Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Riding the Devil’s Nose (Riobamba, Ecuador) - Part One

Riobamba has the sad rundown feel of a former major colonial railroad town on the line between Ecuador’s capital and its largest city. Impressive Spanish-styled buildings flaking from age house shoe repairers, clothing vendors, merchants and a surprising number of barber shops. A grand church, an uninspiring coffee and a reasonable religious art museum pass away an hour but the whole town has this tired slightly bored feel to it. The fresh aromas of charcoal start to fill the streets as barbeques are stoked for the evening fare including the prized cuisine of guinea pig.

Nearby Parque 21 de Abril offers an afternoon view to the spectacular volcano, Chimborazo and other Andean peaks. Remarkably, the snow-capped peak of Chimborazo (at only 6300 metres above sea-level) is the point on the Earth furthest from the centre of the Earth, because the Earth isn’t truly spherical and this mountain is extremely near the equator. It is over two kilometers further away from the Earth’s centre than Mt Everest.

Walking to this vantage point, you could easily be mistaken that only westerners live in this town. Riobamba swells with multitude of travellers three afternoons a week for the early morning departure of the train journey down the Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo). In a true feat of engineering, a railway was cut through the Andes over a hundred years ago including a series of switchbacks to get the train down the steep gradients of Devil’s Nose. Sadly, today this train only runs for the benefit of tourists with a sequence of storms, earth tremors and landslides causing considerable damage to a sequence of track preventing through journeys.

Wiping the sleep from tired eyes, the train departs at a dawn-cracking 7:00am. With no food on the train, it was good advice to be a fair bit earlier to grab a quick breakfast and to be strategically placed to stake a position on the roof of the train. The weak rays of sunshine do little to break the bitter icy temperatures as passengers huddle like emperor penguins closely for warmth, pulling beanies over their ears and hiding their hands up jacket sleeves. The train gently meanders through pleasant countryside and farmland occasionally revealing superb views of the Andes. The early nerves of being tipped off the rocking train have eased as people have settled in, chat and enjoy the mid-morning journey, before stopping to pick up more travellers at the dull-looking town of Alausi.

Read more at Riding the Devil's Nose Part Two.

Photo: Train Overview

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Illuminated Manuscript (Dublin, Ireland)

Dublin is a spirited rollicking travel wonder pulsating with lively pubs, expressive people and a rich culture. Famous for its thick black Guinness brew, its most fascinating sight comes from more pious and humble backgrounds.

The Book of Kells, named after the abbey it was housed in for most of the first half of its rich existence, is a remarkable book or artwork representing the four Christian gospels. Considered by some to be the finest book ever produced, it was written over 1200 years old. The pages were painstakingly scribed in ornate Latin script onto vellum (cowhide) and lavishly illustrated by four monks. Ten different colours are used (sourced from items as diverse as beetle wings and seashells) and the detail in the illustration is overwhelming. In modern times, the book was bound into four volumes and totals around 680 pages. Today, visitors to Dublin queue for long periods for a chance to witness this extraordinary illustrated manuscript.

As for many medieval relics, it is remarkable that it survived the pillaging of the Vikings (who are thought to have stolen the jewel-encrusted cover but discarded the book), countless battles, fires, religious arguments and theft and has been protected by Trinity College since the mid-1600s. Most famous for its library, the college is worthy of a visit in its own right with its elegant grey granite buildings.

Once thought to be the work of angels, the best way to see the Book of Kells is to line up before opening time and head past the displays on the history of the book and straight for the darkened room where the book is displayed. Two illustrated pages and two text pages were shown the day I was there (the pages are turned each day). It is mesmerising to stand in front of something where so much time, dedication and skill was invested so long ago to create such a stunningly detailed work of art. Each letter is carefully shaped and crafted with several elaborately decorated while the microscopic details in the intricate patterns of woven lines in the illustrations are almost impossible to fathom.

Wander back to enjoy the displays which details the history of the document, the creation of the vellum and binding and the books circuitous history to Dublin. The picture to the left shows the most renown page with the stylised chi (X, pronounced "ch") and rho (P, pronounced "r") which are the first two Greek letters of Christ's name and make the famous "XP" symbol of Christ. Another shows four pictures which illustrate the four gospels authors - Matthew (man), Mark (lion), Luke (ox) and John (eagle).

The connected Long Room library feels like something from Harry Potter and contains around two hundred thousand rare and historic hand-bound books from over the centuries including a collection by Sir Isaac Newton (his Principia is on display) and two or three other pre-tenth century religious books. Among its treasures on display is Ireland’s oldest harp, immortalised on Guinness labels and the Irish Euro coins.

I left Trinity College with the feeling of privilege at being able to see this truly historic and awe-inspiring travel wonder. I doubt there is anywhere in the world where people queue for the opportunity to view a couple of pages from a single book but the Book of Kells is surely worth it.

Other Irish and British Posts
A Bit of British (Gibraltar)
Soaking Up Culture (Bath)
Half-Timbered Houses (Lavenham)

The Long Room photo is taken from a postcard and the various Book of Kells images are all public domain (after all, its copyright expired some time ago!!).

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Photo of the Week - Petronas Towers (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Once the tallest building in the world (since surpassed by a Taiwanese building), Petronas Twin Towers dominates the Malaysian capital's skyline. Most striking is the skybridge which connects the two towers about halfway up and which can be accessed for free (requires a ticket). I think the skybridge and the mirrored twins are what makes this building a truly striking sight. Interestingly, the lifts are double height, servicing two consecutive floors at the same time.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pretty in Pink (Tokyo, Japan)

From late March every year, for little more than two weeks, the Japanese cherry trees blossom in seas of whites and pinks across Japan. Visiting Tokyo briefly for work, I managed to squeeze in a quick walk down the alleyways of Tokyo's Yanaka Cemetery towards the end of the short blossom season - the path and ground littered with the elegant pink flowers.

Celebrated as the arrival of spring, the Japanese adore this time of year as families populate parks and shrines full of these spectacular trees for picnics, quiet strolls and family gatherings. Similar to the kaleidoscopic fall colours so popular in North America, the local inhabitants have favourite vantage points to celebrate hirami and sight the magnificent oceans of colour.

In parks, boats can be hired to row gently along the streams to enjoy the tree-lines banks, the blossom-laden branches leaning towards the water weighed down by their rampant blooms.

Other Asian Posts
Symphony of Lights (Hong Kong)
Happy Birthday, Peak Train (Hong Kong)
It’s All in the Stars (Jaipur, India)
A Royal Facade (Jaipur, India)
A Monument to Love (Taj Mahal, India)
From Dead Duck to Bird Heaven (Bharatpur, India)

Source: Boat Photo

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Cheap Trick Hunting the Imaginary Line (Equator)

Today being the equinox – one of the two times in a year that the sun sits directly above the equator – it seems appropriate to post an article on the equator. This magic line passes through 14 countries around the globe and I am sure that most countries mark it with monuments, painted lines, road signs and special symbols. Ecuador even takes its name from this famous line that divides our planet in two – named after a French/Spanish scientific expedition in the early 1700s to measure the curvature of the Earth.

Only a few miles north of Ecuador’s capital Quito, the grandly named Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) has a museum with a planetarium, a bit of history, a model of old Quito and a few displays. It also includes the most elaborate equatorial statue that I have seen (right) and an area with a number of the world’s flags. A different Ecuadorian road highlights the hemispheres with a giant sculptured globe (top photo).

Uganda marks the Equator only a few miles south of their capital, Kampala, with a horseshoe-styled statue while one of the Kenyan markers on the road between Nairobi and Samburu National Park is little more than a road sign.

Apart from the usual trite gift shops, a favourite sight at the equator locations is a demonstration of the Coriolis Effect. In simple terms, this is the idea that water drains from a basin or down a toilet in an anti-clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere and in a clockwise direction south of the Equator. The effect is stronger the further you move from the equator.

For a small fee, someone will pour water in a tub or basin with a hole in it. Standing a few metres north of the Equator and dramatically dropping a match, twig or flower into the water, the item will spin counter clockwise. Moving a few metres the other side of the Equator, this same item will rotate in the opposite direction. Finally when standing astride of the Equator, the item will stay almost motionless as the water drains away.

To get an idea of the demonstration, a number of videos on Youtube exist (simply search on “coriolis” and “equator’).

Sorry to be a spoil-sport but this demonstration is faked. The Coriolis Effect is real but standing only a few metres either side of the Equator will not show up such a weak force – it has much more to do with how the water is poured and released. In fact, somewhat bizarrely, the Kenyan demonstration that I witnessed got the two directions the wrong way around with the water draining in the opposite direction to that which would be expected.

But it does provide a lot of chatter and interest among visitors and absorbs many with all kind of queries flowing to the anointed smiling and animated science teacher. It certainly adds to the entertainment of a short break in the journey to take a few happy snaps standing astride of the Equator or climbing upon the marker.

Enjoy the equinox as the north moves into spring and the south moves out of its summer. I trust that your travels will take you past the equator at least once in your life.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Potatoes with your Guinea Pig, Sir? (Peru)

Between enjoying the Inca Trail, Macchu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the Nazca Lines, Colca Canyon and other travel wonders of Peru, most travellers are faced with the question whether than can stomach the Peruvian national dish of guinea pig or cuy.

After responding “potato” to the query of “rice or potato with your cuy, sir”, the waitress skipped off with a wry grin on her face. A few minutes later, another of what my country sees as a cute but slightly novel pet was roasting over the red embers of an open barbeque, skewered by a broad flat stick.

The meal is served with the entire guinea pig flattened as if a victim of a road accident. Its charred face with its toothy grin seems to spookily stare at you whichever way you angle the plate.

It is a messy struggle to coax the sinewy meat from the innumerable bones. Though the creatures appear to be quite tubby when alive, hands are required to do an effective job of stripping every meagre morsel away from the tight rib cage and spine. It is certainly not a meal for fine dining. The drumstick is hardly the prized possession that it may be if claimed from the Christmas turkey though it is meant to be the prime pickings of a guinea pig. The flavour has the gentle gamey sense of rabbit and is rather tasty.

It is difficult to escape the fact that it is a traditional and proud part of the Peruvian diet. Most farms and rural properties have a small area reserved to raise guinea pigs, a key source of protein for these typically poor and subsistence-based communities. Some guinea pigs luxuriate in quite ornate mud and straw structures. The often multi-layered setups with tunnels and pathways encourage these naturally inquisitive rodents to explore.

This delicacy has been enjoyed for over two thousand years in Peru with a guide at the famed ruins of Macchu Picchu telling us that there is evidence of domesticated guinea pigs from well before the time of Christ. In local versions of the Last Supper, both Cusco (top photo) and Lima’s (photo to the right) cathedrals contain paintings of this famous religious event with the main dish being that of guinea pig. There are references to Incan sacrificial ceremonies including the prized cuy.

To complete your Peru experience, be bold and sample the national dish. After all, it’s not likely to be on the menu in your home country and is a significant cultural element of Peruvian life.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Photo of the Week - Scribbly Gum

The Scribbly Gums are unique to the Sydney area and feature strange wiggly marks around its trunk. A particular moth lays its eggs underneath the outer layer of the light coloured bark. The resulting larvae bury into the tree leaving a series of tunnels. When the tree sheds its bark, the new bark shows the various trails like a child had drawn on the tree with a felt pen.

These wonderful trees can be seen walking around any of the national parks in or around Sydney including the Blue Mountains, Kurringai Chase, Lane Cove and Royal National Parks. When damp with the morning dew or rain, they can make for some unusual and artistic photos.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Bit of British (Gibraltar)

I was asked by a friend planning a trip to Europe whether a visit to Gibraltar was worthwhile, whether I treated Gibraltar as a travel wonder. It made me reflect on my two visits on this tiny territory held by the British since the Spanish yielded it in the early 1700s.

Entering Gibraltar from Spain, the famed Rock of Gibraltar stands in front of you, majestically standing guard over the once strategic waterways on Europe's border. Bizarrely, you cross the runway for the airport and stroll a kilometre of so and you are in the main street (Queensway) of the country. In that short distance, visitors change from paella, tapas and fine riojas to fish and chips and pints of ale; from Euros to pounds and can again be acquainted with several well known English high street chains.

Before indulging too much, the highlight of Gibraltar is walking (or driving or cable-car for those looking for an easier path) up the rock and enjoying the views. As you walk up the rock, pay a thought to the numerous kilometres of both natural caves and man-made tunnels which thread through this limestone monolith. Past the elegant botanic gardens (see top photo) is St Michael's Cave is richly decorated with elegant lighting and worth a quick detour half way up the climb.

Most visible up the climb are the symbol of Gibraltar, the Barbary Apes (technically Barbary macaques), tail-less monkeys which both entertain with their precocious nature and infuriate with their bold thieving from inattentive tourists. They'll happily snaffle items from handbags, backpacks and straight from unsuspecting hands. Cute babies cling to their parent's stomachs as they race around the rock walls.

Towards the top as the road turns back on itself is the Moorish Castle with its distinct Tower of Homage flying the Union Jack and the long snaking walls down almost to sea level. Though much has been reconstructed, elements of the castle are over 1200 years old. The whole of the upper area of the rock is preserved as a nature reserve.

The very southern tip of Gibraltar is Europa Point where you can view the busy shipping of the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean and on a clear day, the continent of Africa. A lighthouse, mosque and church share this stunning vista.

Gnawing into my fish and chips at The Angry Friar on the main road and rinsed down with a pint of ale, Gibraltar seems a strange anachronism in modern Europe. The population are fiercely protective of their British status (as shown in recent referenda) and so Gibraltar is likely to stay in this form for many years to come. As for a visit, I personally wouldn't travel too far out of my way, but if you are heading to Africa or nearby in Spain, it makes for a different and pleasant one day journey to enjoy the views, the antics of the Barbary Apes, a touch of history and a small feel of a gentler, comfortable Britain.

Other British Posts
Soaking Up Culture (Bath)
Half-Timbered Houses (Lavenham)

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Seventeenth Century Titanic (Stockholm, Sweden)

Today, the Vasa, the world’s only surviving 17th century ship, is visited by over one million people per year in its own five storey building on a Stockholm island. Similar interested crowds gathered to witness its grand launch in 1628 for battles against Poland, including the king of Sweden and numerous dignitaries. Imagine the shock as the pride of the Swedish armada, the royal flagship Vasa, sailed less than one nautical mile for only 20 minutes on its maiden voyage before it foundered in a gust of wind. Weighed down by 64 heavy cannons and with insufficient ballast, it listed badly and water gushed into the open gun-ports, the Vasa sinking with the loss of over thirty lives. Forgotten over time, it lay in its watery grave at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbour for over 330 years.

Discovered in the 1950s on the seabed, all the metal had corroded away but the wood of the ship was in remarkable condition. A combination of the polluted nature of the waterway, low salt levels and the frigid temperatures kept the shipworms and other nasty micro-organisms which normally devour wood at bay. Over a number of years, a recovery was planned and successfully executed.

The preservation was a long drawn out affair. First resurfacing in 1961, the Vasa was sprayed with a special glycol for a painstaking seventeen years to replace the water in the wood and to prevent shrinkage on drying. For a further nine years, the Vasa was carefully dried until it was ready for display.

Carefully monitored, it was moved into its own purpose-built five storey building (complete with fake external masts to show how tall the ship would have been in real life) on the Stockholm island of Djurgården, several blocks from the city centre. Certain elements required replacement such as the rigging and masts (all made to the standards of the time), though these are distinctly newer in appearance due to the lack of discolouration in the wood. To maintain the idea that it has sat on the sea floor for three centuries, it has been left in its natural state and not repainted with the vivid colours that scientists believe it was first adorned.

Though displayed in low light conditions to help preserve this old ship, the museum (Vasamuseet) is a superb experience with the imposing 70 metre ship standing majestically in the centre of the building from all five levels, showing the various levels of the ship itself. Around the edges on walkways are detailed explanations, videos on the restoration and life on the Vasa, walk-through recreations of parts of the ship, and displays of the many hundreds of objects and artefacts from clothing, crockery, cutlery, coins and the seamen’s personal effects to ship fittings, weapons and parts of the sails.

The Vasa is one of Sweden’s great travel wonders with the museum offering enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff and an excellent portrayal of not just the detailed craftsmanship in building wooden sailing ships, but in the seamen's harsh life in past centuries.

More details are available at the Vasa Museum website.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Photo of the Week - Virgin Village (Utah, USA)

On the road to Zion National Park in Utah, some years ago, I stumbled upon this bizarre cartoon wild-west village called Virgin, complete with jail, saloon, stagecoach, bank and shop. When I was there, it was kind of eerie with not another soul in sight and an ominous storm cloud brewing overhead. Why do people build such strange places - a Virgin ghost-town.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Secret Hospital (Cerkno, Slovenia)

Only twenty kilometres from both the stunning resort town of Bled and the towering three-headed travel wonder Mount Triglav, the small village of Cerkno showcases the Yugoslav partisan ingenuity during World War Two. From early 1944 to the end of the war, a secret hospital supported the resistance movement against the occupying Italian, German and Nazi forces.

Named after the remarkable physician Franja Bidovec, the Franj Partisan Hospital is an evocative reminder of the humanity that exists even in the harshness of war. It contains thirteen basic buildings strewn along a rough path including operating theatres, isolation units, an X-ray room, electric power plant, kitchens and general wards (see entry ticket at the end for rough layout of the hospital - unfortunately in Croatian).

Located in semi-permanent dinginess in a deep, remote and spectacular gorge and protected by minefields, drawbridges and nests of machine guns, injured soldiers were blindfolded and taken into this remarkable medical facility at night. Food and medical supplies were airdropped by Allied forces, though many medical instruments were fashioned by the creativity of the local staff. A printing facility churned out a hospital newsletter for the convalescing patients. Despite coming under attack on occasions, the hospital was never discovered during the war.

Over the year and a half, over 1000 soldiers were treated including over 500 severely wounded men and at peak operations, the hospital managed 120 patients.

Though you don’t need to be blindfolded and carted in at night, the original entrance of bridges and narrow pathways over a rapid-running, energetic stream remain. This evocative reminder of people's ingenuity and compassion in difficult times of battle has been preserved in its form at the end of the war, highlighting the inventiveness, the desperation and pure tragedy of war.

Tragically, in September 2007, heavy rainfall engulfed the narrow gorge and swept away many of the hospital’s buildings. With both government and private support, the hospital is being reconstructed to preserve this valuable historic museum.

Other European Memorial Posts
Remember! (Oradour-sur-Glane, France)
A Humbling Experience (Villers-Bretonneux, France)

Other Slovenia and Croatia Posts
Bountiful Bled (Slovenia)
Underground Fantasy (Skocjan Caves, Slovenia)
The Aquamarine Necklace (Plitvice Lakes, Croatia)
Visiting the Smallest Town in the World (Hum, Croatia)

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