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


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


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


– Old 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


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


and there is the dramatic backdrop of Edinburgh castle


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


with its wonderful faces carved in the temple walls


– 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


– The Alhambra palace in Andalusia


with its typical Arab love of water


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

– the Sydney Opera House

sydney opera house 014

– 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


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 gardens-house

– Fountains Abbey and Gardens

fountains abbey

fountains abbey gardens-1

fountains abbey gardens-2

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


– 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


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


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



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?


Dubai creek: [in
Venice-aerial view: [in
Venice-worm’s eye view:
Paris-Notre Dame: [in
Paris-Eiffel tower: [in
Rome Piazza Navona: [in
Rome Pantheon: [in
Istanbul: [in
Prague: [in
San Gimignano-1:
San Gimignano-2:
Savannah: [in
Edinburgh-New Town:,%20Midlothian/IMG_9890.jpg [in
Edinburgh-castle: [in
Manhattan: [in
Taj Mahal: [in
Angkor Wat: [in
Angkor Wat Gods: [in
Kyoto Tofukuji rock garden: [in
Kyoto Kinkakuji: [in,31489,2049375_2049370_2048907,00.html%5D
Kyoto Gingakuji: [in
Château de Chenonceau: [inâteau_de_Chenonceau%5D
Château Azay-le-Rideau: [inâteau_d’Azay-le-Rideau%5D
Alhambra: [in
Alhambra-2:!!-!!4.jpg [in
Sydney Opera House: our photo
East Wing National Gallery: [in
Labrang: [in
Stowe gardens: [in
Stowe gardens-House: [in
Fountains abbey: [in
Fountains abbey gardens-1: -[in
Fountains abbey gardens-2: [in
Bryce canyon: [in
Canyon de Chelly: [in
Atlas Mountains: [in (Toubkal National Park)
Atlas mountain village: [in
Milford Fjord New Zealand: [in
Namibia-Dune 45: [in
Amazon River: [in
Alps in Trentino:×800/67/alps_italia_italy_trentino_alpi_1280x800_66754.jpg [in
Sequoia national park: [in
Scottish Highlands: [in


Beijing, 1 October 2013

G’day cobbers!  My wife and I are just back from a short holiday in Australia – the first time either of us have visited the country.

OK, let me say right up front that I am indulging in some revolting ethnic typing here. No-one during our trip said either “g’day” or “cobber” to us. Maybe in the small part of Australia we visited – Sydney, the coast immediately to the south of it, Canberra, and the Snowy Mountains – people don’t use these expressions, but the fact is no-one said them. Sorry about that!

But they did use a number of expressions which sounded odd to my English ear. “No worries”, used the same way I would use “you’re welcome”, as in “thank you”, “no worries”. “See you later” at the end of a conversation, even if there was no chance in hell of ever seeing the other person again. “How’s it going today?” at the beginning of a conversation, where I would merely say “hello” – the Americans have the same habit; I’ve never known how to respond to this. They obviously don’t want to hear a catalogue of my ills, so should I just say “fine”, even if I’m feeling like death warmed up? And should I in turn ask them how it’s going for them? That seems the logical – and civil – thing to do, but the few times I’ve done it my American or Australian interlocutors have seemed rather startled.

Then there were words used in normal conversation which I’ve only heard as Australian exotica. Take “billabong”, for instance, which I’d only ever heard in the song “Waltzing Mathilda” (“Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong, Under the shade of a coolibah tree” etc.). But after hearing several people talk about billabongs, I plucked up the courage to ask what they were exactly. (FYI, they are isolated ponds left behind after a river changes course; we saw many of them on the upper reaches of the Murray River – more on that later. Now I have to find out what a coolibah tree is ..)

And of course there was the accent. Though distinctive,  it wasn’t that hard for us to decipher. But for several nights in a row I did try to figure out, through endless repetition with my mouth in various shapes, how the Australians were forming their O’s, as in “no” or “go”. My wife eventually ordered me to halt my dreadful drones, or else.  The New Zealand accent is much harder to follow, as my wife and I discovered a few years ago when we visited that country. I quickly got into the habit of standing next to her whenever she asked a New Zealander a question, because there was a 99% chance she wouldn’t understand the answer whereas in my case it was only 60%, so I could step in to continue the conversation and not have us standing there smiling uncertainly at the responder.

If I start with these linguistic considerations, it’s because the language we heard during our trip typifies my feelings about Australia: so much was deeply familiar, yet so much was quite strange. This continuing counterpoint between the familiar and the strange accompanied us throughout our trip.

We started our trip in Sydney, emerging bleary-eyed from our overnight flight to a sunny, beautifully clear, fresh day, conditions which we had pretty much for the whole trip. Ah, those clear, intensely blue skies! After all the misty, foggy, smoggy days we had endured in Beijing, we couldn’t stop remarking with wonder on the blueness of the sky, and on the clarity, the sharpness of the air.

Our first port of call was – had to be – the Sydney Opera House down at the harbour. The path we chose to get there took us through the city’s botanic gardens: shades of Kew Gardens in London, so familiar to me after multiple visits there as a child with my grandmother. A familiarity made that much stronger by the Worthy Civic Buildings like Government House and the Art Gallery of New South Wales which lie along the gardens’ edges and which obviously belong to that class of British official buildings which clutter up Imperial London and dot the cities of the ex-British colonies. But the gardens also had a more exotic flavour, planted as they are with Australian species I had never seen before; look at this tree, for instance, with its shaggy bark. My wife and I gawked at it, never having seen anything quite like it. It’s a Prickly Leaved Tea Tree, by the way.
sydney general 007
And look at these really odd birds, with their curiously curved long thin beaks, which populated the gardens.
sydney general 015
They played the familiar role of pigeons in a park, padding cautiously around people sitting or lying on the grass and looking out for any crumbs or left-overs to pick up, as this photo by someone else amply demonstrates.

ibis eating food

They went about their business in a much more dignified manner than pigeons, though; aristocrats fallen on hard times compared to pigeons’ scabby lumpen-proletarianism. I later learned that this is the Austalian white ibis.

To enter the gardens we first had to walk down Victoria Street, which was lined with magnificent plane trees – the familiar – but also rows of two-floor houses with verandahs running the length of the second floor – very foreign to our eyes.

sydney general 002

My wife saw a resemblance to houses we had seen ages ago in Savannah, Georgia. To me, they had something of the Caribbean or the Latin American, or maybe the South-East Asian. Certainly not English.  We saw similar houses in other parts of old Sydney. I wonder where their design came from?

This road threw up another delight, this flowering plant which we later saw in a number of other places.

sydney general 001

My wife and I had never seen this plant before, but it reminded us powerfully of the flowering agave plant which we often see when we go down to the sea in Italy.

flowering agave plant

And so eventually, after these various detours, we came to the Sydney Opera House.

sydney opera house 001

What a magnificent, magnificent building! All the more stunning because of its position in the harbour, its white sails, or wings, or shells, picked out against blue: blue skies above, blue waters below.

sydney opera house 014

We came back to it again and again, with a ride on one of the harbour’s many ferries …

sydney opera house 025

… with a concert one evening (where we were served up a strange medley of Wagnerian themes), which allowed us to see the building at night …

sydney opera house 019

… and finally with a tour of the whole complex, where I discovered to my surprise that the shells are not plain whitened concrete as I had imagined but are covered with ceramic tiles of different shades of white, and with different degrees of shine, very beautiful to look at close up.

sydney opera house 023

sydney opera house 006

The Opera House is undoubtedly a marvel, alone worth the trip. It is truly unique, I cannot think of any building anywhere quite like it (incidentally, the story of its construction is also dramatic, full of clashes between huge egoes, of back-stabbings, of bad-mouthings, and of a final dramatic denouement; worthy of an opera). I cannot say the same of that other architectural icon in Sydney, the Harbour Bridge. Perhaps its construction was an engineering feat in its time (the 1930s), but I find all that criss-cross of thick, black iron bars horribly clunky.

sydney harbour bridge

It reminds me of Scotland’s Firth of Forth railway bridge

firth of forth railway bridge

the ugly duckling to the later Firth of Forth road bridge, with its beautiful soaring lines of a classical suspension bridge.

firth of forth road bridge

Perhaps Sydney’s city fathers could consider a rebuild along the latter lines, or at least a make-over. I’m sure that with modern computing to help them refine the load calculations, engineers could get rid of half of that ironware and still have the bridge stay up. Just a suggestion.

I will pass over the rest of our time in Sydney, pleasant as it was. In a later post or two, I’ll come back to our visits to two of its museums when I mention our lightning visit to the Federal capital city, Canberra, and I’ll cover the rest of our trip.

See ya later!


Ibis eating food:
flowering agave plant:
harbour bridge:
firth of forth railway bridge:
firth of forth road bridge:
all other pictures are mine