Articles tagged with "ruins"

Sulphur factory ruins

Sulphur factory ruins

White Island was too volcanic for sulphur mining to be viable in the long run. Factory owners probably don’t mind too much if their workers are swept out to sea by pyroclastic flows – workers can be replaced – but if the factory itself keeps getting destroyed, that’s a deal breaker.


Moai faceplant

Moai faceplant

We drove up the east coast of the island. All along the shore there are groups of moai but most of them are unrestored. All of the standing moai on the island have been put back up – every single statue on the island was toppled for reasons unknown after the Europeans arrived. I thought the toppled moai were pretty poignant. Some of them were unbroken, which surely must mean they were put down carefully rather than pushed over. Others were broken into pieces. When they were standing, apparently all the moai had red topknots carved from different stone. At the toppled moai, their topknots were lying scattered on the ground.


Bran

Bran

I wanted to cycle to Bran while I was in Braşov. It’s about 20km away and is the site of castle, claimed on scant but tourist-attracting grounds to be Dracula’s castle. But it was the weekend, and all the bike shops in Braşov were closed, so I reluctantly headed out to the autogara and got a bus. I watched sadly as the nice flat tarmac round wound through the mountains to Bran, and then managed to miss Bran completely because it was far smaller than I’d expected. Seeing a sign saying ‘you are now leaving Bran’, I got off the bus and walked back towards the castle. I saw it now, on top of a hill. Its location was pretty impressive, but it hardly looked mediaeval or terrifying, and when I got back into Bran itself I was confronted with a horrendous tourist nightmare of Dracula souvenirs, sold by people wearing fangs and capes, and decided to head back to Braşov as quickly as possible. The only thing I liked about the town was the view of distant snowy mountains behind it.

When I got back to Braşov the sun had just set. Earlier, I’d got a bus from the centre of town to the autogara, and the journey had seemed very short, so I thought I’d walk back. It seemed the journey had been quite long after all and two hours later I made it back to central Braşov, having walked along dimly-lit streets through endless suburbs, guided only by occasional glimpses of the cheesy hollywood sign, glowing up on the dark hillside.


Ruins of the north

Ruins of the north

We were heading for Chachapoyas, in the mountains of the north, but we stopped at Chiclayo because there were some pre-Inca ruins at Túcume nearby that we thought we might as well have a look at. We got a colectivo to the ruins. It was about a half hour drive and I slept much of the way, wedged comfortably in amongst a lot of locals carrying a lot of produce. We walked the mile or so from where we got dropped off to the ruins, but once we arrived we weren’t too impressed. It took us a while to work out what were ruins and what were just hills. The guide book claimed that there were 28 pyramids, but only with a lot of imagination could we even see two. But a hill in the middle of the site gave some good views over the plains, and it was a nice hot day. After doing as much looking around as we could, we got a moto-taxi back to the main road and then a colectivo back into the centre of town. A huge meal at a restaurant by the Plaza de Armas prepared us for a second consecutive night on a bus, and as night fell we were on our way inland and upwards into the mountains.

We got to Chachapoyas at 4.30am, and slept on the bus until 7am. When buses arrived ridiculously early in Peru, people often stayed on board until sensible times, and it was always fantastic to be able to get a couple of hours more sleep, without the engine noise and bumpy roads to contend with. After a night of clubbing in Lima followed by two nights on buses, we were pretty wrecked and spent the day ambling around town and drinking coffees. We were about 2500m above sea level, and my previous month of acclimatisation had all but disappeared in three days at sea level.

The next morning we were up at 6.45am, and went for breakfast at the hotel from which a trip to the ruins of Kuelap was leaving. When we booked this, the manager had specifically promised us good coffee for the morning, so we were more disappointed than usual to find that as so often in Peru, the coffee was disgusting. In most places, ‘coffee’ came as some kind of cold concentrate which you add hot water to, and it was vile. But we were still looking forward to seeing the ruins, and although we set off a bit late (“Sorry about this”, said the hotel manager; “There’s a few Peruvians going with you today, so we won’t be leaving on time”), the journey there was spectacular, along a winding track through the mountains. It was a cool and cloudy day, and it began to rain as we arrived at the site.

Straight away I was impressed by Kuelap. The ruins seemed much more impressive to me than Machu Picchu had, the setting in the mountains was almost as amazing, and there were only eight of us here. A huge defensive wall around the site looked incredible in the mist and rain. A pack of llamas was wandering around the ruins, occasionally blocking paths and looking surly, but fortunately they didn’t spit at us. Briefly the rain became torrential, and we took shelter with some archaeologists who were working on restoring a building and had a tarpaulin shelter. Once it eased off again, we explored a bit more. The site covered a huge area, and we probably didn’t even see half of it before it was time to go. On our way back to Chachapoyas, we stopped at a restaurant for a late lunch. I ordered guinea pig, an essential Andean cultural experience even for an aspiring vegetarian. I was glad I had tried it, but once is really enough. There wasn’t much meat on my guinea pig, and what there was was a bit rubbery.


Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

The journey to Peru was easy, with the border being just a few miles from Copacabana. I got another stamp in my passport, filled my wallet with more new currency, and got a bus to Puno. I killed a few hours there sheltering from heavy rain in cafes and restaurants, and then got an overnight bus to Cuzco, for just 25 soles. And it was an extremely comfortable bus, with the fantastic Cruz del Sur company. The strangest part of the journey was the game of bingo which happened just after dinner. Everyone on the bus was given a card, and the stewardess started reading out numbers. The prize, apparently, was two free return tickets on any Cruz del Sur route, which sounded very useful to me. Not entirely understanding whether I needed just a row, a column or everything to win, I came dangerously close to making a fool of myself, but luckily managed to avoid it. But I didn’t win.

We arrived at Cuzco at 3am, and I slept on the bus until 6am. The city has a reputation for sometimes violent robbery so on the whole I was a bit nervous when I got a taxi into the centre. But the taxi driver didn’t rob me, and I made it unscathed to the hostel I wanted to stay at. My whole Cuzco experience was pretty much trouble free, except for the extraordinary difficulty I had trying to get to Machu Picchu without going on a tour. After a day and a half of trying to buy just a train ticket and nothing else, I finally discovered the train ticket office opening times – 5am to 9am. Exasperated and pressured for time, I was forced to buy a train/hostel/entry ticket combination from a tour operator.

The train journey to Aguas Calientes was very impressive, along the valley of the raging Urubamba river and surrounded by towering mountains. Aguas Calientes is a pure tourist town, but not as much of a rip-off as I’d expected, and quite relaxed. After a couple of hours, though, it gets boring, and I killed an afternoon by walking down the river valley for a while.

The following morning I caught the first bus to the ruins, at 5.30am. It was still dark, and I was pleased to see that the bus was not full. It’s only a short drive to Machu Picchu, up a dramatic switchback road, and so before 6am we were at the site. I hurried up to the Caretaker’s Hut, which gives the classic view of the ruins with Huayna Picchu rising behind, and watched as mist drifted over the ruins while the sun rose. It was a beautiful sunrise, and there were only a couple of other people around.

I wandered down to the main ruins. They are spectacularly well preserved, and it’s incredible to think that they were completely unknown less than a hundred years before I was there. But I thought that actually, they were nothing like as spectacular as the temples at Tikal, which I’d visited five years previously. One of Tikal’s pyramids was the tallest building in the Americas when Columbus landed; Machu Picchu’s buildings are far more modest, albeit much more spectacularly situated. Tikal is in the jungle, while Machu Picchu is sat on a narrow ridge, surrounded by a bend in the Urubamba river, and with beautiful Andean peaks stretching away into the distance.

I walked through the main square, and then to the base of Huayna Picchu, the dramatic hill which towers over the site. It’s a tough and very steep climb, especially if you got up at 5am, but I made it to the top without too many rest breaks, only to find myself deep in cloud. I waited around for a long while, and eventually the clouds started to break up and move away, and I was rewarded with breathtaking views of the ruins and the mountains. To top it all off, a single condor flew by, just inches above my head, showing off his huge wingspan before flying around over the ruins for a while.

At midday, I came back down, and found the ruins far busier than they had been. I decided I’d seen enough here and it was time to move on again. I was thirsty enough to pay an outrageous price for a drink at the entrance to the ruins, but still tight enough to deeply resent the commercialism of it all. Back at Aguas Calientes I got on the train again, had another magnificent journey up the river valley in blazing evening sunshine, and then after another night in Cuzco I got a bus to Arequipa.


Great Wall: Huanghua

Great Wall: Huanghua

Visiting the Great Wall was one of the first things I’d done in China. At Simatai, the setting of the wall is spectacular, but although it’s not as touristy there as other restored parts of the wall, I fancied visiting a more remote part of the wall. I headed for Dongzhimen bus station, and got a bus to Huairou. At Huairou, there should have been a bus to Huanghua, an unrestored and little-visited part of the wall, but I had no map, no idea of where the bus stop might be, and a crowd of taxi drivers telling me there were no buses anyway. Rather than wander aimlessly I decided to go with the taxi plan, and soon afterwards arrived at a hamlet by a reservoir, from which the wall snaked away over the hills.

The weather wasn’t great. It was warm and extremely humid, and mist was draped over the hillsides. Huanghua clearly wasn’t so remote that no-one went there – a small restaurant in town had a sign saying “Mentioned in Lonely Planet! Only restaurant at Huanghua!” on it. But as I set off up the wall I was quickly out of sight of anyone, and enjoyed the solitude.

The wall was crumbling and overgrown here, and it was quite a strenuous hike up it. Soon I was sweating impressively, and after half an hour or so I looked like I’d jumped in a swimming pool. The mist made the scene quite atmospheric, and I was not unhappy that it wasn’t sunny like it had been at Simatai.

I plodded up the wall for three hours, and met two foreigners and five or six locals along the way. I walked up to Gaping Jaw, a valley into which the wall plunges down Sawtooth Slope. The slope was as steep as anything at Simatai, and I would have walked down it, but that would have committed me to probably another hour of walking before another path back to Huanghua unless I wanted to retrace my steps, and I was running out of water. So I headed away from the wall, taking a forest path which led me back to Huanghua village.

I wasn’t sure what I’d arranged with my taxi driver. Due to language difficulties, I had no idea if I’d hired him to take me back to Huairou or not, but when I got back to the village he was there waiting for me. He wasn’t much impressed with how I looked after three hours of hot, humid hiking, though, and he looked like he was going to tell me to bugger off and get the bus. But grudgingly he drove me back to Huairou, and I got a bus back to Beijing from there.


Old Summer Palace

Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace was only a short walk from the university, but it was still hard to find. There was an extreme lack of English signage to it, and I hadn’t yet learned more than about 15 chinese characters, so it took me a while to find the entrance and work out where to buy a ticket.

Once I was in, I found it quite a strange place. It was very quiet and tranquil, but with a slightly spooky atmosphere because all the lakes were completely choked with reeds and looked slightly threatening. Inside, there were more English signs than there had been outside, but unfortunately most of these were only to remind me that my forebears had been a bunch of cultural vandals of the highest order. Together with the French, in 1860, the British had destroyed this place, and frequently there were signs marking the spot of some former building which had been one of humanity’s most glorious achievements, only to be torn down by the British and the French.

The palace grounds were vast and maze-like, and I got totally lost. I was still somewhere in the grounds when night began to fall. I was probably only a few metres from the exit, but in the end I had to retrace my steps over the entire route I’d followed to find my way out. I emerged into the city again just as it was getting properly dark.


Towering temples at Tikal

Towering temples at Tikal

It was a very pleasant bus ride up there. A few years ago the road to Flores was notorious for (guess what?) armed robberies, but the road has recently been paved, which speeds up the journey enormously and has cut incidences of robbery to zero. I arrived in Flores safe and well after a nine-hour journey. Flores is about an hour’s drive from Tikal itself, and I got the earliest bus to the ruins. It was a bit slower than it should have been, because the driver got into some kind of fight with a passer-by. I didn’t have a clue what was going on and so I kept myself to myself as blows were exchanged, bloody noses given, and clothes ripped. Eventually the business sorted itself out, and our flustered driver drove on to the ruins.

What makes Tikal so spectacular is the fact that it is deep in the jungle. Every other major Mayan site has had its plazas and temples cleared of vegetation, but at Tikal the forest still covers much of the site. Also amazing are Tikal’s enormous temples, the biggest of which, at 64m tall, was the tallest structure in the Americas until the Spanish arrived. I spent a day climbing all the temples and pyramids I could, and enjoying the awesome views over the jungle canopy from the top. The jungles of the Petén stretch for hundreds of miles around, covering the whole of the Yucatán peninsula, and from up the top of the 64m Temple IV the views were astonishing.

It was also nice to be back in fearsome heat. It was at least 30°, and this was some relief after two weeks of chilly weather in the highlands. I spent some time pondering the fact that I was going to return to England in just four days time, and came to the conclusion that I would die of flu within a month.

As well as the ruins, the jungle was impressive. Many times during the trip I had heard monkeys, but had never seen them until now. They weren’t exactly shy here, and the first one I saw was shamelessly throwing bits of twig at me. As well as the monkeys, there were raccoons and foxes, parrots and toucans, and the huge, colourful Petén turkey, found only in this part of the world. All in all it was a fantastic day. I slept well on my overnight journey back to Guatemala City.


Copán

Copán

The Maya were one of the three great ancient civilizations of the Americas, along with the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico. The civilization began to emerge at least 4,000 years ago, was advanced by 300AD, and reached its peak (the so-called Classic Period) from around 600 to 800AD. During this time, they built great cities at a prodigious rate, covering them with towering temples and pyramids, and in many cases spectacular stone carvings. They were advanced in agriculture, astronomy and mathematics, and quite independently of the Arabs (who generally get the credit), they invented a positional numbering system and the concept of zero. They also had a literary tradition, though much of the hieroglyphics have yet to be deciphered, and an accurate calendar, which was adopted by the Aztecs and is still used in more remote parts of Guatemala.

At the height of the Classic period, the Mayan empire spread across the southern Mexican states of the Yucatán peninsula, the whole of modern-day Guatemala and Belize, and western Honduras and El Salvador. Around 900AD, though, the whole of Mayan civilization went into dramatic decline, many cities being abandoned to the jungle. After something of a renaissance around the 1200’s, Mayan civilization was again in decline when the Spanish arrived, and they conquered the Mayan lands rapidly.

In their religious zeal the Spanish razed to the ground most of what they conquered, destroying the ‘pagan’ temples and pyramids and the idols inside. Fortunately, the decline of the Maya meant that there were many cities which were now abandoned and totally covered in jungle. Today, many have been uncovered, and every year more are discovered. Just before we left the UK, we heard that a huge new set of ruins had been found deep in the jungle in central Guatemala.

Copán is one of the most famed of the Mayan sites of Central America, and we were certainly impressed when after a short walk down a forest path we emerged into its Great Plaza. With a low pyramid in the centre, carved pillars (stelae) scattered around, and larger pyramids visible further off, it was quite a sight.

Copán was founded by 1200BC at the latest, and started to become a great city in 426, when a king called Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw came to power. He and his descendants began Copán’s great tradition of recording their achievements on stelae, slabs of rock about eight feet tall, great numbers of which can be seen today at Copán. Copán’s most productive king in this respect was Uaxaclahun Ubak K’awil, the thirteenth king, whose name sounded very fitting for a powerful king until its meaning was deciphered. Somehow a king called 18 Rabbit hardly seems destined for greatness, but under his rule Copán came to dominate many surrounding cities, including Quiriguá, which today lies across the border in Guatemala. 18 Rabbit’s rule lasted nearly 45 years, during which time many of Copán’s finest structures and stelae were built and carved, but unfortunately the people of Quiriguá had never accepted their subjugation to Copán, and in 738 they captured the unfortunate King Rabbit and beheaded him.

Copán’s fifteenth king, Smoke Shell, was another great builder, and started the Heiroglyphic Stairway, the longest inscription known in the Maya lands. But the following two kings oversaw Copán’s terminal decline, as its ever-growing population finally outstripped its food production. Skeletal remains from this late period show evidence of malnutrition and disease, and most of the people had left by the year 1000. A few stragglers remained for a long time, but by about 1200AD the site had been completely abandoned to the jungle. It was found by a Spanish explorer in 1576, but then not visited again until 1839. At this time it came to the attention of archaeologists, who have been working at Copán ever since, uncovering ever more structures (3450 are now known, covering an area of 24 square kilometres) and deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics.

We wandered around, admiring and appreciating the art and architecture, and trying hard to really believe that this was once the centre of a great city. We climbed the Temple of Inscriptions, at the top of which you find walls covered with intricate carvings, a fine view over the ruins and surrounding countryside, and (on this occasion at least) a Honduran television crew, asking visitors to give their impressions of the place. Always eager for 15 seconds of fame, I happily told them what I thought of the place. Moh was media-shy, and hid behind a wall until I was finished.

After we had spent a good long time exploring Copán, we walked further down the road to one of its suburbs, today known as Las Sepulturas. This was a residential part of the city, and though it is certainly less dramatic than the main site, provides a greater insight into how the Maya lived. It’s also much quieter than the main site: we didn’t see anyone else while we were there.

We were lucky with the weather – it didn’t start raining until after 4pm, when the ruins are closed for the night. This meant we only got soaked once we’d seen everything, which was good. We squelched back to the town of Copán Ruinas, and prepared to leave Honduras the next day.