Monday, 23 April 2012

Unofficial Wonders

Although I did plenty of research into the various candidate Wonders around before I set off on travelling, I was very aware that I would inevitably stumble across the occasional building and landmark that I'd either not heard of or had chosen not to add that, upon visiting, I would realise, were definitely worthy of being on the list. My big fear was that I'd visit something that was suddenly a serious contender for an actual World Wonder, which would force me to go home, research it, and then revisit it fully. Fortunately, this never occurred, but I did encounter loads of places that were pretty damn good, and many of them better than a good portion of my official list.

I call these places "Unofficial Wonders", and here are the most significant ones I encountered.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia.

"It is a very handsome steel bridge connecting the centre of Sydney to the north shore of the harbour, and due to its height and prominent position is a highly visible landmark all across the city. Sydney is quite a hilly city, and the Harbour Bridge, being by the waterside, is obviously quite low, but due to it being clear of surrounding buildings it can be quite easily seen from any of the higher vantage points. In Bondi, for example, having a coffee with Matt at a shopping centre earlier in the day, the Harbour Bridge, though far in the distance was still clear and distinct in view. Later on the tour, in the heights of Bondi, it was again the scenic highlight in the distance. Muscular but elegant, it is a real highlight of Sydney."

Prambanan, Indonesia. 

"When compiling my Wonder candidate list, I came across Prambanan a few times and considered it, but ultimately rejected it as I didn't feel it had top Seven potential. My judgement was harsh. Although it perhaps wouldn't be a finalist, it really deserves a place on my list, and I've no doubt it will be more impressive than some of the future places I'm to visit. It is almost - almost - the equal of Borobudur. In fact, it is often called the Hindu equivalent of Borobudur, hailing from the same era, built from the same materials, abandoned at the same time, and rediscovered by one of Raffles' explorers. That said, it has a different impact and purpose. Surrounded by a ring of 224 now-ruined small shrines, the central compound features six large temples, the largest of which is dedicated to Shiva, a supreme god in Hindu mythology, and measures 47 metres in height. All are elaborately designed in the Hindu architectural style, which for the layman kind of looks like a whole loads of bulbs piled on top of each other, with carvings and sculptures all around. It is elaborate and beautiful. The temples can be entered by the main stairway, which leads directly into the central chamber, but also gives access to a terrace that runs around the temples. Inside each temple is a statue dedicated to a Hindu god or their assistants (or there used to be at least, as some are now empty)."

I would probably rate Prambanan among the top ten man-made sights I saw in Asia.

Sundamani Temple (and Kuthadow Pagoda), Burma.

"This [stone inscriptions inside small pagodas], Mandalay proudly boasts, is the largest book in the world. Even if it is, I can't imagine anybody could ever read it, as each page is written on a block of stone and kept inside a small stupa. I'm not sure if the Kindle edition is out. It's called the Kuthadow Pagoda, and is on the quiet outskirts of Mandalay, beyond the palace, and was named one of the Eight Wonders of the Buddhist World. It was built in 1857, and has 729 marble slabs, each in a small stupa surrounding the central golden pagoda, containing the Tripitaka, the Buddhist holy book. Pretty big, eh?

Except this one's bigger, and it's right next door. This is Sundamani temple and it has 1774 marble slabs. Why is it not a Wonder of the Buddhist World?"  

Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, Cambodia.

"The Palace was beautiful."

Stylistically, it's very similar to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, even to the detail of having an Angkor Wat model in the grounds. Not quite as ornate or fabulous as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, it was arguably a more pleasant experience, due to the lesser numbers of tourists and greater sense of freedom of exploration.

Ta Prohm, Cambodia.

"Having plants and trees grow rampantly inside temples usually isn't good for the temple's health, and so between 1907 and 1970 the École française d'Extrême-Orient, a French institute dedicated to studying Asian cultures, cleared the jungle away as an important first step to the restoration of the temples (they stopped in 1970 due to the Cambodian Civil War breaking out, followed by the genocide of about a fifth of the country's population). The exception to this was Ta Prohm. It was deliberately left in its natural state, unrestored, with just minimal treatment to keep it stable and to make it accessible to tourism. This was to highlight the effect of the jungle, contrast the unrestored with the restored, but really, to paraphrase the École française d'Extrême-Orient, just because it looked really cool."
One of the best things I saw in Asia, just a little behind Kailash Temple in Ellora.

Bayon, Cambodia.

"And that's because Jayavarman has decorated Bayon with over 200 faces of... himself? Buddha? Nobody quite knows, but on 37 towers (there were once 49), the same mildly smirking face gazes out, four faces to each tower. It's a feature that from a distance can escape you, and even as you approach the temple the faces aren't entirely clear. It's only once through the first couple of galleries and up the steep steps into the upper terrace that suddenly the faces appear. From all around, Jayavarman VII or Buddha or possibly, "Stars In Your Eyes" style, Jayavarman VII as the Buddha, large smirking faces watch you. All the same face, all the same expression, a temple of giant faces, probably of the egomaniac god-king of Angkor."

Probably just behind Ta Prohm in my assessment.

Cambulo and Batad Rice Terraces, Philippines.

"I don’t think anyone could strongly disagree with me that Batad and Cambulo are nicer than Banaue. The difference between Batad and Cambulo is tighter, as Batad has a single hillside focus that is as appealing as it is dramatic and steep. However, to my eyes, the Cambulo terraces had it all. It seemed bigger than the Banaue ones for a start, or certainly the terraces immediately surrounding the town of Banaue (many terraces further afield are attributed to Banaue, thus making it the official largest). But it was far less patchy, with large areas of rice terraces running up and down hillsides into a valley, along which a river ran. The small town of Cambulo wasn’t sprawling or messy like Banaue, and became a scenic addition. The same could also be said for Batad. I suppose that Cambulo had the size of Banaue but the focus of Batad. But both were terrific, both were beautiful, and both were absolutely worth the days of effort to visit."

Bibi Ka Maqbara, India.

Known as the "Poor Man's Taj", it was built to rival the Taj Mahal but the prince couldn't afford it. Nice, but forgettable.

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka.

"There is no doubt that Sigiriya makes an excellent first impression. The giant rock is an unmistakeable feature against the flat surroundings, looking improbable and out of place. Indeed, there is no sign of the ruins at all until much closer, reinforcing that the wonder of this landmark is all about the natural rather than the man-made. Only upon reaching a large pool of water followed by another one do you realise that you have in fact just encountered the inner and outer moats, still functioning 1500 years on. I'm not sure how much restoration had been done, but the inner moat especially looks in great shape, still retaining its defensive function many years on - these days to keep the tourists from getting in for free."

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Sri Lanka.

"Suddenly Kandy sparkled, the lake shone, and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic beamed by its side. Naturally, we had to pay a visit. Our conclusion - inessential. Unless you're particularly keen on Buddhist shrines, it's not very interesting. At least it's £6 rather than £20 to get into, and has a free audio tour, but it's simply not interesting to the casual tourist. If you're a Buddhist scholar or patriotic Sri Lankan (you get in for much cheaper) or an aficionado of incredibly dull audio tours then you'll love it. If you have genetic or cultural make-up more similar to myself, you'll not. The highlight of the whole experience was Burness having to wear a sarong, as his short trousers were inappropriate."

The Arch of Triumph, North Korea.

"There's the large arch - The Arch of Triumph - famously like Paris's Arc de Triumphe, but a little larger."

Ryugyong Hotel, North Korea.

"Let it not be understated, I love this building. A colossal and steep 105-storey pyramid of retro-futuristic glass and steel, it dominates Pyongyang, which seems to pivot around it. Construction started twenty-five years ago, but funds ran out and for over almost two decades the unfinished hotel sat in the centre of Pyongyang as a very visible reminder of the nation's problems. Rumours of structural instability abound. But work has restarted, and it should be complete soon - in theory in time for the big 100th birthday celebrations. Like much of the buildings and monuments in Pyongyang, subtlety might not be its strong point, but it looks like nothing else I've seen before and is a massive icon of the city. I will refuse to visit North Korea again unless I can stay there."

I wasn't able to visit it, but the impression it made on me possibly puts the hotel in my top seven for Asia, that I've seen to date.

Juche Tower, North Korea.

"The tower with the flame on top is called the Juche Tower, named after President Kim Il Sung's revolutionary philosophy of self-reliance (propped up by China), and like all the world's best towers can be climbed, offering a terrific view of the city."

The Temple of Heaven, China.

"The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is an astonishing looking building. It's quite, quite beautiful, and looks unlike anything I've seen to date. It entirely eclipses the rest of the temple complex (three main parts, although there are other buildings in the park it resides in) to the point where the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is generally just called the Temple of Heaven. It was built at the command of the same guy who built the Forbidden City, Emperor Yongle, from around 1406 to 1420, when he made Beijing the capital. Sat on a marble pedestal, and 38 metres tall, it is entirely made of wood. As with buildings made of wood, however, fire can be a bit of a problem, and the current version we see now dates from the late 19th Century, after lightning struck the precursor and burnt it to the ground."

The Summer Palace, China.

"This dates from 1750, and was just another one of the emperor's many palaces. It all takes place around a lake - the dominant feature - and is essentially a bunch of pretty buildings scattered scenically about, with some charming bridges too. I'm glad it's not on my Wonder list because it would involve lots of description, and also the spread makes it difficult to justify as a single Wonder."

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