China To Demolish Ancient Temple To Bolster World Heritage Site Bid

Xingjiao Temple may soon be a World Heritage SiteChinese officials have announced a controversial plan to demolish a number of buildings at an ancient Buddhist temple located in the city of Xi’an in the province of Shaanxi. This drastic move is intended to improve the site’s possibilities for being designated a World Heritage Site, even as the inhabitants of the temple express their displeasure over the idea.

The 1300-year-old Xingjiao Temple is well known for housing the remains of a monk by the name of Xuanzang. He is credited with bringing the earliest Buddhist texts from India to China and introducing the Buddhist philosophy there. Xuanzang and his friend the Monkey King are also the main characters in the classic Chinese fable “Journey to the West,” which is one of the best know stories in all of Asian culture.

Because of his role in that tale, and in helping to bring Buddhism to China, local officials are hoping to get the temple named to the World Heritage list – a designation that generally translates to more money in the local economy. In an effort to improve their chances of earning that distinction provincial authorities have made the decision to dismantle roughly two-thirds of the buildings on the temple grounds. Most of those buildings are newer than the main compound and the feeling is that their removal will open the space to make it appear like a more natural setting.When it was first announced that the site would be nominated for World Heritage status, the monks that live in the temple were supportive of the idea. But when they were told about the demolition of the buildings, which include a dining hall and several dormitories, they withdrew their support and filed a protest. Their feeling is that the destruction of the buildings would disrupt their daily lives and diminish the temple as a whole. They also note that even with the removal of those buildings, the site may still not be accepted into the World Heritage program, which means they structures would have been eliminated for nothing.

Officials from Shaanxi have ignored those protests, however, and are preparing to move ahead as planned. They want to relocate the monks to another site and begin the demolition of the buildings by June 30 so they can proceed with the World Heritage application process.

While it isn’t exactly a new thing to exploit ancient sites for economic gain, it is sad when those sites are altered dramatically in this way. If the plan moves ahead, and the buildings are destroyed, I certainly hope that the site at least gets added to the World Heritage list. If not, this story will be even more tragic than it already is.

[Photo Credit: China.org.cn]

Photo Of The Day: Morning Landscapes Of Hampi, India

The sun rises over boulders, the Tungabhadra River and the ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire’s former capital to make a gorgeous golden landscape in today’s Photo Of The Day, taken by Arun Bhat. Located in southwest India, this tide of rocks and history are a part of the Hampi World Heritage Site. At its height, the ancient capital was the largest city in the world. Now, it’s home to countless temples and historical sites in a beautiful state of decay.

Be sure to submit your own photos for a chance at our Photo Of The Day. You can do so in two ways, submit it via our Gadling Flickr Pool, like Arun did, or mention @GadlingTravel and tag your photos with #gadling on Instagram.

[Photo credit: Flickr user arunchs]

Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town

Tallinn
Tallinn is a medieval wonderland. The capital of Estonia isn’t on a lot of people’s bucket list but anyone at all interested in history, architecture or art will love this place.

The central attraction is Old Town, a medieval walled city filled with old buildings and fortifications. The sheltered bay and the easily defended Toompea Hill made it a natural place to settle. Sometime about 1050 A.D. a fortress was built atop the hill, the first of many. In 1219 the Danes showed up as part of the Northern Crusade to subjugate the Baltics and convert the local pagans to Christianity whether they wanted to or not.

The Danes improved the fortifications and expanded the town, which became part of the Hanseatic League, a trading organization of a hundred northern cities. The Danes sold Tallinn to the Livonan Order, a branch of the Teutonic Knights, in 1346. The Swedes came next in 1561. Tallinn weathered plague and the Great Northern War and became part of Russia in 1710. In 1918, Estonia declared independence from Russia and fought a bitter war against Bolshevik Russia. Independence didn’t last long, however, and the fledgling nation fell first to the Nazis and then the Soviets during World War II.

Despite all this conquering, Tallinn’s historic core has survived remarkably intact. It’s so well preserved that the whole Old Town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the 14th century city wall still stands, including a couple of stretches where you can climb the narrow spiral staircases of the towers and end up on the medieval catwalk. The Viru Gates, flanked by thin pointed towers from the 14th century, makes a nice entrance into Old Town.

Dominating the town atop Toompea Hill is Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower. It was used as the center of government since 1229 and is now the site of Estonia’s parliament. Nearby stands the inappropriately named Maiden’s Tower that used to house a prison for prostitutes.

%Gallery-178685%There are several interesting old houses of worship. The oldest is the atmospheric and very chilly Dominican Monastery from 1246. My favorite was the Holy Spirit Church with its colorful Renaissance clock, elaborate altar, and painted pews. The 13th century St. Nicholas got bombed in World War II but was meticulously reconstructed and now houses a display of religious art, including the freaky “Dance Macabre” of cavorting skeletons.

The photo below was taken from the spire of the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, one of the many towers that offer fine views of the city. Also try the Town Hall for a great view. The most visible church that seems to get on all the postcards is the Russian Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its onion domes.

Several of the medieval buildings house museums: Epping Tower has a collection of medieval arms and armor, the 15th-century Great Guild Hall houses the Estonian History Museum, a 14th century merchant’s mansion is home to the Tallinn City Museum, and Fat Margaret’s cannon tower from 1530 is now the Maritime Museum.

One of the most popular attractions is Kiek en de Kök, an imposing tower on the slopes of Toompea Hill. Its basement connects with a network of tunnels beneath the bastions. There’s enough of interest here that I’ll be dedicating a whole post to this place later in the series.

As you can see from the photos, I visited Tallinn this February. While I only saw about five minutes of blue sky in the six days I was there, and it snowed every day, there are advantages to visiting in the dead of winter. First, prices of hotels and flights plummet and you can pick your dates without having to worry about getting a place. This makes it a good budget travel option for those who don’t mind a bit of cold.

If you’re coming from England, you’re in luck. Ryaniar flies to Tallinn from Luton, and easyJet flies from Gatwick. There are also regular connections from Munich, Helsinki, and other important cities.

Tallinn makes a good budget option whatever the season. Old Town is compact enough that you don’t need to pay for transport, and a Tallinn Card gets you free tours and free entry into all the sites. Being so compact you can see a lot of the city in one day, making the card well worth the money. The cost of the card is 24 euros for 24 hours, 32 euros for 48 hours, and 40 euros for 72 hours. Children up to 14 years get the card for half price. The card comes with a good city map and guidebook.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: A Snowy Traditional Village in Estonia!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn

Creationist Audio Tour Removed From Giant’s Causeway

creationist, Giant's Causeway
The National Trust has removed a controversial creationist segment in their audio presentation from the visitor center at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, the BBC reports.

The National Trust, which manages the geological marvel and UNESCO World Heritage Site, opened a new visitors center there in July. Soon there were numerous complaints about one segment of the audio tour that stated the dating of the rocks was controversial: “Young Earth Creationists believe that the Earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and, in particular, the account of creation in the book of Genesis. Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.”

This segment was replaced with the statement that there was a, “clear understanding among scientists that the heat of the earth was the driving force behind the formation of the Giant’s Causeway … All the scientific evidence points to a volcanic origin for the columns of the Giant’s Causeway, around 60 million years ago. However, not everyone agrees with the scientific view. There are some people who believe – often for religious reasons – that the earth was formed more recently, thousands of years ago rather than billions. The National Trust supports the scientific view of the formation of the Giant’s Causeway.”

The exhibit is an interactive audio display. You can see the full revised transcript here, and the original transcript here.

[Photo courtesy Nuno Curado]

Video: Virtual Tour Of Maeshowe, Scotland


I recently had the good fortune to visit the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland and saw that region’s amazing prehistoric archaeology. One of the most impressive monuments was the large vaulted burial chamber of Maeshowe. It was built around 2700 B.C., making it older than the pyramids at Giza, and is a masterpiece of stonework. Maeshowe is also famous for its much later (but still old) Viking graffiti.

Now Historic Scotland has made a virtual tour of this monument. Maeshowe was meticulously 3D-laser scanned to create this animation. The video takes place on the winter solstice, when the setting sun shines down the long, low entrance passage to illuminate the central chamber.

This video makes a good memento for me because when I visited, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that photography isn’t permitted inside Maeshowe. This video shows the tomb much more clearly than I could have ever captured on film anyway. So sit back, enjoy, and consider a trip to Orkney. It’s a magical place. Not only do you get stunning prehistoric monuments, but you can also enjoy the rugged scenery, abundant wildlife and lots of traditional Scottish music.