Tag: World Heritage Sites

At the Taj Mahal

At the Taj Mahal

Surrounded by the cacophony, squalor and chaos of New Delhi station, Roger turned to Hilary and said “I can’t believe later today we are going to be seeing one of the most beautiful buildings in the world”.

We reached Agra in time to stand at sunset on the riverbank across from the Taj Mahal. It seemed the perfect place to celebrate Hilary’s birthday.

With a hotel just yards from the ‘wonder of the modern world’, we were then through the segregated gates (by race and gender) at dawn. Even though we’ve seen it in so many pictures, it was amazing to be here. It simply is sublime, and much bigger than expected. Also, to be here is to appreciate for the first time, the Taj Mahal’s place within a wider complex of other Mughal temples, the gardens and the Yamuna River.

And you have to remind yourself, it’s essentially an Islamic mausoleum for a favourite wife who died shortly after giving birth to her fourteenth child.

Constructed by a workforce of some 22,000 labourers over 21 years, the marble came from Rajasthan, and the inlaid semi-precious stones were brought to Agra from Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China, and the Indian Ocean.

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Melaka – the history

Melaka – the history

What makes Melaka interesting is its privatol role in the history of SE Asian colonialism. In 1511, the Portuguese arrived and displaced the local sultans. 130 years later the Dutch evicted the Portuguese and imposed a trade monopoly. And then in the late 18th century the British took over the administration.

The prize was a port bridging the east and west, a trading post between the spice islands and the European markets, ensuring Melaka, during the Dutch period, became one of the wealthiest ports on the planet. Today, it’s hard to believe. Melaka is a city of 0.8 million people, but looked to us like an industrial and trading backwater. It’s a tale of two cities; the British always preferred their other port down the Malacca Straits – Singapore.

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This is the only bit that remains of the A’Famosa Portuguese fort. Much of it was blown up by Farquhar, the Scottish rival of Raffles, until the latter stepped in to stop it
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Up on the hill, the Portuguese built church dating back to 1521, still evokes colonial splendour. But it’s now just a shell and fronted by a British built lighthouse
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We enjoyed going around a distinctive Straits Chinese (or Baba-Nonya) home. These Chinese first settled in Melaka back in the 1400s, and have added many Malay customs to their heritage
Melaka – a tourist trap

Melaka – a tourist trap

As it’s called a highlight of Malaysia in the Lonely Planet guide, we stopped for two nights in the historic port city of Melaka (also known as Malacca).

In the past decade, there’s been an attempt to transform the town centre and its riverside into a tourism destination. There’s charming old streets and buildings for sure, but generally the place feels a bit run down and tired, with lots of unloved hotels. There’s a sense the tourism push hasn’t delivered.

Melaka’s an enjoyable place to wander around, sit in a riverside restaurant or take a short trip up the river, but with the sea now removed from the historic centre (due to land reclamation) it’s hard to picture the historical importance of this place. We’ll cover this tomorrow.

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Roger and Hilary take the tourist boat up the river – a south east Asian version of Venice or Amsterdam
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Almost unique to Melaka, the trishaws (bicycle rickshaws) are bizarrely tarted up in garish colours with their own sound systems playing loud music
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The main tourist area centres around the Stadthuys. Built in 1641-1660, it’s the oldest Dutch building in eastern Asia
Scooter trip 1 – Jatiluwih rice terraces

Scooter trip 1 – Jatiluwih rice terraces

After a couple of days in Canggu, we were ready to see more of Bali. Despite concerns about road safety, we decided to hire a motorised scooter for £4/day – this has to be the bargain of the year.

After a two minute lesson on the controls, Hilary set off with Roger holding on behind, doing the navigation. As we sped along, it was like one of those DVLA Hazard Tests. Everywhere wayward chickens, stalking dogs, kamikaze pedestrians, sudden potholes and hundreds of other scooter drivers who were happy to drive on both sides of the road. At a crossroads your bloggers nicknamed “the junction of death”, we narrowly avoided both a woman scooter rider with dozens of egg trays on the back and a man with carpets, rolls of long grass and everything but the kitchen sink on board his scooter. Despite the risks it was great fun and our senses were bombarded with colour and sounds!

It was a round trip of 90km to the UNESCO World Heritage Jatiluwih rice terraces and back. Originally built in the 9th century, these terraces have provided the staple diet for generations of Balinese. The communal irrigation still works brilliantly, though sadly we spotted some barren terraces, no doubt youngsters deciding it’s vastly more profitable (and easier) to be driving tourists around, than doing back-breaking work in the sweltering sun.

The journey there had been hot and noisy, but at last we found an oasis of calm and green beauty. A rarity in this crowded island of 4.2m people.

 

Prambanan

Prambanan

Because of the graceful height, the symmetry of the towers and the cool, dark inner temples, we found this 9th century Hindu temple more impressive than Buddhist Borobudur.

Situated just some 50km apart, both were built at a similar time, using the same volcanic rock and both have followed the same path of rediscovery, looting, restoration, and continual damage due to earthquakes, rain and volcanoes.

Here at Prambanan, there are 240 temples but the main focus is on the towering 47m high (154 ft) central building which was impressively restored in the 1990’s. But most of the smaller shrines are now visible only in their foundations, with no plans for their reconstruction. Again, the whole place reminded us of a smaller version of Angkor Wat.

It was a blistering hot day and like the other tourists we sought respite in the few shady places: underneath some isolated trees and inside the actual temples. Colourful parasols were being sold at a fast rate, the challenge was to keep them out of our photos.

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Just 800m away from Prambanan is a Buddhist complex built 70 years earlier. 8th century Sewu Temple, with its 249 temples, clearly suggests the early Javan Buddhist and Hindu communities were both integrated and competitive. We had the place to ourselves, in oppressive heat few tourists walk far
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After the major rebuilding of the 1990s, more limited renovations have continued but we note blocks are being used, there is no attempt to recreate the impressive reliefs
Sunrise over Borobudur

Sunrise over Borobudur

We climbed the stone steps up to Nirvana in the darkness. Around the nine stacked platforms, past the 1460 ancient reliefs of a journey from mere earthly desires to ethereal wonder. At the top the emerging sun bathed the stupas and our faces.

We are at Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, symmetrical on all four sides, still surrounded by jungle and close to two volcanoes.

Built in the 9th century, (three centuries before Angkor Wat), Borobudur is the second oldest building we have seen this year. It was lost for nearly 700 years before being rediscovered, under volcanic ash and jungle, by British Governor General Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1812.

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How lucky we are to live at a time when these treasures of art and engineering are protected and restored. We saw a photo taken as late as 1971, when it was a derelict, fenced off nightmare, but two years later a major restoration programme started, followed by an ongoing battle to protect the site from volcanic dust, earthquakes, terrorists and wayward tourists.

Today the temple, made entirely of dark volcanic stone, can appear uninspiring when the light is flat. But reading Wikipedia it appears the “bas-reliefs of Borobudur were originally quite colourful, before centuries of torrential tropical rainfalls peeled-off the colour pigments”.

Unlike Angkor Wat, which we visited five years ago with our children, it was wonderfully peaceful at sunrise. Just a 100 or so tourists savouring the mist over the lush jungle and the silhouettes of the Buddhas.

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If you plan to do this Firstly come here before the millions of Chinese tourists arrive. Secondly, stay close-by, in the town of Borobudur, rather than attempt to do it as a day trip from Yogyakarta. Thirdly, note you need premium tickets for sunrise and sunset. We bought ours for sunrise but stayed late into the day.

Hangzhou’s West Lake

Hangzhou’s West Lake

A popular saying handed down from ancient times goes like this “Of the thirty-six West Lakes in China, east or west, the West Lake at Hangzhou is the best”

We are in Hangzhou, 100 miles (160km) south west of Shanghai, and it’s the lake that attracts Chinese tourists here in their thousands.

Originally dating back to 600BC but enlarged by every Dynasty since, the lake is Chinese through and through. With a backdrop of misty mountains, mysterious water, scenic causeways, and pagoda roofs peeping into every vista. For people living in the Chinese mega-cities, this is a wonderful place to come for some nature and space.

For us, it was a brilliant place to people-watch; couples dancing, old men flying kites, charismatic show-offs on rollerblades, cosmopolitan joggers, wedding couples posing for photographs, and tourists in tiny boats rowed by thin old men.

Here we are well away from the Western tour itinerary. As Hilary cycled round the lake (two hours) and Roger walked (five hours), we saw no other Europeans or Americans. In fact, one child, part of a massive school party in tracksuit uniforms, pointed to Hilary and said “Oh, there’s a white woman!”

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The art of bonsai

The art of bonsai

Visiting one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site gardens in Suzhou, amusingly called The Humble Administrator’s Garden, we saw a sublime collection of bonsai trees.

While the art of bonsai has long been associated with Japan, it actually first originated in China around 600AD and then spread eastward to Japan and Korea. We have Buddhist monks to thank; they wished to bring the “outdoors” into their temples.

The development of beautiful Chinese containers has also played an important role in bonsai tree’s popularity, the name of which which literally means “tree in a tray”. So the Chinese ceramic industry has had a big influence on bonsai and continues to do so today.

Interestingly, the Chinese have been infatuated by miniaturisation, believing that miniature objects have magical powers concentrated within them.

Gyeongju’s delights

Gyeongju’s delights

With six days in South Korea, we only have time for a one night stop between Busan, the port city in the south, and Seoul in the north, and people recommended Gyeongju.

55 miles (90 km) north of Busan and the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty, Gyeongju is famed for its many historical sites across a wide area. We were “templed out” from Japan, with low expectations for anything special in Korea, but we were proved wrong. Once you escape the hotels and shops that inevitably attach themselves these days like barnacles to any World Heritage Site, this was a rewarding place to be a tourist.

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Bulguksi Temple really impressed us. Built in 774, the site was destroyed by the Japanese in 1593. So it’s a symbol of national pride that the Koreans rebuilt the whole treasure in 1969-1973. We loved its size, renovated Silla Buddhist paintwork and the thousands of hanging lanterns
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The Seokguram Grotto, houses the most beautiful Buddha we have seen to date. Rather than tacky gold plating, or blemished bronze, it’s a classy white marble stone Buddha carved in 751 into its own rock temple
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The Daerungwon Ancient Tombs, are 23 grass mound tombs from the Silla Dynasty, the kingdom located in southern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula from 57BC to 935AD
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Three of the buildings of the Donggung Palace have been rebuilt, and it’s a pleasant stroll around the adjoining Wolji Pond
Miyajima and the Gate

Miyajima and the Gate

For our last full day in Japan, we went to see the Itsukushima Shrine on the island of Miyajima. From Hiroshima, it’s a streetcar and short ferry trip, so an easy day-trip.

Oh dear. Around midday, when we arrived, the weekend crowds were intense, the souvenir shops intrusive and the famous O-Torii Gate we had come to photograph was stranded at low tide in thick mud.

But six hours later, after a stroll around the island, welcome reading time and a delicious authentic meal, all had changed. Now, this felt like a World Heritage Site, and the keen photographers, the ones with their tripods, were clicking away.

First built in 593 and remodelled in 1168, the Itsukushima Shrine sits on boardwalks above the rising tide. Approaching by boat, through the 16.6 m high, camphor and cedar wood O-Torii Gate, must have been an incredible, visual experience. As the sun broke through the low clouds, we obtained a dramatic shot that could only be Japan.

If you plan to do this It’s all about being there at high tide, and hopefully it will tie-in with the sunset. So plan your day around the tidal charts.