Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In the past three years I have visited three cities in three very different parts of the world that somehow nonetheless call each other to mind: Dubrovnik, Croatia; Khiva, Uzbekistan; and Pingyao, China. Each is a historic city with medieval walls that fortunately have been preserved. None is a grand imperial capital like Istanbul or Beijing or Rome, with all the attendant wars and conflagrations and changes in political power that inevitably paint over those cities again and again as palimpsests.
Below, then, is a point-by-point comparison of three wondrous places that you should visit when you get a chance.
Environs: As a port on the Adriatic Sea and surrounded by it on three sides, Dubrovnik is, in terms of natural setting, arguably nonpareil. Views from watchtowers or even your hotel balcony of waves pounding white against the rocks and walls are truly dramatic.
Walls: The earliest walls date to the 8th century. Today’s extant walls were mostly built in the 14th to 16th centuries, after Dubrovnik (or “Ragusa” as many Italians still call it) gained independence from Venice.
Historical and cultural distinctiveness: From the perspective of anyone familiar with European civilization, Dubrovnik is not as distinct as the other cities on this list. Its combination of Venetian influence and Balkan heritage is beautiful and not to be missed. But church towers and Italian colonnades are not terribly surprising in this southeastern corner of Europe.
Potential for cinematography: It’s King’s Landing on Game of Thrones. Need I say more?
Environs: The desert plains of Central Asia surround Khiva. It’s a majestic setting that stretches dry and merciless, seemingly to infinity.
Walls: Unlike the sturdy stones of Croatia, Khiva’s walls are constructed of dried mud, a material common in Central Asia and appropriate to that environment due to its aridity. It’s a distinct look.
Historical and cultural distinctiveness: As dusk in Khiva you can easily believe that you fell asleep and woke up in the Arabian Nights. Magnificent mosques and madrassas and grand minarets richly decorated with turquoise tiles make this an architecturally magical city. Though the local claim that Shem (son of Noah) founded Khiva is almost certainly false, there are nonetheless centuries of fascinating history and culture to discover.
Potential for cinematography: I am unaware of any specific film shot in Khiva. Then again, I’m no expert on Russian cinema or the cinema of the Central Asian Republics. But any film about the likes of Genghis Khan or Tamerlane, or for that matter Conan the Barbarian, could use a few shots here. Hey, it used to be the hub of the Central Asian slave trade where many a Russian was kidnapped and sold.
Environs: In terms of surroundings, Pingyao cannot compete against Dubrovnik or Khiva. Instead of the blue Adriatic or the grand landscape of Central Asia, Pingyao is located in the middle of a heavily populated part of north-central China. Looking outward from atop the city walls, you see architectural atrocities of the new town next door rising apocalyptically against the sun. Better to look inward.
Walls: Pingyao’s current walls mostly date to the Ming Dynasty (1368—1644). Parts of it are restored with bricks frankly bearing the year of restoration (e.g., “City Wall 1984”). The four gates, especially the south gate (typically the main gate in Chinese fortress design), along with various watchtowers, offer interesting sights.
Historical and cultural distinctiveness: Pingyao’s recorded history goes back to about 800 B.C. In the 19th century the city served as a financial center for China, so that many historic buildings are monuments to the former wealth as well as reflections of fascinating premodern practices such as the employment of kung fu masters associated with bodyguard agencies (biaoju) to transport money and valuables across long distances.
Potential for cinematography: As one of the handful of well-preserved old cities in China, Pingyao has served as backdrop for scenes in many a Chinese period film. It's as close as you’ll get to a time machine that can take you back to premodern China.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."