My challenge to myself is to find these challenge photos from a recent trip to China. Cooking hot Peking Duck, and enjoying cold “iceas.”
Beautiful nature to brighten up the day
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.
Colorful ripples reflect our boat’s passage under and past this remarkable color-and-pattern-changing bridge on the Yangtze River.
Remind you of anything?
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 a faraway land called India, a great emperor named Shah Jahan adored his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. When she died giving birth to their 14th child, he built her the most magnificent tomb in the history of the world—the Taj Mahal.
“We’ll meet at the bus at 5:30am,” our India tour guide informed us the night before. “We want to be first in line.”
Ugh! Near the front of the line, we stood in the dark for what seemed like forever, waiting for the gates to open. Luckily we were squeezed between “stand in line” railings, so I had something to lean on in my groggy condition.
When we finally entered at sunrise, all sleepiness disappeared, and we were struck by the ethereal beauty of one of the world’s most beloved edifices. Consistently named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the ivory-white marble tomb takes your breath away when you see it up close for the first time. Its name is Persian for “Crown of Palaces,” and so it is, reigning on a marble base, or plinth, at the far end of a narrow reflecting pool, and guarded by a minaret at each corner.
The tomb was commissioned in 1632 and finished in 1643 using materials from all over Asia (white marble from India, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka), and it’s thought that more than 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials. The rest of the 42-acre complex—finished between five and ten years later—includes a mosque, guesthouse and formal gardens. Total cost in 2015 U.S. dollars—$827 million. The project employed some 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects. In 1983 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India.”
Clever subterfuge: To protect the building during WWII, the Indian government erected scaffolding around it in anticipation of air attacks by the Japanese Air Force. Scaffolding was again used during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971 to mislead bomber pilots.
To this day, the Taj Mahal still stands as a symbol of love. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore poetically described it as “the tear drop on the cheek of time.” And so it was for Shah Jahan. When he died, he was laid to rest in a sarcophagus next to his beloved Mumtaz.
The troop-carrier jeep bounced along a dirt road carpeted with large potholes that looked like they’d been blown out by meteorites. I tightened my grip on side railings and those attached to the back of the seat in front of me, but still, every pothole sent me careening in four different directions. Twice, my mouth connected with the side bar, and once, while I was looking up, the bar behind my head rose up to crash into my skull.
We were in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, on safari, looking for wild tigers. So far, we’d spotted a lot of sika and samboor deer—including two young bucks testing their fighting mettle by locking horns—and several birds. But no tigers. Where the deer were, the tigers weren’t, which makes sense from a deer’s point of view.
To give you some background, the Ranthambhore Reserve covers an area of 1334 square kilometers, was started in 1973, and is home to six species of cats, three species of mongoose and marsh crocodile, an estimated 38 species of other mammals (the deer would fit in here), 315 species of birds and 402 species of plants. Whew!
The road wound up and down, crossing streams and the aforementioned potholes, through a thickly forested underbrush area categorized as tropical dry deciduous. If the tigers had been there, we might not have been able to see them in the tall grass. I was disappointed—and a little banged up. So, to avoid the whiplash affecting my lower back, I opted out of the next morning’s safari. My husband did go, though, and we were both happy about the results. Not only did they spot a tiger, but also a marsh crocodile, monkeys, and different birds.
Tigers are king in Ranthambhore, and tiger images are everywhere, including at a craft shop known as the Village Women Crafts, where sari-clad women (sometimes with a small child nearby) sew and weave beautiful designs into wall hangings, clothing and other fabric items. It may be a woman’s craft center, but men, it seems, are the ones painting tiger images. All the work is exquisite.
Another craft center again offered the vibrantly colored fabrics India is known for, as well as camel-pulled carriage rides. It was here that a group of sassy local barely-teenage boys (the girls are much more reserved) presented themselves to me to have their picture taken, and, wanted to take their picture with me. It was a delightful international exchange, and we all had fun. For me, this is one of the big perks of travel—random exchanges between people. It helps us bond with people of other cultures—and they with us—and reminds us that we are really all the same, despite different skin colors, religions and customs.
To see the slideshow, just click on any photo and use the arrows to move back and forth.
In my previous post, I took you on a visual tour of Lake Pichola in the India city of Udaipur, district of Rajasthan.
Today we embark on an exploration of Udaipur’s City Palace, which is one of the architectural marvels of Rajasthan.
Indeed, Udaipur City Palace on the banks of Lake Pichola is the most-visited tourist attraction of Udaipur and the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. It was started in 1559 and not completed until the 18th century because each new ruler kept adding on to it using granite and marble in a surprisingly harmonious blend of Medieval, European and Chinese architecture.
Inside its walls are eleven palaces, including Manak Mahal (Ruby Palace) that features figures of crystal and porcelain, Bhim Vilas and its collection of miniature paintings, and Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors). Other palaces hold Chinese and Dutch ornamental tiles, murals, wall paintings, silver art, inlay, and an amazing amount of colored glass.
There is also an arena where elephant fights were staged, and an area of marble arches where eight times, maharanas were known to weigh themselves and then distribute their weight in gold and silver to lucky locals.
In addition, there are bird cages and carrier-pigeon boxes in tower rooms; glass mosaics of peacocks representing the three seasons of summer, winter and monsoon; ubiquitous Indian scalloped arches, and towers that look out over the city on one side and Lake Pichola on the other.
Check out workers cleaning the palace walls while perched on bamboo scaffolding, which is really amazing when you remember that bamboo is a grass.
My apologies for the blurry photo of the palace gate. It was a grab shot as the bus was driving past, but I did want to show you the gate’s spikes. They were installed to prevent the enemy’s elephants from pushing through the gate.
Click on any photo below to enlarge, and then use the arrows to move back and forth. Likes and comments are always appreciated, and if you’ve been to India, I’d love to hear about your travels there.
There is a beautiful lake in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India….. Its name is Pichola.
On one side, its waters lap at the base of ancient homes; boat docks; wide concrete steps called ghats, where women come to wash their saris or string marigold garlands; and the towering fort-like walls of the City Palace. On the other side, hazy mountains seem to float in the sky.
Legend has it that the lake was created in the 15th century when a gypsy Banjara tribesman built a dam so that his livestock could cross a stream. Maharani Udai Singh II built his shining city of Udaipur around the lake in 1560, while strengthening the dam and enlarging the lake. It’s currently 3-miles long, 2-miles wide and 30-feet deep.
Within its waters are two natural islands, each supporting a palace. The white Taj Lake Palace is exclusive to guests staying at its hotel, but you can see its interior in the 1983 James Bond film “Octopussy.”
The Jag Mandir, or Lake Garden Palace, made of marble and yellow sandstone (including 8 white-marble elephants guarding the palace), was built in the 1550s as a hiding place for Prince Khurram, who became Shah Jahan—builder of the Taj Mahal. Later, Maharana Swaroop Singh sheltered several European families here during the revolt of 1867. The hotel caters to weddings and other lavish events, and the palace gardens bloom with roses, jasmine flowers, palms, frangipani and bougainvillea.
From the comfort of a marigold-draped boat, our small tour group cruised the lake and then disembarked for an exploration of Jag Mandir, where we learned that jazz legend Kenny G, who had been on our flight from Delhi to Udaipur the previous day, was scheduled to perform on the palace stage that evening.. Afterwards, we re-boarded our boat and headed back to the city proper.
I hope you enjoy the visual tour of Pichola Lake. As always, click on any photo to begin the slideshow.
Last September, we embarked from Shanghai on a 17-day cruise that made port at Nagasaki, Japan; Busan, South Korea; Taipei, Taiwan; Hong Kong; Vietnam; Bangkok, Thailand; and finally Singapore. My story (with photos) of the journey is featured in the Spring issue of TravelWorld International magazine, starting on page 6. http://issuu.com/travelworld/docs/_twi_magazine_spring_2015/1. Please enjoy the tour.
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.
Rong Gao (Dragon Bridge), Da Nang, Vietnam. Built in 2013 and designed by U.S. engineers, this dragon breathes fire and hissing smoke (water mist) each weekend after sunset. Now that I’ve photographed it during the day, returning at night is on my Bucket List.