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?
Click on any image to see the slideshow.
Did the ancient Greeks really paint their statues in gaudy colors and patterns that wore off over time?
Action, adventure and insights into Hawaiian culture. While trying to prove herself as a new detective, Lily Graham is going to learn more about her past and herself than she wants to know.
Following is a possible blurb on the book’s dust jacket. You know—that old-fashioned cover flap you used to read when trying to decide whether to buy the book. I hope you find it intriguing.
When the body of socialite Helen Dupree is found dismembered in a shark tank at the Honolulu Aquarium, newly minted HPD homicide detective Lily Graham is assigned to her first murder case.
To complicate matters, someone is stealing from ancient Hawaiian burial sites, and Lily’s Hawaiian ancestors contact her for help. Haunted by visions of rituals and human sacrifice, Lily is guided to the lava fields of Hawaii’s Big Island where she comes face to face with a deadly 700-year-old priest and is led on a hunt for a cunning grave robber who may hold the key to Helen Dupree’s murder.
To solve the case and appease her ancestors, Lily must not only interpret the visions and make sense of obscure clues left behind by Helen Dupree, but also fend off a diabolical killer who stands between her and the truth—a truth that will change her life forever.
Just as Tony Hillerman’s Native American mysteries unveil the Navajo culture and the rugged landscape of the American Southwest, The Shark God’s Keeper reveals the hidden culture of Native Hawaiians and showcases the mysterious, volcanic landscape of the world’s most remote archipelago.
Jennifer Crites is the co-author of Sharks and Rays of Hawaii (Mutual Publishing 2002), a nature book, which includes a chapter detailing the significance of sharks in Hawaiian culture. She’s written extensively about many aspects of Native Hawaiian culture as managing editor of ALOHA magazine and as a freelance writer for a number of local, national, and international publications.
It’s an ironic story line—after raiding and pillaging towns and villages in countries throughout the north Atlantic, Vikings returned home and went to church.
Perhaps they did, but if so, they didn’t attend services in a stave church—so named for its interior, weight-bearing pillars, or staves. There may be dragons on the roof, but stave churches weren’t built until after the Viking Age ended. That date is traditionally marked in England by the failed invasion attempt by Norwegian King Harald III, who was defeated by Saxon King Harold Godwinson in 1066. Ireland and Scotland note their own dates, predicated on victories against Vikings.
At one time there were more than a thousand stave churches throughout Europe. Most were built between circa 1130 and 1350 AD. Construction stopped when the Black Death started to spread through Europe, and congregating in small spaces became life threatening.
And the stave church is indeed a small space. So small, in fact, that most of its congregation had to stand—men and boys on the right, women and girls on the left. The elderly and sick could sit on benches along the walls.
Today only 28 stave churches survive, and all are in Norway where there is a long tradition of building in wood (remember those sturdy Viking ships). Earlier churches were built on often-soggy ground and succumbed to wood rot. Lesson learned. Stone foundations solved that problem.
While visiting the stave church in Borgund, I was surprised to see that it—like other stave churches—had no windows. The only light entered through a few small portholes high up on the walls. The altarpiece depicts Christ’s crucifixion. Animal masks adorn the south door, and serpents and dragon-like creatures decorate the main-door side panels and lintel. On the roof turrets, Christian crosses and dragonheads keep each other company. Old legends die hard I guess, and it seems that the parishioners were hedging their bets—honoring old gods and new.
I found it interesting that the timber used in construction of the church was most likely seasoned on the root, strategic cuts drawing the tar to the surface before the tree was felled. After construction and during renovations, additional tar was applied to protect the wood.
It was common to bury the dead under the church floor, but that practice stopped at the end of the nineteenth century thanks to the unpleasant smell. However, stillborn infants and babies who died before being baptized could not be buried in the consecrated ground of the churchyard. Tiny coffins were placed under the floor, even in recent times. It seems odd to me that the ground around the church was considered consecrated, but the ground under the church was not.
If you stand inside the church and look up, you’ll see that the roof above the nave looks like an inverted boat with ribs. Hmmmmm! I wonder what inspired that design.
Ever since Dutch explorer Admiral Jacob Roggeveen landed at a small island in the South Pacific on Easter Sunday 1722 and encountered a landscape filled with giant stone statues, the world has wondered about Easter Island: Where did the statues come from? How and why were they made? And, most puzzling, how were these behemoths—some weighing as much as 75 tons—moved.
In 2004, I flew to Easter Island and spent ten days there with University of Hawaii Professor Terry Hunt and his archaeology students, who were digging at Anakena Beach—site of the first Polynesian settlement on the island. Since then and as a result of his findings, Hunt has taken academic dynamite to the old myths and blown them apart.
The original theories went like this: The first settlement was in 700 AD, after which the population mushroomed to 10,000 or more, and the islanders destroyed their environment, cutting down all the trees to roll the massive statues—called moai—into place. Famine, warfare and even cannibalism followed. It was a classic example of wasted resources leading to societal collapse, one that the world should take note of.
According to Hunt’s research, that’s all wrong.
Carbon dating of bones and other items from his dig now puts the first settlement closer to 1200 AD, and new evidence shows the population reached a maximum of 3,000, which was all the 64-square-mile island could handle because its ecosystem was depleted even before the first settlers arrived.
So did the islanders—now known as Rapanui—cut down their trees? The island was originally covered with thick forests of Jubea palm trees, and the Rapanui did cut down some of them to build shelter, says Hunt, but not to move moai. The real culprits were Polynesian rats that had arrived with the settlers, possibly as stowaways on the canoes. They multiplied rapidly, and their favorite food? The seeds of the Jubea palms. Without seeds, no new trees could grow.
Also, says Hunt, there is no evidence of warfare: no remains of fortress-like buildings or weapons of war. And all anecdotal evidence points to a peaceful people who understood that in order to co-exist in an inhospitable environment—with no lakes or streams, poor soil conditions and inconsistent rainfall—they would have to get along or perish.
Next time: the moai—why they were carved. And did they, as the local folklore says, really walk from the quarry to their current locations?
Sharing this sunset from a few nights ago.
I’m standing on the rocks below Diamond Head, and the structure you can see on the hill at right is the Diamond Head Lighthouse. Most people view it from above, when they climb to the top of Diamond Head Crater on a hiking trail and look down from the pinnacle.
In the 1800s, with so many ships running aground on reefs and shoals during the night, something had to be done, and in 1878 a lookout station was built. Its first attendant, John Peterson (from Sweden), known as “Lighthouse Charlie,” was on duty seventeen hours a day, watching through his telescope for incoming vessels. He lived in a small cottage nearby and was paid $50 a month.
When a steamship ran aground in 1897, a stone tower topped by a fixed white light was built. In 1918, after Hawaii was annexed as a territory, the federal government built the current lighthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It stands 55 feet tall, 147 feet above sea level, and its 1,000-watt electric light magnified by a 7,300-candlepower lens can be seen 18 nautical miles away.
The Trojan Horse. Existing only in the pages of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, it has been recreated on the outskirts of Troy—an ancient, excavated city in northwestern Turkey.
In the poem, Paris, Prince of Troy and thought to be the handsomest man alive, traveled to Sparta in Greece to win the affections of the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus.
When Menelaus found out that Paris had stolen his wife and carried her (and much of Menelaus’ treasure) off to Troy, he sent a fleet of ships to destroy Paris and Troy. But Troy wasn’t that easy to destroy. So a large wooden horse was built. It was hollow so that soldiers could hide inside. When the Greek fleet sailed away, the Trojans thought they had won and brought the giant horse—which they were told would bring them luck—inside the walls. That night, of course, the soldiers in the horse emerged and slaughtered the Trojans as they slept off their victorious drunken stupor.
There’s much more to the story, just as there is more to the finding and excavating of Troy, but that’s for another post.
To show how BIG the horse is, note the relatively tiny figure (all 5’9” of me) leaning against the horse’s leg.
The term, Trojan Horse, is used today to represent a deception—something that looks good on the outside but really isn’t. I’ve had a few encounters with that: an ex boyfriend or two, even a job that looked like my dream job but soured after a couple of months. Anybody else had any Trojan Horse experiences?
East of Malaga offers an intriguing challenge for September, and so I again focus my lens on Hawaii, where repetition usually means colorful and fun. Usually….but not always.
My two selected blogs for this theme, I think are clever interpretations and so different—tires and beehive:
Today, September 21, 2012 is the thirtieth anniversary of the UN’s International Day of Peace. To commemorate this day and its message, Ailsa has asked bloggers to create posts of white—representing peace. Her white photos include a fitting quote by Martin Luther King and the snow-covered Imagine memorial to peace activist John Lennon. http://wheresmybackpack.com/2012/09/20/travel-theme-white/
Here in Hawaii, we look at peace through the terrible lens of war, and nothing exemplifies that more than the glistening white Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, which hovers over the sunken battleship—a watery grave for 2,340 servicemen—reminding us all to put peace above the horrendous destruction of war.
The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul itself, Cappadocia….all these iconic sites come to mind when travelers think of Turkey. But for this week’s photo challenge, I wanted to show a different side of the country that straddles two continents, and, indeed, two worlds. Turkey is at the same time part Asia and part Europe, Islamic yet democratic, both modern and ancient, and in the immortal words of Donnie and Marie Osmond, it’s a little bit country and a little bit Rock ‘n’ Roll.
By Rock ‘n’ Roll, of course, I mean Urban. In the Turkish countryside you’ll see vast acreages dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables. But you’ll also see a plethora of urban centers. Istanbul, certainly, but also Izmir, Ankara, Antalya and many others.
I’ve selected just a few of the many images that to me represent Turkey in its most unique urban sense.
This image depicts the merging of old and new, past and present, and the rise of plastic urbanization in the form of cars, roads and buildings. In the words of singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, “they paved Paradise, put up a parking lot.”