On this two-day trip out of Hanoi, we passed trucks loaded with pigs, and dozens of duck farms, all supplying restaurants in Hanoi. At the Cuc Phuong National Park’s conservation center, we were hoping to spot a pangolin (a rare, scaled animal that, in photos, reminded me of an armadillo), but they were only on view at certain times of day, so we missed them. We did visit the monkey and turtle sections though. After a night in our Ninh Binh hotel, we visited a temple and then boarded a small, flat-bottomed boat for another river trip where all the rowers used their legs and feet at the oars. Dozens of tourist-filled boats joined us as we made our way down the river, past even more spectacular scenery, and through three low-hanging caves. I was sure we would have to duck or bump our heads, but the rowers knew the safest channel to take. Outside the caves we encountered a floating market of sorts. Several sellers in boats tried to entice us to buy their wares, imploring us to at least buy food for our rower.
About five hours drive (or 8 hours overnight train trip) north of Hanoi is the mountain hideaway town of Sapa, in the shadow of Fan Si Pan—one of Vietnam’s tallest mountains. This is a land of steep hillside rice terraces and colorfully dressed hill tribes like the Black Hmong and Dao. There’s a beautiful lake, of course, French colonial buildings, and a town that’s constantly under construction (like the rest of Vietnam). We roamed the town, took in a buffet dinner and dance show at our hotel, and visited an eclectic mostly-outdoor market. I had come down with a bad case of bronchitis, so couldn’t hike to the hill-tribe villages as we had planned. A local doc gave me some antibiotics, which perked me up for awhile.
So, let me take you on a photo tour of Sapa. As always, click on any photo to enlarge and then arrow back and forth. Please enjoy.
Normally, I avoid museums. No matter how revealing the dishes, weapons and other elements of a past civilization are, looking into little plexiglas cases does not excite me. I am definitely interested in how people of the past lived, worked and spent their time, but a hands-on exhibition is more my style. That’s why I loved Hanoi’s Ethnology and War Museums. At the Ethnology Museum, I admit we skipped the indoor exhibits (in plexiglas cases) for a chance to wander around the recreated villages outside.
Some notes about three of the houses. The communal house is 19 meters in height including 3 meter stilts. Its floor area is more than 90 square meters.
A team of 40 Bahnar people came from Kon Rbang Village in Kontum City, in the Central Highlands, to build this house. It was modeled after the village’s early 1920’s communal house. The most important tool in its construction is the axe, which is used to cut the wood and carve the trunks. The axe can also be used as a chisel to mortise the columns.
The high roof is supported by eight massive pillars, four of which are 60cm in diameter. The structure is composed of many other posts and beams arranged horizontally, vertically or diagonally at different heights. They serve to both connect and support the house. The longitudinal beams and purlins are 14 to 15m long. The sloping and curved roof is rounded at its lower part. It is not only attractive, but also helpful for wind resistance. This curve brings lightness, elegance, and the impression of a greater height.
Role of the communal house
The communal house has a significant meaning in villages. It is the largest and the most spectacular architecture, showing the power and talent of the community.
Traditionally, the communal house was used for social and ceremonial activities. It was a place for guests to be received, for men to be together during their free time, for the elderly to transmit knowledge to younger generations, for old villagers to deal with village affairs, and for villagers to concentrate together in community events. Collective rituals were also held at the communal house. In the past, the youth were on duty here to prepare for fights or to defend the village. Young bachelors and widowers also spent nights in the communal house. Women did not usually enter this house.
Heads of sacrificed buffalos and hunted animals are often hung in the communal house. These are the trophies and pride of the community. Other ritual objects and protecting talismans of the villages are also preserved in the communal house.
The long house is 42.5 meters long and 6 meters wide and sits on one meter high stilts. It was reconstructed at the Museum in 2000. It was originally built in 1967 and belonged to Mrs. HDiah Eban’s family (Ede Kpa) in Ky Village, Buon Ma Thuot city, Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands.
The house is oriented in a north-south direction according to Ede tradition. The north side is the front with the main entrance. The south end was where families lived. As a house of a powerful family, it was built with big columns and beams, on which many decorations were carefully carved. Its original staircase, over one meter wide, was carved from one large wooden board.
Traditionally, extended matrilineal families lived in long houses. The more people who lived in a house, the longer it was. Some houses were 200m long. In the 1970s, there were still houses 50m to 60m in length. Since the 1980s, extended families have split into nuclear ones that live in smaller houses.
The tomb house was built in 1998 by five Giarai Arap men from Mrong Ngo Village, ChuPa District, Gia Lai Province.
About thirty dead people can be burried in this large tomb house in the village. The decorated sculptures are carved from tree trunks using axes, chisels, and knives. Statues of men and women showing off their secret parts, and pregnant women symbolise fertility and birth. The wooden roof is covered with plaited bamboo planks on which designs are painted with natural red pigments. Figures on the roof depict activities of the tomb abandoning ritual.
It is thought that the tomb house is for the dead in the afterlife. Broken dishes, bottles, cups and trays, and wooden models of tools are put inside the tomb to provide necessities to the deceased in their other world. After the ritual, the tomb is abandoned.
The War Museum
This was our biggest surprise. I didn’t expect to like it, but the exhibits were extremely well done, with actual tanks and shot-down U.S. planes, as well as recreated scenes indoors of wars throughout Vietnam’s history. Check out the exhibit of a battlefield with men crawling through tunnels below. Also a bicycle equipped with a rocket launcher. The country was constantly fighting off invaders.
More photos from Hanoi, including beautiful tiled artwork along roads and streets, lots of scooters of course, graduation (high school, I think) pictures at the Temple of Literature, cows in the street, the country’s tall and skinny apartment buildings, temples, soldiers in formation at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum (his body is taken to Moscow once a year for refurbishing), and me with a group of delightful school children who were passing through a temple complex on their way home.
If you cursor over the photos, you’ll see the captions. Click on a photo, it will enlarge, and you can arrow your way forward or backward. Please enjoy.
I was in high school/college in California while the Vietnam war had been raging for ten-plus years, and I knew many young men who were drafted into the army and sent to this far-away country. Years earlier, the U.S. had teamed up with other UN countries to stop communist North Korea from taking over democratic South Korea (remember the tv show, MASH?). In Korea’s case, the UN forces were able to push back the N. Korean forces to the 38thParallel, where the country remains divided to this day. I suppose, when the U.S. went into Vietnam with the same aim (to keep the North Vietnamese Communist party out of South Vietnam), they felt it was doable. But this time, the U.S. was alone, without the backing of UN troops. As we now know, the war in Vietnam was a disaster for both the Vietnamese people and U.S. soldiers. The Communist north took over the south, many Vietnamese U.S. collaborators were killed, and I’ll never forget the news videos of panicked crowds trying to get on the last U.S. planes to leave Vietnam.
Since then, Vietnam has fostered good relations with the U.S. and has welcomed tourists from all over the world. Even so, memories of the war-ravaged country remained in my mind, and since it is a Communist country, I wasn’t sure what to expect when Jerry and I traveled there last November (2019).
We had taken a southeast Asia cruise a few years earlier and joined excursions to central and south Vietnam, but we had never seen the North.
So please join me as I take you on a virtual tour of North Vietnam, starting with its capital, Hanoi. As far as I could tell, there is no central transportation in Hanoi. Everybody, and I mean everybody, rides mopeds or bicycles, but mostly mopeds (tourists can take rides in pedicabs (called cyclos). It must be the moped capital of the world. Crossing a street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, you must watch for a good open spot, step out onto the street and keep going. If you don’t stop or hesitate or waiver in your direction, the moped riders and any other vehicles will swerve around you. It takes getting used to.
Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the closing of Auschwitz, the concentration camp in which Hitler’s minions killed more than a million Jews during WWII. On the news last night, survivors told their stories, and they made me think of other prisons and the people who were subjected to beatings, torture and murder by their fellow human beings.
My father was a British POW for 5 years in Germany during WWII. He was not in a concentration camp, thank goodness. He was captured at Dunkirk, force marched through Germany (during which many of his fellow soldiers died), and held captive in three different East German prisons. Why three? Because he felt it was his duty to escape, which he did, twice. But each time he was recaptured and, I’m sure, punished severely and sent to a different stalag. As the war ended, the guards fled and left the prison gates open, and he was able to make his way back across Germany and France to England
A few months ago, I visited Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison, which is now a museum. It reminded me of my dad’s imprisonment and that we must be constantly on guard against the wars, hatred and divisiveness that causes such inhumane treatment of others.
Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French from 1886-1889 and 1898-1901 to hold mainly Vietnamese political prisoners agitating for independence during the French occupation of Vietnam when the country was part of French Indochina. The prison’s name can be translated as “fiery furnace,” Hell’s hole,” or “stove” because on the same-named street outside its walls in pre-colonial times could be found a concentration of stores selling wood and coal-fire stoves.
Originally built in Hanoi’s French Quarter to hold 460 prisoners, it was renovated in 1913 to hold 600. But it was nevertheless often overcrowded, holding 730 by 1916, 895 in 1922 and 1,430 in 1933. By 1954, it held more than 2,000 people in subhuman conditions and had become a symbol of colonialist exploitation. Some of those prisoners were women—300 at one count—held in a separate stockade measuring 270 square meters. One display extolls the bravery of these women as they “organized schools to propagate politics and culture in order to improve their ability to fight and make contributions to the revolution.”
The prison also exemplified the bitterness of the Vietnamese who were subject to torture and execution. The French called the prison Maison Centrale (Central House), which is still the designation for prisons in France that hold dangerous or long-sentence detainees.
During the 1910s through 1930s, street peddlers passed messages in through the jail’s windows, and tossed tobacco and opium over the walls. Letters and packets would be thrown out to the street in the opposite direction. Many of the future leading figures in Communist North Vietnam spent time in Maison Centrale during the 1930s and ‘40s.
Following defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Accords, the French left Hanoi, and authority for the prison passed to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The building served as an education center for revolutionary doctrine and activity, and was kept around to mark its historical significance to the North Vietnamese.
The Vietnam/American War
Americans refer to it as the Vietnam war. Vietnamese call it the American war. Whatever it’s called, Hoa Lo was used to house, torture and interrogate captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which demanded “decent and humane treatment” of prisoners of war, severe torture methods—such as rope bindings, leg irons, beatings and prolonged solitary confinement—were employed, according to prisoners of war released from this and other North Vietnamese prisons during the Johnson administration circa 1969.
During 1969, Vietnamese officials broadcast a series of coerced statements from American prisoners that supported the notion that American prisoners were treated well. A photo of a smiling John McCain (imprisoned from 1967-1973) stands out on one wall as does another photo of smiling American prisoners playing basketball.
In the museum today, atrocities perpetrated by the French on the Vietnamese are cruelly depicted, while other exhibits show the “fun” that American prisoners had there. Of course, that was not the case, and some POW’s sarcastically nicknamed the place the “Hanoi Hilton.” A pilot named Bob Shumaker was the first to write it down, carving “Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton” on the handle of a pail to greet the arrival of Air Force Lt. Robert Peel. Vietnamese officials used the nickname to show that Americans thought of the prison as a hotel.
After the war, the Vietnamese government adopted the position that no prisoners were tortured during the war and that claims were fabricated, but that Vietnam wanted to move past the issue and establish better relations with the U.S. However, eyewitness accounts by American servicemen present a different account of their captivity. USAF fighter pilot and POW from 1965 to 1973 and senior ranking POW Robinson Risner wrote the book, Passing of the Night, which detailed his seven years at the Hanoi Hilton. His book and those by McCain (Faith of My Fathers) and dozens of others depicted Hoa Lo and the other prisons as places where murder, beatings, broken bones, teeth and eardrums, dislocated limbs, starvation, serving of food contaminated with human and animal feces, and medical neglect of infections and tropical disease occurred.
Two U.S. Air Force officers, Charles Tanner and Ross Terry, rather than face torture, concocted a story about two other members of their squadron who had been court-martialed for refusing to fly missions against the north. Thrilled with this piece of propaganda, the Vietnamese told the story to visiting Japanese Communists, and it filtered back to the U.S. Unfortunately for Tanner and Terry, they had called their imaginary pilots Clark Kent and Ben Casey (TV icons). When the Vietnamese realized they had been made fools of, the two prisoners were tortured.
The final prisoners were not released until 1973, some having been held since 1964. After the implementation of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, neither the U.S. nor its allies ever formally charged North Vietnam with the war crimes committed there.
Despite pleas from war veterans and party members, the prison site was sold to a Singapore-Vietnamese joint venture and turned into a hotel and shopping complex. But as part of the deal, the developers had to leave a portion of the prison for use as a museum. Displays mainly show the prison during the French colonial period, including the guillotine room, and quarters for male and female Vietnamese political prisoners. Propaganda displays for American POWs show them playing chess, shooting pool, gardening, raising chickens and receiving large fish and eggs for food.
One display listing “Camp Regulations” starts out by stating, “American servicemen participating in the war of aggression by U.S. administration in Vietnam and caught in the act while perpetrating barbarous crimes against the Vietnamese land and people, should have been duly punished according to their criminal acts, but the Government and people of Vietnam, endowed with noble and humanitarian traditions, have given those captured American servicemen the opportunity to benefit a lenient and generous policy by affording them a normal life in the detention camps as practical conditions of Viet-Nam permit it and conforming to the situation in which the war is still on.” (I have reprinted this statement and the following regulations exactly as originally written)
It continues, “Detainees are to observe and carry out the following regulations of the camp:
I- Detainees must strictly obey orders and follow instructions given them by Vietnamese officers and armymen on duty in the camp.
II- Detainees must be polite towards every Vietnamese in the camp.
III- Inside the detention rooms, as well as outside when allowed, detainees must not make noise or create noise. Quarrel and fighting between detainees are forbidden. In time of rest, total silence is imposed.
IV- Detainees must not bring back to detention room any object whatsoever without the camp authorities permit it.
V- In case of sickness or sign of sickness is felt, detainees must immediately inform the camp for the medical officer to check and cure.
VI- Detainees must assure hygiene of the camp, take care of personal items provided by the camp as well as of any other thing for collective use.
VII- In case of air alarm, detainees must keep order and silence, and follow the camp regulations on security.
VIII- In need of something, detainees should address themselves to Vietnamese armymen standing nearby by announcing two words “BAO CAO” (means “report”), and should wait if no English-speaking people was available yet.
IX- In the detention rooms, every detainees are equal with each other. Anyone does have the right to free thinking, feeling, preying (sic.) etc… and no one is permitted to coerce any other into following his own opinion.
X- Violation of the regulations shall be punished.”
Many exhibits at the museum brought back memories of my father’s imprisonment in Germany, especially the remnant of an underground sewer, which was used by Vietnamese prisoners to escape. My dad told me how he and his buddies would leave the stalag through the sewer under the toilets, kill a pig for food, eat, and return before they were missed. It was the only way they could get any nourishing food.
I can only imagine the horrors that prisoners, both Vietnamese and American, suffered at the hands of their captors. Visiting former prisons such as Hoa Lo, and actually standing in the places where these atrocities took place makes me determined to fight the cruelty that human beings seem willing to exert upon each other.
Circa 1892, a small beetle native to Central or South America made its way across the Mexican border in the vicinity of Brownsville, Texas and spread rapidly across cotton-growing regions. By the 1920s, Anthonomus grandis, the boll weevil, was causing more economic damage than any agricultural pest in U.S. history.
The boll weevil feeds on cotton pollen, but does its damage by laying eggs on cotton flower buds called “squares,” or on the young developing cotton boll, which provides the beetle with a platform for its “home.” The infected bud or boll stops developing and often falls off as the beetle larvae eat it. The destruction spread from Texas across the South and Southwest, so that by the Great Depression, cotton farmers had already suffered from many years of devastatingly poor harvests. Eventually, it found its way to California cotton fields as well.
The first pesticide used on infested cotton crops was arsenic, but the boll weevil developed a tolerance for it. Another pesticide, DDT, was tried in the mid-twentieth century, but, once again, the pests developed a resistance to it. Plus, the heavy application of pesticides killed a wide spectrum of beneficial insects, allowing other pests to increase their numbers and damage cotton and other crops. And there was a danger of polluted adjacent food crops, water supplies and consequential ecological damage.
But humans are adaptable, too. A variety of strategies—started in the 1970s—such as pheromone traps in the spring, hand picking infected cotton buds during the growing season, plowing under the cotton stalks after harvest, and low levels of pesticides when the insect is short of food in the fall, all helped to stem the destructive tide of boll weevil devastation.
An important ingredient in the mix was Hawaiian cotton. When ma’o is crossed with other cotton strains, the resulting commercial hybrids are less attractive to insect pests that destroy cotton crops. Ma’o lacks the flavor lactones within the nectar which would otherwise attract insects to commercial cotton.
Now, in most states, the boll weevil and other cotton pests have left and are unlikely to return. But in Enterprise, Alabama, the city has erected a statue to the boll weevil because, they say, there is a great deal we can learn from an invasive bug, even as we show it the door.
Perhaps they should erect a statue to Ma’o, the Hawaiian cotton plant, too.
p.s. visitors to Oahu, Hawaii, can find ma’o growing wild along the dry slopes at the Makapu’u scenic lookout.
In 1883, whimsical creative architect Antoni Gaudi started working on Sagrada Familia (sacred family), a huge Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, Spain. At the time of his death in 1926 (he was hit by a streetcar), less than a quarter of the building was finished. Slow progress then and later was partially due to lack of funding (it relied on private donations) and the Spanish Civil war (1936-39) By 2010, when I first visited, it was more than halfway done, but the central nave was stacked with building materials so we had to walk around the edges. On my second visit, last September (2018), the interior was complete and spectacular. The outside towers, however are still under construction, and the expected finish date is 2026—100 years after Gaudi’s death.
Known as God’s Architect, Gaudi felt that the Medieval Gothic style of his day was limited. It relied on large support structures called buttresses, and he believed that God’s house should be free of bulky supports, yet limitless in its height and grandeur, so he turned to nature, or what he saw as God’s architecture. The support columns of the church resemble the stems of plants, making the design stronger and lighter and allowing for more natural light. Gaudi built many of his models upside down to show how the weight would be distributed.
The main entrance, in the nativity façade, contains a complex variety of scenes featuring Jesus, Mary, Joseph, angels, kings, shepherds, flowers, animals and birds, all depicting the adoration at the birth and life of Jesus. The rear entrance, or Passion façade, depicts the death of Jesus with simple lines and figures. Many architects have worked on the church since Gaudi’s death, and all did their best to stay true to his plans and vision. Sagrada Familia has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I’ve heard mixed reviews about Venice. Some say it’s the most magical city in Europe. Others complain that it’s too touristy and over-rated. Yes, Venice calls to tourists like the hive calls to a swarm of bees. If you stay in the areas around St. Mark’s Square, you’ll encounter similar swarms of tourists and long lines. But even there, the magic is palpable.
We wanted to visit the Doge’s Palace and infamous prison while avoiding the crowds, so we went late in the afternoon. At one time, Venice’s powerful Doges ruled much of Europe from their palace in the sea. Anyone who opposed them was thrown into the palace’s dungeons, but eventually, more room was needed, so a separate prison was built across a small canal next to the palace and the two connected by a covered bridge. Writers later referred to this passage as the Bridge of Sighs as it was thought that prisoners sighed as they looked out at the pleasures of Venice, which they would never experience again. As we crossed into the prison, we peered out through the small, decorative window openings at a crowd of tourists taking pictures of this famous bridge.
After our palace/prison tour, we decided not to stand in the long, snaking line waiting for the elevator to the top of the Campanile, a tall tower in the square. I bet the view was amazing from the top. Instead, we found a table at one of the outdoor restaurants, ordered some food and a spritz (a Venetian specialty drink) and listened to an orchestra playing classical and contemporary music as the setting sun turned the façade of St. Mark’s cathedral to gold. Definitely magical.
We had planned to ride in a gondola, but in the small canals around St. Mark’s Square, dozens of gondolas, each carrying a couple or family, lined up like a traffic jam on a watery freeway. Many of the couples looked bored or were staring at their cell phones. Not romantic. Not magical.
Instead, we walked the narrow car-free lanes and crossed tiny canal bridges as well as large ones such as Rialto and Accademia—two of five spanning the Grand Canal. Rialto was the first built. Its premiere incarnation in 1181 consisted of a row of boats tied together side by side and planks laid on top of them. With its second incarnation in 1255, it became a wooden drawbridge allowing ship traffic up and down the canal. It collapsed in 1444 (under the weight of a crowd gathered to watch a boat parade in celebration of a wedding) and again in 1524, then was redesigned and built in 1591 as a covered stone structure lined with shops on both sides.
Instead of a tourist hotel, we opted to rent an apartment near the outskirts of Venice island. After taking some wrong turns trying to find the address while dragging suitcases behind us, we eventually arrived at a door in a building down an alleyway. One flight (but lots of steps) up, our apartment was perfect, with a balcony overlooking the small canal below. Our landlady, Sophia, lived next door and her dogs barked each time they heard us coming home. Below, along the canal, a string of restaurants and a wine bar made up the social life of our neighborhood. Sometimes we cooked our meals (there was a grocery store not far away); sometimes we ate out. We felt like we belonged there.
We also adapted to life without cars. Once we located our vaporetto (basically a bus on water) stop, we bought passes and went everywhere. The vaporettos were always crowded with standing room only, so we positioned ourselves near the “door” enabling us to get on and off easily. Coming home in the evening, the Moorish-style palaces and casinos with their twinkling lights spread golden reflections on the water of the Grand Canal.
Leonardo da Vinci was a genius artist, inventor, town planner and architect. In 1516, he accepted an invitation from French King Francois I to live and work in Amboise, France. Until his death in 1519 at age 64, Da Vinci lived in Chateau du Cloux (now Clos Luce) near the royal castle, so, of course, we had to visit the house, now a museum.
Da Vinci’s inventions are displayed in miniature in the house, and full-size around the extensive grounds. Flying machines, paddle-wheel boats, revolving bridge (portable, for armies on the move), helicopter (aerial screw), machine gun, armored car (precursor to the modern tank), giant crossbow, a double-decker bridge that was supposed to help stop the spread of the plague, and his artwork hanging from trees.
We were also lucky enough to be there for a special exhibition on the progression of flying machines, from a man-powered set of wings to hot-air balloons and beyond.
Castles fascinate me: their steep-sided walls meant to repel invaders, their dungeons, their turrets and worn stone steps. Amboise’s fortifications were originally built around the 4thcentury AD, and since then, its appearance has been added to and changed many times as France’s rulers called it home (when they weren’t off making war or consolidating their holdings). A few were born, married or died here. For some time, it was considered a hunting lodge, and 75% of its late-14th-century construction remains today.
After exploring the castle, we found, between castle and garden, a full orchestra preparing for a concert. We made our way across the garden, up the steps leading through rows of round bushes, found a couple of chairs and settled in for a while, relaxing to the strains of music floating through the air. It was heavenly.
You’ll notice one of my photos looks like a framed painting or photo of the castle. Two empty gold frames were cleverly placed at the top of the garden, and we saw many people standing behind the frames to have their selfies taken with the castle in the background. Only one problem: They stood so close to the frame, filling it, that you could barely see the castle. I lined up my shot of the castle through the frame, and then a group conveniently stopped on a landing within my view to admire their surroundings. That’s what I call serendipity.
Right or Left? That was our choice when we arrived at Base Camp—my nickname for the concrete entryway, lined with small shops and a ticket booth—at the Great Wall of China’s Badaling section, 40 miles northwest of Beijing.
Only select sections of the crumbling Great Wall have been fully or partially restored. Badaling is one of the best. It’s also closest to the country’s bustling capital. As such, it’s the most crowded, especially when we were there—during October’s National Day Holiday, when everyone in the country goes on vacation for a week and makes a beeline for Beijing and the Great Wall. During peak times (i.e. holidays), it’s estimated that 70,000 people per day visit Badaling.
Before traveling to China, I’d watched a tv show documenting the Great Wall’s history. In the 3rd century BC, during what’s known as the Warring States period, Qin Shi Huang’s army defeated armies from the other 6 kingdom states in what is now China. After crowning himself emperor of the now unified country, he ordered most fortifications between the states demolished. Some walls he kept and joined together in a single system to protect his empire from barbarians in the north.
Using mostly packed earth and rocks, almost a million peasants, criminals, soldiers, disgraced nobles and unemployed intellectuals slaved for ten years to construct a wall that stretched 3,100 miles. It’s estimated that 400,000 of these laborers died during construction, and many were buried in the wall, giving rise to its nickname: the world’s largest cemetery.
Over the years, there were various accounts of the wall’s efficacy. As dynasties came and went, it was either repaired or neglected. It kept out some invaders but not others such as Mongol Genghis Khan. Around 1206AD, his grandson Kublai Khan broke through, conquered China and created the Yuan Dynasty, stationing soldiers along the wall to protect merchants and caravans traveling along profitable Silk-Road trade routes.
The year 1368 saw the defeat of the Mongols and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, which put a great deal of effort into fixing and strengthening the wall, building fortresses, steps, watchtowers and gates; employing skilled laborers; using bricks handmade of granite and limestone; and turning it into the fortification we know today (note: they added sticky-rice flour to the mortar, and although many bricks disintegrated, the mortar is still holding strong, leaving a pattern of holes where bricks used to be). The series of 25,000 towers built less than 500 feet apart and 30-40 feet high enabled troops garrisoned at each tower to see each other’s smoke signals, lanterns, flags and beacon fires and be ready to fight the enemy when and where he should appear.
In the mid 17th century, the Manchus broke through the wall, precipitating the fall of the Ming and beginning of the Qing Dynasty, which lasted until 1912.
Surprisingly, the Wall is not just one wall, but a series of walls, some running parallel or perpendicular to each other. At one time these walls slithered like giant snakes from the Yalu River in the west, through the Gobi Desert, along mountain ridges and sixty-six feet into the sea (so that raiders could not ride their horses around the end) for an estimated length of 5,500 miles (actual 13,170.7 miles, if you count all the branches). Many parts are now in ruins.
So, back to our choice. The left side, we were told, was a more difficult climb but with fewer people. No longer energetic youngsters, we opted for the easier Right side and were grateful for the railing on the steeper sections. Make no mistake—climbing the Great Wall is no walk in the park. There are steps—lots of them, and I noticed many of the younger Chinese huffing and puffing along with me as they pulled themselves up by the railing.
I could easily imagine soldiers running up and down these steps, using the nine-to-twelve-foot-wide top of the wall as a transportation corridor from tower to tower, firing canons and aiming their crossbows through the narrow battlement openings at the enemy below.
The crowds didn’t bother us. We rather enjoyed climbing with the Chinese tourists. Perhaps it was because they were on holiday and in a good mood, but they were courteous and friendly, many asking to take pictures with us. When I asked our guide about this later, she said that when they go back home, they’ll show off their foreigner “friends (us).” We’ll be famous in little villages all over China.
Can you really see the Great Wall from the moon? Well, not with the naked eye. It’s long enough, but not wide enough, says an astronomer friend. But photographs and radar imagery taken from a low-earth orbit do show the world’s longest defense fortification—one of the Seven Wonders of the World—snaking like a massive Chinese dragon across the desert, grasslands and mountaintops of China, enthralling us still.
I wanted to climb the steps, but it was not allowed, and a guard stood by to ensure everyone followed the rules. Still, the idea of climbing on the giant edifices tugged at me just as it does a child who steps into an enchanting playground. And that’s what this place looked like—a playground filled with odd-shaped structures that begged to be climbed.
In reality, though, we were at Jantar Mantar—an astronomical observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, a soldier, scholar and ruler with a lifelong interest in math and astronomy. He founded the city of Jaipur in the 1720s and built five Jantar Mantar observatories in northern India.
Jantar Mantar means “instruments for calculation,” or “magical calculations.” The Jaipur observatory consists of 18 devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, observing planet orbits; calculating the lunar calendar and predicting the start of the monsoon season. It’s main purpose, though, seems to have been casting horoscopes, which require a precise knowledge of the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars at the moment of birth.
The largest instrument (with steps leading to its top) is a sundial 27 meters high, its shadow carefully plotted to tell the time of day to an accuracy of about two seconds. You can see the shadow moving at 1 millimeter per second, or roughly the width of a hand (6mm) every minute.
Influenced by the Islamic school of astronomy, Jai Singh also incorporated elements of early Greek and Persian observatories into his designs. The Jantar Mantars, however, are more complex, on a greater scale, and contain some completely unique designs and functions.
They were made almost entirely of masonry, with some engraved metal rings and plates set into masonry foundations, and they were built large because the larger the scale, the more accurate the measurements. Once finished, they could not be corrected or improved, and observations were limited to those involving the positions and motions of heavenly bodies that are visible to the naked eye.
Over the years, they’ve been restored from time to time—partly because they are tourist attractions, but also to keep them useful and scientifically authentic. Local astronomers still use them to predict the weather for farmers (although the accuracy is questionable), and students of astronomy and Vedic astrology are required to take some of their lessons at the observatories.
Because of their size and inflexibility, the Jantar Mantars were obsolete even before they were constructed and were soon replaced by smaller machined brass instruments and telescopes that proved more useful and accurate. Still, they are amazing reminders of ancient innovation and man’s quest to understand the universe.
In 1956, actor Yul Brynner, as the king of Siam, sang and danced through a gilded palace in the movie, “The King and I.” The country of Siam has since changed its name to Thailand, but its Grand Palace in Bangkok is still something to sing about.
The older Thai capital at Ayutthaya in the North had been destroyed in 1767 during a war with Burma, and newly proclaimed King Rama I ordered his men to remove bricks and other materials from the forts, walls and palaces (but not the temples) of this ruined city and send them by barge down the Chao Phraya river to the new capital city of Bangkok. Not only was he updating his wooden palace, but to solidify fortifications around his riverside capital, Rama I dug canals along its eastern edge, turning the city into an artificial island.
The Grand Palace is not one large structure in the tradition of most European palaces. It’s divided into four main courts separated by walls and gates and originally housing royal offices, state ministries, the royal chapel, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, ceremonial throne halls, and the king’s harem quarters. After a second expansion during the reign of Rama II, the palace covered an area of 2,351,000 square feet and was Thailand’s administrative and religious center, with thousands of inhabitants including guardsmen, servants, concubines, princesses, ministers and courtiers. And just like Rome’s Vatican City, the Grand Palace was considered a city within a city, subject to its own set of laws.
Gradually the government ministries grew in size and moved to other locations. The King, too, relocated to more modern palaces. In 1932, a student-launched revolution overthrew the absolute monarchy of King Rama VII, replacing it with a constitutional monarchy. Today, the Grand Palace still serves as a royal ceremonial venue, as well as a museum and tourist attraction.
I found the Grand Palace to be a photographer’s eye-candy wonderland rife with golden temples; bejeweled pavilions; and giant, elaborately painted warriors. I’d love to return, without having to follow a tour guide, and get lost in the visual magic of it all. Have you been to Bangkok’s Grand Palace? If so, what were your impressions?
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