Rooms – A Portrait of Istanbul

Istanbul is famous for it’s skyline, the most picturesque in the world, but beyond this city of winding cobbled streets, endless markets and eateries, there is a beguiling sense of the exotic that seduces the eye and the imagination.IMG_0871

From the bewitching conclaves of Topkapi palace, where Ottoman Sultans ruled and loved, to the glittering bazaars, ostentatious places of worship, and the understated elegance of a craftsman’s workshop, this is a reflection of Istanbul life through a series of rooms.

Topkapi Palace is unequivocally beautiful, with cool courtyards of marble, and pretty gardens spaced between the opulent pavilions and chambers. Accessed through a series of ornate gates, each massive courtyard progresses further into the palace, growing ever more exclusive and intriguing. Here, at its heart, lay the most exclusive community of all: the Harem, where the Sultan’s concubines remained in luxurious isolation. It was here that the mechanism of dynastic succession was ensured, with all its drama and tragedy. This unique institution lasted from the fifteenth century until finally being disbanded in 1908 when the last Ottoman sultan abdicated to make way for the Turkish republic.

 

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A glimpse of the guardroom dormitory, where black eunuchs rested. As many as 200 lived at Topkapi, guarding the doors and waiting on the women of the Harem.
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A visitor makes her way along the Golden Road – a passage between the harem guardroom and the interior

But who were these mysterious women, kept in this gilded cage, hidden from the world?

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The harem was presided over by the sultan’s mother, the ‘Valide Sultan”, who was allocated sumptuous apartments there. A very powerful woman, who owned land in her own right and possessed great influence over matters of state. She often selected her son’s concubines from the harem women herself.
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The word Harem means ‘forbidden’ or ‘private’. The enslaving of Muslims was forbidden, so the harem concubines were foreign, generally bought as slaves in the bazaar. Circassian women, with blue/grey eyes, pale skins and fair hair sometimes found their way here after being sold by their impoverished families, and were a prized addition to the Harem. Many concubines would not meet the sultan, let alone sleep with him. The women were educated in Islam, the Turkish language and customs. They learned to read and write and were taught dance and embroidery. Eventually they would become ladies in waiting to the sultan’s consorts and children, and the sultan’s mother. If they impressed, they might gain favour and attend on the sultan himself. This would give them influence and the potential for wealth. The Harem must have been a highly competitive environment, but then the stakes were high for those that presented the sultan with a son, and most would pay a terrible price for their fecundity.
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Overlooking the courtyard of the favourites are the ‘kafes’, where the sultan’s many sons were imprisoned until their father’s death. Their was no succession of the firstborn, merely the favoured son, usually the progeny of the sultan’s favourite wife or consort. Once secured on the throne, the new sultan would order the murder of his brothers, thus eliminating any challenges to him or and his future heirs. Many of them would still have been children.

Not withstanding the pressures on their mothers, jostling for power, it can’t have been a pleasant existence for the princes, assuming they had learned of their likely fate, despite the pampered lifestyle. There was little education in statecraft or diplomacy, and no opportunity to experience warfare at first hand. It was a pampered, shallow existence, and a recipe for disaster:

Take for instance, the story of Prince Ibrahim, who had lived his life in the cage and was considered insane. When his brother, Murad acceded the throne, he spared Ibrahim’s life, considering him to be of little threat, but Murad died suddenly without issue and there was no choice but to declare Ibrahim sultan in his place. Poor Ibrahim barred his door against the party that came to tell him the good news, suspecting it was a trick, that they had come to strangle him after all. He insisted they produce his dead brother’s body as proof before he would come out.

Finally released from his long confinement, he lost no time in making up for his years of deprivation, indulging himself in the women of his Harem. Dimitri Cantemir wrote in his History of the Growth and Decay of the Ottoman Empire, “In the palace gardens he frequently assembled all the virgins, made them strip themselves naked, and neighing like a stallion ran amongst them and as it were ravished one or the other, kicking or struggling by his order.”

He was said to have lavished money on furs, jewellery and mirrors to decorate his rooms, to the exclusion of governing, which he left to his mother and officials. At some point, Ibrahim sent his servants to find him the fattest woman in the world. They duly complied and provided Ibrahim with a 300 pound Armenian girl called Sechir Para, (Sugar Cube). He soon grew infatuated with her, and her influence over him eclipsed that of his jealous mother, Kosim. One day, Sechir told Ibrahim that one of the other concubines had been compromised by an outsider. When no-one admitted the crime, he went into a rage and had his entire Harem of 280 women tied into weighted sacks and thrown into the Bospherous, where most of them drowned.

Eventually Kosim disposed of Sechir, murdering her during a private dinner party. She told Ibrahim his favourite consort had died of a sudden illness. There was no doubt in Kosim’s mind that Ibrahim must also be put out of the way before he killed everyone around him, including her. Luckily, he’d fathered sons with his many consorts and was dynastically disposable. She had him locked up and strangled. He was succeeded by his six-year-old son, Mehmed.

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Istanbul is steeped in history, from it’s Byzantine beginnings, through Roman rule, and Ottoman invasion. Each has left its trace within the ruined city walls, leaving us with a fusion of religions and continents. Many of the famous mosques gracing Istanbul’s skyline began life as Christian churches. Aya Sofya is probably the most famous of these:

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Aya Sofya consecrated as a church in 537 by Emperor Justinian, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, and declared a museum by Ataturk in 1935.

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There is an interesting story around this 11th century mosaic. The portrait on the right is of the Byzantine Empress Zoe. The central figure of Christ was originally modelled the likeness of her first husband, but when he died, she remarried and had his face removed and replaced by that of her new husband, Michael IV. When he died, his face was in turn removed, and the last face, still remaining, belongs to her last husband, Constantine IX, who outlived her!
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This view was taken on tiptoe through a high window in the upstairs gallery.

A visit to Suleymaniye, provided another opportunity to capture some ornate domed ceilings, and sweeping chandeliers. Built around 1556, and it has a lighter, more modern feel than Aya Sofya:

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This is very much an active mosque with many worshippers in daily attendance.

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The Grand Bazaar is a treasure house of stalls, crammed within a confusing warren of cluttered avenues. Carpets hang alongside glittering lamps and Goldsmiths rub along with purveyors of Turkish delight, aromatic spices and the fake designer labels for which Istanbul is ignominious. This is a palace of trinkets, and promise. Who can say, there might even be an Aladin’s lamp or a flying carpet to be found in the gloomy depths of a quirky shop.

The last of my rooms belongs to a furniture restorer taking a tea break in the porch of his workshop.

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This is my favourite image from Istanbul. This man, working well into retirement, is smiling with his eyes and rather sums up the great humour and zest for life evident amongst the Istanbul locals.

Istanbul has much to offer the visitor, with cultural splendours in every direction, amazingly cheap and tasty food, fabulous shopping, stunning vistas, and at sunset every evening, the evocative call to prayer issuing from the city’s minarets. It is a city steeped in history and character, and bristling with life.

 

 

 

 

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Venice of the East

It’s hard to imagine that Bangkok with its perpetual traffic jams and spewing exhaust fumes, was once known as the Venice of the East. This was because the main form of transport around the city was once the humble boat, utilising a network of canals and waterways known as khlongs fed by the great meandering River of Kings, Chao Phraya.

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Street food began here on the waterways, evolving into floating markets, invented to capture passing trade. Imagine instead of static stalls, a flotilla of long tailed boats clustered near the banks, bobbing in the wake of moving traffic, heaped with all manner of food and paraphernalia, lost in the haze of smoking charcoal burners and the steam from boiling noodles and rice.

Chao Phraya is still the lifeblood of Bangkok, but of the little arteries it once fed, few remain. Most have been filled in to make way for roads, but some find a way to re-invent the ancient system. A great example are the fast motor boats which offer an express ‘ferry’ service up and down the city canals, whizzing past riverside homes and under vine-tangled bridges.DSCN1669-2They move fast, churning up quite a wake, and only stop briefly for passengers to get on and off at designated piers, but they are a great alternative to a tuk tuk or taxi if you don’t mind getting splashed and are nimble.

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Floating markets have these days become the preserve of tourists, offering a glimpse of times past, when the khlongs were what the bustling Bangkok streets are today, but it is possible to find a more authentic experience only 30 minutes taxi ride from the centre of Bangkok.

Khlong Lat Mayom is a small floating market with few foreign visitors, selling mainly fruit and vegetables to the huge number of eateries spread out on the land-side of the canal. This is a gargantuan food market, exotic and sensual, with hundreds of different stalls selling thousands of colourful and aromatic foods, nestled under cover, lit by a myriad of glowing lightbulbs. It’s possible to be lost for hours, just taking in the enormity of it, the variety……

What to choose is a wondrous dilemma – we can only eat so much!

In the end, we collapsed at a bamboo table overlooking the canal, clutching flattened, skewered chicken breasts (Gai Galae) with sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves. I adore sticky rice, it’s so easy to eat with your fingers:

 

For dessert we chose pineapple hearts. Carved from a whole pineapple, these ‘lollipops’ on stalks are mouthwatering. Just the thing after spicy and BBQ style chicken. DSCN4034

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Of course it’s inconceivable to visit a khlong and not get on a boat. It’s possible to hire one for very little so we bought tickets at 35 Baht each for a trip in a long tailed rowing boat rather than a motor boat, thinking to prolong the sense of peacefulness before returning to the mayhem of Bangkok.

We drifted gently past wooden houses elevated on stilts, and peered enthralled into a world governed by water – fishing nets were hanging from every beam and motor engines cluttered verandas beside the hulls of upturned boats.

The whole network of khlongs has a suburban feel, almost a sub-culture shaped by the unique environment – every now and again we were overtaken by small buzzing motorboats driven by fishermen and women, carrying landing nets. But the water isn’t just a byway, it’s a playground too –  children dive and splash, and play chase around their homes – and for a communal recreation ground, there are the lily ponds!IMG_9953-2.jpg

 

Khlong Lat Mayom is a 30 minute taxi ride from the centre of Bangkok, although you may have to persevere as not all taxi drivers want a trip outside the city that isn’t a ‘tour’ and as Khlong Lat Mayom is not a tourist spot, there’s no guaranteed return trip for them. We found getting a taxi back to Bangkok easier than persuading a taxi driver to take us. Another option is to take the BTS Sky Train from Bangkok to Bang Wa station from which you can grab a taxi to the market (for a family though it’s pricier and hotter).

Huge thanks to our Twitter friends Charlie and Christina @maptrotting and Mark Wiens https://migrationology.com/best-floating-market-in-bangkok/ for all the tips!

Bali: Magical Jatiluwi

The rice fields were high on my itinerary when we visited Bali last summer, mostly because I was seduced by the photographs I had seen in travel books over the years- were they really that green? I just had to find out for myself.

Well I wasn’t disappointed; as we drove up the twisting hills towards Jatiluwih (in a taxi we’d hired in Sanur) we stopped several times to gawp at the elegant emerald terraces laid out beneath us. I was captivated.img_20170304_225126_367

 

Soon we’d parked up on a roadside space in Jatiluwi. The fields are an easy walking distance from the road, with several public access points. There are different routes to choose from depending on how far you want to ramble. It’s possible to escape any tourist huddles, and once you’ve ambled a little way, along rises and dips, there are photo opportunities whichever way you look. This is a phenomenal, man-made landscape, as beautiful as it is practical.

The terraces, for all their drama, are born of necessity; rice is the staple food in this part of the world: it begins life as ‘Padi’ the growing rice (hence paddy fields of course) and ends as ‘Nasi’ the cooked rice – anyone travelling in Asia will be familiar with Nasi Goreng (fried rice).

This scene is a marriage of man and nature, a geological wonder brought about by the collision of tectonic plates in the earth’s crust. These events produced Bali’s volcanic spine and created the perfect environment for cultivation. The ash spewed by volcanoes has fertilised the soil, and moisture-laden air is blown up the mountainsides by the wind, where it cools and forms rain clouds which irrigate the land in a perpetual cycle of replenishment.

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As you follow the paths, streams chatter past, making it slippery in places. These are the irrigation systems built by the farming co-operatives called Subaks, who manage the fields (known as sawahs).

It’s labour intensive work. The channels bringing water must be dug and kept clear, and the sawahs require ploughing and levelling before the rice can be planted. The plots need constant weeding and have to be protected from birds and other scavengers until harvest time arrives when the rice is cut with scythes and taken away to be threshed. The stubble is then burned off before the field is flooded and fertilised with cow manure before the whole cycle of ploughing etc begins again. Most sawahs, I am told by our driver, produce three crops a year.

The Balinese are a very spiritual people. Even in the touristy beach resort of Kuta, we saw evidence of religious ceremony; the beach was littered with straw effigies disintegrating in the rising tide, and in the towns we visited, on every doorstep, there were little offerings of flowers and rice laid in banana or palm leaf baskets, accompanied by sticks of burning incense. Every street corner seemed to have a shrine, draped in bright fabrics, somewhat tarnished by long exposure to exhaust fumes and shaded from the hot sun by bright yellow parasols. Some statues even had a lighted cigarette placed in their mouths. It seems the gods enjoy a good smoke!

The rice fields are the gift of the gods, hard work and ingenuity aside. Without the mountains they could not exist, and the tallest of the volcanic peaks, Mount Agung is the abode of gods. It is from here that the deities descend in spirit form (manifestations of the supreme god, Brahaman of Sang Hyang Widdhi Wasa) to enjoy the offerings that are carefully prepared and set out for them. In doing this, the Balinese enact the traditions of centuries to maintain an harmonious relationship between the natural and spiritual worlds.

There are shrines in the sawahs themselves, small constructions of bamboo or stone, loaded with offerings of fruit and flowers. These are dedicated to the goddess of rice, Dewi Sri, and judging from the stunning vista that is Jatiluwih, the goddess is pleased.

Jatiluwih has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

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Having a Wild Time

It was October, the tail end of the rainy season. We woke to a cloud burst emptying on to the roof of our veranda, splattering the mango trees and leaving spreading puddles in the grass. It was hardly a promising start to our much anticipated trip into Wilpattu National Park, but if we’d learned anything over the last week we’d spent in this verdant land, it was that although it rained EVERY day, it only rained for HALF of it. Therefore we were guaranteed a sunny afternoon, or so we hoped, grabbing our cagoules and splashing to meet our driver Rowland, who was grinning at us from under a sober, black brolly that would not have looked out of place in London’s square mile on a drizzly Monday morning.

In the rainy season (*)everyone in Sri Lanka carries an umbrella:, from the women selling fish arranged on swathes of burlap by the river in Negombo, the old man out for a solitary walk, dressed in a colourful sarong, the fruit sellers hawking green coconuts and pineapples at the side of the road, and alarmingly the cyclists, holding their umbrellas aloft as they cheerily weave an erratic path along uneven dirt roads, dicing with oncoming traffic. 

In Wilpattu National Park, settled in our open-sided jeep, we passed the biscuits around (it had been an early start ). There were five of us, our family of three, Rowland and the ranger we’d hired to drive us through the park. 

We shifted under our cagoules and peered eagerly into the jungle forest either side of the bumpy track, seeking signs of life. The bush glistened wetly, and dripped water into the puddles on the ground. At least the downpour had settled into a misty drizzle, but if there were animals, would they venture out? 

But the last few days had seen a lot of heavy rain, and our guide was eager to explain, with lots of nodding and grinning and not a little interpretation from Rowland, that this fact would work in our favour: the animals hadn’t been able to hunt. They would be hungry and would brave the drizzle. As if to prove his point, he jammed on the brakes and pointed out a serpent eagle perched on a branch.

 

This cheered us hugely and we scoured the forest, competing to be the first to spot wildlife – and it didn’t disappoint; another raptor on the ground wrestling with a small mammal or amphibian, wings flapping to balance. We greeted each new encounter; a jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka), bee eater and peacock with the excitement of small children.



The game was afoot, and we abandoned ourselves to the hunt, cameras poised. The pace was erratic, one moment we were speeding along, like passengers in a rally car, pitching and bouncing in our seats, clinging to the metal rails and roll bars, peering into the undergrowth and then someone would see something and we’d come to a bone-jarring halt.

We saw monitor lizards, spreadeagled upon abandoned termite mounds, their grey stomachs stained with the red mud of the region, and spotted deer, creeping delicately from cover and grazing only feet away. 

Splashing about the park in our jeep, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. By now the rain had almost stopped, and the forest was gently steaming. When the engine was turned off, we were transported to a world of peaceful silence, and then gradually we became aware of the background noises, the constant chatter of birds, the rustle overhead of a scampering monkey, the distant bark of a deer, or the bellow of a water buffalo, and the rich perfume of damp earth and jasmin. 

Wilpattu is famous for it’s natural fresh water lakes, known as villus (Wilpattu means ‘Villu-area’ Lake-land) and they are quite beautiful, unfolding before your eyes as you unravel from yet another shady jungle track, so that for a moment your breath catches in your throat through sheer amazement. Herons stalk  the shallows, and flocks of white plovers lift off in unison, and then settle again a few metres further on, and on a little green island, smooth as a golf course, we saw a mugger crocodile basking in the slowly emerging sunshine, and, astonishingly to us, oblivious to any danger, an ibis had decided to forage right alongside it. 

After eating our packed lunch, (tip – never leave your food unattended because a monkey will steal it), IMG_8923we discovered an entire froggy civilisation existing on the fringes of the lake in the mud and as we walked along, they sprang into the water in a plethora of plops as numerous as raindrops.

If Wilpattu is famous for its natural lakes, it’s even more famous for its leopards, sloths and of course elephants. In fact Sri Lanka has around 5000 wild elephants, and the best place to see them is in a National Park (rather than an ‘elephant orphanage’ where they are captive and shown for profit). We spotted a bull grazing at the edge of a lake, tugging up weed with its trunk. It was a spell-binding sight, majestic and we watched him for over an hour, even climbing to the top of a viewing platform for a better look – a real treat. 

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By now we were getting blase about crocodiles, we had seen so many, to say nothing about peacocks, bee-eaters (so cute) and kingfishers, eagles and deer, but just as our day was drawing to an end, we had one ambition left – to see a leopard.

Wilpattu has the densest population of wild leopards in the world, and is one of the best two places in the world to see them (the other being Yala National Park) but that doesn’t make them easy to find. The Park is 75% dense scrub jungle, impenetrable for vehicles, so there’s only a small are in which to see an animal that specialises in remaining invisible!

However the sun was finally out, and the leopards would be hungry and likely to hunt, but the afternoon was creeping towards evening so we didn’t have long before we’d have to leave. It was tight, but our ranger had a good idea of where to look. We drove through some rough terrain, rutted and water-logged to find an area of grass and scrub cover, ringed with white sand – here he found what he was looking for…fresh tracks:IMG_8998

We parked up and waited. Nearby a herd of deer had stopped grazing and were staring nervously into the bush. One barked an alarm call and a pair of fox cubs popped their heads above the grass. We hardly dared breathe as we peered into the scrub, willing the leopard to slink into view. I was convinced I could even smell it: a musky odour that hadn’t been there before. 

Twenty minutes slid by and the deer settled again; the leopard had moved away. Our guide started the engine and jammed the jeep into first gear, throwing it over the pitching ground as we clung to the sides, scouring the undergrowth willing our leopard to appear.

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We made several lurching circuits of the sandy trails, glancing anxiously at the sinking sun. We were pushing the clock….

The ranger braked one last time, more tracks. this was our final stop, one last pause before he’d have to hit the accelerator and get us back before dusk. Across a narrow belt of water, a herd of spotted deer were on alert, staring raptly into the undergrowth. The matriarch barked an alarm. We waited, twitching with anticipation, but time was against us. The sands had run out. We could not wait any longer. The leopard had eluded us.

An incredible day I will never forget, and every reason to return….IMG_8996

*The rainy season varies depending on which part of Sri Lanka you visit when. Suffice to say, it is always the rainy season somewhere in Sri Lanka. As a rule, it can rain everywhere in October and November. The South West of the island gets rain May -September, the dry season being December to March. In the North-Eastern coastal region of the country, the rainy season falls between October and January, dry season being May – September. As we discovered, it rarely rains all day, downpours being short and heavy, and despite getting sodden once or twice (notably atop Sigiriya) we were never cold. Visiting in October meant cheaper flights, cheaper accommodation and less tourists. Also, if booking a jeep safari, bear in mind it can get very hot and dusty in the dry season. The period between December and April is considered the peak season to travel to Sri Lanka.

Shh…Is this the Best Kept Secret in Kuala Lumpur?

Nestling under the looming presence of KL Tower, there is a hidden garden; the last pocket of virgin tropical rain forest that remains in the city. Some of its towering trees are hundreds of years old, and might have witnessed the arrival of the first human settlers in 1857; Chinese tin miners who arrived at the junction of the Klang and Gombak rivers and set up camp there, naming it Kuala Lumpur, which in Malay means ‘muddy confluence’!

Miraculously surviving the rapid development that has made Kuala Lumpur the largest city in Malaysia, the 9.3 hectares of KL Forest Eco Park, is an oasis of green amidst a jungle of heat-trapping concrete. You will find it on Bukit Nanas (Pineapple Hill), named after the spiky pineapple plants that were once planted there to defend a fort from attackers during the city’s early years when warlords fought for prominence. There are no signs of either the pineapples or the fort these days, but the rain forest clings on.

The winding trails within the reserve feel worlds away from the gargantuan shopping malls and gleaming tower blocks around it, although they can be occasionally glimpsed in the distance, between the tall ancient Jelutong trees. It is blissful; the sound of traffic fades behind the chatter of water and birdsong. This is another world – a time capsule.

The park is shy, holding back, hiding its charms in pockets and around corners. There are clumps of giant bamboo, as thick as an arm, leafy bananas, Surian Wangi trees with tough, reptilian bark and buttress roots so big they might have served as the prows of ancient wooden ships. There are twisting vines too, so stout they might be petrified mooring ropes.

Look close and you are likely to glimpse a line of ants carrying shredded leaves back to their nests and butterflies settling in the little herb garden, or a White-Throated Kingfisher fishing in the stream.

Nature has centre stage here; although it is clearly maintained and managed, there is a comfortable balance between it and mankind. The herb garden is understated, almost abandoned, and there are signs of gardeners in the most casual touches, such as seedlings sprouting in plant pots.

img_8724The forest reserve is a great place to bring your lunch. There are plenty of places to sit, tables and chairs, and even a stone seat tucked at the bottom of a winding path, all rustic, and in keeping with the natural backdrop.

The park has another man made addition, a ‘skywalk’ that takes you, through several stages, right up into the lofty canopy of the forest. This hi-tec contraption gives the visitor a unique perspective of the park, and somehow defines the city, if not the whole enigma of Malaysia; a land of contrasts.

 

Bukit Nanas Eco Park is free to enter and is open from 8am until 5pm.

 

Street Art, and the Race that Stopped a Nation.

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Love this photo of Esme, caught in the embrace of the Humpback Whale with the word Peace emblazoned above, overcoming the reference to war.

I Love this photo of Esme, caught in the embrace of the Humpback Whale with the word Peace emblazoned above, overcoming the reference to war. It seems to say everything about her loving and yet indefatigable character, something I feel worth celebrating.

This photo was taken in Melbourne, where we’d arrived one damp November afternoon to find everyone had shut up shop and gone to the races – specifically the Melbourne Cup (the richest two-mile handicap in the world). Not to be deflated by our impeccable timing, we decided to make the most of the eerily quiet city and explore the back streets.

On our route, we discovered hidden basement restaurants, casual coffee houses and domed arcades that would not have looked out of place in Milan. We loved the cavernous Royal Arcade, which we accessed through Little Collins Street, with it’s arching glass ceilings that had something of the hot houses at Kew gardens about them, and the Italian, harlequin floors, polished to a mirror-like finish. The arcade has the bizarre mythical figures of Gog and Magog staring down at shoppers from the South entrance where they strike the hours either side of Gaunt’s Clock.

Of course we’d come to see the street art, and we were not disappointed. In Union Lane, Duckboard Place and ACDC Lane we found the spirit of Banksy bursting from every wall, and when we looked up, we found collections of training shoes strung on wires across the alleys like so much bunting!

Even posts and rubbish bins were decorated. We found a social conscience, sense of humour and celebration of Australian heritage amongst the images, proving they were anything but random graffiti. This urban art has something to say – we even forgave the underlying aroma of urine that assaulted us in ACDC Lane.

All in all, we had a great experience, much better than trailing through the shopping malls, so thank you Melbourne Cup for upsetting our plans 🙂 and if we ever return, we’ll be sure to visit again to admire the new graffiti, for we can all be certain those walls are an ever changing canvas….

We found a map and directions for the Arcade and Lane walk in Lonely Planet Australia.

http://shop.lonelyplanet.com/australia/australia-travel-guide-18/australia-melbourne-around-chapter-18/

Iconic Destinations: The Great Wall of China

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The Great Wall of China unfurls across the landscape like the backbone of a mystical dragon, dipping and rising with the undulating terrain. Over 2000 years old, it is an enduring remnant of an ancient civilisation; an an incredible 13,171 miles long. It rolls over the hills, stone upon stone, tortuously steep in places, the walkway gouged between high defensive walls.

The wall was the brainchild of Qin Shi Huangti, the first Emperor of China -Qin being pronounced ‘chin’ from which the country earned its name – built some 200 years BC, to protect the newly unified China from the risk of invasion, principally from the Mongolian hoards. Shi Huangti drew his labour force from conscripts and convicts, working them to death in the realisation of his vision. The wall was improved and expanded by successive dynasties (the distinctive watchtowers not appearing until the Ming Dynasty 1368-1664) and sadly, given the cost in human suffering, little of the original stonework remains. Despite its violent history, the wall feels peaceful now; surrounded by woodland, it seems to blend into the landscape and when we were there in the spring, the air was filled with birdsong.

When China’s borders expanded during the 17th century, the wall became redundant and fell into disrepair, slowly crumbling, until the 1980s when it’s potential as a tourist attraction was realised. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but only a fraction of the original structure is in any stable condition. There are several access points, with varying levels of restoration/difficulty. Distances from Beijing range from 1.5 to 3 hours drive. Most hotels will be able to offer tours/taxi to get you to the Mutianyu or Bedaling sections, but if you book through a tour operator ahead, you may be able to reach one of the less frequented parts, such as the wild and steep Jianku (for serious hikers only) or the part-restored Jinshanling, and Simatai.

Mutianyu is less busy than Bedaling, is in good repair and has dramatic views, including a generous number of the iconic watchtowers.

A cable car or ski lift will get you to the top, or if you’ve some hours to kill there is a path. Make sure you take something to drink, especially if it is warm – some of the sections (although well-restored) are steep. It’s possible to take a toboggan down – which we thoroughly enjoyed, regulating the speed with handbrakes. Cool!

If you arrange your own taxi, you may get more time than a scheduled tour offered by the hotel, but be wary of scams. Some of the drivers in Beijing can be disreputable, as we found out when we hired a taxi parked near our hotel who seemed legitimate. The porter at the hotel we noticed wrote down his number plate. Once we were out of sight of the hotel our taxi driver pulled over and threw open the bonnet and announced he had ‘broken down’ and said he would get a friend to take us. We were immediately suspicious and climbed out. Not a great start to our Great Wall experience. Lesson learned, we used a driver on the hotel’s books – infinitely more reliable, and accountable. We paid £80 for three passengers, spending 3 hours on the wall at Mutianyu (an hour and a half drive from Beijing). The tours organised by the hotels will set you back about £30 per person for a hour or two’s ramble on the wall, and probably include a ‘shopping stop’ at a centre for Chinese medicine on the way home.

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