Friday, 30 December 2011

Preview: Kailasanathar Temple in Ellora

"Its excellence is beyond the power of description."

So says the late Indian historian, Pandit Bisheshwar Nath, about Ellora's Kailasanathar Temple, in his book, "The History of the Rashtrakutas", and perhaps if I followed his example then I could save myself a lot of writing. Not just about the caves of Ellora, but about all my Wonders: "Beyond the power of description again, sorry guys," and I can focus my energies on finding some cheap beer. A picture tells a thousand words anyway - I'll just take five photos and let them do the talking.

Of course, I know that Mr Nath was using a figure of speech rather than just stating a plain fact, and his book wasn't about Ellora and its caves, it was about the people who built them, the Rashtrakuta Dynasty. Rashtrakuta is a bit of an unwieldy-looking name, but break it up and it becomes a little more manageable. In Sanskrit, "rashtra" means "region" or "area", and "kuta" means something approximating "chieftan". These regional chieftans operated between the 6th and 10th Centuries AD, and as a powerful empire from the mid-8th Century. The word "regional" misleads; at their peak, the Rashtrakuta Empire dominated what we know as India now, stretching from just above the southern tip all the way up almost to Nepal. In 973 AD, they came to an end when a rival power invaded their capital and overthrew them.

Like most powerful empires from the past, and partly through necessity, the Rashtrakutas enjoyed their fair share of warring and conquering - indeed this was a generous source of income for them. However, they also had some culture to them. Art and education were seen as important, and they left a significant architectural legacy behind. No better can this be seen in the caves of Ellora, which can be found 30 kilometres from the central Indian city of Aurangabad (named, incidentally, after the Mughal emperor Aurangazeb, the son of Shah Jahan - the builder of the Taj Mahal). This series of 34 caves is seen as the epitome of a thousand years of Indian rock-cut cave-carving tradition, with the magnificent, "beyond the power of description" Kailasanathar Temple not just being the very finest example, but going a whole improbable step further to become something that boggles the mind.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

New Additions To The List: Part 2

I was worried about this. About a year ago, my list of candidate Wonders was around about 75 or so. This number steadily started trickling up as I mentioned my quest to others, and by the time I'd started my blog, in May, the number had reached 92. By July, the number was 98. And now... well, there's a few more to be added. With the blog established and the travels begun, new suggestions come my way not uncommonly. Especially with meeting other people when travelling, and discussing my quest, there are always different buildings and locations suggested, some of which I'd earlier dismissed and aren't applicable to what I'm after (natural Wonders, for example), but many which definitely seem looking into. Some people I've met have been pretty well-travelled, or are familiar with parts of the world I'm not, so have made some pretty interesting suggestions. Inevitably, this has led to my list growing and growing...

And so here, without further ado, are some of the suggestions made, and whether or not I've decided to add them to the list.

1. Leshan Giant Buddha, Leshan, China. ACCEPTED.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Burness Corner: Ananda Temple in Bagan

The latest in the series of snippets from the blog of my travelling companion, Burness, as well as a short interview, on his views on a World Wonder. This time: Ananda Temple in Bagan. Burness's focus was more on the overall ruins of Bagan, rather than just Ananda Temple, although he more-or-less agreed with me that Bagan was a little too spread out to be considered a single Wonder.

Model Wonders

Aside from actually visiting each of my Wonders, I've set myself an additional little project. That is to try and collect a miniature version of each Wonder. Every time I visit a Wonder, I keep an eye out for a small model version of it. For famous tourist spots, this is usually pretty easy - souvenirs of famous landmarks are pretty common. But sometimes it is harder work that you'd expect, and finding a model can be pretty challenging. So far, I'm happy to report that I've collected a model or appropriate representation of every Wonder I've seen, although I know that in the months and years ahead, some will prove challenging. Impossible? Never, as Bagan will demonstrate.

Here are the model Wonders I have collected on my travels so far.

Sydney Opera House

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Burness Corner: Shwedagon Pagoda

The latest in the series of snippets from the blog of my travelling companion, Burness, as well as a short interview, on his views on a World Wonder. This time: Shwedagon Pagoda.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Days 101 to 104: Koh Phi Phi

Ten years ago, I travelled for around about four months with my good friend, Varwell, around Eastern Europe and a little of the Middle East. It was a formative experience, in which I learnt a lot about beer prices, how to ask for beers in various languages, how to drink beer with various different nationalities (mostly Australians), and once we even visited an art gallery. With Burness, going round south-east Asia so far, the experience has had many similarities, namely with the beers but also with the art galleries (we visited one, in Singapore). However, there is one massive difference not to be understated: Varwell was (and still is) obsessed with making puns; Burness has nothing in the way of a preoccupation with them whatsoever. Therefore, while Varwell was actually physically unable to visit fjords in Montenegro without making a "fjord escort" joke, even though he manfully held out for a whole day before making it, Burness and I have just spent four nights on the Thai island of Kho Phi Phi (pronounced, yes, "Ko-Pee-Pee") without even the notion of a "pee-pee" joke. Or a joke about "Sebastian Koh", which I'm sure Varwell would have managed after the third night.

Burness Corner: The Petronas Towers

The latest in the series of snippets from the blog of my travelling companion, Burness, as well as a short interview, on his views on a World Wonder. This time: the Petronas Towers.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Friday, 9 December 2011

Burness Corner: Borobudur

The latest in the series of snippets from the blog of my travelling companion, Burness, as well as a short interview, on his views on a World Wonder. This time: Borobudur.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Day 95: Full Moon Revelry

Excitement is in the air! Youth chatter and bustle, talking about their exciting travels around south-east Asia ("Oh you've been there too! What a coincidence!") and comparing their plans ahead. And the plan ahead is awfully exciting right now - a Full Moon Party on one of the Thai islands! As a big round moon beams down, loads of enthusiastic teenagers, or thereabouts, will dance and bodypop on the beautiful beaches of Koh Phangnan, Koh Tao, or somewhere like that. It will be an exhilarating slice of travel-party action, as they explore their wanderlust youth with hundreds and hundreds of other wanderlust youth, being really drunk on a beach together. It will be a crazy time and an essential part of the south-east Asia travel experience!

I, Niall Christie, age 33, will not be attending.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Days 88 to 92: Malapascua

Travelling with a fellow human involves compromise: one of you wishes to drink rum, the other brandy, so you compromise and drink both rum and brandy. Or one of you wishes to play Scrabble and the other cards, so you compromise and play Scrabble with cards ("Oh, 'KA' again for six points," "What do you mean "QJA isn't a word?").

And so it is travelling with the human known as Burness. As may have been apparent over the last few months, our travels have been dominated by looking at large, impressive man-made constructions that I have nominated candidate World Wonders. Great, but this is more my mission than Burness's; he is happy to visit these places as they have all been of interest, and give us a focus to these travels, but he too has places he is interested in and would like to visit. And so, in the name of compromise, I acquiesce, and let Burness pick destinations he quite fancies seeing.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Burness Corner: The Marina Bay Sands

The latest in the series of snippets from the blog of my travelling companion, Burness, as well as a short interview, on his views on a World Wonder. This time: the Marina Bay Sands.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Days 81 to 84: Overnight Hat-trick

Hue to Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon) to Manila to Banaue. Four destinations, three overnight journeys linking them: overnight train, overnight flight, overnight bus. I'm a little tired now.

For the traveller, a good overnight journey is an excellent way of incorporating accommodation with transport, thus saving on the cost of a hotel; for the normal person the overnight journey is a gruelling test of endurance, involving lack of comfort and sleep. I like to think I fall somewhere between the two. They are a necessary evil, an enemy with benefits, an exchange of energy and peace for money. For Burness and myself, it was a way of minimising the time spent in two cities we had no particular eagerness to visit - Ho Chi Minh and Manila - but utilising both their airports. Thus, as we boarded the sleeper train from Hue to Ho Chi Minh, we were primed for a bit of upcoming fatigue.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Days 79 to 81: Hue

Hue (pronounced Hoo-eh) is a small city in central Vietnam. It has an old citadel, a pagoda, and... well, I don't really know. I have to admit I spent most of the time drinking.

For that, you can blame two English fellows, Steve and Luke, plus another English fellow who joined in for day 2, Jamie (i.e. of Ha Long Bay's Jamie and Heather duo). Our sleeper cabin from Hanoi to Hue had four beds, and Steve and Luke filled two of them. With beer readily on sale from a tiny, no-nonsense woman who moved through the carriages, we were obliged to celebrate the Union with several each. Steve and Luke too were interested in my Wonder quest, and offered a few of their own, one of them - Ellora's Kailasanathar Temple in India - I have subsequently decided to add to my list (more on that in a future entry). Beer and conversation flowed, with travel tales exchanged, and even the Grade of Baroso was cracked open, to widespread surprise ("It's not as bad as I thought!").

Monday, 21 November 2011

Days 75 to 78: Ha Long Bay

Burness and I arrived in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam (though Ho Chi Min, aka Saigon, is the bigger city), on the Wednesday past, the 16th. It didn't take us long to realise we fancied moving on. Don't get me wrong, I liked Hanoi, but I really was not in the mood for it. Wild scooter-filled streets that simply defied all sense at crossroads, the city was a cacophony of horns and scooter engines, and crossing the street was as much like playing real-life Frogger as I've ever done. "Walk very slowly across" was the general advice, and there was no other way to manage it. Any sudden movement would see a scooter, from some direction, crash into you. Slow moment allowed them time to weave around you, or so you'd hope. I don't know how many pedestrian collisions that Hanoi sees every year, but it surely must be a lot, probably mostly involving jittery foreigners. It was not for the faint-hearted. Mum - please don't visit Hanoi.

Ha Long Bay: New Natural Wonder

Just ten days ago, on November 11th, the new Seven Wonders of the World were announced. This time it was the turn for nature - what were the seven best things in the natural world? The vote was open to the public and in their wisdom they chose the following: the Amazon Rainforest, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Iguacu Falls in Brazil, Jeju Island in Korea, Komodo Island in Indonesia, Puerto Princesa Underground River in the Philippines, and Table Mountain in South Africa.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Day 74: Bowling In Luang Prabang

"Tuk tuk sir? Bowling? Opium?"

That's the order of things here - you start with a tuk tuk ride and end up smoking opium. After a few days in Luang Prabang, I've only managed step 2, the ten-pin bowling. I'm suffering for it today, as I sit in the town's small airport, flight to Hanoi delayed, feeling grim. Last night began innocently, playing pool, then befriending a bunch of screamingly camp locals. This developed into the town's after-hours activity, ten-pin bowling. The scenario is so surreal I'm still not sure it really happened, but I recall (and I was somewhat drunk by this point) entering a vast warehouse of bowling, filled with foreigners and Laotians alike, drinking, listening to trance, and bowling.

If it really happened, it was a highly enjoyable and improbable evening. But it's probably a good thing we escape now, before one thing leads to another and in that timeless tradition, the lure of ten-pin bowling leads us into the opium den.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Day 73: White Dreadlocks

Anybody who knows me well, or who has simply heard me speak occasionally, might know that although usually a person of immense tolerance, there are a few pet peeves I have. With relation to backpacking, it is unquestionably "white dreadlocks". I can accept that some Jamaicans, when not shooting each other, might want to grow dreadlocks, but it is the European dreadlock that I am referring to. It is a quite remarkably bad style. Even I - no stickler for sterile hygiene - can see that it looks pretty damn disgusting. Can I see beetles crawl around? The perpetrators invariably have slightly pinched faces, talk earnestly about a "cosmic consciousness", and dress in a bohemian way. They would attend anti-capitalist protests if they could be bothered. It goes without saying that they want to stick it to "The Man", and detest Starbucks (except when drinking the coffee). The idea of dharma and karma appeal, and their travelling experience is a journey of exploration and awakening without limits - until papa stops wiring the cash. Oh, white dreadlock, how I judge you; I judge you more than you can dream.

Burness Corner: The Sydney Opera House

My travelling companion, Burness, has started a blog which can be found linked somewhere on this page. Burness approaches each Wonder from a different perspective from me, having had less build up and being told not to read up much on each upcoming candidate. Ideally as an experimental control, he would have never heard of any of the Wonders, but as many are quite famous this isn't possible; nonetheless I intend to feature his comments on each World Wonder as an alternative, and hopefully useful, opinion to mine. I'll also be conducting a short interview with him for some concise and lucid insight.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Days 65 to 68: Angkor Temples: Ta Prohm

My search for Wonders is focussed on the man-made efforts: any hunt for the natural Wonders of the World will have to wait another day (and risk the untold wrath of my girlfriend who, perhaps understandably, is already somewhat displeased about my current project). However, sometimes there is an overlap. The upcoming Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines is an ongoing agricultural sculpture of mountains to grow rice - "tweaked mountains" you might say - and even Machu Picchu relies on the mountainous backdrop to glorify the man-made ruins. The Angkor temple of Ta Prohm is another example, a cross between ancient temple and creative jungle to make something quite spectacular and unusual.

Days 65 to 68: Angkor Temples: Bayon

"It really does make a difference seeing things twice..."

Monday, 7 November 2011

Day 65: The Grade Of Baroso

Can you make the grade?

Day 64 & 65: Siem Reap

Siem Reap has one of the better city names around: in Khmer it translates to "The Total Defeat of Siam". It relates to the centuries of conflict between the Cambodians and the Siamese, in which the Siamese - though my large Cambodian readership may disagree with me - came out on top. The Angkor (i.e. Cambodian) civilisation did pretty well for a few centuries until the Siamese came along and nailed them. The fall of Angkor saw the emergence of the Siamese Ayutthaya. So why "Total Defeat of Siam"? Sheer petulance. While on the backfoot, the Cambodians still managed some decent battle victories, one which is commemorated in Siem Reap's overblown name. Given their own way, the Siamese would have ruined Angkor and its temples more than they did, but the Cambodians, fortunately, prevented this. That's something perhaps worth some celebration. Still, it must have hurt when "Total Defeat of Siam" fell under Thai control for over a century up until 1906. The Thais preferred the pointed Siam Nakhon or "Siamese Town" as their name for the city.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Day 61: Goodbye Burma

It's fair to say that just under three weeks ago, when arriving in Burma, I wasn't sure what to expect. A pariah nation under sanctions for decades, under an illegal military regime with a history of human rights abuses, I had a vision of a Big Brother state with soldiers at every corner, passports being scrutinised, and oppressed people slinking about the streets trying to go unnoticed. Red tape would abound and free enterprise would be locked down into a back street black market with battered wooden tables and chairs that would go flying every time the military police made another raid. Nobody would look each other in the eye. But this is not Burma.

To all superficial appearances for the casual traveller, Burma is a dusty, shabby, bustling country with a very low level of police appearance and a very high level of dogs, motorbikes, street food, "beer stations", and seeming freedom of movement. There's a lot of poverty, but that's not a phenomenon restricted to Burma. The internet is unrestricted. Tourism is pretty noticeable. If I had arrived in Burma knowing nothing of its political state, I would assume it to be just another emerging Asian nation. Which it kind of is. But I have to be very careful with that statement.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Days 48 & 49: Mandalay Days

On the road to Mandalay
Every mistake I've ever made
Has been rehashed and then replayed
As I got lost along the way

So sang Robbie Williams in his 2001 song "The Road To Mandalay". Fortunately my own experience of the road to Manadalay was a little less fraught, as I took an overnight bus there from Yangon which didn't get lost, and didn't replay all the mistakes I've ever made (the journey was ten hours so I simply didn't have the time).

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Day 47: Restructuring Of Cynicism

In an earlier entry, I wrote about the erosion of cynicism, something I hoped would be achieved through travelling. I stand by it; at the same time, I am building the walls back up big and high.

Burma, not being a tourist hotspot, is not especially filled with touts. Sure, tourists are charged a little bit extra for things, as much as government as an on-the-street policy, but unlike some of the tourist areas of Indonesia, no-one is trying to take you to their art gallery, or pull you into their restaurant. The only obvious exception are the money-changing touts, concentrated around the city centre, all of whom are offering better rates of local currency to change for your US dollar.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Day 46: Walking In Yangon

Poor old Burma - aka Myanmar - doesn't have the best of international reputations these days. Although not included on the Axis of Evil list because it doesn't pretend to play with nuclear bombs, it's still regarded as one of the world's "bad boys". Not unjustly either - the military government does not allow free speech, multiple political prisoners languish in prison, genuine democracy is an impossible dream and sanctions have been imposed by the EU, America, and others. In fact, even writing this is probably an offense and posting it in a public internet cafe is a folly. But a slap on the wrist, a scare, and a quick deportation would be my only punishment; were I to be Burmese, my fate would be a lot more grim - and a lot less internationally recognised.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Day 42: Lethargy In KL

We've been in Kuala Lumpur since Tuesday. We've not done very much.

Kuala Lumpur is a great city, but we've not done it any justice since arriving here at the start of the week. In Sydney, I visited the sights, went on ferries, took long walks, and gained an appreciation for the city. The same for Singapore, in which we explored much of the city, and in Indonesia we even went to the lengths of hiring bicycles and mopeds for mini-adventures, and barely spent an afternoon in sleepy apathy. But sleep apathy seems to be all we've done in KL.

The main reason is the heat. KL is stifling right now. Jakarta might have been draining and Singapore sweaty, but KL seems to have managed to reach a level of humidity that just saps the energy as soon as we walk outside. Or stay inside - our room for the last few days has been without air-con and just a ceiling fan, which tries valiantly but cannot beat the KL heat.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Days 37 & 38: On The Road In Bali

"Let's hire a scooter! It means we can get out of Kuta and see the real Bali!"

"I'm not sure..."

"Come on! It's great fun! You'll love it!"

WRONG, Burness.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Days 33 to 35: Ticking Boxes

Welcome to the cattle truck.

One of the joys of travelling is the sense of freedom. It's just you and a bag: wake up and you can choose to go anywhere. The world is a big place and every road goes at least two directions. But get in the cattle truck and you're on a fixed route.

Burness and I made the mistake of joining this three-day tour for the best of reasons. We were in Yogyakarta and wanted to go to Bali, which is some distance plus a ferry ride away. En route are two sights that generally came highly recommended: the still-smoking crater of the Bromo volcano, and the sulphur lake of Ijen, reputedly the most poisonous lake in the world. It was quite possible to do all these ourselves, but it involved changes of buses, a degree of hassle, and would be likely quite time consuming. Outside our hostel was a travel agents who happened to do our exact route of choice, in just three days, for just £45 in total, including accommodation. It sounded great.

It was a mistake. (Maybe.)

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Days 31 & 32: Yoga Days - Mount Merapi and A Yogya Stroll

Mount Merapi is the most active volcano in Indonesia - it's name, literally, means "Fire Mountain" in Javanese, and as such it has featured much in local history and mythology. It has a significant roll in Borobudur's history also, with one of the reasons given for Borobudur's abandonment so soon after its construction - not to mention the decline of the Javan civilisation - being attributed to a major eruption in the 10th Century. Dramatisations of its history might focus on this, an entire civilisation wiped out by the cataclysmic power of the volcano, but the truth is likely more prosaic. Rival kingdoms were putting pressure on the central Javan civilisation to the point where it became sensible to up sticks and leave; an increase in foreign trade also meant that having a coastal palace was more desirable and practical. This was possibly in association with Mount Merapi's eruption, which if affecting Borobudur in some manner, such as a thick covering of volcanic ash, might have been seen as a bad omen by the people. Civilisations don't usually end in one dramatic finale, they change and decline. So while Merapi perhaps didn't wipe out all of Java in a Hollywood explosion, it very possibly had a role in their decline, and in Borobudur's neglect. And it's not finished yet. Just last year, in late October, it began a series of eruptions that led to the deaths of over three hundred people and displacement of hundreds of thousands.

With all this in mind, myself and Burness decided to climb it, at night.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Day 30: Yogya Days - Prambanan By Bike

After our couple of days in Borobudur, Burness and I returned to our base of Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta, or just Yogya to its friends, is a city in central Java, regarded as a cultural centre of Indonesia. I have mixed feelings about it. I really enjoyed my time there, but on reflection the best times I had in Yogya were when I wasn't actually there. Yogya has a wealth of riches around it, from ancient temples to live volcanoes, and acts as a superb base to see all these riches, but Yogya itself I never really took to.

In fairness, like a girl you only see at bedtime, I never got to know Yogya and only spent one very underwhelming but exhausting morning looking around it. My accommodation was half the problem. Yogya reminds me of a few other backpacking places I've been to, such as Dahab in Egypt, and Istanbul, in that it was a little like a backpacking resort. Our actual hostel, the astonishingly cheap Anda Losmen (£3 for a twin room), was grubby, basic but oddly comfortable, and was down a small lane called "Gang II". Along with the nearby "Gang I", all the facilities a traveller could ever need are packed: an array of upscale and lowgrade hostels, small shops, travel agents, restaurants, bars, and mosques. Ok, mosques perhaps aren't a backpacker staple, but they were certainly an unmissable feature of Gang II, as each morning at 4am I - and everyone else in the surrounding area - were woken up with the very amplified call to prayer: "AAAAAAAALLLLLLLLAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!" Oh Allah indeed. It was like the mosques were in competition to outcall each other.

3. Wonder: Borobudur

(For the Borobudur preview, please click here.)

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Day 29: Joko And The Slow Erosion Of Cynicism

Meet Joko.

Joko runs Joglo Home Stays & Tours Travel in the town of Borobudur, which is gathered around the more famous temple. He is responsible for a great deal of assistance during myself and Burness's two days' stay in the town, but more importantly he is responsible for chipping away a large chunk of the stone of cynicism that has been surrounding me.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Day 26: Two Days In Jakarta

It's all been pretty easy so far. Sydney and Singapore, two modern and attractive metropolises, that speak English and are designed for convenience. Well, it's time to being properly travelling. Hello Jakarta.

When reading some descriptions of Jakarta, I began to fear the worst. Smoggy, overcrowded, aggressive, congested, chaotic - it sounded just like a description of many of the African cities I've been to. And perhaps that's why, as it turns out, Jakarta actually seems like a pleasure. After having experienced, albeit within the bubble of being with an oil company to hold my hand, cities such as Lagos, Luanda and Port Harcourt, to experience Jakarta seems like a breeze.

Alright, it still takes a bit of effort, but upon arriving on Monday everything seemed to go remarkably smoothly. We arrived by air from Singapore, after deciding it was the best route given pressing time issues and a host of Wonders still to visit. The ancient temple of Borodudur in central Java in Indonesia was supposed to be the second Wonder on my travels, but due to the Singapore Grand Prix this order was shuffled, thereby creating the necessity for flights, which the purist in me had hoped to avoid. Jakarta seemed like the obvious starting point, and the flight from Singapore was less than £35, so it seemed a no-brainer.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Day 23: The Singapore Grand Prix

Singapore has a night-time street race for the Formula 1 Grand Prix. In the interests of cultural research Burness and I decided to attend.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Day 16 & 17: Arrival Into Singapore

"I want tell story," he said, in very broken English, taking out a plastic bag stuffed full of clothes. "I have this for fifteen years. It from my mother." He takes out various garments - they are covered in blood. "This from me." It's also covered in blood.

This was our introduction to Singapore, upon arriving in our Chinatown hostel, and speaking to one of the guys in our 12-man room. Chinese, with very very broken English and a nervous manner. Upon establishing where we were from, he launched straight into his "story", complete with bloody props, which we never quite fully got to the bottom of, but sounded grim, and connected with Chinese law, or lack of it. The good news is that his family live very near one of the Wonders on my list, the Spring Temple Buddha, and we have exchanged email addresses, so I hope to hear more of this story.

Burness has already stated he does not wish to be present.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Day 15: Goodbye Sydney

So, goodbye Sydney, and I will miss you.

Upon arriving back in Sydney after the entertaining, but ill-fated, road trip from Sydney to Melbourne with Matt, I had four more days in Australia's biggest city before flying away to Singapore. After spending the previous week-and-a-half with Matt, Emma and Xavier in Bondi, with a room to myself, and often a toasted breakfast placed on my lap, this last gasp in Sydney was in some ways the beginning of my actual backpacking experience. No more luxury, now it will be cheap hostels and guesthouses, and the joys of sharing rooms with multiple strangers, and lamenting how old I am compared to the hoards of horrifying youth around me.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Day 11: Matt and Nev's Road Trip - Day 2

And the road trip went wrong...

As per plan, we were up sharp and in the car for a 7am drive. We got in, Matt started the car and reversed out of the parking space, and began to move up the drive. And then the car stopped.

At first I thought Matt had just stalled the car, and internally shrugged, assuming Matt to be an idiot, which is pretty much my default state. He restarted the car - and it wouldn't start. It seemed almost get going, but would never quite manage. Matt looked very concerned. "This is bad," he said.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Day 10: Matt and Nev's Road Trip - Day 1

"Don't worry Emma, the keys are absolutely safe with me."

So began my road trip with Matt, Emma's gift to me, as she handed me the spare keys - which cost $600 to replace - to her car. With Emma and baby Xavier flying on the Monday from Sydney to Melbourne, Matt and I were to take the long way there, by road. The car had been recently serviced to avoid any possibility of breakdown, and was loaded up to bursting point with their possessions as I was to accompany Matt on the 14-hour drive. Being such a long drive, we had decided to split it into two smaller bite-size chunks, and take the scenic route, the Princes Highway hugging the coast between Australia's two most significant cities. Such a road trip, with beautiful scenery, numerous little towns to stop over in, and the small sense of adventure as a new stage in life begun, was obviously an appealing one that Emma herself fancied, but she appreciated that my visits to Australia are few and far between, and this was a golden opportunity for me and Matt to have our own little adventure. Thus, she sacrificed her own place in the car for me, so that I could experience the joys of the open road. And how she would regret it...

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Day 7: Obsolesence, St James' Church and Manly

Not far from the Sydney Opera House, on the edge of the Royal Botanic Gardens are some scattered stones. I saw them first during the bus tour, thinking they looked like gravestones but that the location was too unusual for there to be a small patch of graves, not to mention the layout irregular. And so I decided to take a closer look when next in the area.

It turns out something a little more esoteric is in place. The stones appear to be from an old building, and seem to have been deliberately placed, sometimes embedded into the ground, to give the impression of ruins. One stone is a plaque and reads "This building was opened by her Excellency Lady Stonehaven 1926" and a little probing reveals that Lady Stonehaven was the wife of the Governor-General of Australia during that time.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Days 3 & 4: Bus Rides With Bruce

With some days at leisure before Burness arrives, and thus some days before I want to start exploring the object and purpose of my visit, the Sydney Opera House, it seemed a good idea to explore a little more of this city. As with my recent holiday to Barcelona, a good way of doing this is to use one of these open-topped tourist buses. In the last decade, these hop-on hop-off buses seem to have begun spreading across the world, including back home in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where I would often witness tourists huddled under umbrellas bravely listening to audio commentary in what surely must be the only open-topped vehicles in the country. My recent holiday in Barcelona saw me use one, in somewhat sunnier conditions. They're a good way of getting an overview of a city, and can give ideas for further exploration. The ticket too lasts for 24 hours, so can stretch across two days.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Day 2: Reacquaintance With Handsome Matt

Almost eight years ago I went to live in Korea. Arriving by bus into the city of Daegu (where the recent Athletics World Championships were held) following a flight into Seoul, the very first person I met was a cheesy, wholesome-looking American. He shared the same agent as me and had been asked to meet me from the bus station. The same person met me from Sydney airport yesterday morning, following an 8-hour flight from Singapore, which followed a 5-hour train from Glasgow to London, a 13-hour flight from London to Singapore, then a 6-hour wait in Singapore airport.

That person is Handsome Matt, and he is neither wholesome or American (he can still be a little cheesy though). Despite my misjudged first impression of him all these years ago, we became great friends for the duration of our time in Korea and even though we've been living on opposite sides of the world since then, have always kept in touch. And he was the reason that Sydney is my very first stop in my Wonder tour: the original travel plans had Matt as my "travel-sidekick" and so Sydney seemed a logical place to kick off.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Day 1: Off And Away

It's over. A quick look out of my window tells me - the summer's over. Time to travel.

It has been a lovely summer, if not exactly in terms of weather then at least in terms of enjoyment. After having left work at the start of June, it was the first opportunity for me in years to plan ahead, and to catch up with various friends scattered around the country that I hadn't seen in ages. Friendships are like washing machines, and need to be given a decent spin every now and again otherwise they fall into disrepair and your clothes start to smell. An empty washing machine sits in silence, but a working washing machine rocks the entire kitchen, And so just as I would put washing powder into the hatch of the machine, likewise I have put beers and wine down the throats of my friends. Terrible analogy, isn't it?

Friday, 2 September 2011

Predictions For The Seven World Wonders

The main objective to all this travelling is not to enrich my soul, participate in cultural experiences, "find myself" (I already know my dark soul), broaden my horizons or celebrate the wondrous diversity of mankind's puffed plumage. God no. At the heart of all this is my intention to come out of the other side with a list: a list of the Seven World Wonders.

The final list will be made after having visited each location, studied it, and having previously researched it. Then, after having written about it, possibly some discussion about it and some reflection, I will come up with what I believe the Seven World Wonders to be. Others may disagree, but until they visit all these places I will stubbornly ignore them.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Preview: Kremlin and Red Square

Like everyone, I've had the misfortune of knowing a few idiots in my time. Work especially seems to drag them out. For me, one particular idiot that springs to mind is a man with the slightly comical name of Mickey Mallett, whom I worked with for a month in 2007, while offshore in Equatorial Guinea. The stakes were high on an expensive exploration rig searching for gas in the Gulf of Guinea, and Mickey Mallett was the man supposed to be in charge of the test on the gas well. Never has a man been less in charge. In his sixties and surely with decades of experience, he spent his month in a perpetual state of confusion and panic. At one point, so clueless was he to operations, during a crucial part of the test he hid inside my lab unit stating expressly that he "had no idea what was going on" and that he was "scared the rig was going to have a blow-out" (i.e. a rig-destroying explosion). His behaviour onshore was no better than off, and his regular indiscretions involving prostitutes and other locals caused so much trouble, not to mention real danger to himself, that the oil company in charge, instead of just sacking him, eventually banned all personnel from being out after 11pm. His manner was like a congenial uncle crossed with a sex offender crossed with a gigantic human "wobbly-man" toy that rights itself when pushed over. He wasn't even entertaining company, and spent his conversation in malicious, petty and truly inane gossip about his own colleagues - when not talking about his latest African "girlfriend" and, with a wink, his poor unwitting wife at home, that is.

So imagine my surprise when I heard that this idiot not only had been given a sainthood by the Catholic Church, but also had a world famous cathedral built in his honour. No, it's ok, that of course didn't happen, but for anyone around in 16th Century Russia who happened to know a man called Basil that is exactly what did occur. Basil was a cobbler by profession but a true holy idiot by vocation. Not, in fairness, an idiot in the infuriatingly annoying Mickey Mallett way, but in the running around naked, knocking over stuff, making a general nuisance sense. And while Mickey was idiotic for prostitutes and gossip, Basil claimed for his own glory that he was "idiotic for Christ's sake." And the Russians loved this. Because, astonishingly, back in early Tsarist Russia, idiocy was seen as a common form of religious fervency, and the most sincere and dedicated of idiots were treated with reverence. They loved a good idiot. Oh yes, 16th Century Russia was a good time to behave like an absolute bloody imbecile.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Preview: The Thousand Buddha Caves

In 1900, an old worker took a break from his scripture-copying duties in a remote cave network in the Taklamakan desert in north-west China. He fancied a little smoke, so grabbing a bunch of long hay and setting fire to it, he lit his pipe and then extinguished the clump of burnt hay. Casually, he stuffed it into a gap in the wall behind him. To his surprise, all the hay swiftly disappeared into the gap. Curious, he tapped the wall with his pipe, and it sounded hollow. He reported this to the self-appointed guardian of the caves, a monk called Wang Yuanlu, who made a closer inspection and discovered a fake wall hiding a recess in the cave. In that recess, tens of thousands of ancient scrolls and manuscripts lay, hidden for a thousand years.

Although archaeologically untrained and uneducated, Wang immediately knew that this was quite an important find. With a little savvy, he realised that he could sell some of these to the government, who would be interested in such historical finds, and use the money to fund his ongoing project and passion to restore the Buddhist cave network he lived in. He contacted local officials - they weren't interested. Then came the controversy.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Preview: Taipei 101

How big do you think the world's biggest sundial is? Ten metres? Fifty? How about 509.2 metres? Because that's the height of Taiwan's Taipei 101, built between 1999 and 2004, once the world's tallest building, and a sundial of really quite unnecessary proportions.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Preview: The Ushiku Daibutsu

"Beetlejuice Beetlejuice Beetlejuice."

That was the command that summoned up the titular Beetlejuice in the 1988 film starring Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder, a simple three-time repetition of the eponymous main character's name. I defy anyone who watched it not to have tried it at least once, and then been secretly disappointed when a cantankerous Michael Keaton in make-up didn't suddenly appear.

The same trick can be used in Buddhism, or more specifically the branch of it called Mahayana Buddhism which is prevalent in China and east Asia, when relating to a particular Buddha called Amitabha Buddha. Without getting too technical, Amitabha is a buddha originally derived from an incredibly ancient and otherworldly monk who by the power of his virtue created a perfect world removed from our usual world of time and space, into which the virtuous can aspire to be reborn. Or, in fact, you don't need to be all that virtuous at all - you just need to be able to repeat his name at least ten times to be guaranteed rebirth in his celestial world. A shortcut to heaven if you will: Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha. However, before you get too keen on this easy doctrine, there then follows more complicated sets of commands, including pretty specific visualisations of Amitabha at the point of death, and bear in mind that the more dedicated practitioners might repeat Amitabha's name 50,000 times or more each day, which given that there are only 86,400 seconds in a day is a pretty demanding task. You can forget about a morning lie-in or going for a pint in the evening.

Amitabha's world was called the "Pure Land" and has lent itself to the widespread Pure Land sect of Mahayana Buddhism, popular especially in Japan. In the way of most religions, this sect has further branched off, into a school called Shin Buddhism, named after its 13th Century founder, Shinran. He was a simplifier and cut out a lot of the rituals that had been amassed, and created a new chant - Namu Amida Butsu, or "I take refuge in Amitabha Buddha". However, saying this over and over again doesn't, like the earlier repetition, get you a rebirth in a heavenly world, it's just a way of expressing gratitude to Amitabha. An ongoing thank-you.

The simplified Shin Buddhism quickly became popular among the masses in Japan who were busy just trying to grow enough food and stay alive, and didn't have time for the confusing array of rituals and lengthy education otherwise required from the other more complex schools of Buddhism. It is now the most widely practised branch in Japan. And in tribute to Shinran's efforts, and Amitabha himself, we have the Ushiku Daibutsu.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Preview: Himeji Castle

Anyone who has spent time in the backwaters of satellite television, when asked about Japanese castles will likely think of the same one: Takeshi's Castle. For the uninitiated, Takeshi's Castle was a Japanese gameshow in the late 80s, featuring a hundred volunteers undergoing a variety of challenges, with the select few survivors having the opportunity to defeat Count Takeshi and his guards and take his castle. In true modern Japanese style, the challenges were improbably ludicrous and vaguely humiliating, usually involving wearing large restrictive costumes, falling into pools of mud or water, getting manhandled by Takeshi's guards, and often taking what appeared to be very painful knocks upon dramatic failure of awkward and arbitrary challenges.

The central conceit of having to undergo a series of challenges to have the opportunity to storm a castle was not a notion plucked from the ether, and ties in with many of Japan's real castles of the past. Granted, warriors in the 15th Century didn't have to dress up as a whale and cycle round a twisty path while getting pelted with balls, but they did have to negotiate a deliberately confusing maze of pathways in the castle grounds, and each of the numerous gateways were intentionally built small so that attackers had to file in virtually one-by-one, therefore were easier to pick off. Some of the walls they passed were hollow and had samurai or ninjas hidden inside ready to pick them off - always a nasty surprise. Attacking a Japanese castle was like running a gauntlet of deadly obstacle courses - rather than the brute power of big stone buildings on top of a hill, as per the European style, the Japanese liked to get tricky with their castles when thinking of defensive strategies.

Still, for one reason or another, it wasn't enough for most Japanese castles over the centuries. Wars, heavy bombing during World War 2, politics, disrepair and a shift in priorities created various offensives that traditional defences couldn't repel, and of a total of around ten thousand castles that once stood, a paltry hundred or so remain now, and just twelve remain in their original condition. The largest and most famous of these is Himeji Castle.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Preview: The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion

For over a thousand years, Kyoto was the capital of Japan. Seat of the emperor, it was the centre of politics, economy and culture of Japan. While the power has now been shifted to the neon metropolis of Japan's modern capital, Tokyo, Kyoto has remained the historic heart of the nation, a city of ancient shrines, temples, gardens and traditions. Tokyo is chrome and glass, Kyoto is wood and grass. It is famed worldwide for its distinctive wooden architecture and meticulous, perfect gardens, often heavily influenced by the Japanese take on Buddhism.

One of the best representations of this is the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji, in northern Kyoto. As I write, if you type in "Kyoto" into Google Images, Kinkaku-ji is the first image displayed. It appears again frequently. Distilled down into one building, Kinkaku-ji is Kyoto; that is, if bulldozers entered the city with the remit of tearing down all these old wooden buildings to make way for, say, some convenient Tescos or shiny new apartments, then Kinkaku-ji would the last one standing.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Preview: Kiyomizu-dera

For the unfamiliar, Buddhism can seem quite confusing, and like Hinduism features lots of people with very long names. Therefore, to make it easier, I find it easier to think of it as a superhero cartoon, kind of like a spiritual version of Superman. Therefore you have Buddha himself, on his mission to free the world from suffering, with superhero powers such as super-hearing, mind-reading, and remembering his past lives. By his side is his trusty sidekick Avalokitesvara (the name may need to be made punchier for the adolescent audience of today: it actually means "Lord who looks down".) Avalokitesvara is an all round good guy, and is one of the most popular characters for the comic book cognoscenti, and helps fight world suffering when Buddha is busy meditating and plucking his hairs out. He is one of a special team, a team of boddhisattvas, who are sidekick superheroes motivated by pure love and compassion, devoted to helping others and striving towards helping all beings attain enlightenment. It's a different tone of comic from your average Marvel kick-fest, I admit. Avalokitesvara pops up quite a bit, no doubt with a spin-off series of his own, and appears in such monuments as Borobudur, the Bayon temple in Angkor (where he is merged with the god-king of the time), and the Potala Palace. And if you equate spin-off comic book series with the various denominations of a religion, then in one popular serial we have Avalokitesvara reincarnated in modern times as none other than the Dalai Lama. He's quite a guy. Oh yeah, and he has a thousand arms.

This latter development - very tricky for comic book artists to fully draw - is one that appears in the Chinese remake, now popular across that part of Asia. They also turn Avalokitesvara into a woman, and call her Guanyin, and add ten extra faces for good measure. The thousand arms are said to have been given to her to allow her to help more people, and the total of eleven faces to be able to watch even more TV... oops, no, it's to be able to hear the suffering of the people.

Always one for a good comic, the Japanese are in on this too, calling their thousand-armed Avalokitesvara the impressive superhero name of "Kannon". Kannon appears all across Japan in the form of statues (one of them, in the city of Kamaishi, is taller than the Statue of Liberty), and has inspired a number of temples too. One of them, notably, is Kiyomizu-dera.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Short Holiday In Barcelona

"Barcelona!" sang Freddie Mercury. And he was right: Barcelona!

I spent the last week on holiday in Barcelona with my girlfriend. As she had understandably expressed a degree of discontent with my plans to travel for years, we arranged some months ago for a lovely holiday. Arguably, my last couple of months have been somewhat of a holiday, enjoying days of tennis and afternoon drinking, but she's been immersed in a world of criminal defence which seems to occupy her days entirely, except for evening bursts of watching a program called "NCIS". NCIS is some kind of forensic/Navy/crime drama from America, in something like its ninth series, but as it appears on various channels for several episodes at a time at various stages during its numerous series, my girlfriend watches it in no coherent order and herself admits doesn't quite know what's going on. So for both of us it was a great relief to escape evenings of NCIS and go to Barcelona.

Preview: The Great Wall Of China

Walls. Huh? What are they good for? Absolutely nothing. So, approximately, sang Edwin Starr in 1970. And although he was probably making a more general point, he may well have applied his lyrics to one of the greatest follies of all time - the Great Wall of China.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Preview: The Forbidden City

Emperor or eunuch? Given the choice, I suppose most of us would opt for emperor and its world of power, prestige, wealth and more concubines than are strictly practical. However, the position of emperor has traditionally always been a fairly limited one, and unless you were feeling bold enough to try and oust the ruler of all under heaven, as the Chinese believed their leaders to be, if you weren't born into pole position in the imperial family then becoming ruler of the realm might not be a very realistic dream. Don't worry, in Chinese terms it usually wasn't very desirable anyway - in the 2133 years from the First Emperor in 221 BC to the very final one, who abdicated in 1912 and died a model citizen in Communist China in 1967, there were something in the region of 550 emperors who ruled. You do the maths, it doesn't equal a very long average reign. Only one emperor ever lived beyond 80 years, only four made it to over 70 years old, and less than 10% - and I think this is astonishing - made it to the age 50.

So eunuch it will be then. Despite the rather obvious drawback, it wasn't a bad career choice. Indeed for a boy born to a peasant family it was a way out from the grinding poverty, although it was generally preferred that eunuchs were prisoners-of-war or especially the prisoners' sons. And once the sickle-shaped knife's single stroke had removed - for Chinese eunuchs - both the testicles and penis, and the tears had eventually subsided, being sold to the imperial household wasn't too bad a fate at all and many eunuchs grew fat, rich and powerful. Plus, unless you were the emperor himself, for a male born any time from 1420 to the fall of the empire in 1912, being castrated and living as a gender-neutralised servant would have been the only way to have seen behind the scenes of the vast Chinese powerhouse - within the Inner Court of the Forbidden City.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Preview: The Spring Temple Buddha

In March 2001, the Taliban of Afghanistan were generally behaving very badly. No, the planes hadn't flown into the World Trade Centre yet and they weren't being hammered for harbouring a terrorist organisation, but after five years in power they were getting pretty heavy-handed with the whole extreme Islam thing. They had banned chess, TV, lobsters, music, dancing, just about any kind of freedom or worthwhile existence for women, as well as performing public executions in sports stadiums, and turned an already troubled nation into a weird, medieval, extremist backwater. And although they usually weren't in favour of any sort of recording equipment, they made an exception that month as they had a little stunt they wanted the decadent West to notice. Their ideology not permitting the representation of man, a decree had been passed to destroy all statues in Afghanistan. One particularly took their attention - twin 1500-year-old, 55 and 37-metre tall statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan. They were among the tallest standing Buddha statues on earth. The Taliban weren't having any of this and, despite there being no Buddhists in Afghanistan to idolise these giant Buddhas, they put a load of dynamite down and blew them to pieces.