Posts Tagged Travels
Xi’an is capital of Shaanxi province in Western China. It has more than 3000 year history. At one time, most important connection between the East and the West was through China’s Silk Road, where goods (which included a lot of silk) traveled from East to West. A great deal of cultural exchange occurred through the Silk Road. Xi’an is the starting point of the Silk Road. And now it has become more famous after the discovery of the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
Our cultural knowledge also was enhanced in Xi’an. On the first day, we visited the ancient wall that surrounds the city. It is absolutely beautiful. We also visited the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. In the evening, we went to a show that depicted emperor Huang’s dynasty. My friend and I decided to walk back to the hotel instead of riding back with the tour. At several places, people were doing Tai Chi or were dancing and at couple of places, I joined in the fun and found the people to be very welcoming.
Next day, we visited the Terra Cotta Warriors. Emperor Qin’s Terracotta pits are located 1.5 kilometers from the emperor’s mausoleum. The pits were never mentioned in the historical records and at one time pillaged and wrecked and then remained buried until 1974. In 1974, a farmer was drilling a well and happened to come upon them. When President Clinton visited China, he wanted to meet this farmer and the farmer was apparently taught some English and some easy answers – like how are you, I am fine, me too etc. When Mr. Clinton shook his hand and told him “I am Bill Clinton”, the poor farmer replied “me too”.
Many people consider the Terracotta pits to be the Eighth Wonder of the World. And they are truly amazing. The largest pit measures 230 meters in length and 63 meters in width. The works is endless and still ongoing to excavate and restore the warriors. It is assumed that 6,000 warriors and horses will be unearthed from this pit alone. All the statues are life size and exquisitely made. About 40,000 bronze weapons have been unearthed from the pits. They are exquisitely made and coated with chrome-saline oxide coating, which protected the sharpness of the weapons and retained their shinyness.
For this tour, we boarded ship at Piraeus, suburb of Athens, Greece, on Holland America Cruise Line. First stop was Istanbul, Turkey, then Greek island of Lesbos, Mitheline, then Turkish island Kusadasi, then Greek island Mykonos, and then Greek island Iraklion, Crete.
Athens has a lot of history and while there is much to see, the Acropolis or hill on which the most famous Parthnon is situated, is historical and wonderful site. Around 490 BC Pericles began construction of the buildings on the acropolis. Many buildings were damaged in 1687, during siege by the Venetians and during other wars. Some have been restored. Most famous one is a temple dedicated to Athena Nike (Nike means victory and Athena means wisdom). Vying for power, Athena won the battle against Poseidon, God of the sea and the temple was therefore dedicated to Athena. While Poseidon offered water, Athena offered olive tree as a sign of peace and was declared the winner. To the right of the entrance, the Propylaea is also beautiful.
To preserve the impact of the Acropolis, there is a restriction on the height of the buildings in Athens, so the Parthenon remains the highest building. Athens is full of olive trees and beautiful buildings, marred by unimaginable amount of graffiti, perhaps indicative of the economic troubles. Similar to Spain, nearly everyone smokes in Greece. The Constitutional Plaza or Syntagma Square, opposite the Parliament is a great hub of activity. We walked around there, ate peanuts, offered some to the pigeons (who were immediately sitting on our hands and head for food), and watched the change of guards, at the entrance of the parliament, with big pomp and circumstance.
Istanbul, Turkey was the fist stop on the cruise ship that we boarded at Piraeus, Greece. Istanbul is a gorgeous city adorned with many mosques, blaring every now and then with a lyrical calls to prayers. Istanbul is a crowded city, humming with activity. We visited the Ayasofya Mosque, also called Hagia Sophia (meaning holy wisdom in Greek) mosque and museum. It was a former Greek Church, later converted to Imperial Museum, and in 1935 was opened as a museum by the Republic of Turkey. It is absolutely spell binding. We also visited Sultanahmet Camii or the Blue Mosque, so called because of blue tiles surrounding the walls. It is a historical but functioning mosque. You need to go there modestly dressed, with a scarf, (if you do not have one then it would be provided). The walls outside are inscribed with beautiful writings from the Quran.
The Basilica Cistern, the largest cistern, built in 6 century BC (apparently by 7000 slaves), lie beneath Istanbul, and provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and later to the Topkapi Palace. It is about 105,000 square feet in area and is one of the most memorable sites, I saw. At one end, there are columns with visage of Medusa (blocks oriented sideways and inverted to negate the power of her gaze). The cistern was the location of 1963 James Bond film “From Russia with Love”.
Topkapi Palace museum consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. After entering the gate of salutation or bab-us-selam, you enter Divan Meydani, a gathering place for courtiers. Several building inside house the extensive imperial treasury, the arms collection, clock collection, royal home of the emperor, home of the queen mother, courtyard of the eunuchs, and more. We could have spent days there but only had couple of hours.
Later we walked in the park, shopped for Turkish candies topped with nuts, had Turkish desert filled with pistachios, almonds, and hazel nuts, looked at the range of turkish spices, took picture of the man making pomegranate juice and then savored the delicious, tart-sweet juice, with corn on the cob, sesame bread, and roasted chestnuts.
Mytilini, Lesbos, Greece
Mytilini is the capital of Lesobs, a tiny island in northeastern Aegean sea. The island is covered with olive and fruit trees, has a petrified forest (which we did not get to see) and has a huge Molyvos castle. Walking around on the grounds of the Mediterranean’s largest fortress with over 200,000 square meters was an incredible experience. The views from every angle are simply amazing. This was not a guided tour but everywhere there are boards with explanation in English and we wandered at our own pace and took tons and tons of pictures. Lesbos is well known for Ouzo, the traditional distilled Greek drink that tastes very much like Sambuca. I saw a sign for Ouzo and went in the distillery and asked the man what exactly was Ouzo and he promptly showed his distillery where it was made and brought out some ouzo for us to try.
Kusadasi, the coastal town of Turkey is known for the ruins of Ephesus. Ephesus, once a port, was an important commercial center, on account of its strategic location. It is located in fertile valley with delicious fruit trees all around. In ancient times it was also religious center of early Christianity. There is temple of Artemis (fertility goddess) built in 356 BC, which was one of the seven wonders, at one time. The city continued to expand and built by successive rulers but new rulers in AD 262 sacked it and the city was abandoned when the harbor silted up. It has since been rediscovered and is a great tourist attraction. The ruins give a great insight into the lives of the people. We had a leisurely drive to Ephesus, to see the ruins. And then we visited the house where Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her last days. I took the opportunity to tack a prayer to Virgin Mary. Among million other prayers, will she get to mine?
As you land on the shore of this tiny beautiful island, you are greeted by the small Paraportiani church. This tiny town of has some 70 little churches. Votive offerings is an old tradition. As per one tradition, the residents enshrine the bones of their dead in the walls of the shrines. As you walk a little further, you come to the enormous seven 16th century windmills that were used to store grains. These windmills are now the trade mark of Mykonos. On the other side, is little Venice with colorful balconies hanging above the sea. There are many beaches, and we visited one, though we did not venture out in the ocean, to swim.
I Loved this small, beautiful Greek island, east of Turkey. It is absolute clean with all the houses pained white and doors and windows painted in bright hues of all diverse colors. We had a leisurely walk through the island, a short trip to the beach, and then a lazy walk through the long market street. We broke and ate pieces from the loaf of bread that we got from a local bakery as we strolled through the market street, buying little knickknacks.
The final highlight was meeting the respected Pelican, Petros. The ancestor of this Pelican came to the island around 1954, after a storm. He was welcomed and since then he and his descendants have lived on the island and all are called Petros or Pedros. Petros is official mascot of Mykonos. As we were walking through the market street, Petros regally strolled in and as we all reverently made way, Petros simply strolled through the town.
Heraklion, Creete – Island of Greece
The Palace of Knossos is the primary tourist site in Heraklion. It was built during the Bronze age (ceremonial and political center of the Minoan civilization) and was discovered in 1878. The palace was excavated and partially restored in early 20th century.
As the year 2013 is drawing to a close, I am thinking of the previous years. Last year, for me, the highlight was the visit to the floating village in Cambodia, on the shores of Lake Tonle Sap, near Siem Riep.
The visit generated many conflicting emotions. Gawking at the people, as they went about their daily lives, seemed voyeuristic and clearly an invasion of their privacy. We could also see the power of water and rudimentary and creative ways that people adapt to dealing with sometimes destructive force of nature. In most of rural Cambodia, houses are frequently built on stilts, so the homes can survive the rising waters of intense Camodian monsoons. And people have hammocks tied to the roofs and there are hammock bars as well. Nice way to relax and stay dry, if needed. In the floating village, however, the houses are often on riverboats and they actually float and the entire village moves depending on the ebb and flow of the waters.
While the abject poverty of the people living on the water and living off of whatever the water provides, was heart-wrenching, it seemed strange to buy junk food from mothers at highly inflated prices and donate it to their kids. The village mainly subsists on fishing and fish farming and there is a community market, a school, a general store, small clinic and dispensary, a Catholic church and a Buddhist church. Sometimes it seems that the Government uses the poverty of the people to generate tourism and it does not seem to be at the greatest advantage of the people. Neesha (my sweet child and my loveliest travel companion) and I were glad to visit an orphanage where children were happy and smiling, and make donation there.
Visit to Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields (seeing rows upon rows of skulls neatly lined up) and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum with cells, interrogation paraphernalia etc., was a gut wrenching, soul searching, thought provoking, tear streaked, heart rending experience. Why do people do horrible things to people; brother to sister; child to mother? Out of about 7M population at the time, Cambodia lost close to 4M people; due to war, rebellion, man-made famine, genocide, and politicide, including over 2M in mass murder by Khmer Rouge. Every family perhaps had someone who was killed and someone who was responsible in some way, for the killings. It was extremely sad, solemn visit.
Temples and Palaces of Cambodia
The temple complex of Angkor Wat was the main reason I wanted to visit Cambodia. Ever since I learned about Angkor Wat in 6th grade, I wanted to visit the temple. Angkor Wat was first a Hindu, and then a Buddhist temple complex in the country and it is the largest religious monument in the world. The temple was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II, in the early 12th century. He broke from the Savism tradition of the previous kings, and dedicated the temple of Angkor Wat to Lord Vishnu. The temple is beautifully preserved. There are more than 1000 temples built between 9th and 13th centuries. We also visited the temple where The Tomb Raider and Indian Jones Temple of Doom were filmed. It was a mystery as to how the huge stones used to built the temples were moved there but researchers have now solved the mystery and declared that the stones were brought there through a network of hundreds of canals.
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, consists of a set of buildings which serve as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia, whose full name is a mouthful. It is Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk Serei Mongkol. This has been a primary residence of the kings of Cambodia since 1860s. But it was noticeably unoccupied during the turbulent times of the Khmer rouge reign. The palace faces East and serves as an allusion to Lord Brhama. It is absolutely gorgeous structure with Throne Wall, Moonlight Pavilion, Silver Pagoda, impressive Temple of Emerald Buddha, and more. It covers almost 175,000 meters.
Recent tour to China was amazing. China has made impressive progress and it is a beautiful country. We also lucked out with minimal smog problems. Hangzhou and Suzhou are two of the most beautiful countries in Eastern China.
Hangzhou (pronounced Hangjo) was once capital of China and is famous for its gorgeous WestLake, Su Causeway, and Longjing Tea and White Chrysanthemum Tea. We strolled through the gorgeous garden and our guide had a tough time keeping us together because we wanted to stop every few steps for pictures. There is apparently a Chinese saying “Above there is heaven, below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou”. Marco Polo visited Hangzhou in the 13th century and described the city as “without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world”. The city has also been immortalized by countless poets and artists and our guide kept us entertained with various stories including one of “Butterfly Lovers”. We then took a river cruise which offered more gorgeous views and then ended up at the Green Tea Village, where we had incredible tea demonstration with information on various benefits of tea, demonstrations of how the antioxidants in the tea change the color of uncooked rice, absolutely lovely “lyrical, rhythmic, sensuous” pouring of tea, and absolutely fabulous super packing of tea leaves for those who decided to buy. And who wouldn’t? I saw some of the best marketing in China (more on that in another blog).
Suzhou, in Jiangsu province in Eastern China is on the shores of Taihu Lake, a part of Yangtze River Delta is aptly called “Venice of the East”. As per our guide, this is the richest province in China and Suzhou is one of the richest cities. Suzhou was found in 514 BC and has 2,500 years of rich history. They were beautiful sunny days when we toured the city. All of China is lovely but this is an especially gorgeous city, with canals, stone bridges, pagodas and lovely gardens. We took a river cruse on the Grand Canal of the Oriental Venice, took tons of pictures and the tour ended in a village where we walked through the market. Everyone bought some dry street food, roasted peanuts, roasted water chestnuts, bakery items, exotic fruits, berries and shared with each other. Later we strolled through the Lingering Garden, absolutely gorgeous garden where all buildings are beautifully ordered, with picturesque views in all directions. We also visited the silk spinning factory, which was quite amazing. Seeing so many larvae grown and boiled and sacrificed for the beautiful garment, I also decided that (while I will continue to wear the silk I have), I will not buy silk again. All in all, visit to Suzhou was a like a refresher for all the senses.
China Tour was truly an amazing, inspiring, awesome experience. Majority of my travels take me to ruins and old civilizations. In China, even the ruins (the Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors) are not totally in ruins or are in various stages of restoration. That progress is everywhere. Skyscrappers doting the skylines in major cities point to architectural beauty and something fundamentally progressive. China has literally taken its billion people and housed them. Compared to India (I hate to say this but without acknowledging, how is India going to progress, where there are indeed huge pockets of progress), China has made huge progress in infrastructure and in improving the standard of living. In India, many of its billion people are sitting, squatting, living on the streets. Indeed in China, there are the “ghost cities” (fully constructed empty cities indicative of a housing bubble). But apart from that, people are in homes. You rarely see crowds or trash (with the exception of roads clogged with auto traffic). And with the exception of shoving (which seems to be culturally ingrained), people are disciplined and follow rules and put trash in trash cans. Compared to India, China is squeaky clean, and it is addressing the smog problem. What amazing progress!
Just to be fair, let me mention that India is perhaps the only country in the world that has maintained a lively, engaging democracy, throughout all the ups and downs, after the colonial powers left, in 1947. As one of the four SICK (Syria, Iran, China, N. Korea) countries, China on the other hand, blocks Facebook and curtails freedoms of social expression. I will discuss in another blog some thoughts on democracy, socialism, ability to vote versus having a roof over the head, what truly may define progress and give a nation competitive leverage. But for now, I am sharing below, a little about the incredible Great Wall of China.
The Great Wall
Climbing the Great Wall of China is a great experience :). The Great Wall built from east to west across the northern border of China was meant to protect the Chinese empire against intrusions by hostile military or nomadic groups or to keep track on transportation of goods and for collection of taxes for goods traveling along the Silk Road, and to keep track of immigration and emigration. Several walls were built and later joined together and made bigger and stronger. Most famous one was built between 220-206 BC by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang who united China. Most of existing wall was reconstructed during the Ming Dynasty. According to one estimate, the entire wall measures up to 21,196 km or 13,171 miles.
The day we toured this site, it was incredibly cold. I climbed half way past post 9 (it goes to no. 13). The climb is arduous, steep and when there are steps, they are high. Besides being so cold, the wind was so ferocious, you almost fear that it will pick you up from the climb and throw you down into the valley. I decided (very wisely) to not push it and to turn around at that point. At the base there are curio shops, coffee shops, and a little museum like place, or one can walk to the other side of the wall, where there is Lop lake. The Great Wall was a major highlight of the tour. It is enormous, gigantic, well maintained, and beautiful vistas all around are breathtaking.