Sunday, 31 July 2011

Preview: The Potala Palace

If the maiden will live forever
The wine will flow evermore.
The tavern is my haven;
With wine I am content

These are the words of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso ("Ocean of Melodious Song"), around the start of the 18th Century. Plucked from his home as a five-year-old upon being acclaimed the reincarnation of his predecessor, Tsangyang was the leader of the Gelug branch of Tibetan Buddhism, responsible for promoting the teaching of Buddha and bringing followers closer to spiritual enlightenment. Except upon reaching his later teens, it became clear that his interests lay elsewhere.

If I could meditate upon the dharma
As intensely as I muse on my beloved
I would certainly attain enlightenment
Surely, in this one lifetime

Yes, the sixth Dalai Lama rather enjoyed his wine and women, and was a little less keen on his monastic studies and training as a good Dalai Lama. Just wanting a normal life, he shunned protocol and refused to have servants, and at night would creep out of his heavenly abode to hit the town.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Preview: The Golden Temple

Being Scottish, I have the confidence that should things ever get a little hairy when at a wedding, I have my sgian-dubh, the short but frighteningly sharp dagger tucked in my sock, that accompanies the traditional kilted attire at weddings. Only if the wedding had a lot of Glaswegians - who have had a lot of stabbing practice - would I be a little afraid. Glaswegians, yes, and Sikhs. The traditional Sikh attire includes a kirpan, a sword of up to a metre in length, which although usually only unsheathed to cut ceremonial desserts could no doubt cut a lot more if required. Don't get rowdy at a Sikh wedding is my advice.

The kirpan is one of the "five Ks", five items of attire expected to be worn by all good Sikhs - their uniform in effect - as brought in by the tenth and last of the human Sikh gurus, Guru Gobind Singh. He also brought in that all Sikh males have to be called Singh, from the Sanskrit for "lion", so you know he meant business. The other four Ks are: "kesh", or uncut hair, which is why Sikh men wear turbans, to keep their long hair under control; "kanga", or a wooden comb, to keep their hair in order; "kara", a steel bracelet; and "kachhera", which are knee-length shorts to maintain their modesty. The five Ks aren't just for ceremonial occasions, they are for all occasions. Which means that all good orthodox Sikhs carry a sword at all times.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Preview: the Lotus Temple

The lotus flower has long been revered in India and by the religions that originated from there. Regarded as a symbol of divine beauty and purity, it can be seen on numerous Buddhist monuments, usually in the form of Buddha sitting cross-legged on a lotus seat, and on the likes of the five lotus bud-like towers on the Hindu monument of Angkor Wat, as well as a decorative motif on sculptures on the small but ancient Jain religion. And in Delhi, representing the Baha'i Faith, we have the Lotus Temple.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Preview: Akshardham

Take a look at this.

That's Akshardham, the largest Hindu temple complex in the world, in Delhi. Pretty nice, isn't it? Would you care to take a guess at its age? 500 years? 100 years? No, much lower: 6 years.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Preview: Agra Fort

The city of Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, is famous for the Taj Mahal. But more-or-less next to the Taj Mahal, in clear view 3 kilometres away, is a building of arguably more historical importance - the Red Fort of Agra, or just the Agra Fort. While the Taj Mahal was the labour of love from an emperor to his late wife, the Agra Fort was the home of the emperor, the seat of his empire, and the base for the Mughal empire for generations before and after.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

New Additions To The List

As I've said before, my list of places to visit is far from final. I'm always willing to look into new places and if they seem like they genuinely have a chance at becoming a Wonder then I'll add them to the list. That's not to say I'm going to add places easily - there is no way I'm making a detour of several hundred or more miles to visit somewhere if I don't think I'm going to be impressed. There are thousands of interesting places in the world to visit and regrettably I don't have enough years of my lifetime to visit them. Being interesting is not enough, I need to be impressed or believe the place is going to be seriously impressive. How this can be achieved was detailed before in my Criteria of a Wonder entry.

With this in mind, I have looked into some of the suggestions made to me in the last few months, since this blog was launched and I told people I was off travelling, and have made some additions to my list. And in no particular order, here are the rejected and accepted suggestions;

1. Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta, Indonesia: REJECTED (but I'll go anyway)

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Preview: The Taj Mahal

In June 1631, in central India, a 38-year-old woman died in childbirth. Accompanying her husband on yet another war campaign, in military camp conditions in a region with temperatures reaching almost 40°C, she endured a thirty-hour labour with her fourteenth child in 19 years. As she died (the child survived), so the story goes, she requested from her husband a mausoleum to be built in her memory. The woman was Mumtaz Mahal, her husband the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, and the mausoleum, completed 22 years later, is now one of the most famous buildings in the world - the Taj Mahal.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Preview: Bagan

Imagine Manhattan Island. As islands go, it's big, though not that big. At its longest, it would take you about 13 minutes at 60 mph to drive from top to bottom, and under two-and-a-half minutes to drive its widest point, all assuming you had a magical new road without any traffic. If you prefer to walk, you could walk its 32-mile circumference in about half a day, with a leisurely lunch in between.

That doesn't make it sound so big. However, for those that have actually visited Manhattan, it feels a different story. Manhattan Island is big - not just in the sheer height of buildings, but in the sheer density of them too. Its land area is a fraction under 23 square miles, which still doesn't sound so big (try 5957 hectares, 14720 acres, 59.6 million square metres or 59.6 trillion square millimetres if you fancy some longer numbers) but when you cram everything but the kitchen sink into that space it suddenly seems a lot larger. Wait - that should read, everything including about two million kitchen sinks.

In this sense, the ancient ruined city of Bagan in northern Burma mirrors Manhattan Island. Ok, it's not an island, but it takes up an area approximately that of a shorter but fatter Manhattan Island - the overall archaeological zone is 36 square miles (as though Manhattan had been binging on cakes) with the more appealing city ruins at 16 square miles (Manhattan then onto a radical bulimia-inspired diet). In this city area, somewhere in the region of 3000 temples and brick monuments remain, with well over 5000 pagodas alone once standing back in its peak between the 11th and 13th Centuries. Even visiting the remaining ones, at a considered rate of one per day, would take over eight years. Bagan is pretty big.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Preview: Laykyun Setkyar

Think of a big statue. The Statue of Liberty? Yeah, she's big - 46 metres in person, or 93 metres on her pedestal. How about the big open-armed Christ the Redeemer of Rio de Janeiro? Sure, he's on a really big hill, but he's actually only 30 metres tall, or 39.6 metres on his pedestal. Lady Liberty could kick him down the Corcovado.

You have to go to Asia for the big boys - the biggest three statues in the world are there, and all of them happen to be of Buddha (in one of his many alternative forms). The second biggest, tucked away in a small village called Monywa in Burma, is the Laykyun Setkyar.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Welcome, Burness

Take a good look at this face.

Say hello to the face I will be seeing rather a lot of for about eight months. This lovely gent is named Burness, and for the duration of my travels in Asia he will be my trusty companion.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Preview: Shwedagon Pagoda

Two-and-a-half thousand years ago, two merchant brothers, Taphossa and Bhallika, were having a stroll, when who should they bump into but the Lord Buddha himself, meditating against a tree. Siddhartha Guatama Buddha, the 28th and most recent incarnation of Buddha and the supreme Buddha of our age, was just finishing the end of an epic-49 day meditation session - a meditationathon - and so was presumably a little weary and somewhat peckish. Fortunately, the merchant brothers were on their game, and recognising this peaceful-but-hungry guy sitting cross-legged as being the Enlightened One, they offered him some honey-cakes.

I'm not sure what a honey-cake is exactly, but it sure sounds nice, and Buddha was pretty pleased too. To thank them, he pulled out eight hairs from his head and gave them to the brothers. "Great, thanks..." I'm sure they inwardly thought, but they accepted gratefully, and Buddha then told them to use the hairs to build a kingdom. He gave them a helpful little pointer to go back to their native land of Burma and enshrine the hairs on top of a hill called Singuttara Hill (in modern-day Yangon). On this same hill, relics from the preceding three Buddhas were also enshrined, so it would make quite a collection.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Preview: The Banaue Rice Terrces

Take a random handful of some of the ancient Wonders on my list - let's have the Great Wall of China, the Parthenon in Greece, and the Colosseum. How many of these are still used for their original purpose? The Great Wall is no longer used to defend the realm, the Parthenon does not receive pagan worship, and slaves and animals are not currently being butchered at the Colosseum for Roman entertainment. Keep searching, and you may find some old cathedrals still used for Christian services, but that's about. Rewind back to 2000 years ago and you'll be hard pushed to find anything still serving its original function. No, a bunch of hippies dancing round Stonehenge once a year doesn't count.

The Banaue Rice Terraces are the exception. Estimated to have been started about 2000 years ago - we don't really know - they today still function just as they did "back in the day" - rice growing. Real, living mountain sculptures, they are two millennia of art as a happy by-product; that by using the mountain landscape as efficiently as possible to grow rice, something visually beautiful is created at the same time.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Preview: Angkor Wat

Enter the first of the heavyweights.

Make no mistake, Angkor Wat is big. It's one of my primary contenders for World Wonder, is the daddy among over 600 temple ruins in a ruined city area twice the size of Paris, and is so important to Cambodia that they put it on their flag. It's the largest religious structure in the world, taking up the space of 22 acres/9 hectares - that's the same area as three Edinburgh Castles or, if you like, eleven big Tesco superstores. The volume of stone equals that of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and it's all carved exquisitely to boot. This is not a building you're going to forget easily.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Preview: Ayutthaya

About an hour north of Bangkok is a small city of approximately 50,000 people. Within it, on a river island of around ten square kilometres, are some spectacular temple ruins, placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1991. Here, over 250 years ago, hundreds of buildings covered in gold would have positively shone in the sun, populated by kings, the royal family and their vast entourage, as well as numerous monks, with the common populace being allowed no more than the privilege of gazing upon this golden wonder from the squalor on the other side of the river. These days it's just an echo of its former self, a historical park existing only as a reminder of its glory. This is Ayutthaya, once one of the world's largest cities, covered in gold, and a kingdom that spanned over four hundred years, dominating the region.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Moving Out/Moving In

After quitting my job last month and so becoming unemployed, a couple of days ago I left my flat and so am now also homeless. In fact, it's not quite as bad as that: I'm now living in Glasgow. Hmm, so maybe it is.

I've been living in Edinburgh for the past 18 months, in a lovely albeit sometimes messy flat just off the Royal Mile. I must admit, I loved Edinburgh. Fair enough, speak to any Glaswegian and there's a near certainty that they will fly off into a rant about how awful Edinburgh is and how unfriendly the local population is, and any mention of the beauty of the city is met with much the same response as a "Lord of the Rings" orc would give upon being requested to admire the silky soft qualities of an elf's long blonde hair. But set aside any perceived unfriendliness (and I never experienced any), and Edinburgh is a truly world-class beautiful city. Compact enough to walk around, and all revolving around its majestic centre, overlooked by the castle, in 18 months I never grew tired of walking around in a state of awe. It's a jaw-droppingly beautiful city that rewards close attention. Take away the many postcard-pretty views and there are still many immaculate touches, from subtly crafted architecture to hidden slices of history down every lane.