BAGAN, MYANMAR

Bangkok, 13 July 2016

My wife and I have just returned from a short visit to Bagan, in Myanmar. Back when Harold Godwinson received an arrow in his eye, losing his life and his English throne to William, Duke of Normandy
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the kings of Pagan (as the kingdom was then known) had consolidated their hold on the valley of the Irrawaddy River, swallowing up their neighbouring city-states, and had created the first Burmese kingdom. The kingdom grew rich on trade but also on agriculture, harnessing irrigation for the first time in this dry region of Myanmar. As befits the capital of a prosperous kingdom, the population of Pagan swelled. The kings and the richer citizens, anxious to gain merit for their next reincarnation, used their wealth to heavily sprinkle the city and the surrounding plain with stupas, temples, monasteries, and other religious edifices. At the height of this building frenzy, more than 10,000 such edifices covered an area of some 100 square kilometres.

Alas, this well-meaning search for merit undermined the edifice of state. More and more land was donated to the Buddhist monkhood, land which then became exempt from tax, thereby gradually emptying the state coffers. The resulting internal strife weakened the kingdom, and invasions of its borderlands by the Mongol dynasty of China finished her off. By 1287, the kingdom of Pagan was no more, and its capital city had shrunk to the size of a very modest town. Sun, wind, and rain began their work. The plaster moldings with which all the religious edifices had been covered peeled off, and the exposed brick began crumbling away to mud and dust. Trees and bushes did their part, inserting roots between brick and brick and slowly leveraging them apart. Earthquakes played their part too, toppling walls and cracking open stupas. And so the religious edifices so lovingly erected by earlier generations slowly slumped back into the earth from whence they had sprung.

A score of temples and stupas, which continued to be sites of pilgrimage, were maintained, often with infelicitous results as frescoes were painted or whitewashed over and badly crafted statues took the place of the originals. In the last century, conservation work was carried out – haphazardly – under successive military regimes. This has halted, or at least slowed, the dissolution, but even so only some 2,000 edifices remain standing, more or less, today.

But 2,000 is still a big number. Climb, as we did, the Shwesandaw stupa, and you will find yourself gazing out over flat, wooded farmland thickly sprinkled with red-brick stupas and temples of every size and state of disrepair.
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Get off the paved roads, as we did, and take the dirt roads and paths which crisscross this farmland, and you will come across lonely stupas brooding by the side of fields
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where the lines of the Persian poet Ferdowsi come to mind:

The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars
An owl hoots in the towers of Samarkand

(it is said that the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II murmured these lines as he visited the desolate ruins of the imperial palace after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453)

It comes spontaneous to compare Bagan to other places. Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia is often cited, but the comparison doesn’t hold. Angkor has edifices which are splendid in their art and architecture.
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The edifices of Bagan, on the other hand, now have little if any intrinsic merit. My wife and I saw nothing superlative in any of the stupas or temples we visited. Pleasant, yes, interesting sometimes, but nothing to take one’s breath away.
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No, it is the overall landscape that makes Bagan noteworthy, and it is to landscapes that we must turn for comparisons. Since many of the edifices in Bagan are funerary in nature, my wife felt a certain affinity between the Italian cemeteries of her youth and Bagan, with the latter of course being on a much larger scale.
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In such a comparison, I would perhaps lean towards the abandoned part of Vienna’s biggest cemetery, the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, which contains many of the tombs of Vienna’s Jewish community, wiped out in the Nazi concentration camps.
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I myself favour a comparison with Ancient Rome, not the Ancient Rome of today, swallowed up in the concrete and bitumen of the modern city, but the Ancient Rome that was the subject of many a painting in the 17th to 19th centuries. This is Claude Lorrain
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this, Piranesi
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this, Palmer
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and this, Lear
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In these paintings I see an echo of the Bagan I looked out on from the heights of the Shwesandaw stupa.

As the lines I cite above show, the melancholy of ruins has always excited the imagination of poets. Rome’s ruins are no exception, with reams of poems written about them. I quote one here, by Alexander Pope.

See the wild waste of all-devouring years!
How Rome her own sad sepulchre appears,
With nodding arches, broken temples spread!
The very tombs now vanished like their dead!
Imperial wonders raised on nations spoiled,
Where mixed with slaves the groaning martyr toiled:
Huge theatres, that now unpeopled woods,
Now drained a distant country of her floods:
Fanes, which admiring gods with pride survey,
Statues of men, scarce less alive than they!
Some felt the silent stroke of mouldering age,
Some hostile fury, some religious rage.
Barbarian blindness, Christian zeal conspire,
And papal piety, and Gothic fire.
Perhaps, by its own ruins saved from flame,
Some buried marble half preserves a name;
That name the learned with fierce dispute pursue,
And give to Titus old Vespasian’s Due.

But this poem is far too frothy, as are all the poems about Rome’s ruins. I prefer the fragments of an Anglo-Saxon poem of the 8th Century, part of an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poems in the library of Exeter Cathedral, whose subject is not Rome but the Roman ruins of Bath.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,

For those of my no doubt many readers who, like me, are not conversant with Anglo-Saxon, let me continue with a translation by Siân Echard, of the University of British Columbia, with some modifications on my part.

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,

Walls gape, torn up, destroyed, consumed by age.
A hundred generations have passed.
Earth-grip holds the proud builders, departed, long lost,
In the hard grasp of the grave. How often has this wall,

Hoary with lichen, red-stained, outlasted the passing reigns,
Withstanding the storms; the high arch now has fallen …

(At this point, there is a gap, for the parchment itself has suffered badly from the passage of time)

Indeed, the high arches, now fallen, of Bagan have witnessed the passing of many reigns, the last being but a few months ago, when the decades-long military government in Myanmar finally gave way to a democratically-elected civilian government. Knowing the history of neighbouring Thailand, where military meddling is a way of life, I offered a silent prayer in the Ananda temple
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that this would be the last of the military governments in this beautiful country, which has suffered so much and deserves so much better.

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Photos of Bagan: ours
Harold hit by the arrow: http://www.dot-domesday.me.uk/arrow.htm
Angkor Wat-1: https://artmundus.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/the-wonder-that-is-angkor-wat/
Angkor Wat-2: https://artmundus.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/the-wonder-that-is-angkor-wat/
Angkor Wat-3: http://rwethereyetrwethereyet.typepad.com/arewethereyet/2008/04/take-your-kids.html
Cimitero monumentale, Milan: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g187849-d243431-i28163413-Monumental_Cemetery-Milan_Lombardy.html
Jewish section, Vienna Zentralfriedhof: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/lastingimages/2924629401/
Roman ruins:http://www.bobforrestweb.co.uk/The_Rubaiyat/Galleries/Gallery_5/g5notes.htm
– Claude Lorrain
– Giovanni Battista Piranesi
– Samuel Palmer
– Edward Lear

FOUR FACES

Bangkok, 5 December 2014

I’ve just come back from a trip to Phnom Penh. My wife accompanied me, so for a couple of days, while I was doing the official rounds and meeting the official people, she was nosing around the city enjoying herself. She regaled me every evening with her discoveries, making me green with jealousy. But we had decided that I would take a day off at the end of my official rounds and spend a long weekend together being tourists, so I told myself to be patient and bide my time. On Friday, Andy (not his real name, but tour guides in this part of the world will often adopt a Western name to make it easier for us dumb Westerners), Andy as I say, was waiting for for us at the door of the hotel with his tuk-tuk

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in which he swept us off (well, “swept off” may be exaggerated, given the venerable speed at which tuk-tuks go) for a visit to Oudong, Cambodia’s capital prior to Phnom Penh. After puttering across the flat plain surrounding Phnom Penh for a while, we finally sighted in the distance the phnom (“hill” in Khmer) which had been the centre of Oudong.
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After some more puttering, we arrived at the base of this hill, and were immediately surrounded by a cloud of boys shouting greetings, asking us where we came from, and directing us to the loo (after nearly two hours of puttering, we were both more than ready to answer calls of nature).

Following this pit stop, we made for the steps which would carry us to the top of the phnom. We huffed and we puffed slowly up the steps – all 509 of themimage
accompanied by a charming little boy, one of the cloud, who went by the name of Monette. His English was approximate, but he used it bravely to explain to us the sights we passed, the first of which was some exceedingly cheeky monkeys who hung around the steps like a pack of bad boys, ready to snatch lotus flowers from the unwary passer-by and snack on their stamens (or do I mean their pistils?)

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One did just that to a group of young women in front of us, who came running back down the stairs screaming and clutching at each other. I moved forward bravely towards the insolent monkey as he sat on the steps munching the stamens (or do I mean pistils?). He looked me in the eye, and calmly walked off into the surrounding bushes holding his booty and showing me his bum. I mustered as much of my dignity as I could and Carried On.

With one final heaving huff and one further ragged puff, we staggered to the top. With the excuse of admiring the view

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we took a break. But soon we turned around and took in the first of five stupas which crown the hill.

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After walking around it, we wended our way along the crest, from one stupa to the next, with Monette scampering along and giving us fractured, splintered explanations, until we got to the last, a stupa with four faces.

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Well! This was a pleasant discovery! Those four faces staring benevolently out to the four cardinal points were intriguing indeed.

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I must confess, my first – wholly irreverent – thought was that they reminded me of Thomas the Tank Engine of my youth.

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But then another memory floated to the surface, from several years ago when my wife and I visited Angkor Wat, several hundred kilometers upriver from where we were currently standing, on the edges of Tonle Sap lake: Prasat Bayon, the shrine to Mahayana Buddhism, the temple of the 200 faces of Lokesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Yes, this must have been the model of the stupa before me.

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Ah, what a lovely, lovely temple is Prasat Bayon! The bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas smiling at you wherever you stand, wherever you look. A thousand rays of compassion sweeping us visitors and what had been the surrounding city.

But King Jayavarman VII, who built the temple and who replaced the Khmers’ state religion of Hinduism with Mahayana Buddhism (and whose face, many think, was the model of the bodhisattvas at Prasat Bayon)

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merely copied from a previous model for his design, that of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. Brahma is very often represented with four heads, each reading one of the four Vedas. Temples dedicated to him are rare, but there was one close to Angkor Wat, on Phnom Bok. The quadruple-headed bust below, from that temple, is now in the Musée Guimet in Paris, no doubt “taken in for its protection” (or do I mean filched?) by the-then French colonial masters.

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There is also a regionally famous Brahma-derived statue here in Bangkok, down the road (as it were) from where we live: Phra Phrom (a Thai rendition of Brahma).

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He is considered the deity of good fortune and protection. Since he has a solid following among the Chinese of Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and knowing the proclivity of the Chinese to gamble, I rather suspect that Brahma has gone from being the god of creation to the god of gamblers. How the mighty have fallen …

And on this melancholy note, it was time to leave my reveries and move on. My wife and I made our way back down the hill, at the bottom of which we gave Monette 10 dollars for his services, enjoining him to use it for his schooling (he had informed us that he was going to a paying school) but fearing that it might end up instead in the pockets of his “minders”. We picked our way past the rubbish left by previous visitors and a monkey snacking on the boiled rice thrown away by one of them, we climbed into Andy’s tuk-tuk, and we puttered our way back to Phnom Penh.

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Andy’ tuk-tuk: https://www.facebook.com/AndyFriendlyTukTukPhnomPenh/photos/pcb.290625764427281/290625417760649/?type=1&theater (in https://www.facebook.com/AndyFriendlyTukTukPhnomPenh)
Oudong from a distance: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/32298005.jpg (in http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/32298005)
Stairs at Oudong: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2825/10724616273_e3e9cf04b7_z.jpg (in http://iwandered.net/2013/11/07/day-trip-to-oudong-cambodia/)
Monkey: https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7420/8993459951_7619376cd4_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/kamimura4401/8993459951/)
View from the top: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Yk57J-xzt4Y/UFLx1bIbIrI/AAAAAAAABPA/Mdq0Z5_DBuM/s1600/Oudong6.png (in http://www.camtravel.info/2012/09/oudong-mountain-cambodia.html#.VIB9hGIaySM)
First stupa: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/30/Sanchak_Mony_Chedei.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oudong)
Stupa with faces: https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3018/3087092115_26ee767788_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/zapata_k/3087092115/)
Stupa with faces – close up: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-aAJEmmCf6h8/Um5lWw9rdxI/AAAAAAAAxbg/FBPq3MXQ0_U/s1600/23+Close+Up+of+Four-faced+Top+Cambodia+Oudong+Temple+Cycling-358.jpg (in http://jotarofootsteps.blogspot.com/2013/10/sites-oudong-temple-cambodia.html)
Thomas the tank engine: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-KiFNIBZmqPI/TxKoxis-FrI/AAAAAAAAAJY/sVCzG4VTLd0/s1600/ThomastheTankEngine.jpg (in http://latestnewsfromtpandt.blogspot.com/2012/01/thomas-tank-engine-review.html)
Bayon temple-1: http://www.rickmann-uk.com/wp-content/uploads/Bayon-three-faces.jpg (in http://www.rickmann-uk.com/index.php/2007/06/05/angkor-temples-cambodia/)
Bayon temple-2: http://jcinnamonphotography.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/bayon-temple-faces-2.jpg (in http://jcinnamonphotography.wordpress.com)
Bayon temple-3: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon#/image/File:Das_Lächeln_von_Angkor.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon)
King Jayavarman VII: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon#/image/File:JayavarmanVII.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon)
Brahma: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#/image/File:Brahma_Musée_Guimet_1197_1.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#Temples)
Phra Phrom: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#/image/File:Thai_4_Buddies.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#Temples)

WORLD HERITAGE SITES – OUR LIST

Beijing, 9 March 2014

I was recently in Dubai with my wife for a long weekend. If you don’t like shopping, which I fervently do not, if you don’t get much of a kick out of visiting the tallest building in the world, which is definitely my case, if you don’t quite see the point of going skiing in a mall, which I certainly don’t, then your to-do list in Dubai is really quite short. On one side of the saltwater creek which wends its way through the middle of the city

Dubai.creek

you can visit gold and spice souqs of dubious antiquity. On the other side, you can visit a small remnant of the old town, saved, so it seems, from the wrecker’s ball by the intercession of Prince Charles with the Sheikh of Dubai. You can follow this up by a visit to the Dubai Museum, housed underneath a quaint little old fort and filled with a rather pathetic set of dioramas showing the old ways of life in the sheikhdom. A 20 minutes’ walk downcreek will bring you to the Sheikhs’ old residence (or rather, a nearly complete reconstruction of it) filled with some old photos of Dubai. You can cross from one side of the creek to the other in supposedly old wooden boats which ply the waterway. And that’s it. Of the four days that my wife and I spent in Dubai, we actually only needed two to visit the city itself. We used one of the days to visit Abu Dhabi (or rather, the planned eco-city district of Masdar) and while I was sitting in a conference my wife used another to visit Al Ain, an oasis town some two hours’ drive from Dubai.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s really very pleasant to wander around without haste, poking your nose in here and there, snapping photos of this and that, taking long lunch and coffee breaks, and enjoying mild and sunny weather. But what really got my goat was a small exhibition which we stumbled across somewhere in the souqs, which proudly announced that some time this year Dubai expected UNESCO to nominate the creek and its immediate surroundings as a World Heritage Site. Give – me – a – break! The Dubai creek a World Heritage Site?! That’s ridiculous!! For those readers who may not be familiar with this UN programme, I should explain that it implements an international convention, the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, whose purpose is to protect and conserve for present and future generations cultural heritage (monuments, groups of buildings, sites) or natural heritage (natural features, geological formations, natural sites) of outstanding universal value. Please note: outstanding universal value. Those are big, big words. Put another way, the sites which are nominated as World Heritage Sites should be so fantastic that it would be a crime for me and every other citizen in the world not to do everything in our power to protect them for future generations to marvel at. Does that describe Dubai creek? I – don’t – think – so!

I had first entertained serious doubts about the World Heritage Site listings when we went on a family holiday to Finland some ten years ago. I had seen that a church along our itinerary had been listed. Intrigued, I dragged the somewhat unwilling family to visit it (to this day, my children remind me of this and other churches I forced them to visit in Finland). What we were confronted with was a small, rustic church whose three main claims to fame were (a) that it was quite old, (b) that it was made entirely out of wood, and (c) that no nails had been used to make it … this was “outstanding universal value”?? Puh-lease! My cynicism over World Heritage Site listings only deepened over the following years as everywhere I went I came across really quite ordinary sites which had been listed. UNESCO’s convention has obviously been hijacked by the tourism industry and its hacks in Ministries of Tourism to brand national sites and raise tourism revenues. And no doubt political correctness has reared its head. It won’t do for just a few countries to have all the heritage sites of outstanding universal value, every country should be able to claim at least one …

This debasing of the World Heritage Site brand is a pity, because I think there are a number of places around the world which through some magical combination of geometry, colour, light, and siting really do have an outstanding and universal value to all of us in the world and whose preservation truly deserves the concerted attention of the global community. My wife and I put our heads together, and what follows is our list. Its main weakness is that it is based only on places which we have seen – so much of the world for us still to see …

Since Dubai got me going, I’ll start with cityscapes:

– Venice, which must be the most beautiful city in the world

venice-aerial

view from ferry

– Paris, especially the part along the banks of the river Seine running from Notre Dame Cathedral to the Eiffel tower

Paris-Notre Dame

Paris-Eiffel tower

(I find Paris to be at its best at night, when all its buildings are lit up like theatre backdrops)

– Rome, especially the Baroque part of the city

Rome Piazza Navona

where, though, older Roman urban fabric can poke through

Rome Pantheon

– The historic nucleus of Istanbul, on its peninsula jutting out into the Bosphorus

istanbul

– Old Prague

prague

– On a smaller scale, San Gimignano in Tuscany

San Gimignano-1

San Gimignano-2

which can stand for all those wonderful hilltop towns and villages scattered throughout central Italy (Siena, Todi, Gubbio, Assisi, Volterra, Arezzo, Perugia, Urbino, and on and on …)

– I will add Savannah in Georgia. My wife and I stumbled on the city by chance thirty years ago, and we were blown away

Savannah-Georgia

I wonder if I should I add Edinburgh? My wife is doubtful, but the New Town there is really very nice, with a magificent view over the Firth of Forth

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and there is the dramatic backdrop of Edinburgh castle

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What about Manhattan?

Manhattan Office Vacancy Rate Drops In Second Quarter

I’m torn. Manhattanites certainly think that the borough has outstanding universal value, non-residents may not be so sure.

After cityscapes we list a series of buildings and complexes that stand out because of the beauty of the buildings themselves, often highlighted by their siting:

– Taj Mahal, which must be one of the most sublime buildings in the world

Taj Mahal

and which can stand in for a series of wonderful Mughal edifices dotted around northern India (Fatehpur Sikri, the Mausoleum of Akbar at Sikandra, the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi, the mausoleum of Humayun, …)

– Angkor Wat

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with its wonderful faces carved in the temple walls

Angkor-wat-gods

– The rock gardens and temples of Kyoto

Kyoto Tofuukuji rock garden-2

kyoto kinkakuji

kyoto ginkakuji

– The chateaux of the Loire in France, especially Chenonceau

Chateau de Chenonceau

and Azay-le-Rideau

Chateau-Azay-le-Rideau

– The Alhambra palace in Andalusia

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with its typical Arab love of water

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We don’t just list old buildings. We would add at least two modern buildings:

– the Sydney Opera House

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– the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington DC

east wing national gallery

My wife thinks we should also list Labrang, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery-town in Sichuan

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I’m not convinced that it really has outstanding universal value, yet.

I’ll add here a couple of the wonderful garden-parks which were created around some of the grander country houses in the UK in the 18th century.

– Stowe gardens

Stowe-Landscape-Gardens

Stowe gardens-house

– Fountains Abbey and Gardens

fountains abbey

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Which brings us naturally to our last list, our choices of natural heritage sites of outstanding universal value. We would start with the canyons in the American west. Rather than list the Grand Canyon, which some might consider the natural choice, we would list some of the smaller canyons:

– Bryce Canyon, especially lovely in winter, which is when we saw it:

bryce canyon

– and Canyon de Chelly

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– We are moved to list here too the Atlas mountains in Morocco. When we first saw them, we were immediately reminded of the canyonlands in the US

Atlas mountains

but what was even better was that the locals were still making their villages from the local clay so that villages seemed to grow out of the landscape

atlas mountains-villages

– From canyons on land to canyons on the sea, and here we found the fjords in New Zealand more striking than those in Norway

New Zealand South Island Fiordland National Park Milford Sound

– From water to none, with the red sand dunes of Namibia

Namibia -Dune 45

– and back to water again, with the Amazon River

Amazon river

– from hotter to cooler, with the high meadows of the Alps in the Trentino in Italy

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– from grass to trees, in this case the truly magnificent sequoias

sequoia-national-park

– and finally back to grass and water, with the Scottish Highlands

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Well, that’s our list of cultural and natural sites which we would consider to have outstanding universal value. As I said earlier, the list is no doubt incomplete simply because there are still lots of places we haven’t visited. We’d be interested to know how readers feel about this. What sites would they put on their own list?

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Dubai creek: http://www.guiaemdubai.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Dubai.creek_.jpg [in http://www.guiaemdubai.com/dubai-creek/%5D
Venice-aerial view: http://weddinginvenice.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/venice.jpg [in http://weddinginvenice.net/blog/aerial-view-of-venice%5D
Venice-worm’s eye view: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8149/7667954390_2eafc258f6_h.jpg
Paris-Notre Dame: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Notre_Dame_de_Paris_by_night_time.jpg [in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cattedrale_di_Notre-Dame%5D
Paris-Eiffel tower: http://wallpapersus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/eiffel-tower-sunset-architecture-city-cloudy-dusk-famous-river.jpg [in http://wallpapersus.com/eiffel-tower-sunset-architecture-city-cloudy-dusk-famous-river/%5D
Rome Piazza Navona: http://www.bonjouritalie.it/uploaded/images/Piazza_Navona_Evening.jpg [in http://www.bonjouritalie.it/en/news/46/PIAZZA-NAVONA-the-Roman-s-playroom-.html%5D
Rome Pantheon: http://www.dewereldwonderen.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/pantheon-omgeving.jpg [in http://www.dewereldwonderen.nl/andere-wereldwonderen/het-pantheon/%5D
Istanbul: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02012/istanbul-biennial_2012683b.jpg [in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/8796386/Istanbul-biennial-art-at-the-crossroads-of-the-world.html%5D
Prague: http://www.discoverwalks.com/prague-walking-tours/wp-content/blogs.dir/5/files/4/not-many-people-can-show-you-this.jpg [in http://www.discoverwalks.com/prague-walking-tours/prague-castle-tour/%5D
San Gimignano-1: http://www.roma-antica.co.uk/custom/San%20Gimignano.jpg
San Gimignano-2: http://www.hotelilponte.com/writable/public/tbl_galleria/grande/v961b38120234375.jpg
Savannah: http://www.shedexpedition.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/gingerbread-house-Savannah-Georgia-1899-Carpenter-Gothic.jpg [in http://www.shedexpedition.com/savannah-georgia-best-quality-of-life-and-visitor-experience/%5D
Edinburgh-New Town: http://www.stravaiging.com/photos/albums/places%20in%20Scotland/towns/Edinburgh,%20Midlothian/IMG_9890.jpg [in http://www.stravaiging.com/blog/edinburgh-world-heritage-official-tour/%5D
Edinburgh-castle: http://waimhcongress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/edinburgh_-_calton_hill_nov_12_0.jpg [in http://waimhcongress.org/location/about-edinburgh/%5D
Manhattan: http://www.elikarealestate.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/nyc001.jpg [in http://www.elikarealestate.com/blog/manhattan-sales-time-high/%5D
Taj Mahal: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c8/Taj_Mahal_in_March_2004.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal%5D
Angkor Wat: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02381/Angkor_wat_2381155b.jpg [in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/cambodia/9638352/Canals-may-have-sped-up-building-of-wonder-of-the-world-Angkor-Wat.html%5D
Angkor Wat Gods: http://www.urbantravelblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Angkor-wat-gods.jpg [in http://www.urbantravelblog.com/photos/angkor-wat%5D
Kyoto Tofukuji rock garden: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_bWbsTZVSaLw/S8uzFo1o2mI/AAAAAAAAAO4/tq11td38q3I/s1600/april-13+141.jpg [in http://kyotofreeguide-kyotofreeguide.blogspot.com/2010_04_01_archive.html%5D
Kyoto Kinkakuji: http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoessays/2011/travel_kyoto/01_kinkakuji.jpg [in http://content.time.com/time/travel/cityguide/article/0,31489,2049375_2049370_2048907,00.html%5D
Kyoto Gingakuji: http://lookjapan.org/photos/ginkakuji-temple.jpg [in http://lookjapan.org/kyoto.html%5D
Château de Chenonceau: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d0/Chateau_de_Chenonceau_2008E.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_de_Chenonceau%5D
Château Azay-le-Rideau: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d2/Chateau-Azay-le-Rideau-1.jpg/1024px-Chateau-Azay-le-Rudeau-1.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_d’Azay-le-Rideau%5D
Alhambra: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Detail_Charles_V_palace_Alhambra_Granada_Spain.jpg [in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Detail_Charles_V_palace_Alhambra_Granada_Spain.jpg%5D
Alhambra-2: http://www.earthalacarte.com/images/destination/1370429824_0!!-!!4.jpg [in http://www.earthalacarte.com/destinations/alhambra/%5D
Sydney Opera House: our photo
East Wing National Gallery: http://www.greatbuildings.com/gbc/images/cid_2880204.jpg [in http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/East_Wing_National_Gallery.html
Labrang: http://korihahn.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/dsc_0423.jpg [in http://korihahn.com/2010/11/01/beijing-to-lhasa/%5D
Stowe gardens: http://www.landscapearchitecturedaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Stowe-Landscape-Gardens.jpg [in http://www.landscapearchitecturedaily.com/?p=2599%5D
Stowe gardens-House: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-9CU7qypYuhw/UTi58Pz-zXI/AAAAAAAABjU/t5dzpqANduk/s1600/photo+%286%29.JPG [in http://theelephantandthepirate.blogspot.com/2013/03/day-tripping-stowe-gardens.html%5D
Fountains abbey: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-yHJdJ-LcSwI/TaSbP30qvOI/AAAAAAAACZQ/Mt-9gkW8Wj4/s1600/Fountains+Abbey+reflected+blg.jpg [in http://saltairedailyphoto.blogspot.com/2011/04/fountains-abbey.html%5D
Fountains abbey gardens-1: http://www.gardenvisit.com/assets/madge/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980_jpg/600x/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980_jpg_600x.jpg -[in http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey%5D
Fountains abbey gardens-2: http://www.gardenvisit.com/assets/madge/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980a_jpg/600x/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980a_jpg_600x.jpg [in http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey%5D
Bryce canyon: http://www.mikereyfman.com/Photography-Landscape-Nature/Bryce-Canyon-National-Park-Utah-USA/big/MR0105.jpg [in http://www.mikereyfman.com/photo/photo.php?No=5&Gallery=Bryce-Canyon-National-Park-Utah-USA%5D
Canyon de Chelly: http://believegallup.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/canyon-de-chelly.jpg [in http://believegallup.com/canyon-de-chelly/
Atlas Mountains: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/81928810.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/81928810%5D (Toubkal National Park)
Atlas mountain village: http://www.destinationlemonde.com/images/17/photo1-ag.jpg [in http://www.destinationlemonde.com/images/17/photo1-ag.jpg%5D
Milford Fjord New Zealand: http://globalconnection.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Milford_Sound_Fiordland_National_Park_South_Island_New_Zealand.jpg [in http://globalconnection.com.au/product/new-zealand-south-island-post-convention-tour/%5D
Namibia-Dune 45: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/Dune45_Sossusvlei_Namib_Desert_Namibia_Luca_Galuzzi_2004.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dune_45%5D
Amazon River: http://assets.worldwildlife.org/photos/1818/images/story_full_width/meandering_amazon_%28c%29_WWF-Canon__Andre_Bartschi.jpg?1345553423 [in http://worldwildlife.org/tours/the-great-amazon-river-cruise%5D
Alps in Trentino: http://hqscreen.com/wallpapers/l/1280×800/67/alps_italia_italy_trentino_alpi_1280x800_66754.jpg [in http://hqscreen.com/alps-italia-italy-trentino-alpi-wallpaper-66754/%5D
Sequoia national park: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-lABhQdL_8II/UwXlmbxPEuI/AAAAAAAArw0/VfGi2Htb0jI/sequoia-national-park2.jpg?imgmax=1600 [in http://www.latheofdreams.com/%5D
Scottish Highlands: http://timeforbritain.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/scottish-highlands1.jpg [in http://timeforbritain.wordpress.com/beautiful-scotland/%5D

PLEASE SAVE THE TREES

Beijing, 17 December 2012

I’m a sucker for a fine tree, as any reader of these postings will know. So it was with increasing depression that I read an article recently in Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com) which said that large old trees – trees that are centuries old – are dying at alarming rates. The die-off seems to be happening in all types of forests worldwide and to be caused by many things: land clearance, changes in agricultural practices and in fire regimes, logging and timber gathering, insect attack, climate change, and I don’t know what else.

I suppose I should recite the critical ecological roles which large old trees play. For instance, they provide nesting or shelter for up to 30 percent of all birds and animals in some ecosystems. They store huge amounts of carbon. They recycle soil nutrients. They create rich patches for other life to thrive in. They influence local flows of water and the local climate. They supply lots of food for many animals with their fruits, their flowers, their leaves, their nectar. In agricultural landscapes, they can be focal points for restoration of vegetation. They help connect the landscape by acting as stepping stones for many animals that disperse seeds and pollen.

So large old trees are very useful. But ultimately they are beautiful.

baobab_tree

C

elm tree

oak tree

plane tree

Angkor-wat-Tree

I’ve said it before, but my life has been punctuated by a number of beautiful large old trees. Let me tell you about one of them. My maternal grandmother had a sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, standing in magnificent splendour in the corner of her garden. There must have been a fad for planting sequoias in the late 19th century in this part of France because a number of older properties in the surroundings had sequoias – you could see them towering over garden walls as you drove by. I loved that sequoia. My cousins and I used to spend all our summers in that tree, or so it seems to me as I gaze back through the golden haze of more than four decades of memories. Our grandmother tried to stop us climbing it by sawing off the lower branches. But we just cut steps into the soft bark and climbed. And climbed. All the way to the top, where we would sit, talk, and look out over the pastures, woods and vineyards that surrounded us as the breeze rustled through the branches and the tree swayed slightly. We were lords of all that we surveyed.

I don’t have a photo of my grandmother’s sequoia, but here is a photo of another sequoia in a French garden somewhere. It gives you a great idea of what awaited us in the far corner of my grandmother’s garden.

sequioa-in-france

That tree seemed so huge to us, but nearly two decades ago, when the children were young, we took our summer holiday in California and visited Sequoia National Park. My God, what truly magnificent trees those were! My sequoia was a laughable midget compared to these giants. But I couldn’t climb these trees.

giant-sequoia-tree-pv

My wife has just old me that she never climbed trees when she was young. And I don’t remember our children every really climbing trees – we have become so conscious of dangers for children in the intervening decades (it is true that my younger brother and cousin fell out of a tree when a branch broke; my cousin cushioned my brother’s fall but fractured his collar bone in the process). But I think my family missed something. There is something magic about being up in a tree. Suddenly you are back to being a four-limbed creature as you have to use your arms as much as your legs. The world concentrates down to just a few branches. And the noise levels change; there is a quietness in a tree which you do not have on the ground, but also you hear noises you don’t hear so much on the ground, like the rustling of leaves. And your lines of sight change; suddenly you are a giant able to see much further around you than you normally can. And if the tree is a fruit tree, ahh … you can sit on a branch, pluck the fruit around you, and munch on them in quiet contentedness.

My memories of trees are nearly all from rural areas, although I do have some memories of beautiful trees from city parks – one of the earlier postings testifies to this. So many of us live in cities now and I’m worried we are getting cut off from trees – and this can only get worse as more and more of us live in cities. Cities and trees do not seem to mix well. As I look around Beijing streets, for instance, I do not see many great trees. The majority of the specimens look malingering. And yet … My wife and I visited Singapore recently. For her, it was the first time. For me, it was the first time in fifteen years. And the city struck me the way it had always struck me: it is so green. Not grass green, although there is certainly a lot of that. No, tree green.

01-rain-tree-06

There’s a huge number of trees in Singapore – and not small trees, either, but big, mature trees. The city always gives me the impression of the planners having carefully inserted the buildings between and around the trees which already grew there. Of course, it’s silly; it was obviously the other way round. I mean, the trees grow along the sides of straight roads … And the older parts of the city, like Little India and Chinatown, show the bare and treeless Singapore of the past, the kind of city we’re used to seeing elsewhere. But still, the impression is of a city inserted into a forest. According to National Parks Singapore there are something like 2 million trees planted in the city-state, which works out to be about one tree for every two and half people. I don’t know of any other city with such a high tree-to-citizen ratio.

So it is possible to live in close harmony with great trees. We must do it, because I think we lose part of our humanity if we don’t live near trees, if we cannot have this view every day of our lives.

01-rain-tree-04

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Baobab tree: http://www.louisianagardenclubs.org/live_oak_society/photos_files/AngelOak.jpg
Copper beech tree: http://www.visualphotos.com/photo/2×4003896/copper_beech_tree_1811714.jpg
Elm tree: http://i.istockimg.com/file_thumbview_approve/1678381/2/stock-photo-1678381-elm-trees.jpg
Oak tree: http://www.louisianagardenclubs.org/live_oak_society/photos_files/AngelOak.jpg
Plane tree: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/14963960.jpg
Angkor wat tree: http://www.davestravelcorner.com/photos/cambodia/Angkor-Crooked-Tree.jpg
Sequoia in France: http://ts2.cn.mm.bing.net/th?id=H.4582357281933013&pid=1.9
Giant sequoia: http://www.nunukphotos.com/images/giant-sequoia-tree-pv.jpg
National Parks Singapore: http://www.nparks.gov.sg/cms/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=173&Itemid=161