum info panel

The Kubota Museum is located about 50 kilometers to the west of Tokyo. Tripadvisor reviewers (245 and counting) give it a close to perfect rating – see here for comments. A bonus for visitors is the view of Mount Fuji some twelve kilometers to the south on the other side of Lake Kawaguchi.

the Kubota Museum N of Lake Kawaguchi  – see here for Google map

If Tokyo is not in your immediate travel plans (!) then you need to get to the Textile Museum in Toronto to experience   ARTISTRY IN SILK: THE KIMONO OF ITCHIKU KUBOTA for yourself.

Hopefully my photos will have given you a reason to go. I will say, however, that as much as I tried to get the colour balance right, I know that what you see on your screen does not come close to the luminescent reality of the kimono as you stand in front of them.

One thing you might do – that I did not – is ask if there is a guide available to explain some of what is involved in the production of these masterpieces.

Textile Museum – 55 Centre Street off Dundas – see Google map here

After Toronto the exhibit moves on to Utica, New York where it will be on display from June 10 to September 16 at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art. See here for an article previewing the Utica show.

Additional Resources –

The Toronto Public Library system has three copies of Dale Gluckman’s  Kimono as Art: The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota (2008).  I put a hold on a copy in early March at which time I was #5 in the waiting line.

It looks like one will become available in mid-April just as I head off to the airport for a three-week trek/climb in Upper Mustang in Nepal!  See here for the Toronto Public Library  details.

The book is also available at Amazon but only from third-party sellers and with a starting price of $100. U.S.


More Toronto Art To Consider!

If you want to make a day of it in downtown T.O., there is lots more to check out. Here are a couple of possibilities.  Click on the titles to acces the posts…

1. Checking Out Downtown Toronto’s Grafitti Art Scene

Death the All-Embracing

Death the All-Embracing

2. The Chinese Temple Murals And Statues Of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum

overview of Taoist and Buddhist murals - ROM Bishop White Gallery



Posted in Toronto | 3 Comments

Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Pre-Trip Planning and Preparation

Related Posts: Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit – Is It Still Worth Doing?

The High Passes of Everest Trek – From Lukla To Namche To Chhukhung

When it comes to hiking and trekking, nothing comes close to Nepal! Age-old trails going up the various valleys of the Himalayas, the crossing of an occasional 5000-meter high pass, and the nearby presence of one or two of the fifty highest mountain peaks in the world – Nepal has it all.  Add to the mix a well-developed trekker infrastructure and fascinating local cultural groups with their Hindu and Buddhist rituals and architecture and you have the ingredients of an experience few if any other places can offer.

the hills above Manang with one of the Annapurnas in the background

the hills above Manang with one of the Annapurnas in the background

I was last in Nepal in 2006. Over a two-month period that autumn I  walked the Annapurna Circuit trail and spent three weeks in the Everest region on the Three Passes trek, which to my mind is the #1 long-distance trek in the world.  As 2016 approached I was looking forward to a return visit and another great hike – but then the earthquakes of 2015 shook the country and my plans were put on hold. Well, here we are three years later and I am finally set to return.  I fly to Kathmandu via Abu Dhabi in early April.

The Annapurnas – From Tilicho Lake To The Nar-Phu Valleys

But where to go? I wanted to walk new trails and honed in on the two following possibilities, one in the Annapurna region and the other just east of it in the Manaslu area.

Manaslu Trekking Guide coverThe plan was to organize it on my own using the itineraries of established trekking agencies. (Click on the above links to see sample itineraries.)  I planned on hiring a porter to carry the bulk of my gear while I dealt with a daypack.  Both routes require special permits and a minimum of two trekkers accompanied by a guide. I went so far as to get a copy of the Cicerone Trekking guide to the Manaslu Circuit by Siân Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons and spent some time reading relevant threads at the Trip Advisor’s Nepal forum. I even posted a proposed itinerary and flexible dates at the Trekking Partners website. November was probably much too early to be looking for a partner for an April or May trip!  All but one or two responses were from independent trekking guides looking for work!

Trekking Annapurna cover

In the meanwhile, I chanced upon this  Cicerone guidebook titled Annapurna: 14 treks including the Annapurna Circuit and Sanctuary (2017)  also by Pritchard-Jones & Gibbons.  It included a write-up of a route that I had never heard of before. Here is what I read –


See here for a copy of sections of the book in Google Books!

It was exactly what I was looking for!  Highlights include:

  • walking up the Kali Gandaki valley from Jomsom to the old capital at Tsarang
  • trekking across the empty high altitude desert along the Hindu pilgrims trail to Damodar Kund
  • climbing the Damodar/Khumjungar Glacier to Saribung La and then coming down on the east side of the pass to the abandoned summer settlement of Nagoru
  • descending the entire Phu Valley from the glacier to where the Phu/Nar trail meets the Annapurna Trail
  • walking the first week of the Annapurna Circuit back to its start point (and this trek’s end point!) at Besi Sahar

Mustang-Saribung-Phu Trek Route

A trail much less travelled – but, as the write-up makes clear, also one I was not going to be doing on my own!  It would also involve tenting since there is no teahouse infrastructure along most of the route (i.e. from Charang to Koto).  Special permits to enter Mustang – an initial $500. U.S. for ten days – would be required. Along with the tents, add to the list a three-week supply of food and basic mountaineering equipment to deal with the glacier traverse.

Notice on the east bank of the Kali Gandaki Khola north of Kagbeni

This online map of Upper Mustang – hard copies available at the Himalayan Mountain House store in Kathmandu) – lays out the basic route from Jomsom on the bottom left up the Kali Gandaki to Charang and then east to the valley below Saribung La on the middle right. Phu and Meta and Koto and the Annapurna Trail are a bit further south!

Finding An Agency To Organize The Trek:

More googling led me to this trek organized by the respected Australian adventure travel agency World Expeditions.  I gulped when I saw the price – $5395. CDN!  Ouch! However, two internal flights are included ($300. Cdn), as are the $Cdn 700. + for the Mustang entry permit and another $200.+ for the three nights at the five-star Kathmandu Radisson. Also included is use of a down sleeping bag and down jacket as well as an insulated mat.  I went over their itinerary and other info;  all, in all, it looked great.

I put the WE offer to the side while I looked for other trekking agencies which had something similar.  Also available were trips organized by other outside-of-Nepal agencies.  KE Adventure Travel, a UK agency, has one called Saribung Peak and the Damodar Himal Reconnaissance. It includes a walk up the 30º snow slope from Saribung La up to the peak.  Jagged Globe, yet another UK travel company, has another similar trip with the less pretentious title Saribung Peak and Upper Mustang.

In both cases, the trip cost was higher than the World Expeditions offer, perhaps due to the possible Saribung Peak climbing  fee. As well, they both include a day or more in Lo Manthang, something not included in the World Expeditions itinerary.  The WE route only goes as far as Charang before turning east to Luri Gompa and Damodar Kund.

I also checked out some Lonely Planet and Rough Guide-recommended Nepali trekking agencies based in Kathmandu but not much was coming up and in all cases, I was the only client and was being encouraged to get other people to join to make it possible!  To enter Mustang you need a trekking agency and a minimum of two trekkers along with a guide. A porter is optional.

A few days later I checked the World Expeditions site again. The price had dropped to Cdn $4950.!  It was late November – a Black Friday sale?  I made a phone call to their Ottawa office to see how many had signed up for it already. The answer: four.  Still not a sure “Go” (six is the official minimum) but probably a “Go” if I signed up.

Ghar Gompa?

Ghar Gompa above Charang

I decided that the premium I was undoubtedly paying by going with a non-Nepali agency was justifiable for the peace of mind it offered.

  • It starts with a flashy website!
  • The agency attracts the clients,
  • it negotiates (as required by Nepali law) with a Nepali trekking agency to do the actual trek, and
  • it provides comprehensive information package on pre-trip planning and requirements.
  • its use of the same agency over the years indicates that certain standards of safety and food and all-round competence are being met.

It sure beats showing up in Kathmandu and spending the first few days trying to make it all happen on my own – and wondering if the agency I had chosen was up to the job.  I would later find out that the Nepali agency that WE deals with is Highland Expeditions. Click on the header below to access their website –

The trekking crew’s experience in handling high-altitude expeditions, up to and including summits of Mount Everest, was reassuring.  While the Mustang – Saribung Traverse is hardly in that class, it still involves crossing the 6050-meter pass at Saribung La after a couple of nights tenting at 5000 + meters.  Knowing that the crew has been there before is comforting!

Screen Shot 2018-02-23 at 9.11.23 PM

Update- late February!  Oops!  I got the name of the agency wrong!  It is Highland Excursion(s) and not Highland Expeditions which will be handling the trek!  That feeling of reassurance I mentioned above?  I am not feeling it quite so strongly now!

If you were to judge the two agencies solely on the basis of their web sites, then Highland Excursions is clearly not in the same league as Highland Expeditions.  Arranging pilgrimages via plane and jeep connections to Muktinath and Mount Kailash seems to be its major focus.  The Nepal Trekking folder is very thin on actual high-altitude camping treks.

The sub-header on the home page –  One of the leading adventure travel company – has a glaring grammatical error and could use the qualifier Nepal’s as in “One of Nepal’s leading adventure companies” to make it sound a bit more plausible.  As I scroll down the page,  seeing the heading “Popular Destination For 2014” appear in 2018 doesn’t show great attention to detail!

Now I am hoping that World Expeditions knows something that this website is not conveying!  A website is one thing; the trekking agency crew of guide and sirdar and cooks and porters  on the ground is another.  Reviews of this and other WE trips in Nepal are overwhelmingly positive.  As always, time will tell. Stay tuned for the trip report!

Our trek begins in Jomsom, the administrative capital of Mustang at 2720 meters.  On Day 1 we meet the trekking crew and walk up to Kagbeni along the Kali Gandaki River, which we will ascend all the way to Charang over a four-day period.  Then it is east across what is essentially a high-altitude desert towards Damodar Kund.  We have twelve days to acclimatize as we walk up the Khumjungar Glacier on our approach to the trek’s high point at Saribung La.  See here for the full itinerary.

Jomsom to Kagbeni - the Kali Gandaki valley

Wikiloc GPS Track of the Trek:

The route can be seen in this Wikiloc upload from November 2016 upload by Aymami. The only difference will be that ours does not include a visit up to Lo Manthang, some 13 kilometers north of Charang.  Just click on the image to access the GPS track.

Wikiloc Mustang-Phu trek route

click here to access wikiloc map

Instead of the walk up to Lo Manthang, our itinerary has a rest day in Charang scheduled for that day.  From Charang (also spelled Tsarang) we head east across the Kali Gandaki towards Yara and on to Damodar Kund following the Hindu pilgrims’ trail.

Acclimatization: A Key Consideration

While acclimatization problems have not impacted on any of my mountain trips so far, it is a potential issue that I am always aware of.  The ascent schedule arrived at by the trekking agency, which says it has done this trek before without any problems, is a “plus”.  As a point of comparison, Kilimanjaro is 5895m and many agencies offer seven or eight-day treks up the summit.  Little wonder that many do not make it or feel pretty lousy when they do.  Our trek schedule provides much more time to acclimatize.

Upper Mustang:Saribung La:Phu Traverse – campsites and altitude

To ease my adaptation to the thinner air, I also had my travel clinic doctor write me a prescription for acetazolamide (known by brand name Diamox); it speeds up the acclimatization process.

There is loads of online info available; this brief post – How To Prevent Altitude Sickness For Trekkers – summarizes things nicely.  the five-liter drink command is a bit much though! Given the soup and oatmeal and all the other food which has water in it, you may end up causing another condition – it is called hyponatremia –  if you overdrink water.  Clear urine will be a good indicator that you are properly hydrated.

Other Major Considerations:

Other than acclimatization, other key considerations revolve around

  • fitness level
  • stomach problems
  • gear
  • reading up on Mustang and Damodar

Upping My Fitness Level:

It is mid-February as I write this; I have been following a high-altitude trekking program developed by Scott Johnston and Steve House since early December.  It is a six-days-a-week training plan made up of two strength training sessions and four  cardio sessions.  I found it at their Uphill Athlete website. (See here for plan details.)

I have another seven weeks to go before departure.  Since I get to Week 12 of the plan in mid-March,  I’ll just repeat and gradually increase the workload of the program’s last week  when I get there.    Of the 60 sessions so far, I have missed two.  I hope to keep up that commitment level  until the very last day of training –  April 8!

Dealing With Stomach Problems:

On my last mountain trip in September of 2014 – a two-week trek down Bolivia’s Cordillera Real – I got food poisoning the day before the trek began!  This time I will absolutely avoid the obvious things you should avoid  – including the green leaf salad I had at that La Paz restaurant!

This time I will take a treatment of  Dukoral; it is a non-prescription oral vaccine which helps prevent diarrhea caused by E.coli.  Some hand sanitizer and my Steripen – a device which purifies water by emitting UV rays –  will also come along to eliminate other possible dangers.  Since all the food will be prepared by the cook crew,  I will assume that they’ve got it all figured out!  So too with the daily three or four liters of water that we will be consuming to stay hydrated.

Also in my meds jar are a half-dozen or so of each of the following –

  • loperamide hydrochloride (a generic version of  Imodium)
  • rehydration packets
  • Azithromycin in case of severe diarrhea.

I hope not to have to use them!

Getting The Clothing And Gear Together:

The last consideration is the gear. Having been on enough of these mountain trips and being a bit gear-obsessed, I have amassed more clothing and gear than I need!  My -15ºC Western Mountaineering sleeping bag will come along.  I just need to give it a wash before I go; it has been a few canoe trips since it last was cleaned.

Also coming along is the WM Hot Sac VBL, a vapour barrier liner that helps prevent the down from getting wet from body vapour in sub-zero temperatures.  As we go up beyond 4500 meters over-night temperatures will be in the -10ºC range.  A frozen water – or pee – bottle in the morning will be a sure thing!

Getting To Kathmandu: 

In October of 2006 I flew Air Canada from Toronto to Delhi via Zürich and then, after overnighting in a downtown Delhi hotel, returned to the airport for the flight to Kathmandu.  On my doctor’s recommendation I also took malaria medication (a week’s treatment!) as a precaution for my twelve hours in Delhi!  That experience left me determined never again to subject myself to a half-day of the pandemonium of Delhi’s airport and roads.

Instead, I fly from Toronto to Abu Dhabi and then, after a three-hour wait, get on the flight to Kathmandu.  Total travel time from YYZ to KTM – 19 hours, almost half the time I was in transit in 2006.  Of course, time will tell if this year’s itinerary actually unfolds without any bumps!

Mustang/Damodar Kund As A Classroom!

Other than obsessing about gear, the other thing I overdo is finding out as much as possible beforehand about the place I am going to.  Geology, environment, history, anthropology, religion, politics – it may be the school teacher in me that turns entering Mustang to entering a classroom!

Since I signed up for the trek I have also learned that one of our tent spots is by Damodar Kund (kund is a small lake); it is a major Hindu pilgrimage site associated with the god Vishnu (aka Narayan).

Reading up on the Phu Valley has made clear that I am entering a very special and isolated nook of the Tibetan Buddhist world.  Going with some basic knowledge will mean that the questions I ask are not the obvious ones that I can find the answers to in a Wikipedia article!


internet-sourced image of Damodar Kund

Himalaya_filmEverest 2015Nothing like a 90-minute Stair Master session at the gym to create some spare time to view videos!  Already done is the six-hour Michael Palin BBC series on the Himalaya. I have also watched the 2015 movie Everest,  a retelling the May 1996 climbing season described in Jon Krakauer’s classic Into Thin Air. Also watched was Eric Valli’s Himalaya from 2000, which was filmed in the upper Dolpo region to the west of Mustang. Not specific to Mustang but still a great way to forget that I am walking on a treadmill set at the maximum incline with a 12-kilogram pack on my back for almost two hours is the Joe Simpson epic Touching The Void.

Here are a few more of the videos I have looked at over the past few weeks to get a grip on various aspects of Mustang (pronounced Moose dung!). They all really bring home how little I know about this corner of our world – and how lucky I am to be able to spend some time there this April!

Stay tuned for a recap of my trek when I get back in May.  Until then, it is back to my training and continuing education program.  Not even mentioned in all of this is the fact that I get to spend five days – three before the trek and two after – in the most fascinating city I have ever visited – Kathmandu!  I will try to visit the half-dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites located in the valley and see how they fared in the 2015 earthquakes.

Below is a photo (the labeling is mine!) of the approach to Saribung La, the literal high point of the trek! Check out Paul Boslooper‘s image collection for an excellent visual summary!

Who needs to go anywhere anymore – it is already all online!

Looking South on Damodar Glacier - Chhib Himal on the left; Khumjungar on the right

Looking South on Damodar Glacier – Chhib Himal on the left; Khumjungar on the right – photo by Paul Boslooper from his Google photo album Saribung Expeditie 2011

Related Posts About Kathmandu:

The Kathmandu Valley And Its UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites

 Swayambhunath: Buddha Eyes Over The Kathmandu Valley

The Boudhanath Stupa – The Heart Of Nepal’s Tibetan Community

Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley: The Temples of Bhaktapur

Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley – The Temples of Patan (Lalitpur)





Posted in hiking/trekking, mountaineering, Nepal | 2 Comments

The Chinese Temple Murals And Statues of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum’s Bishop White Gallery is a corner of the museum I have visited often over the past forty years. It houses a world-renowned collection of Chinese temple murals and Buddhist and Taoist statuary,  most of which date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).

Below is an overview of  what there is to see – the three great murals and a collection of wooden Buddhist temple statues on the island in the center.  While the space in which the collection has been exhibited since the museum’s glitzy retrofit in 2007 has all the charm of a warehouse, it is still nice to visit old friends!


First up are a pair of Yuan Dynasty Taoist murals from Longmen Monastery in Shanxi Province.  From stylistic similarities with a similar pair of murals from a nearby monastery, a date of composition around 1325 C.E. is likely.   Together the pair are referred to as Homage To The First Principle (i.e. the Tao).

They depict  a procession of celestial beings of the Taoist pantheon. For outsiders with no idea of who the figures are, the sheer majesty and the sense of order in the scene – as well as the colour – make the biggest impact.  What is lacking is a story to pull the viewer in – the very narrative that a Chinese peasant eight hundred years ago would have had no problem providing!

The main figures in one of the murals include the Lord of the Northern Dipper, the Yellow Emperor, the Emperor of Heaven, the Empress of Earth, as well as other deities. On the other mural – the Lord of the Southern Dipper, Lao Tzu, the Jade Emperor, and the Empress of Heaven!

From the two Taoist murals I turned my attention to the statues arranged around a central column in the middle of the space.

In the images above and below is a gilded wooden statue of a seated Dhritarashtra (Chinese: Chiguo Tianwang), the Guardian King of the East.  It comes from a temple in Jiang Xian and like many of the other statues dates to the Yuan Dynasty.  The “air guitar” placing of his hands is a clue that the statue originally included a lute.

Behind the statue of the Guardian King we see the sides of the single largest statue in the collection –  probably of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara – and the pair of wooden statues (one of Dashizhi and one of Kuan Yin) flanking him.  I say “him”  and admit I am a bit confused!  The Chinese name for the Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara is Kuan Yin,  who is usually represented in female form.

Below is Dashizhi, identified by the crown which has it in what is said to be a vase.

Dashizhi (Mahasthamaprapta in Sanskrit) = Bodhisattva of Mighty Power. Linfen, Shanxi Province, c. 1195 Jin Dynasty

I didn’t get a great shot of the complete central statue of the large Kuan Yin figure but here it is from the waist up.  Like the two flanking it,  the wood statue is painted and gilded.  Usually Kuan Yin figures include  a small image of Amitabha in the crown; this one lacks that detail.  However, his sheer size makes experts say he is “probably” Kuan Yin!   The statue comes from Daning, where it stood in the Great Buddha Hall. I think on my next visit I’ll make a point of getting a better shot!

Bodhisattva (probably Avalokiteshvara – Kuan Yin in Chinese). Daning. Shanxi Prov. c. 1300

The companion statue to the Dashizhi to the left of the large Bodhisattva figure – also from Linfen in Shanxi Province and dated 1195.  It does have a figure of Amitabha in its crown which identifies it as a Kuan Yin.   The information board notes that this statue “has been painted at least four times, most recently in the 19th century.”  Along with the companion statue to the left, it originally flanked a large central statue of Amitabha.

Kuan Yin figure with large bodhisattva figure to the left

a close-up of the Linfen Kuan Yin

Yet more statues as I walk around the column …

Kuan Yin – Yuan dynasty from Zezhoufu in Shanxi Province

And finally, my favourite stop on the tour!  I am standing to the side of the mural titled The Paradise of Maitreya.  Unlike the two Taoist murals this one actually has a narrative that helps me understand what I am looking at. First, I learned that Buddhism,  as the Mahayana form of it developed from the original austere form of its first few centuries,  has many Buddhas and celestial beings  – and not just the historical Buddha known as Siddhartha Gautama who lived north of the Ganges River around 500 B.C.E.

The Buddha known as Maitreya – the Buddha To Come – is the focal point of the 36′ x 16.5′ mural above. He first appears in Buddhist literature in the Theravada scriptures of the Digha Nikaya’s Sutta 26 (The Lion’s Roar On the Turning Of The Wheel).  As you read through you’ll meet some of the key figures of the mural’s story –

  • Ketumati – aka Varanasi – the royal capital of the kingdom of Jambudipa
  • Sankha – the king of this realm who renounces his power for the monastic life
  • Metteyya – the Pali equivalent of Maitreya, the Buddha in this future world

The sutra has the Buddha we know – the Sakyamuni Buddha born as Siddhartha Gautama – make this prophetic pronouncement:

I’ve often wondered if the entry into Buddhism of this future saviour figure was a result of the spread into Asia of the Christian myth of the Returning Saviour.  Closer to our own time, various people – L. Ron Hubbard and the Raelian cult leader are two of them – have claimed to be Maitreya.  Krishnamurti was groomed from an early age for the position by the Theosophist movement. (He would later reject the title.)  If nothing else, we have here proof of the power of hope in a better future, a truth that goes right back to the story of Pandora’s box!

The seated Maitreya is the central figure.  He is in Tusita, the Buddhist Heaven where Bodhisattvas reside before they return to earth to become Buddhas.  To his sides are bodhisattvas, fully realized beings who in Mahayana Buddhism have postponed their own entry into nirvana to help others achieve it. Behind him are monastic disciples  – the shaved heads are a sign of this.  Had it been the historical Buddha we might know their names as Ananda and Kashyap.  While Ananda remembered and recited all of the Buddha sermons with the “Thus have I heard…” introduction, it was Kashyap who called and directed the first Buddhist Council after Gautama Buddha’s death to ensure the movement continued.  So too does Maitreya have his attendant monk and right-hand monk. Other celestial attendants flank him symmetrically on either side.

Trying to make sense of all of this will get your head spinning – especially if, like me,  you think of the Buddha as just a man who stripped away all the mythology and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo of the religion of his day to present a practical approach to living a meaningful life!  I’ve come to realize that the Buddhism I created in my head only exists there and not in the Buddhist societies I have visited.

The Paradise of Maitreya – central part of mural

And even though it is the Maitreya, and not the historical Gautama Buddha, he still exhibits some of the features we associate with the latter – i.e. the elongated ear lobes ( a sign of royalty) and the ushnisha or bump on the top of his head – originally a topknot or man bun which evolved into a cranial bump! However, he is seated “western style” as opposed to the cross-legged lotus position we associate with the Buddha.  His particular hand gestures – referred to as a mudra in Sanskrit – is known as the abhaya mudra and symbolizes “Have no fear; all is good”.

On the bottom left of the mural – we are in the earthy domain now and not in Tusita Heaven – we see the Queen of the Kingdom of Jambudipa – her name is Brahmavati, and her hair is being shorn as a sign of her renunciation of the material world and her position as Queen. A pilgrim standing in front of this mural would have been moved with the knowledge that the Queen would become the future Maitreya’s mother.

On the other side of the mural her husband the King Sankha is undergoing the same haircut.   Not clear is who Maitreya’s father was – or whether, like the Zoroastrian Saöshyánt or the Christian Jeshua – he was born of a virgin.  More than just trade goods were carried along the ancient trade routes!

One of my favourite details of the mural is on the right-hand side.  On the seated king’s  left a servant is ready to catch his hair with a gold plate.  And on his right – his young son wipes away a tear from his eyes, knowing that he is about to lose his father.

The Paradise of Maitreya – right-hand side of the mural.

The Museum has uploaded to YouTube an informative five-minute look at the painting and the story of how it got to Toronto.

Other Chinese Temple Murals in North America:

1. New York City: The Metropolitan Museum

The R.O.M. is not the only North American museum with a rare Chinese temple mural on display.  I still remember a mid-1990’s visit to NYC and the morning we spent with a small part of the Metropolitan Museum’s truly incredible collection.  One room that drew me in had a mural from the same Chinese province of Shanxi as the ROM Maitreya mural. It had been donated to the MET in 1966 by a private donor whose father had acquired it in the mid-1920’s.

At that time the mural was still thought to be of the historical Sakyamuni Buddha. Here, for example, is a page from the Met’s Guide in 1994 –

 However, a paper by Anning Jing had already appeared in the Metropolitan Museum Journal in 1991 and made the case that the mural had been misinterpreted. The Yuan Buddhist Mural of The Paradise of Bhaishajyaguru (click on the article title to access) makes for an enlightening tour of the monumental mural and the identity of its many figures.

The Met’s YouTube video is another excellent five-minute excursion into history and context:

2. Kansas City: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In looking for information about the ROM murals more than just the MET mural popped up.  Look at this mural from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

The_Assembly of Tejaprabha – Kansas City

By the way, the Nelson-Atkins is also where a stunning statue of Kuan Yin resides. I had always wondered – now I know!

Kuan Yin Statue at the Nelson-Atkins Museum Kansas City.

But wait –  there’s more!

3. Philadelphia: The University Museum of the U. of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania’s Museum has a couple of murals also procured in the mid-1920’s.  Here is an overview image of the murals in the dramatic space where they are installed –

Chinese murals on display at the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania

And here are the two murals closer up.

Mural showing Tejaprabha, the Buddha of Blazing Light.

Mural showing Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha.

Until I wrote this post I had no idea all this existed.  It’s amazing what you uncover when you start to research just one thing on the internet!   Thirty minutes and a dozen clicks later and you are wondering – “How did I end up here?”   That’s got to be the curse – and the marvel – of the surfing the ‘net!

If You Want to Know More:

Homage to Heaven, Homage to Earth: Chinese Treasures of the Royal Ontario Museum. 1991. The book is the introduction to the museum’s collection of Chinese art and artifacts, one of the world’s finest. Included is a brief examination of some of the wooden statuary and the Taoist and Buddhist murals.

The Toronto Public Library has a couple of copies of the book available for online reservation.  See here.

Amazon lists a number of used copies from various vendors with $30. being the low price. See here.

Wikipedia articles on various topics, all thoughtfully written and with links to yet more information and images –

Sometimes things go wrong and images get mixed up. A Google page ( here) has an example! I think I’ll send them a note!

Related Post: Buddhist Baroque: Colombo’s Gangaramaya Temple


Posted in Buddhism, Toronto | 5 Comments

Anishinaabeg Beadwork & Painting Exhibit At The Royal Ontario Museum

I should have gone in June or July!  The Royal Ontario Museum  hosted an exhibit (June 17 to November 19, 2017) titled Anishinaabeg: Art and Power which recently closed.  Sad to say,  I forgot all about it until the day before the show closed.  The Star article on the return of Indigenous artifacts was what prompted my memory.

I was feeling very low-energy  thanks to the onset of a cold but knew I only had two days. Grabbing my camera bag and a couple of half-charged batteries, I headed over to the museum within the hour on the TTC.  At the ticket counter –  $32. for general admission and a special ticket to see the new Viking exhibit.  I was hoping I wouldn’t run out of gas before seeing all I wanted to –

  • the Anishinaabeg exhibit
  • the Viking exhibit
  • my long-time favourites – the Chinese temple murals and bodhisattvas and
  • the Chinese general’s tomb complex

The first stop was the third-floor room which housed the Ojibwe exhibit.  There were a couple of entrances to the room; one of them featured the following map showing the locations of present-day Algonquian peoples spread across the boreal forests in the Shield country of Canada and the northern U.S. – e.g. from the Algonquins in Quebec to the Mississauga, Ojibwe, Ottawa and Oji-Cree in Ontario, all the way to the Blackfoot and Cheyenne out west.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I started my journey through the exhibit but this panel provided an explanation of what the three co-curators of the exhibit had hoped to achieve with their assemblage of paintings and beadwork. (See here for the ROM write-up of the exhibit and info on its three curators.)

The ROM Anishnaabeg exhibit’s rationale

So –  beadwork dating from the 1870’s to 1925 and paintings mostly from the 1970’s by Morrisseau and those he inspired.  It was a narrower focus than I had been expecting and left me wondering about the word “power” in the title of the exhibit.  “Adaptation” seemed to fit the rationale better.

Above and below – details from the beadwork and painting on display. Except for a Saul Williams’ painting, the two art forms did not converge!

detail from Norval Morrisseau’s Thunderbird Woman. 1965

The exhibit was set up with the paintings – about thirty of them – on the periphery of the room.  The beadwork was highlighted in the vertical showcases, like the one in the image below, containing headless mannequins draped with sashes and bandoliers or wearing heavily beaded jackets.

In the center of the room was a horizontal display case area with various objects – carved dolls, a ceremonial club, among other items.

The paintings were grouped by themes but I didn’t really focus on that while I did my tour around the room.  The curators arranged the ones in the image below with “Ceremony” as the unifying theme. “Hurt”, “Creation” and a few other titles had images grouped under them.

Occasionally objects in the central display area would echo in the paintings on the wall. The display of ceremonial drums made me look again at John Lafort’s painting Drummer.

Along with different themes connected with various painting groups, there were a number of panels like the one below.  Each was divided into four parts with an iconic pictograph on the top left (perhaps one of the many sketches taken from the ROM’s Selwyn Dewdney files) and an explanation of traditional Ojibwe culture or spirituality in English, Ojibwe, and French.

Thunderbird Man by Daphne Odjig. 1974.

Untitled. John E. Laford, 1973.

Sometimes the explanatory text sounded like simple parables written for ten-year-olds. And perhaps it was. Reaching out to indigenous students and providing them with an affirmative vision of themselves and of their past and future must have been one of the goals of the exhibit, even if not explicitly stated.

Frog image. E.Kanasawe

Flying Geese. Francis Kagige. 1973

Sacred Trout. Richard Bedwash. 1988.

Mother Nature and Woman. Roy Thomas. 1970.

Human Mother and Bear Offspring.Norval Morrisseau. 1970

Memekweshik. Norval Morrisseau. 1974.

Fisher With A Broken Tail. Jackson Beardy. 1972

another explanatory panel with pictograph image

One Who Lives Underwater. Blake Debassige. 1978.

Meditations on Red #2. Nadia Myre. 2013.

Woman In White Buckskin.Blake Debassig. 1976.

Of the various paintings, the ones I was most drawn to were those by Norval Morrisseau. While the exhibit’s mission statement used the term “artistic evolution” it seems rather mild to describe Morrisseau’s explosive impact.  How about “revolution”!  He created something unique from the rudimentary pictographs he saw and used it to infuse new life into the traditional myths and legends of his people, the Ojibwe.

He drew on the stories he heard his grandfather tell on the shores of Lake Nipigon when he was a boy.  Had he listened to the elders he would have put the paints away.  It was the encouragement of non-indigenous people (the current term to describe them is “Settler”!)  like the Weinsteins in Cochenour and Selwyn Dewdney in London who kept him expressing his vision on canvas and whatever else he could find to paint on.

Thunderbird Woman. Norval Morrisseau. 1965.

Shaman. Norval Morrisseau. 1964

Drummer. John Laford. 1977.

If there was one painting in the exhibit that tied together the Morrisseau-style paintings with the floral beadwork of Anishinaabeg women it was Saul Williams’.  It has the iconic Morrisseau circle overlooking the scene – I almost expected to see the cosmic lines connecting it to the plants and the woman!   And while it has some of that x-ray view of reality found in Morrisseau paintings,  the look takes more from the floral beadwork.  It even shares the same more muted colour palette as many of the examples of beadwork in the room.

White Women and Their Plants.Saul Williams.1978.

Something I did not think about while I was there was what preceded the use of European glass beads.  Since the aim of the exhibit was to take me ” on a journey through the artistic evolution of one of the most populous and diverse Indigenous communities in North America”  I missed seeing examples of the traditional pre-contact porcupine (and occasionally feather) quillwork.

There may have one or two examples that I did not focus on.  Perhaps I just have an easier time with the artwork on the periphery of the room than with the examples of beadwork which dressed a number of headless mannequins in glass display cases, as skillfully and creatively as they were done.  This may have been a great time to have a guide who could point out stuff and connections that I would never see or understand on my own!

detail from a friendship bag

While most of the paintings and other artwork on the walls drew inspiration in some way from Anishinaabe myth and the spirit world – especially Morrisseau’s paintings – the beadwork was marked by an all but complete absence of representation of mythic beings.  I did see one beaded image of what I take to be Animikii – the Thunderbird –

thunderbird motif in beadwork

thunderbird motif in beadwork

– but other than that it was mostly either geometric or floral (and sometimes florid and overly busy in a Victorian kind of way) patterns.  By the late 1800’s some Anishinaabeg girls would have been in residential schools set up to teach them the basic skills thought necessary to live in the new Dominion.  I wondered if this had an impact on Métis and Anishinaabe beading style.

There were a number of objects in the horizontal display cases in the center of the room – like those shown in the images to the left and below – but I, unfortunately, left them for last and then found it difficult to get decent glare-free photos of the ones I stopped to look at.  A return visit would have given me a chance to spend more time considering their place in the exhibit.

And (just kidding!) where were the dream catchers? If there is an Anishinaabeg artifact – other than the canoe – that is known the world over, it has to be the dream catcher. In fact, New Age spirituality seems to have appropriated it as one of their cultic objects. I’ve seen them hanging in mountain huts in Patagonia, a surf shop on the east coast of Tasmania …

the end of a ceremonial club

From afar I spotted the display below and my mind said “a young girl’s fancy dress”!  I had a duh moment as I read the identification card and learned that it was a man’s ceremonial hood.  That explained the bumps coming out of the black front of the dress!

man’s hood from Moose Factory area – collected between 1833-1845

And nearby were a couple of child cradles.  However, the Algonquian word for “child” is papoos and that is the word that many will use!

And finally this image – to me the most moving and intense moment of my visit as I stared into the eyes of the various members of this Ojibwe family – the two sons standing straight and proud with their beaded bandoliers, the two daughters dressed in the manner of those people from afar who came into their home and native land, and the mother and father, she with an elaborate bead necklace and he with a long-stemmed pipe.

I realize that 150 years ago to get one’s portrait taken was a deadly serious affair and no smiles were allowed as the subjects froze for fifteen seconds and the photographer did his thing.  I am sure a family portrait in Toronto taken at the same time – whether of a well-to-do family or first-generation Irish refugees of the Great Famine  – would have that same no-smiling look.

But I felt something else here. Perhaps I was reading more into it than is there? Perhaps it is all the current talk about reconciliation?  It is almost as if they were saying – “Now that you’ve come, what can we do together to make things right?”  I am left wondering how their lives unfolded, and if they were able to live fulfilling and happy lives relatively free of the prejudice and discrimination that comes from being a minority or the loser of a struggle for land and power. I think I know the answer.

an Anishinaabe family posing for a formal portrait

And it made me think back to a day three years ago when I stood in a museum in La Paz, Bolivia, looking at a collection of images much like the one above. Engaging, unsettling, provoking wonder…an Anishinaabe family in Canada, an Aymara family in La Paz…both adapting to new realities. Admittedly the situations which these two Indigenous Peoples find themselves is not the same. While the Anishinaabeg make up maybe 2% of Canada’s population, the Aymara and the Quechua together make up 90% of Bolivia’s population and in Evo Morales they have had an indigenous President since 2006.


My one hour with the Anishinaabeg exhibit was too short and in writing this I am left wishing I could go back to fill in some of the blanks.  Unfortunately, the exhibit is over.  I wonder if the Royal Ontario Museum will send the collection to other museums or if all the exhibit items will just be put back on their storage shelves in the basement.

As limited a look of Anishinaabe culture as it was, it also provided me with yet another lesson on what happens when cultures meet …  intersect … collide.

Related Posts:

Selwyn Dewdney, Norval Morrisseau and the Ojibwe Pictograph Tradition

Photos of  Photos – A Visit To La Paz’s Museo Nacional de Etnografia y Folklore


Posted in Anishinaabek World | 2 Comments

Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley – The Temples of Lalitpur (Patan)

Related Post: The Kathmandu Valley and Its UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Nepal’s Kathmandu valley does not lack for dazzling religious and royal palace architecture.  The map below shows some of the seven sites that have made the UNESCO World Heritage list for their enduring cultural value – Swayambhunath, the Boudha Stupa, Pashupatinath Temple, Durbar Square in Kathmandu itself, and a little to the south, Patan (aka known as Lalitpur).


I set off early one morning on a four-kilometer walk from the Thamel district of Kathmandu to see Patan’s Durbar Square and its collection of buildings dating back to the 1600’s when it was the capital of one of the three kingdoms which controlled the valley. These days Kathmandu has expanded to such an extent that urban sprawl has all but swallowed up Patan.  Only the Bagmati River creates a sense of separation from Kathmandu on the north side.

Getting To Patan:

From Thamel to Durbar Square, as mentioned, it  is a four-kilometer walk.   Given the increase in the level of pollution in the valley since I was there last, I’ll not be walking on my next visit in April of 2018!  The fifteen-minute tuk-tuk ride will get me there without subjecting my lungs to an hour of filtering the deadly smog.

Kathmandu pollution - Himalayan Times photo

See here for photo source

Since my first visit in 1996 Kathmandu has become one of the world’s most polluted cities! Part of the problem is the massive increase in population. In the twenty years since my first visit in 1996 it has more than doubled to 1.3 million.  Add to that the exhaust of twice as many poorly maintained vehicles and the burning of coal and wood in the brick kilns.  (See here for how Kathmandu ranks globally in 2017.)   I plan on arriving with a mask – maybe a half-dozen of the cheap 3M disposables – to eliminate breathing in most of the harmful particulates during my stay in the valley after my three-week Mustang trek with the highlight being the crossing of Saribung La.

Patan tourist entrance ticket for Durbar Square


There is a 1000 rupee foreign visitors’ entrance fee to the square. I could feel the different vibe as I walked around; it is not as frantic and touristy as the tourist ghetto of Thamel or of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. I remember thinking –  maybe I should find a place to stay here while I explore the valley!  Around the square and down the back alleys are a number of craft shops producing quality metalwork; I would spend some time looking for that perfect Buddha statue after my ramble around Durbar Square.

My last visit to Patan was in 2006; yesterday as I looked again at these images I wondered how many of the buildings were still standing after the 2015 earthquakes and aftershocks.

Below is an early morning view from the north end of Lalitpur’s Durbar Square. The Vishwanath (or Vishveshvar) Temple is on the right with its riders on elephants. Built in 1627,  the name it was given is one of the epithets of Shiva, that aspect of Brahman representing destruction. How fitting given the recurring earthquakes that have rattled the valley over the centuries and destroyed its buildings!

Some of the temples in the above image did not survive the 2015 quakes. To the left of the Vishvanath Temple (or Mandir) is the Krishna Mandir,  definitely one of the more exquisite pieces of architecture in the square; it still stands.

A column with a golden Garuda figure and the Vishwanath temple at the right of the image complete the scene. Like the Vishvanath to the right, it was built during the rule of Siddhi Narasingh and completed ten years later in 1637.

For Hindu pilgrims from outside the city, who come from all over Nepal and India, the Krishna temple is the most important and famous temple of Lalitpur…According to local chronicles, the king had a dream in which Krishna and Radha appeared in front of his palace, and he had a temple built on the spot. (Michael Hutt. Nepal.p. 146)

However,  the temple on the left of the above image – the Char Narayan (also named  Jagan Narayan) with its two stone lions guarding the entrance – was destroyed in the 2015 quakes and other than the plinth nothing remains. Here are two more pre-quake views of the north end of the square.

The Char Narayan temple dated back to 1566 and was one of the older temples on the square. See below for a couple of internet-sourced pre- and post-quake images.

See here for image source

See here for image source







A German group – the South Asian Institute – has initiated a fund-raising project to help rebuild the temple. Their website provides excellent background on the temple’s significance as well as architectural drawings – check it out here.

Lalitpur Durbar Square

I eventually ended up in a restaurant/café at the south end of the square, mostly chosen because of its third-floor view! As you can see, the square is a fairly compact collection of structures. In the center of the image is the three-story domed Krishna Temple (Chyasin Dewal), the eight-sided shikhara style mandir. It was erected in 1723.  Next to it the Taleju Bell is suspended between two stone pillars on top of a raised platform and to the right of the bell is the three-storeyed Hari (Shiva) Shankar (Vishnu) or  Shankar Narayan Mandir erected in 1706.

Here is another shot of the Taleju Bell and the Hari Shankar or Shankar Narayan Mandir and an internet-sourced image of the Hari Shankar by itself.  What really stands out is the wooden strut work with the carvings on them.

Unfortunately, the Shankar Narayan Mandir did not survive the 2015 quakes. In fact, looking at the drone images below (accessed from Youtube videos) you wonder about the point of visiting at all, both in terms of time that could be spent elsewhere and the unchanged 1000 rupee entrance fee.

Lalitpur Durbar Square after the 2015 Earthquake

Perhaps the way to rationalize it is to see it as a donation to a reconstruction that you can see going on very slowly with your own eyes. The Patan Durbar Square of my memory – and of my 2006 photos – it will certainly not be.

On the east side of the square is the royal palace with its series of chowks. Originally built in the 1300’s,  the palace complex pre-dates those in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur. My shot from the patio of the restaurant shows the palace stretching the entire east side of the square.  To the north end of the palace complex you can see the three-storeyed Taleju Mandir and to the right the smaller Degu Taleju and Taleju Bhavani Mandirs.   I would later spend some time in the museum, rich especially with fine metalwork sculpture.

Mul Chowk and Sundari Chowk on Lalitpur’s Durbar Square

The following photos come from my ramble through the various lanes and alleys of the town in search of that perfect Buddha statue!  Below is the Vajrasattva figure I ended up buying after some shop-to-shop visits.

Vajrasattva (Dorje Sempa) with thunderbolt and bell in our backyard

In retrospect, it is funny to think of the energy I spent on a hunt that seemed so important at the time – a silly obsession that would have had the Buddha rolling his eyes!  Combine that with a concern of being over-charged and you have a decidedly un-Buddhist way to spend your time!

Patan – sculpture above doorway

Eventually I found the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara Newari Buddhist monastery – aka the Golden Temple – on one of the streets away from Durbar Square. It was “shoes off” at the entrance and then down into the courtyard with its large bell. To the side a row of candles and prayer bells. I spent some time in this very atmospheric little temple complex and taking more than a few photos.  However, transferring files from one computer to another and a few hard drive crashes over the past eleven years have taken their toll!  Where are those jpgs?


Patan – monastery bell

I eventually returned for lunch at the cafe I had been at in mid-morning and watched as the street life whirled by below me.

Lalitpur – school children in the square

Patan was the last of my Kathmandu valley visits and it may be that I was flagging a bit after four days of temples and stupas.  But there is more to see and perhaps next year I will!

Until then I have my Vajrasattva figure seated on a lotus holding his thunderbolt (Sanskit vajra or dorje in Tibetan) and bell.  I contemplate on the wisdom and compassion he offers and my mind drifts to the impact of the earthquake on the lives of close to two million residents of the Kathmandu valley as well as their cherished temples.  I think of the increasingly unbreathable air they have to breathe every day and the inability of the well-fed political class to do anything to improve the lives of the citizens they are supposed to serve.

Vajrasattva seated on lotus with vajra and bell

Related Kathmandu Valley Posts:

 Swayambhunath: Buddha Eyes Over The Kathmandu Valley

The Boudhanath Stupa – The Heart Of Nepal’s Tibetan Community

Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley: The Temples of Bhaktapur



Posted in Easy Travelling, Nepal | 1 Comment

Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley: The Temples of Bhaktapur

Related Post: The Kathmandu Valley & its UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites

Of the three major towns in the Kathmandu Valley –

  • Kathmandu itself
  • Lalitpur (aka Patan)
  • Bhaktapur (aka Bhadgaon)

it is the last one, with a name which translates as the city (pur) of devotees (bhakti) –  which is said to have fared the best in hanging on to its culture and traditions since the country opened its borders in 1951 and was swamped by the tidal wave of modern ways.

Bhaktapur is located on the east side of a fertile 240 sq. km.valley which was Nepal until the miltary conquests of the Gorkha ruler Prithvi Narayan Khan in the late 1700’s created the larger political space we know today as Nepal.

Both geology and local myth tell that the valley was once a lake bed.  Some 10 kilometers to the west of Bhaktapur is Lalitpur (aka Patan) and then it is another 3 to Kathmandu. Five hundred years ago each of these cities was the capital of a kingdom based on its share of  the agricultural wealth of this valley.

Bhaktapur was also a stop on the major trading route from the Ganges River valley to the Tibetan plateau beyond the mountains.  These two factors helped create the most impressive of Himalayan kingdoms, rich in architecture and crafts and artistic expression of all sorts.

Bhaktapur’s brick and wood temple architecture and the sculptural works scattered around the old town wowed my wife Laila and  on our first visit in 1996; we overnighted at the Shiva Guesthouse at the end of a morning’s walk from Nagarkot on the valley’s eastern rim and enjoyed the almost-tourist-free hours in the evening and morning as we wandered down the narrow alleys and across the squares of the city.

The Shiva Guesthouse at the east end of Durbar Square with the Pashupati Mandir in the foreground

In 2006 I returned again to experience the traffic-free old town.  And soon –  in April of 2018 – another visit  to Nepal!   While the main event will be the 21 days spent in Upper Mustang and a traverse via the high pass of Saribung La to the Phu Valley and down to Beshi Sahar,  I will leave a week to revisit the various UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu valley with two nights in Bhaktapur!

from the 2012 (7th Ed.) of The Rough Guide To Nepal – already on order is the Feb. 2018 edition!

Yesterday in a nostalgic moment I thought I’d take a look at some of the images I took in 2006 – and then dumped on to the hard drive of the computer I had at the time while I moved on to other trips and then stored yet more images.  Unfortunately, three newer computers and the occasional hard drive crash  have taken their toll!  I found very few of those pictures that I figured were there somewhere – and barely enough to recreate some of what we saw on our previous visits.

In the meanwhile, the Gorkha Earthquake of April 2015 also had a big impact on the Kathmandu Valley, destroying thousands of  homes as well as a signficant number of temples.  It left me wondering which of my images were still an accurate depiction of what I would find in Bhaktapur in a few months from now.

Most of the images I did find on my hard drive were of two main city squares on the Bhaktapur tourist trail – Durbar Square and Taumadhi Square;  both are inside the center square on the above map!

1. Durbar Square: 

Most visitors coming from Kathmandu will come into the city from the west end of Durbar Square.  A quick stop at the ticket booth for a tourist entry ticket ($15. U.S.) and the walk begins.  What you see  will not be a total surprise since you will have already visited Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. But as the vendors in the streets of Thamel say – “Same, same…but different!” .  Quieter, less chaotic, fewer signs in English – somehow more authentic.

Gopi Nath Temple (aka Jagannath) at the western entrance to Durbar Square

It also has helped Bhaktapur that a German-government-funded Development Project has since the mid-1970’s invested heavily in infrastructure (roads and sewage) and urban renewal projects as well as temple rebuilding and maintenance.  Like the rest of the valley, the city has been rattled  by major earthquakes, most recently in 1634, 1833, and 1934.  The Gorhka-centred 7.8 earthquake of April 2015 was jut the latest natural disaster endured by the people of the valley. (See this article for a list of some of the effects.)

Durbar Square is in what was the royal district on the western edge of old Bhaktapur. It was not always as free of buildings as it is today. After some of the previous earthquakes, the rulers decided not to rebuild the destroyed temples or pavilions.

the east end of Durbar Square after the 1934 Quake

And now, after the 2015 quake, town administrators are left with the same question – let go or rebuild?

the east end of Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square

The above photo (source of photo – here) provides an example.  On the left is the Golden Gate, the entrance to the Royal Palace compound. To its right is the Palace of the Fifty-Five Windows.  They survived the earthquake with only minor damage.  In the middle stand the Bhupatindra Malla column and the Taleju Bell – they also survived.  On the right is the Vastala Durga mandir (temple). It did not survive.

What to do? Focus on rebuilding a million homes for those Nepalis who lost theirs or rebuild the temples so that tourists will want to return and see the wonderous Bhaktapur that they’ve read about.

The Golden Gate – Bhaktapur Royal Palace Durbar Square

The Golden Gate – also known as The Sun Dhoka and dating to the 1750’s –  is actually made of brass or gilded copper.  Considered to be the finest single piece of artwork in the Kathmandu valley, the richly decorated doorway has panels of various gods on either side;. (Below are images of a couple that caught my eye thanks to the devotees who left daubs of colour and flower offerings.)

Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva

an image of Durga with string of skulls dangling from her waist

Above the lintel is an elaborate tilted torana.  The ten-armed, four-headed goddess Taleju Bhawani is the focal point; above her a garuda figure looks down from the top center and is flanked by coiled nagas or snakes and other figures.

the torana above the Sun Dhoka’s lintel

Taleju brass figure above Bhaktapur’s Golden Gate

Looking across from the Royal Palace and the Golden Gate, I can see the Shiva  Guesthouse and on the ground floor the shop where I bought the mandala painting. The three-storeyed Pashupati Temple (also named Yaksheshvara Mandir) sits in front of the Shiva Guest house and to the left is the corner of the Vastala Durga Mandir, the slender elevated white temple pictured above to the right of the Golden Gate. Note: the temple was a favourite location of the Little Buddha film crew for those scenes depicting the young Siddhartha (played by Keanu Reeves!) in his father’s capital of Kapilavastu.

the Pashupati temple – Bhaktapur Durbar Square

The Buddha teaches us that there is no thing that is permanent!  The Vastala Durga temple collapsed in the 2015 Earthquake. The young men in the image below contemplate the Bhupatindra Malla column and the Taleju bell – both of steel reinforced concrete  which replace the previous brick and wood construction.   Behind the Teluju Bell is the Chyaslin Pavilion, a two-storey wooden structure which had been destroyed in the 1934 quake.

The octogonal building was  then rebuilt by German engineers in the 1980’s as a gift to the people of Nepal.  They somewhat controversially made use of steel for additional support and some traditionalists were not pleased. It survived the 2015 quake with no damage.  (See here for a very readable article by the two German architects involved in the recreation of the pre-1934 Chyaslin Pavilion.)

the ruins of the Vastala Temple – Durbar Square 2015

Below is another image of the foundation of the Vastala temple before the 2015 earthquake.

From Durbar Square it is a short walk to Taumadhi Square. As you exit the square you pass by the already-mentioned Chyasin Mandap and to the left the Siddhi Lakshmi Mandir and Fasidega Mandir – as shown in the image below.

Siddhi Lakshmi Mandir and Fasidega Mandir in the background

Just as in ancient Athens, temples in Hindu world are essentially houses for the representation of the deity being honoured – with maybe some extra space to store gifts!   Here both temples sit on elevated platforms and have figures lining the steps on the way up.  On the Siddhi Lakshmi temple the steps are flanked – from bottom to top – by human figures with dogs at their side, horses, rhinoceros, lion/humans and camels.  They lead up to the inner sanctum.

Siddhi Lakshmi Mandir (Lohan Dega) suffered minor damage in 2015

In the photos above the white top of the Fasidega Mandir (aka Silu Mahadev or Fasi Dega) is visible on the right-hand side.  The net-sourced image below captures it in full from the south side. The temple had been rebuilt after the 1934 earthquake and given a neo-classical look. To be honest, it was an unremarkable structure which should not be difficult to replace with something more expressive.

Now, seventy years later, it has collapsed again! Nothing remains except for the mandir’s five-stepped plinth. In the internet-sourced image below it looks like the cleanup has been done.

Fasidega Mandir after the 2015 earthquake – the clean up has begun

Down a narrow street, passing by some shops selling items that either locals or tourists might be wanting, visitors soon find their way to Taumadhi Square.

2. Taumadhi Square:

After my tour of Durbar Square, I headed for the south end of Taumadhi Square for some lunch.  I picked the rooftop café for its great views of the square and for the view it would allow me to frame with my  very first digital camera, the Sony H2 with its 6 Mp sensor!

the view from a rooftop Café at the south end of Taumadhi Square

I am always relieved when I arrive at a spot recommended by Lonely Planet and do not find a half-dozen other tourists sitting there, also with their copies of the guide-book sitting on their table!  While the LP series of guide-books has certainly encouraged hesitant travellers to boldly follow in its footsteps, it can unfortunately become a crutch and a limiting factor in your experience of new places. The thought was –  If it doesn’t get a Lonely Planet mention it can’t be any good!  However, it may be that in the past decade we’ve moved on to trip advisor and other web-based apps to tell us where to eat and sleep and what to see.

a view of Taumadhi Square and the Nyatapola Mandir and Bairabnath Mandir

Taumadhi Square is notable for the two temples seen in the shot above –

  • on the left, the five-storeyed Nyatapola Temple
  • on the right, the three-storeyed Bairabnath Temple









[Watercolour paintings by Henry Ambrose Oldfield from 1852. See here for the source.]

Bhaktapur – Taumadhi Tole – street venders

I would go down into the square and make my way through the day market and past the vendors with their sundry items – clothing, shoes, plastic household goods.

another view of Taumadhi Square’s two main temples

The Nyatapola (built in the early 1700’s and still standing after the various earthquakes)  is the tallest temple in the Kathmandu valley,  given a good head start by the  five levels of brick foundation that it sits on.

Again, as in Durbar Square, the steps up to the top are flanked by parallel figures, beginning with two human male figures.  Each successive set of figures supposedly represents a tenfold increase in strength.  The Lonely Planet write-up identifies the figures this way –

At the bottom are the legendary Rajput wrestlers Jayamel and Phattu, depicted kneeling with hefty maces. Subsequent levels are guarded by elephants with floral saddles, lions adorned with bells, beaked griffons with rams’ horns and finally two goddesses – Baghini and Singhini. Lonely Planet. “Nepal Travel Guide.”

Bhaktapur – top of Nyatapola Temple

The door to the inner chamber (it contains a statue of Siddhi Laxmi) was closed when I got there. Not that I could have entered anyway – it is reserved for priests and and perhaps practising locals.  Above the door is a torana which shares the same arrangement as the one at the Golden Gate. On both the Garuda figure hovers over the central image of the goddess.

the door to the inner sanctum of the Nyatapola Temple

I looked down from the vantage point on the Nyatapola’s top platform and surveyed the Square. It is this square, and not Durbar Square,  that is considered the real heart of old Bhaktapur.

3.  Dattatreya Square  (Tachupal Tol) 

An-aerialview of Tachupal Tol with Dattatraya Temple in the center

A 1970’s aerial view of Tachupal Tol with Dattatreya Temple in the center – photo found at the Digital Archaeology Foundation website – see below for link

On previous visits we did not get up to Tachupal Square, the city’s original main square,  with Dattatreya Temple found at its east end and the Bhimsen Temple on the east. As well, there are now a couple of museums, one highlighting woodcarving  and the other brass and bronze metalwork.  This time I will take the time – and perhaps even find a guesthouse on the square to overnight.  The Peacock Guest House gets great reviews and might be my choice.  Check back in a few months for some images!

4. Potters’ Square

The last of the major squares of Bhaktapur that tourists wander through is Potters’ Square. Other than the clay pots drying in the sun in the middle of the square, there are many handicrafts stores and a few cafés.  Time to sit down and take a break from the multi-storeyed temples and  stone sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses!

In fact, Bhaktapur has dozens of smaller squares with a more workaday feel to them. Come to think of it, maybe two nights in Bhaktapur would give me more time to wander around and decompress after the manic activity of the Thamel district in Kathmandu.

The Impact of the 2015 Earthquakes:

Bhaktapur was severely rattled in April 2015 and then again a few days later.  Thousands of inhabitants lost their homes since they either collapsed completely or were rendered unsafe to live in because of damage to the foundation or walls. Often the damage is not visible from the street – you could be looking at an intact and untouched front facade of a house but the interior may well have collapsed. It makes the loss of a couple of temples on Durbar Square inconsequential in comparison.

I was moved by Amrit Sharma’s post on the situation in Bhaktapur written a couple of weeks after the first major quake. He includes bits of the conversation he had with a number of the locals. Click on the title to access – Exclusive, In-depth look at Bhaktapur — the town that everyone loves.

The Atlantic ‘s website has a photo essay looks at the situation a year after the earthquake.

When I visit in April of 2018 it will have been three years since the quakes.  I am expecting the worst after reading articles like this one from April of 2017 – Nepal’s earthquake disaster: Two years and $4.1bn later.   In fact,  I still wonder if I should be visiting Nepal at all.

Sources to check out:

Dave Ways’ Longest Way Home website has tons of well-researched and up-to-date information.  Even better, he has packaged his Kathmandu Valley material into one ebook bargain. It is also one of the most thorough guides to all that the various UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Bhaktapur, have to offer.  It is in the obvious and essential category of things to check out and bring along.   See here for more info.

If you’re going to Nepal the best deal would be to buy the entire Nepal ebook instead of just the Kathmandu Valley one that I did!

An interesting collection of historical images of Bhaktapur can be found at the Digital Archaeology Foundation website.  I have learned that it is a yet another project of Dave Ways whose Kathmandu Valley ebook I downloaded!

The above author Dave Ways has also written the best summary of the state of the three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley post-2015 Earthquake and its aftershocks. What he writes makes me feel that Bhaktapur is the right choice for my last couple of nights in Nepal before I head for Tribhuvan International Airport and the flight back home to YYZ (Toronto).  Check out this Dave Ways’ blog post from September 14th, 2017 –

Which of Nepal’s Durbar Squares Is Better?

A Government of Nepal (Archaeology Department) report from February 2017 which I found at the UNESCO World Heritage site. (See here for the UNESCO web page where I found it under the heading SOC Report by the State Party. It is labelled 2017).

The report has a few pages (pp. 24-31) on the state of various temples in Bhaktapur.  You ccan also download the entire 1.4 Mb pdf file from my website here.   I am hoping to see visible progress from last February when I visit.

I’ve already booked two nights at the positively reviewed Peacock Guest House in Dhattatreya Tol.  After almost three weeks of in a tent, a bit of luxury will be my reward!

April 2018 – A Traverse Of Upper Mustang To The Phu Valley Via Saribung La

The Peacock (reviews here!) will be my base camp as I spend two days wandering the streets and alleys of my favourite urban corner of the Kathmandu valley with my cameras.  The classic Newari house dates back 700 years and was originally used as a pilgrims’ rest house.  It will be a photo op in itself!

 Related Posts:

Bodhnath Stupa from Stupa View Terrace and Restaurant

Swayambhunath – Dorje with Stupa in background









Related Posts: 

The Kathmandu Valley And Its UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites

 Swayambhunath: Buddha Eyes Over The Kathmandu Valley

The Boudhanath Stupa – The Heart Of Nepal’s Tibetan Community

Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley – The Temples of Lalitpur (Patan)

Kathmandu Valley - UNESCO Sites

Kathmandu Valley – UNESCO World Heritage Sites


Posted in Easy Travelling, Nepal | 6 Comments

Canoeing Georgian Bay’s French River Delta: Day 7 – From Pickerel Bay To Hartley Bay To Recollet Falls and Home

Previous Post: Day 6 – From N of Dead Island To Pickerel Bay 

Day 7 – Pickerel Bay to Hartley Bay Marina To Recollet Falls and Home

    • distance: 8.6 km
    • time:  8:10 a.m. start –  9:30 a.m. finish
    • portages/rapids: 0 – the grand portage home
    • weather: windy, overcast and a couple drops of rain
    • campsite: home sweet home

It had rained a bit overnight and it felt like a new front was moving in and chasing out with it the one week of incredible July-like weather we had in late September. There would be a few raindrops and some wind to paddle into as we made our way to Hartley Bay, less than nine kilometers away.

We could have exited the afternoon before but we had luckily slowed down. The reward had been an afternoon and evening of stunning views from CS 633 hilltop as the sun sank below the line of the trees to the west.

The other guys sharing the campsite with us – Hugo, Ian, Jacquelin, and Yannik – were staying for another night before their ride back to la belle province. As we paddled away I yelled up to them “A la prochaine!” This was not their first visit and we figure it won’t be our only one either!

Across Ox Bay and through the Canoe Bay Channel past a “For Sale” property with a lodge with a number of cabins on it and then north up Wannapitei Bay.  As we approached the entrance to Hartley Bay I wondered if the woman who was sitting on the sofa when we passed by at the beginning of the trip would be there.  Well, given the weather probably not!  She had said, “Everybody knows to turn left after the dock with  the sofa!”  As we passed by the dock we saw the Muskoka chairs. As for the sofa, it was wrapped in a blue tarp to keep it dry until their return.

A bit further along the south side of Hartley Bay, we passed another property with a “For Sale” sign on it.  We wondered how much the owners were asking; when I got home I googled the answer  –  $249,000. See here for the listing.

Nearing the Hartley Bay Marina dock we noticed a lot of activity.  Above the dock was a trailer with eight canoes on it; people were carrying bags and gear down to the dock.  As our canoe came out of the water their red Nova Crafts were going in.  We were looking at a group of high school students from Sudbury at the start of their canoe trip to Georgian Bay and back. I complimented the teachers in charge for making the trip happen. The responsibility – and the paperwork – to organize a trip like this these days can be daunting.  They were pros who had done this a dozen times and appeared to have everything under control!

We got the Hooligan canoe packs and duffel bags and paddles into the car and then strapped down the canoe. Finally, we grabbed the bags with the clothes and shoes we had worn on the way up and did a quick change. Gone were the Tilleys!  We were back in street clothes and set for the Grand Portage home!

But first – a bill to settle.  We had already paid the park permit fees on our arrival at Hartley Bay Marina. Now we settled the parking and launch fee – 6 days x $10. + $10. + HST.  While free is always better, the marina makes for the most convenient entry point and safest place to leave your vehicle sitting for a week.  It really is a minor expense given the memorable trip you end up having.

French River- Dry Pine Bay To Wannapitei Bay

We did the 14-kilometer drive back to Highway 69 and headed south.  We had one more stop to make before we headed south to Parry Sound.  As we drove across the French River bridge we took the exit to the French River Park Visitor Center.  A visit to the displays in the Visitors’ Center itself and then a walk down to Recollet Falls were on tap.

As we walked from the parking lot to the Center we passed a collection of historical plaques celebrating various aspects of the French River story.

Canadian Heritage Rivers plaque – French River Visitors’ Center off Highway 69

Canoe Route To the West – historical plaque in the French River Visitor Center Parking Lot

Pierre Esprit Radisson plaque at the French River Visitors’ Center

Unfortunately, the center is closed on Wednesdays in September so no visit! We turned around for the trailhead to Recollet Falls. A pleasant twenty-five minute walk on a path that occasionally got a bit rough and we were standing at the top end of the falls and looking at the short portage trail on river left that would have taken the voyageurs and their precious cargo around.





Above the falls on river right was a long stretch of vertical rock.  I had learned that one of the French River’s four pictograph sites was somewhere over there but without getting much closer and taking the time to really look we would not be seeing it. Apparently, it is a painting of a single standing human figure with a couple of ochre slash marks next to it.  Maybe some other time we’ll paddle down from the other side of Highway 69, first checking out the other site just above the highway before floating down to the one above Recollet Falls.

vertical rock face just above Recollet Falls on the French River

In the early 1820’s John Elliott Woolford, an English landscape painter,  had come down the river in the service of British North America’s then-Governor-General, the Earl of Dalhousie.  What he eventually put on a canvas titled “Above Recollet Falls” elevated the rock face along the river banks to a whole new level!

Above Recollet Falls – Woolford. 1820’s

The French River travels straight down to the Ox Bay that we had paddled earlier this morning. Having crossed the Highway 69 bridge in a car a hundred times it was neat to stand at the falls and experience it in a way that was easier to connect to the voyageurs of old and the Recollet and Jesuit missionaries and Radisson, one of my childhood heroes. They had all come this way and the scene still looked much like the one they paddled into.

And then there is that other Woolford painting, “Fall of the Grand Recollet”, which presents the French River and Recollet Falls from below.  It too shows that some artistic license has been taken!

“The Falls of Grand Recollet” – John Elliott Woolford 1820’s

We followed the 1.5 km. trail and the blue markers back to the visitor center but before we headed to the car we walked behind the visitors’ center.  The view of the center from there perhaps explains what people are getting at when they praise the structure for its architectural style because from the unimpressive front it looks like a rather ordinary shoebox. The all-glass back allows fine views of the nearby woods and the French River and the bridges crossing it.  We were heading to one of those bridges – billed as a Snowmobile Bridge!

the Visitors’ Center at French River – a view from the rear

The bridge may have cost as much as the Visitors’ Center to build!  I sure hope the snowmobilers get enough snow each year – and enough donations – to make the thing worthwhile.  Sure enough, when I checked Youtube there was an iPhone upload of someone  who had taken the sign as a prompt and jumped off the bridge into the river!

Standing in the middle of the snowmobile bridge we got a classic view of the French as it completes its 110-kilometer run to Georgian Bay.  The photo above brought to mind a beautiful painting done by Sudbury-born (but now living in Killarney) artist Pierre AJ Sabourin. From his painting spot on the bridge he has zoomed in somewhat and added a bit of vertical rock to river left and given it an updated Group of Seven feel. See Sabourin’s  Wordpress website here for more about the artist and a sample of his work.

Pierre Sabourin. Land of the Voyageur

We looked north to the Highway 69 bridge from the snowmobile bridge.  And then it was time to hit the road! We left around noon. By 3:20 p.m. we were negotiating the express lanes of the 401 and then zipping down the Don Valley Expressway at the end of a fantastic one-week paddle .

The French River delta and the islands offshore make for a great place to go paddling during the off-season when there are few people in the Park. And to think it is only a 3 1/2 hour drive from T.O. to Hartley Bay! It’s a ride we’ll being doing again!

overview of our 110-kilometer French River Delta ramble

Logistics, Maps  & Day 1 (Hartley Bay To the French River’s “The Elbow”)

Day 2 – From the Elbow to the Bustards

Day 3 – From the Bustards To Eagle Next Point (West boundary of Park)

Day 4 – From Eagle Nest Point to East of the Fingerboard

Day 5 – To Bass Creek And The Park’s East Side

Day 6 – From the Georgian Bay Coast Up To Pickerel Bay (The Elephants)

Posted in Georgian Bay, wilderness canoe tripping | 2 Comments

Canoeing Georgian Bay’s French River Delta: Days 6 – To Pickerel Bay (The Elephants)

Previous Post: Day 5 – From CS 723 To Bass Creek to FR Park East Side

 Day 6 – From CS 913 North of Dead Island to Pickerel Bay (CS633)

  • distance: 18.2 km (and some hill scrambling)
  • time: 8:30 a.m.; finish 2:20 p.m.
  • portages/rapids:  1 – 150 m
  • weather: sunny and very hot; some wind;
  • campsite: CS 633 Pickerel Bay (The Elephants)

early morning – getting breakfast ready at CS 913

The Day  6 program?  Leaving the G’Bay coast and heading up north!  While we could easily have paddled out to the car, we decided to spend one more night in the park, going up the Pickerel River and finding a campsite in the Pickerel Bay area.  There are several indicated on the official Park map. We liked the southern exposure of CS 633 and its location right on Pickerel Bay and figured it would be the likely spot. Time would tell!

looking up the Pickerel River from a hilltop

To no surprise, the trip up the Pickerel was more of the same totally scenic vistas that we had paddled into on the previous five days in the French River delta.  I cannot remember a trip with as much of a “wow” factor as this one!

There was only one portage to do, a  150-meter scramble up and across a mostly rock outcrop with a bit of bush to dodge around. (The official park map has the portage at 90 meters.)  We were unsure initially about where the trail was but think we got it right. After the carry we did go back and mark the beginning and end of the trail and gave the bush a bit of a trim.

A two canoe/four person party – the first we had seen in days – came in just as we were finishing off.  They landed below the hut and improvised their own trail across to the put-in.  I remember thinking – “Well, so much for marking the trail more clearly!” We noticed that one of the other guys, did it in bare feet. Later we found out that the rest of his group had nicknamed him “Tarzan”!

Just north of the portage we paddled through a narrow and reedy channel. The notation on the park map reads “low water, dry area” but we did not experience that.  The two feet higher than before water levels help!  Even if it was a bit lower, the stretch is not all that long and a bit of walking the canoe up the channel would deal with it.  It is certainly not a reason to avoid coming up the Pickerel River from the Bay.

Pickerel Bay CS 633 – landing and tent spot

When we got to CS 633 shortly after 2:00 p.m. we were ambivalent about the site. On the one hand, it had a stupendous view of Pickerel Bay thanks to the 10-meter high rock outcrop that had a few campsites on top, as well as a few closer to the landing area down below.

However, we were not convinced that any of them would be a good choice in a possible storm;  we were especially concerned about water streaming under our tent thanks to the slope of  the various possible spots.  We decided to check  CS 632 tucked inside the bay just 100 meters to the north to see if there was anything better. We did.  632 is a dud!

Back to CS 633 we headed and decided to make do with an imperfect spot at the bottom of the rock face.  During the night it did rain but only briefly; We found a bit of moisture under one side of the ground sheet when we put away the tent in the morning.

.sitting in the shade on top of CS 633’s scenic rock top – Pickerel Bay below

As for those hilltop views? They make the campsite a fantastic one.  We got to share the view with the canoe party we had chatted with at the portage. They were four guys from Quebec who were, like us, finishing off their one-week visit to French River.  One of them asked as they approached the landing –

  • “Would you mind sharing the campsite with us?”
  • “Not at all. Come on in; there’s lots of room!”

For a couple of them it was a repeat visit and they already knew CS 633 having camped there last year.  They also had smaller tents and seemed to be less fussy than we can be.

Soon their three tents were up and six people got to enjoy the sunset from the top of CS 633, definitely one of the top 3 campsites of our six days out in the French River delta. The other two just as nice sites?

  • the one in the Bustards on Day 2
  • the one at Eagle Nest Point on Day 3.

And, for the record, the remaining three sites in declining order were CS 913, CS 723, and CS 624.

Hugo’s tent on the cliff edge at CS633 Pickerel Bay

Max gets a shot looking up to CS 633’s hilltop

night falls over Pickerel Bay – a quarter moon in the sky

As we sat up there on top of the rock with our cameras and our double shot of maple whiskey, we agreed that the trip had turned out even better than expected and talked about a return visit.  There were still more channels to paddle up and down and other great campsites to discover.  Late May or June, September or early October – all we’d need is the exceptional weather we had for the past week! And the best thing – it is all so  close to Toronto – and yet a world away!

Day 7 - Pickerel Bay (CS 633) To Hartley Bay Marina -

Next Post:  Day 7 – Pickerel Bay to Hartley Bay to Recollet Falls to Toronto


Previous Posts:

Logistics, Maps  & Day 1 (Hartley Bay To the French River’s “The Elbow”)

Day 2 – From the Elbow to the Bustards

Day 3 – From the Bustards To Eagle Next Point (West boundary of Park)

Day 4 – From Eagle Nest Point to East of the Fingerboard

Day 5 – To Bass Creek And The Park’s East Side




Posted in Georgian Bay, wilderness canoe tripping | Leave a comment

Canoeing Georgian Bay’s French River Delta: Day 5 – To Bass Creek and the Park’s East Side

Previous Post: Day 4 – From West to East – Up, Down and Across the FR Delta

Day 5 – To Bass Creek to French River Prov. Park East Side

  • distance: 19.4 km (includes a side trip to Bass Lake and some hill scrambling)
  • time:   8:30 a.m.; finish 2:15 p.m.
  • portages/rapids:  1 / 1
  • P1 – 115m – side lake up to Bass Lake and then back again later
  • L/O – high water lift over or paddle/push/pull through or low water lift over
  •  weather: sunny and hot; some wind;
  • campsite: CS 913 in the delta; multiple 2 or 4 person tents, 1 nicely sheltered spot

By 8:35 we were on the water for another day of paddling through the maze of rocks and islands along the Georgian Bay coast.  We had as our target the east end of French River Provincial Park and maybe – if we could find a good one –  a campsite on one of the Outer Fox islands.  If not, there were a number of designated campsites nearby that we could check out.

But first – a reconnaissance mission!  We wanted to see for ourselves the Bass Creek portages and the route up to Bass Lake. Once there had been a tramway; then there was a boardwalk.  We wanted to see what was there now!

NB. All maps and images enlarge with a tap or a click or two.

looking west towards our last night’s G’Bay campsite

On the way, we did stop on Macoun Rock to stretch our legs and fuel up on Gatorade and a Clifbar.  It was just after nine and we were already feeling the heat!  To the north of us was Hershel Island, whose east side we paddled along a few minutes later.

break time on Macoun Rock just S of Hershel I.

canoe beached at Macoun Rock

By 10:00 we were past Flat Island and nearing Bass Creek.  After a 400-meter  paddle up the creek from its mouth,  we came to the floating dock and the take-out for the 115-meter portage.  (See the image below.)  Ditching our bags in the bush at the start of the portage trail,  we carried the canoe and paddles – and camera bag –  to the other end. We’d be coming back in about an hour.

the dock and portage take-out spot on Bass Creek

As we paddled away from the put-in at the south end of a narrow lake, we looked back and noted the portage signs.  They were just two of perhaps eight or nine signs indicating a portage that we would see on our visit!  Some – like the ones in the photo above – look like official park signs; others were probably put there by the landowners at the other end who are tired of paddlers tramping across their property looking for a boardwalk that no longer exists!

Kas Stone’s Paddling And Hiking the Georgian Bay Coast provides some history to make sense of what was once there and what is there now. Of the original tramway, complete with rail tracks and a flatbed car, she notes this –

The line was built in 1912 by the Pine Lake Lumber Company, which had just purchased the abandoned sawmills at French River Village and wanted to move them upstream to a new location on the Pickerel River.  Subsequently the tramway was maintained by the provincial Department of Lands and Forests for transporting firefighting equipment back and forth and also used by local cottagers and fishing camps to move their boats, building materials, and even their guests between the French River and Georgian Bay. Indeed, Rainbow Camp was built in the early 1920’s at the top end of the tramway to allow its guests easy access to fishing in both the bay and the river. (Stone, 71)

Eventually (no date was given) the tramway was taken apart and the rails were removed. It was replaced by a 240-meter-long boardwalk.  Stone’s book was published in 2008;  at that time the boardwalk was still in use. She writes –

Although the land around Rainbow Camp is privately owned,  the tramway [i.e. the boardwalk!] itself is available for anyone to use.

1990’s Federal Govt topo with the boardwalk portage indicated – N.B. no longer in use!  Use the signed portages instead.

However, some time since 2008 the boardwalk has been dismantled after falling into disrepair. The apparent reason: the owner of the land it crossed was afraid of getting sued by someone who hurt themselves using it.  How that fits with Stone’s above comment I am not sure! Googling “Rainbow Camp Bass Creek” turns up no information!  There is a Rainbow Camp on the French River but it is near Noelville on the North Channel on the east side of Highway 69.  The Bass Creek property likely has been turned into a private cottage.

I was surprised to see the boardwalk recommended as part of a route in Kevin Callan’s recent (May 3, 2017) article at the Explore website – 6 Northeastern Ontario Paddle Trips to Get Stoked On.   In the section on The French River, he gives canoe trippers some outdated information. Of the Bass Creek Tramway he writes –

The return trip to the access at Hartley Bay Marina is by way of the Eastern Outlet and the Bass Creek Tramway. This 240-metre boardwalk, originally constructed of rails mounted on large timbers, was first established as a way for the lumber companies to move their mills off Georgian Bay and move them more inland.

There is no boardwalk anymore. There is one easy portage at the south end and a lift-over at the north end!

the portage markers on the east side of the Bass Creek Portage

After our carry from the dock, we did the short paddle up the narrow lake to the second “portage”.  On the official park map it is marked as “10 meters”.  What we found was a shallow and narrow channel – and maybe the beginnings of a beaver dam! –  that we pushed our way up. We may have stepped out of the canoe to move it along.  The higher water levels in 2017 – two feet higher, according to locals – explains the missing portage!

The 5-meter lift-over into Bass Creek – we paddled up and back down

We were now in Bass Creek again and looking at a collection of signs pointing to the five-meter “life-over” we had just negotiated.  Whoever put them there clearly wants you to head for the narrow channel we had just come up rather than looking for a no-longer operational boardwalk!  The broken-line trail indicated on that 1990’s vintage Natural Resources Canada topo map above does not help matters! In the image below you can see what may be the remains of some of that boardwalk in front of the cottage.

private property on the east side of Bass Creek

We paddled south on Bass Creek past the property.  We really should have stepped ashore and checked out the remains of the boardwalk and snapped some photos but we did not want to annoy the owners. In retrospect, we realize they probably weren’t there anyway!  We paddled down the creek and soon beached the canoe and scampered up that hilltop you see in the photo below.

Max on top of Viewpoint Rock on Bass Creek – stupendous spot!



looking north up Bass Creek from the hilltop

Bass Creek – looking north and east

a grand view of Bass Creek – looking south

looking northeast up Bass Creek

a view from the top of Bass Creek

looking down Bass Creek

We spent a half-hour enjoying the views from our hilltop viewpoint and expressed the “wow” concept several times in different ways!  This was an unexpected bonus thrown in on top of what was already a fantastic scenic paddling trip.  I’m glad we took the time to get out of the canoe and scamper up the rock.  Sometimes my brother and I can get too focused on getting those kilometers in!

paddling back to the portage from our visit to upper Bass Creek

Then it was back the way we came – down the narrow lake through the reedy part at the north end, over the portage trail and back to our canoe packs and duffels which we had left behind – and finally, back down Bass Creek to the Georgian Bay coast.

If there is an “easiest” route from Hartley Bay to the Georgian Bay coast, one involving the least portaging, this route down Bass Lake and Bass Creek must be it.  Easy for canoers, it would not be that bad for kayakers either.  As a bonus it leads you right to Cantin Point and the shortest crossing over to the Bustard islands.

As we headed east we paddled along the south side of Dock Island and wondered about the dock pictured in the image below and if it was the reason for the island’s name.

We looked south and saw the buildings of the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp, a full-service lodge that looks a lot grander than its name!

Update: A reader – see his comment below – provided the explanation for the dock.  He writes:

The old dock in your one photo actually drifted over from the fishing camp. The camp has been unused since 2016. Lack of maintenace plus higher water levels allowed it to be set adrift.

dock on the south shore of Dock Island across from Georgian Bay Fishing Camp

We soon stopped for lunch in Beacon Rock Bay.  Not far away were the Outer Fox Islands. In the image below Max is examining the map for the best way of getting over there for a tour of the small archipelago. Also on our mind was finding a possible campsite on one of the islands if it had some tree shelter and a flat spot for a four-person tent. If not, as the map below shows, there were several designated French River Provincial P ark campsites that we could check out.

Our visit to the Outer Foxes provided yet more great views and scenic small channel paddling – but, after checking out a couple of likely spots,  we did not find our campsite for the night. We decided to aim for CS 913, given its location and its proximity to Genessee Bay since the next day we’d be paddling up the Pickerel River.

The site proved to be a good choice.  It had a sheltered and flat spot for the tent with the earth floor being a bonus. A dozen tents could be pitched nearby depending on how fussy you were! As well, the rock outcrop running along the shore up the bay meant that we could do some exploring later on.

We did walk up the shore of the bay to the next campsite – CS 914. It was not as nice a site and, at first, I could not even see its marker. The blue sign finally caught my eye as I looked over at the fallen tree trunks in the photo below. The wind or a beaver – or maybe both – had done the job!

CS 914 marker

There is a boaters’ channel that runs along the coast. As we sat there and looked out into Georgian Bay we did see two boats make their way between Dead Island and the point we were camping on. It was a Sunday afternoon and we thought it might be busier, especially given our proximity to Key Harbour. However, since it was late September it was much more tranquil than during prime summer. As for fellow paddlers, during our first five days out we had only seen four kayaks – all in one group –  and four canoes.  We basically had the park to ourselves!

At the end of the day, we packed up the food bag and took it for a 100-meter walk down the shore. It has been a few years since we did the nightly “dangling the food bag from the branch of a tall enough tree” ritual.  Partly it was because the terrain we were paddling in often did not have the trees required to hoist our forty-pound bag up.  These days – no more bear piñata!  Now, we slip the food bag – one of our two tough nylon Hooligan Canoe Packs – inside a large garbage bag and put a log over it and walk back to the tent. Never an issue since 2012!

On tap for the next day was our trip back towards Hartley Bay and our vehicle.  While we could easily have done the entire distance in one day, we had decided to stop for the day just a bit short of the end-point.  Given the number of campsites in Pickerel Bay, that was what we were aiming for.

Next Post: From N of Dead Island to Pickerel Bay (The Elephants)

Posted in Georgian Bay, wilderness canoe tripping | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Canoeing Georgian Bay’s French River Delta: Day 4 – From West to East – Up, Down and Across the French River Delta

Previous Post: Day 3 – Bustard Islands Camp To Eagle Nest Point 

Day 4 – From West to East – Up, Down and Across the French River Delta

  • distance: 18.2 km
  • time:   8:35 a.m.; finish 4:15 p.m.
  • portages/rapids:  3 + a few liftovers and a bit of lining
    • L/O – 30 m – lifted and tracked
    • P1 – 120m
    • P2 – 20m Old Voyageur Channel
    • L/O – cross-channel – lift and track sections
    • P3 – Devil’s Door Rapids – 30 m up the hill, 30 m down the hill in two minutes!
    • L/O – 10m – perhaps a portage in low water
    • L/O – 5m beaver dam type structure
  •  weather: sunny and hot; some wind;
  • campsite: CS 723 on the delta; multiple 2 or 4 person tents, 1 nicely sheltered spot

Day 4 – From Eagle Nest Point To CS 723 East of The Fingerboards Is.

Another clear sky day was on tap as we went through the usual routine after pushing back our sleeping bags and stuffing them into their compression sacks. Intent on not missing the rising sun,  I  snapped a shot of the islands of Green Island Bay to the northwest and another of White Rock some 400 meters offshore from Eagle Nest Point.

looking south from Eagle Nest Point To White Rock in Georgian Bay

We were on the water before 9 and headed north.  After a day of coastal paddling, we had something else in mind for this day.  We were going to check out the French River’s two so-called Voyageur Channels, paddling up one and then coming down the other.  Visions of  Indigenous traders and guides and  Canadien voyageurs and North West Company canoes came to mind as we made our way. No wonder that when the newly established Canadian Heritage Rivers program began in 1986 the French River the first river chosen!

CS 818 in Batt Bay/Green Island Bay

On our way we stopped to check out CS 818, a site on the north end of an island a kilometer north of the one at Eagle Nest Point.  It is one of seven designated sites in the Green Island Bay/Batt Bay area.  While it is a fine site, it does not have the superb location of the one we stopped at. (See here for a map with site locations.)

CS 818 tent spot on Batt Bay island – see Day 3 post for map of bay and campsites

Paddling east on the Voyageur Channel we turned north into Black Bay. We planned to follow it up to the top and then take the channel which runs parallel to it on the east – the Old Voyageur Channel – back down to Balis Point before turning east on the Cross-Channel all the way to Devil’s Door Rapids.  Even though we had the official Parks Map we had no idea of any complications along the way; the map does not show any rapids or portages. The map below shows what we found out over the next few hours!

(Note: the Park map is worth the $17.  You are also supporting the volunteer Friends of French River who produced the map and do all sorts of work to keep up the campsites and increase visitors’ awareness of the history of the area.  They have crammed an amazing amount of information onto the limited space they had. The 1:55,000 scale is perhaps too small to allow for the kind of detail I am talking about.  Given all the other info on the map there was undoubtedly no space for a blow-up view like the one below.)

Black Bay is easy to imagine as a route the Montreal canoes (canots du Maître) would have come down; other than a short portage and a bit of lining there is little to impede easy progress. The canoes (10 meters in length and about 1.5 meters wide) were the freighters of the fur trade, carrying the trade goods from Montreal to the far end of Lake Superior and then returning with the furs.

10:45 a.m.- at the top of a section

We stopped for lunch at the top of the Old Voyageur Channel and then started to make our way down.  The channel is certainly more closed in than the Black Bay we had come up in the morning.  We got to verbalize more expressions of what a sustained scenic trip this was!

Having done canoe trips all over the boreal forest area of the Canadian Shield, we figure the French River area is not only one of the most accessible but also has the most day-after-day  beautiful scenery. A bonus is that very little portaging is needed as you paddle around.  The campsites are mostly terrific.  This is where you bring a newbie to introduce them to the pleasures of canoe tripping – but in June or September when it is less busy than it gets in the prime summer months.

Hopkins. Canoes manned by voyageurs passing a waterfall. 1869.

Just before we came to the one set of rapids on the Old Voyageur Channel we approached a canoe coming upriver.  I was initially struck by the paddling technique of the couple in the canoe. They were alternating sides every four strokes. I remember thinking they were total novices out for a day paddle. Their response to my first question – “Where you guys coming from?” – was yet another reminder of the danger of rash judgments! Their response – “We started off in Alberta in May.”  Whoa!

We had paddled into Cas and Michael Wild, a newlywed couple from Scotland on the last leg of their epic canoe trip which had started at Rocky Mountain House in mid-May. Here it was in late September and they were on the home stretch to Montreal! We chatted for a while and then headed in opposite directions,  they on to Lake Nipissing and the Mattawa River and on to the Ottawa. You can check out their website for more on their epic canoe trip at their WordPress website – The Doctors Wild.

Chatting with the Doctors Wild on the Old Voyageur Channel

Up next – that set of rapids around the corner!  To the voyageurs it was known as Petite Faucille, an abrupt one-meter drop in the river.   Given the length and depth of their canoes, a portage was the norm.

Until recently it was thought that Paul Kane’s painting “French River Rapids” depicted this very spot, turning the sketch he did at the scene in May of 1846 into a painting some years later after his return to Toronto.

Paul Kane. French River Rapids. 1850’s

As I sat there on the rock I looked for the rock face on the other side of the river. It wasn’t there!  The assumption over the years has been that Kane just took a bit of artistic license to heighten the drama of the scene at Petite Faucille.

I have since learned that there is a better explanation, one that was not found until 2006 when Ken Lister set off with his canoe and Kane’s journal and a collection of Kane’s sketches. It turns out that Kane never came down the French River into Georgian Bay so he would not have had a sketch of any of the rapids!

In an impressive piece of detective work, Lister found the location of the mislabeled “French River Rapids” painting.  It is actually referred to in Kane’s journal as “the French Portage”.  Lister found it in northwestern Ontario!   As Lister writes –

The French Portage—part of the Kaministiquia River–Dog Lake fur trade route between Lake Superior and Rainy Lake—was known to fur-traders as the Grand Portage des Français and was used to bypass a long section of the French River that was shallow and winding.

See here for Lister’s account of his quest and how it all fell into place.

checking out the flow of the one set of rapids on the Old Voyageur Channel

Petite Faucille on the Old Voyageur Channel

We continued down the narrow channel; there are some swifts as you approach Balis Point that will speed things up a bit for about three hundred meters.

The cross-channel from Balis Point to Devil’s Door Rapids is an easy paddle with only one set of rapids to deal with. We lined our canoe past them and continued on to Devil’s Door, certainly a dramatic name.  We got there just as some kayakers were cautiously going over the ledge of the rapids – though “Falls” is a better word to describe the 1.5-meter plunge.  They went over and then disappeared from sight for a moment and then reappeared as their kayak came very close to smashing into the left-side rock wall. We needed to take a closer look before we did anything!

The Park map does not show a portage around the rapids.  We headed to a small bay on river left, beached the canoe and scrambled up the rock to the top for fantastic views of the neighbourhood.  A look down at the rapids, a look up the channel to where we had come from – and then decision time.  We were going to portage.

But where to portage? Our scramble up to the top of the cliff told us that this was not the way.

Once back down to the canoe the answer became obvious.  In our rush to get to that hilltop view of Devil’s Door we had not noticed the 30-meter “path” littered with boulders going up to a plateau. We walked up to the ridge and looked down another 30 meters to the shoreline and a tranquil bit of water below the rapids.  This was going to be much easier than expected!


looking back at our canoe from the top of the Devil’s Door portage trail

We got the bags – the two Hooligan Packs and the two duffels – and the four paddles over first.  Then I went back for the canoe. Max decided this portage would be captured in video and stood on the top of the path as I carried it up and over. Since the front of the canoe was at the rear, the first thing I had to do once the canoe was up on my shoulders was whirl the thing around.  As for the carry –  total time?  Two minutes! No big deal!


However, if you are looking for a bit more drama to go along with the name of the rapids, check out the account of the portage in this YouTube video – Devil’s Door Rapids – uploaded by a solo paddler earlier this year.  The Devil’s Door Rapids section begins at 10:00 and goes on for four minutes. It gives viewers a false impression and seriously over-hypes the 60-meter carry.

It prompted me to upload to YouTube the one I included above. It is my very first – and maybe the only! – Youtube video,  Devil’s Door Portage!

from Devil’s Door Rapids to CS 723 E of the Fingerboards

Crossing Bad River Channel we headed for the continuation of the cross-channel and easier and totally enjoyable paddling down a narrow channel past lots of vertical rock face. Only two obstacles along the way, both dealt with in a few minutes.  We were heading back to the coast and CS 723 on an island and accessed from the interior side.  A 50-meter walk and you are on the Georgian Bay side.  The collections of rocks on various flat surfaces are evidence of yet more tenting choices when tent pegs do not work.

CS 723 home for the night with a Georgian Bay view

The tent spot we chose was a flat spot nicely tucked inside a stand of cedars and pines and with enough earth to be able to use those tent pegs.  After we set up a line to hang our down sleeping bags on for a bit of wind and sun, we set up the canoe as a table top and got supper ready.  That done we wandered over to the Bay side where, later that evening, we returned for some sunset views of the big water. We also got to see some old friends again – but from a different angle!

About four  kilometers away from CS 723 are the Bustard Rocks lighthouses.  We had approached them from the east on Day 3  and now we were looking at them from the north!

A few minutes later, with my back to the setting sun, I took a shot of the other side of the island campsite. A different look for sure!

Day 4 had been a great paddling day; Day 5 would be a day we played tourist – paddling up Bass Creek to see what the portages were like – before heading back to the G’Bay coastline and a possible campsite in the Outer Fox Islands. There were none indicated on the official map but we were hoping to find something suitable.

Day 5- From CS 723 To CS 913 Above Dead island

Next Post: Day 5 – from CS 723 to CS 913 With A Side Trip Up Bass Creek

Posted in Georgian Bay, wilderness canoe tripping | Leave a comment