The Leshan Giant Buddha

Photo by Suchet Suwanmongko.

Photo by Suchet Suwanmongko.

The Leshan Giant Buddha, located near the city of Leshan in Sichuan Province, China, is a 233-foot (71-meter) tall stone statue built during the Tang Dynasty. It is carved out of a cliff face facing Mount Emei, lying at the confluence of three rivers that flow below his feet. It is the largest stone Buddha in the world and by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

Construction was started in 713 under the leadership of Chinese monk named Haitong, who hoped that Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. As it so happens, the mountain range in which the Leshan Giant Buddha is located was thought to be shaped like a slumbering Buddha when seen from the river, with the Leshan Giant Buddha now being at its heart.

However, the project stalled due to insufficient funding and the eventual death of Haitong. About 70 years later, an unnamed jiedushi (regional military commander) decided to sponsor the project, and construction was completed by Haitong’s disciples in 803.

As it turns out, constructing the massive statue resulted in so much stone being removed and deposited into the river below, that the currents were indeed altered by the statue, making the water safe for passing ships as Haitong intended.

In addition to being a marvel of design, the Leshan Giant Buddha is an impressive engineering feat, featuring a sophisticated drainage system carved into various places on the body to carry away rainwater and reduce weathering (hence why it is one of the few stone statues built in a wet environment to remain in fairly good condition). This ancient systems works to this day, although today the Buddha and its surrounding area is threatened by pollution more than anything (the government has promised to restore it).

The Leshan Giant Buddha, along with the Mount Emei area, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

The photo below demonstrates just how large and impressive this monument is.

Giant Leshan Buddha

The World’s Friendliest Cities

According to the annual Readers’ Choice Survey conducted by luxury travel and lifestyle magazine Condé Nast Traveler, the following are the world’s friendliest cities:

11 (tie). Salzburg, Austria

11 (tie). Budapest, Hungary

9 (tie). Seville, Spain

9 (tie). Savannah, Georgia, U.S.

8. Cape Town, South Africa

7. Siem Reap, Cambodia

5 (tie). Sydney, Australia

5 (tie). Dublin, Ireland

4. Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.

3. Victoria, BC, Canada

1 (tie). Melbourne, Australia

1 (tie). Auckland, New Zealand

You can read the consensus review for each selection in the first hyperlink of this post (although the site was acting a bit wonky for me, hence why I could not reproduce the details here). Respondents allegedly based their choices on a range of factors, although CN notes that the survey is ultimately subjective. It appears most of the top cities tended to share a valuable combination of hospitality, beauty, great amenities, and overall character (unique, historically rich, etc).

Additionally, the majority of friendly cities are medium-sized, temperate in climate, and fairly wealthy (which is reflected by good infrastructure, low crime, lots of public attractions and spaces, etc). This is especially true of Australia and New Zealand, whose cities were dual winners for being warm and welcoming places (they also tend to rank high in indexes of livability, although interestingly, there is little correlation between quality of life and friendliness to outsiders, perhaps because the priorities and focuses of residents and visitors differ).

Siem Reap, hardly as well known as the other contenders, also stands out for being a relatively poor place in a poor country; however, it is apparently a well-established and popular resort-town that recently ranked as the world’s fourth-best city for tourists, so it is clearly a hidden gem of sorts. Budapest did a good job of giving lie to the stereotype of dour and unfriendly eastern Europeans, while Savannah and Charleston seem to confirm the endurance and appeal of southern hospitality.

Anyway, aside from the most pleasant places to visit,  respondents also selected the least friendliest ones:

10. Nassau, Bahamas

9. Monte Carlo, Monaco

8. Milan, Italy

7. Frankfurt, Germany

6. Beijing, China

5. Marseilles, France

4. Paris, France

3. Moscow, Russia

2. Cannes, France

1. Johannesburg, South Africa

An interesting mix of cities across the world, although France stands out with a plurality of three spots, including two among the top five. As with the previous list, this is all based on an aggregate of factors beside the hospitality of residents: for example, Beijing was given bad marks for its “terrible pollution” and “dirty streets and hideous traffic”, while Johannesburg made the list (despite being “one of the most beautiful” cities in the world) for its crime and staggering inequality.

Overall, however, it seems that most of the cities that ranked as unfriendly did have an attitude problem:  Marseilles was described as “threatening”, Monaco as “overcrowded and ostentatious”,  Frankfurt as “rude”, and Paris as “cold and aloof” (which in fairness can be said of many cities its size).

You can read the original summaries and judge the fairness of these assessments yourself, although those of you who are familiar with these locations in any way are more than welcomed to share your two cents. My own traveling experience is sadly limited, and none of the places I have been too (such as Orlando, Florida or Prague, Czech Republic) made either cut.

I do feel there are three big caveats to take into account when going over this list: one mentioned earlier is subjectivity — what is rude or cold behavior to some people may seem perfectly normal or even polite to others, depending both on one’s own personality and the sociocultural norms in which they were raised.

This leads to the next issue: the backgrounds of these respondents plays a role in how they interact with, and are perceived by, the cities they visit. Given the target demographic of this high-end, American-based magazine, I imagine most respondents represent a rather limited socioeconomic and cultural group that may have differing experiences in certain areas than people of other groups (would speakers of French or another Romance language feel the same coldness from Paris as those who do not know the language? Would someone who is used to living in big, polluted cities find Beijing so objectionable?)

Finally, a lot of these assessments are based on ultimately limited sample sizes. I do not just mean the number of respondents — although that, too, applies — but how much they experienced, how long they were there, and how often they have gone. Perhaps I missed this factor in looking through the criteria of those participating in the survey, but who is to say they got a good picture of the city they are visiting? Where you go within the city, when you visit, and even how you travel through it all influence one’s experience and overall impression.

As a resident of Miami, I can tell you that sticking to Miami Beach is very different from visiting the duller suburban areas or experiencing the grinding poverty of peripheral areas).

Still, this is nonetheless an interesting pair of lists to look at or consider, although I would much prefer to see these cities and judge them each for myself!

Source: CNN

Beautiful Croatia

The start of the World Cup yesterday brought some rare international attention on Croatia, a small but vibrant country situated mostly on the Mediterranean coast of the Balkans.

Aside from a relatively impressive performance against soccer powerhouse Brazil, the country may also be widely known as the filming location of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Some of the following photos from CNN Travel make it clear why that is. I recommend you give them a look and consider adding this hidden gem to any future travel plans.

 

 

Around The World On Foot

NPR had a fascinating interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Paul Salopek, who is engaging on a fascinating journey that I’ve long dreamed about: traveling the world by foot. 

“There’s something about moving across the surface of the earth at 3 miles per hour that feels really good,” he tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

Salopek plans to walk 21,000 miles total — from Africa to the Middle East, across Asia, down through Alaska and all the way to Tierra del Fuego. He calls it the “Out of Eden Walk” because the idea is to follow the path of human migration.

Along the way, he’s documenting the journey for National Geographic magazine. In fact, his journey is the cover story in this month’s issue, with photos by John Stanmeyer.

Salopek is currently 10 months into the voyage, and just crossed the border into Jordan from Saudi Arabia. He has faced numerous obstacles, he says, like extreme temperatures and dust devils. As well as manmade obstacles that are vastly different from what early Homo sapiens might have encountered.

It’s remarkable to imagine just how much our early ancestors went through. If we think traveling is difficult and expensive now, imagine being the very first to have done so without the benefit of knowledge or technology? I hope to engage in this life-changing pursuit myself some day. If the fifty-one year-old Salopek can do it, I’m sure I can pull it off — that leaves me plenty of time to save money.

Read more about his journey, and see gorgeous photos, on the official website.

Once Upon a Time in Dubai

It’s amazing how much the United Arab Emirates has changed, especially its flagship world city, Dubai. It’s population has grown from a few thousand nomadic pastoralists to millions of urbanites from around the world living in some of the most modern cities Asia. At the rate it’s developing, who knows what the future will hold?

Click here to see Dubai in its simpler days.

Today, Dubai is known as a gleaming, glittering cosmopolitan oasis, crowned by the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. But it was not long ago that the city was as familiar with camels and dhows as it is now with Ferraris and indoor ski slopes. The regional oil boom changed everything: As the Gulf states found themselves flush with trillions in petrodollars, the tiny emirate positioned itself as a financial entrepot and regional hub for construction and tourism. While the global recession hit it hard, leading many to speculate about a “Dubai bubble,” the emirate has rebounded nicely — its economy is projected to grow by more than 4 percent this year after reinventing itself as a financial safe haven amid the Arab Spring, earning a spot on what the International Herald Tribune calls the New Silk Road.

The following pictures, taken in the late 1960s and early 1970s, show a society just on the cusp of the ambitious development that would soon be its hallmark. Above, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and the consitutional monarch of Dubai, leads a camel riding party in his youth.

Source: Foreign Policy (FP)

The 10 Most Overlooked But Important Moments in History

The list, compiled for the BBC by its readers, has some some pretty obscure and interesting selections, even for a self-styled history buff like me. They are the following:

  1. The discovery of industrial ammonia
  2. The Rebellion of Andreas Hofer
  3. Al-Hazen’s Work on Optics
  4. The Danube Script
  5. Double-Entry Bookkeeping
  6. The Seven Years’ War
  7. The Kingdom of Axum
  8. The Law Code of Hammurabi
  9. Rise of the Khmer Empire (and its building of the Angkor War)
  10. The Life of Simon Bolivar

Each of these things played a vital role in shaping the course of human history. Yet how many of them are even remotely known, let alone discussed? What do you guys thing? What are some things you’d add to the list?

A Slideshow of the World’s 75 Most Dynamic Cities

Courtesy of Foreign Policy:

Welcome to the era of the megacity. More than half the global population now lives in urban areas, and there’s no going back to the farm. With China leading the way, today’s global cities are surging ahead in population and economic heft, powering the world economy — and posing some very difficult problems for governments. But it’s not all about the Beijings, the New Yorks, and Tokyos. Drawn from the McKinsey Global Institute‘s index of the world’s 75 Most Dynamic Cities, some of these up-and-coming commercial hubs — including Belo Horizonte, Fuzhou, and even Philadelphia — may surprise you. How many can you honestly say you’ve heard of, or visited?

Check out this long and impressive slideshow here. Unsurprisingly, most of these cities are located in the developing world, namely China and India but also many parts of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. While cities are powerhouses of culture, industry, and innovation, they can also become concentrations of poverty, crime, social dysfunction, and pollution.

Can this world accommodate any more urban sprawl? Some of these conurbations are seeing triple digit growth, a scale of growth that is almost unprecedented in history. What will be the consequences? We’ll need smart planning – but will anyone be willing to invest in it?

While we’re on the subject, check out China’s 29 largest and most influential cities, most of which are unknown to outsiders.