HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, November 8, 2010

History through my Soles

This post may seem banal at first, but bear with me. As I was lacing up my Adidas Sambas the other day, I realized just how dirty and worn out they are. I've had these shoes for about two years now, and I've been fortunate to travel to some truly amazing places with them on my feet. A thought occured to me: how much history have those soles walked over? In just the last 6 months I've visited the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Cambodia and now Vietnam. These countries have had important and tumultuous pasts and, given the fact that I havea BA in History, I've tried to learn something about each one. Europe's history, in particular, has been one of conquerers and the conquered, with some countries playing each role multiple times. What I've seen so far in Asia has been fascinating. In this post, I'll try to teach a little bit to you through the pictures I've taken in these various places while wearing those shoes.

The first country outside of North America that I visited was the Czech Republic, back in May. I spent about two weeks in Prague, a beautiful, ancient city full of history.
Prague's magnificent Old Town Square. Tyn Church towers in the background, and the Jan Hus memorial commemorates the role Czechs played in starting the Protestant Reformation.

The massive St. Vitus Cathedral, located within the walls of Prague Castle. Construction on the church began in 1060, but wasn't finished until the 1920's, thanks to the tides of history. This 1000-year construction period is reflected in the array of visual styles incorporated in the church.

Wenceslas Square - In 1989 hundreds of thousands of Czechs converged here during the Velvet Revolution, which ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet-backed Communist government. The Czech Republic is now a democratic member of the European Union.
 Next up is Poland, the country where many of my ancestors came from. After centuries of domination by empire after empire, Poland now has a booming economy and is a bright spot in an often bleak Eastern Europe.
Krakow's Market Square - the largest medieval square in Europe. Towering over one corner is St. Mary's Basilica, completed in the 14th century.
St. Florian's Gate, part of Krakow's ancient defensive wall. Completed in the 14th century, this wall was built to protect the city from Ottoman attacks.
Wawel Castle, on the bank of the Vistula River. Used from the 15th century onward, this castle served as the seat of government in Poland until the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1609. The great heroes of Polish history are buried here, including former Prime Minister Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash in Russia earlier this year.
History isn't always pleasant. Located 90 minutes outside of Krakow is Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp/labor complex where over 1 million people were murdered during one of the darkest periods in human history. This is the infamous sign above the entrance to Auschwitz - "Arbeit Macht Frei," or "Work Makes One Free"
The main gate into Birkenau. Trains unloaded their human cargo here, and the unsuspecting people were led either to cramped barracks to be used for labor or straight to the gas chambers.

Somewhat fittingly, I suppose, on this same trip I went to Germany for a few days. I stayed in Berlin, a buzzing city that is one of Europe's cultural capitals, and one that has certainly seen its fair share of history.
The iconic Brandenburg Gate. Friedrich the Great, Napoleon, Hitler's SS, and the Soviet army of 1945 have all made their way through this structure's pillars. The Berlin Wall also ran just behind it, splitting the city in half. Today, the Gate, with Pariser Platz in the foreground, sits at the center of the reunited capital of one of the world's biggest economies. The American and French embassies are located here as well.
The Reichstag, another icon of Berlin. It was nearly desroyed by a fire in 1933, and the Nazis took the opportunity to crack down on their opposition and consolidate power around Hitler. Along with most of Berlin, it was heavily bombed by the Allies during WWII. Left unused for most of the Cold War, it was finally restored after unification in 1990. The glass dome on top provides excellent views of the entire city. Today, it hosts one house of Germany's Parliament.
The longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. A few years ago the German government invited artists from around the world to paint it. Many messages of hope and victory over tyranny now grace the walls, along with some truly bizzare artwork.
This looks like a nondescript parking lot, but what's left of Hitler's bunker is actually located underneath it. The Russians dynamited much of it, and Hitler's suicide outside of it signaled the end of the Third Reich.
On August 26, I left the U.S. for two weeks in Cambodia, before eventually making my way to Vietnam. Cambodia is a fascinating country full of wonderful people, and I hope that it continues to modernize, because the Khmer people have been through a lot.

Pol Pot's genocidal rule in the 1960's and 70's was, without a doubt, the darkest period in Cambodian history. Nearly 25% of the country's population was wiped out, setting Cambodia back decades in terms of development. This is a stupa at one of the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh. Housed inside of it are thousands of bones of the Khmer Rouge's victims. I never wrote a post on my visit to the fields because I knew it would be extremely dark, but everyone should read a bit about this time period, since it serves as an important lesson for today.

On a happier note, this is one of the buildings on the grounds of the meticulously preserved Royal Palace, in Phnom Penh. The architecture throughout the complex is amazing.
I discussed Angkor after I visited it back in September, but it was such an incredible experience I'll mention it again. This planned city houses numerous temple complexes like this one, and they were built around 1000 years ago. The scale and detail of these complexes still blows my mind.
I've already discussed a lot of the historical sights I've seen in Vietnam, so I'll leave them out here. Of course, as I visit more I'll talk about them. Needless to say, I've seen a lot of amazing things in the past year, and I've been wearing those Sambas for most of the trips. I'd love to be able to hear the stories of the historical periods and events I've walked over, but that isn't entirely possible. Therefore, these pictures will suffice. If you want to see more of them, there are plenty on my Facebook. Enjoy.

No comments:

Post a Comment