Rock and Roll Island – Easter Island


With its rough seas and stone moai statues, Easter Island is one of the world’s most isolated places.

easter islandmoai statues

Moai – the name of the giant statues that dot the grassy knolls of Easter Island. Carved out of the island’s volcanic rock nearly 1000 years ago, these enormous stone heads were built to honour the island’s very important people.

First heard about Easter Island while on holiday in Santiago, Chile, is when a documentary about a tiny Polynesian island covered in giant heads and extinct volcanoes. A five-hour flight later, we had touched down at Matavery International Airport to the swishing of grass skirts, cool coconut drinks and leis made of freshly plucked frangipanis.

As the driver had navigated the dirt roads towards the hotel Posada De Mike Rapu, he had occasionally stopped to give way to one of the 6000 wild horses that roam free on the island. Burnt yellow fields rolled quietly towards the roaring ocean; a lone palm tree the only reminder of the thick jungle that once covered this isolated land.

Impressive work ethic: Continue to walk further along the Ara O Te Moai, is the ancient trail once used to transport the moai around the island. There is a huge dented slab of volcanic rock: the Rano Raraku quarry. Most of the moai on the island – estimated around 1000 – were carved from this quarry. Some are very small, while others look around 10 metres tall. When someone important died, the village would request that a moai be made so that person’s mana (good luck and special powers) would protect them. The villagers had to feed and house the workers while they made the state, which could take a year.

fallen moaimoai statue-1

It is an impressive work ethic – and the mammoth job of carving the moai is just the beginning. Most of the moai line the island’s coast, which is up to 11 miles from the quarry, and are strategically placed on platforms to protect the villages from invaders. Even to this day, questions remains about how such a primitive people managed to move hundreds of tonnes of rock around the island.

 

National geographic may have found the answer. It funded an expedition to Easter Island, sending archaeologists on a mission to find out exactly how these enormous statues – the largest weighing more than 80 tonnes – were transported from the quarry. They recreated the scene and realised it is possible the moai walked from their quarries to the platforms around the island.

Nearby, a fallen moai’s head sinks into the soft grass, its empty eye sockets (once made from coral) staring blankly at the blue sky above. The local people believed that if a moai fell while being transported to its new home, its mana was worthless and the moai was to be left where it toppled. Workers would then return to the quarry and start a year’s worth of work all over again.

 

A Birdman in the hand: The sea is swollen before leaving the jetty and by the time fishing boat reaches open waters it’s lathering into a fury. It is not exactly an idyllic day to go snorkelling in the Pacific. The guide cuts the engine beside Motu Nui, a tiny, uninhabited speck in the ocean. There were the ominous-looking cliffs of Easter Island, now being battered by swirling winds.

 

easter island cliffskari kari ballet

Up until 19th century the island held a competition called Birdman contest. Powerful men on the island would order the strongest men from their village to clamber down those high cliffs, swim across here to Motu Nui, collect the first Sooty Tern (an important island bird) egg of the season, swim back and climb back up the cliffs to the village. It was pretty dangerous crossing the water, but first man to make it back with the egg would be the winner; his chef got to be the Birdman and ruler of the island for the year.

 

Towards the other side of Motu Nui, the sea turns back to turquoise, where you can plop into the cool water for snorkelling. The visibility would be perfect yet there would be hardly any fish here, the water around Easter Island eerily devoid of sea life.

 

Show Time: The Kari Kari ballet is widely regarded as the best traditional show on the island.

Courtesy by G.N.

CHINA’S BEAR NECESSITIES


The Chinese are not known to be great animal lovers, but in stunning Sichuan province you would discover why the endangered giant panda is their national treasure. And if you can tear yourself away from all that cuteness, there are plenty of other attractions and distractions.

pandatraditional play

In the space of just a few hours, it is impressive how much a giant panda can defecate. I am inside five-year-old Yoaxin’s enclosure, using a shovel to chase enormous floating pellets of compressed orange mush around a pond.

As I skilfully scoop the mess into a bucket, I wonder if US first lady Michelle Obama, who recently visited the Sichuan province’s most famous residents, opted to roll up her sleeves to pick up panda poop as part of her official duties, probably not.

But having enrolled at the Bifengxia Panda Conservation Centre as a voluntary panda-keeper for the day, I am ready to get my hands dirty.

As one of the world’s most endangered species, whose existence now depends heavily on conservation efforts, the rarest member of the bear family has earned adoration from wildlife lovers worldwide.

Earlier this year, in Scotland’s Edinburgh Zoo the resident giant panda Tian Tian, on loan from the Chinese government, was artificially inseminated, with hopes she will give birth this month or in September. But panda fans eager to see the animals in their homeland can now do so with greater ease, thanks to increased flights from a variety of different airlines to the panda capital, Chengdu.

According to a 2003 census by the Chinese State Forestry Bureau, there were 1596 giant pandas in the wild with 83 percent of the population found in the Sichuan province. (More recent figures are expected soon, but have not yet been published.) Three hundred of those bears can be found in reserves such as Bifengxia and Chengdu’s Giant Panda Research Base.

Seeing pandas in the wild is almost impossible; solitary creatures that roam in areas of 20 sq km, they are often only captured by camera traps. Plans are under way to reopen the mountain Wolong retreat, destroyed in a 2008 earthquake, but in the meantime, a good alternative are the bamboo hills of Bifengxia in Ya’an, 150 km from Chengdu.

Legs splayed like a small child, with those distinctive dark eye smudges making her look like a haggard insomniac, Yoaxin appears quite sad and helpless.

Far more lively are several baby pandas, which emit high-pitched squeaks as they tumble on top of each other and scramble up trees.

Local tourists dressed in ridiculous fluffy panda hats snap happily on their smartphones before racing off to souvenir shops to buy tat emblazoned with the symbolic monochrome bear.

Even centuries ago, soldiers would wave flags decorated with pandas, which they believed represented power. There is no doubt these creatures have become a national treasure.

However, given the country’s controversial track record for using endangered species in traditional medicine, Chinese animal welfare almost sounds like an oxymoron.

Jack, the guide said pandas are one of the few endemic animals to have survived, he partially jokes: “because they don’t taste very good!” But there is some truth to his words; history books recount tales of local people attempting to cook pandas in pots with highly dissatisfying results.

“Chinese people like to put things in their mouths, “he adds, as we drive towards the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base.

Located in the middle of the city and easily accessible, this is the most popular reserve for foreign tourists. Walkways wind around spacious enclosures, in a set-up similar to a zoo.

During the visit, the temperature is mild, but in the sticky summer months, pandas sleep on ice beds in air–conditioned rooms and eat watermelon and carrot lollies to keep cool.

Posters advertise the opportunity to hold a panda, if you are prepared to pay 1330 yuan (215 $) and dress up in an overcoat and surgical mask.

The money is needed for the expensive upkeep of the pandas and investment into the artificial insemination unit, currently the main method by which the sluggish pandas are able to reproduce.

emeishan jinding templegiant budha of leshan

Fortunately, Chengdu has much more to offer than its cute and cuddly bears. Green spaces, excellent cuisine and a strong tradition of tea houses has earned the 2000-year-old Sichuan capital a reputation for being the most relaxed city in the People’s Republic.

ram taoist templemarket

At one time, there were 10,000 tea houses in Chengdu, today, 1000 are still in operation. One of the biggest is the Hemin teahouse in the People’s Park, where groups of old men and university students gather at bamboo tables to play the traditional Chinese game, mah-jong.

Competitors are locked in serious, concentration, their expressions as blank as the flat sky overhead. (On average, the sun only shines in Chengdu 100 days per year.)

antiques shopping areamodern chengdu

Elsewhere, in the park, retired women wearing oversized glasses and pouts like a baboon’s bottom amuse themselves by parading up and down on a makeshift catwalk in a bizarre public fashion show, while others perform traditional Tibetan dances. Aside from the 17th century Qing dynasty wide and narrow alleys, now revamped as an upmarket complex of restaurants, boutiques and street food stalls, much of the high-rise architecture in Chengdu is modern.

As people from rural areas seek better health care, education and employment, the population of the city is swelling. Yet many would agree that their hearts still lie in the surrounding scenic countryside.

Used in the 1950s to carry coal from mines, the Jaiyang railroad now takes tourists on day trips through peaceful farmlands, while a separate carriage still carries locals and their livestock to market. A journey on the small steam train provides welcome contrast to the grey smog and concrete of the city; fields of brilliant yellow rapessed flowers radiate colour in a place where the sun rarely seems to shine.

Although China is a country that is rapidly industrialising, with new roads and buildings springing up like weeds and choking the environment, there is the glimmer of hope that people are beginning to appreciate the extent of what they could lose. It is true that, culturally speaking, the Chinese are not a nation of animal lovers, but efforts to protect the giant panda, their national treasure, are educating a new generation.

Courtesy by G.N.

Graceful Monaco


Home to arguably the world’s most glamorous royal family, this tiny city-state welcomes celebrities and high rollers in their droves, no doubt drawn to its glitzy nightlife and designer boutiques.

graceful monacomonte carlo bay

Monaco is a discreet, welcoming place and that is why celebrities like it here: they can stay in private and not be disturbed by fans. This is a place where wealthy and successful people come to live because they know they can leave million-dollar artworks in their Ferraris, or not lock their doors, and come back to find everything is still there.

place du palaisnicole kidman in the biopic of grace

The countless security cameras that swivel and zoom every time you cross a street or walk into a shop no doubt help, but Charlotte’s back on brand, pointing towards the perfectly placed bunches of flowers that decorate the lobby. Here enthusiasm is contagious. Monaco is a glamorous city – state, penned in by France and the Mediterranean and just a short drive from Italy.

grace kellyhotel metrolole - pool with a view

hotel metropole

Now, with Nicole Kidman’s biopic of Grace Kelly opening the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and Louis Vuitton’s cruise collection dropping anchor here, it’s clear Monte Carlo’s star cachet is on the rise. Add warm weather, beautiful scenery and a history scattered with royal tales and intrigue….it is a must to visit place.

The world’s smallest city-state has a population of just 30000, yet every time there is a big event – a society wedding, or even a Robbie Williams concert – that number rises to 2000000.

For beautiful, spacious rooms, a Karl Lagerfield-designed restaurant and the occasional celebrity spotting, Hotel Metropole is very lovely indeed. The staff at the hotel are super-friendly – ask them to print you a Princess Grace tour map.

Courtesy by G.N.

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