Saturday, September 22, 2012

Guatemalan Anthem Lyricist on Stamps

Written in response to a contest calling for a national anthem to be adopted, the first ever playing of the winning entry took place during a lyric-literary meeting taking place at the Colon Theater, the night of Sunday 14 March 1897, as one of the main events of the Central American Exposition, and the author of the music was decorated with a gold medal and honor diploma. (Ovalle had been known previously for setting to music "Himno Popular" (The People's Anthem) by the poet Ramón P. Molina. It is unclear whether the music used for Ovalle's work was the same as the music that was submitted for the national anthem competition.)

The author of the lyrics, however, was submitted anonymously, it was not until 1911, when it was discovered that the author was the Cuban poet Jose Joaquin Palma, who on his deathbed was honored with a silver wreath placed on his head, while outside the public and the bands sang the Himno Nacional. The original lyrics were modified slightly in 1934 by Professor Jose Maria Bonilla Ruano, a Spanish grammar scholar. Some verses were softened in their bloody context while others were enhanced in their poetic beauty. The anthem has four verses (including four separate choruses at the end of each verse). Unlike many other nations with multi-verse anthems, all four verses are official and sung in Guatemala. The anthem is sometimes erroneously called "¡Guatemala Feliz!" (Guatemala, Be Praised) from the opening words of the anthem, but officially there is no title and is simply referred to inside the country as "Himno Nacional". (

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Russian with a Filipino Heart

Tick encephalitis, Lyme disease, Hepatitis A, etc.- these are some of the diseases one might acquire when traveling to Siberia, and as a doctor I was a little apprehensive at first.  The Lonely Planet guidebook which I read thoroughly gave these warnings.  Should I really go? I think I shouldn't.  But, this is a one in a lifetime experience.  

Good that this book also mentioned a contact person- Petr Ishkin, a well-traveled Russian teacher who is proficient in English.  So I tried to email him, expecting he would never answer. He must receive hundreds of these requests, why would we bother to respond to mine?  I was requesting him to accompany and guide me through this Siberian rendezvous which brought me from island of Cebu, Philippines to Seoul, Korea, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia then to Ulan-ude, Siberia.  I was quite surprised  when he answered back the next day. After this, we were regularly exchanging emails and then we became Facebook friends.  I learned he spoke  more than five languages and has traveled extensively,  to almost all the continents. I introduced him to my frantic wife, Grace, who from day one, was uncomfortable with my travel plans. Petr offered so much help from choosing the hotel to my visa applications and advised on where to go and what to visit.  Once my wife got to know him, she changed her mind, and  half heartedly supported my planned side trip to Siberia.

Upon arrival at the airport in Ulan-ude, I was greeted by a smiling Russian- "Hello, Vicente", I immediately recognized him from the Facebook pics and in a second, all my apprehensions were gone.  "I'm so happy to see you Petr", I said.  He introduced me to his companion and fellow teacher, Anatoly, who was very quiet at first. Most Russians I know, especially tourists in our city in the Philippines are stoic and not too friendly.  "Smiling is a sign of weakness for us.  Initiative is punishable", he quipped. What a difference from our part of the world, where smiling is a natural gesture and shows respect and hospitality.  But this is their culture and character - it is who they are.  Maybe because they are colonizers. they feel subservient to no one

The next day, Petr guided me through the city in his own car and took me to museums, churches, theaters, temples, the mountains and even arranged  my trip to Lake Baikal for the next day.  Lake Baikal was wonderful and I felt "peace" while I was standing on its powdery aureate shores. He introduced me to several wonderful people- his co-teachers, his school head, his wife, his friend Gongor and even invited me to talk to some of his students in the Lyceum for the Gifted about my country.  He even invited me to his home for lunch with his charming wife were I had a taste of the Omul- a freshwater salmonid endemic to Lake Baikal and the cranberry-strawberry juice concoction, which he made himself.  I learned so much from him about the Russians, the Buryats, Buddhism, Geser, Orthodox churches, the Datsuns and about life in general.  He was a funny, witty, patient and truly knowledgeable.

My three days stay in Siberia felt short, especially that I was having a blast.  Petr drove me to the airport and escorted me to the departure area.  He never left my side until the flight was confirmed and I was ready to go.  It was a long wait at the airport before boarding, and sensing that he was tired, told him, "You can go Petr, I'm okay here".  "No", he said, "I wanna make sure that I see you leave coz you might be calling back to inform me you haven't left due to some unforeseen circumstance."  How much do I owe you for this trip? He just smiled and wished me a pleasant journey.

In this wonderful city of Ulan Ude, I didn't only find the perfect guide, I found a friend.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mongolia's Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape

The Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape (OVCL) lies in the central part of Mongolia, some 360 km southwest of Ulaanbaatar. The site covers 121,967 ha of grassland along the historic Orkhon River, and includes a buffer zone of 61,044 ha. The archaeologically rich Orkhon River basin was home of successive nomadic cultures which evolved from prehistoric origins in harmony with the natural landscape of the steppes and resulted in economic, social and cultural polities unique to the region. Home for centuries to major political, trade, cultural and religious activities of successive nomadic empires, the Orkhon Valley served as a crossroads of civilizations, linking East and West across the vast Eurasian landmass. 

 Over successive centuries, the Orkhon Valley was found very suitable for settlement by waves of nomadic people. The earliest evidence of human occupancy dates from the sites of Moiltyn Am (40,000- 15,000 years ago) and “Orkhon-7” which show that the Valley was first settled about 62,000-58,000 years ago. Subsequently the Valley was continuously occupied throughout the Prehistoric and Bronze ages and in proto-historic and early historic times was settled successively by the Huns, Turkic peoples, the Uighurs, the Kidans, and finally the Mongols. 

At the height of its cultural ascendancy, the inscribed property was the site of historic Kharakhorum – the grand capital of the vast Mongol Empire established by Chinggis Khaan in 1220. Within the cultural landscape are a number of archaeological remains and standing structures, including Turkish memorial sites of the 6th-7th centuries, the 8th9th centuries’ Uighur capital of Khar Balgas as well as the 13th-14th centuries’ ancient Mongol imperial capital of Kharakhorum. Erdene Zuu, the earliest surviving Mongol Buddhist monastery, the Tuvkhun Hermitage and the Shank Western monastery are testimony to the widespread and enduring religious traditions and cultural practices of the Northern School of Buddhism which, with their respect for all the forms of life, enshrine the enduring sustainable management practices of this unique cultural landscape of the Central Asian steppes.

The Serenity of Lake Baikal, Siberia

As the vast evergreen forests of Russia's Siberian taiga extend southward toward Mongolia, the ground rises and the terrain becomes more varied. The border between Siberian Russia and Mongolia is a natural divide here, with rugged hills and mountains forming series of wrinkles between the sprawling Russian forests to the north and rolling grasslands to the south. About midway along this border, in a gigantic stone bowl nearly four hundred miles (636 km) long and almost fifty miles (80 km) wide, lies almost one quarter of the all the fresh water on earth--Lake Baikal. Baikal is easily the largest lake in Eurasia, and it is just as easily the deepest lake in the world (1,620 metres). On the merits of magnitude alone the lake is renowned as one of the earth's most impressive natural wonders, and rightfully so--Baikal is so large that all of the rivers on earth combined would take an entire year to fill it.

What fewer people realize, however, is that Baikal's majestic expanse is situated in a region of surpassing beauty, its forested shores surmounted by the jagged, snow-clad peaks of the Barguzin mountains. In the winter Baikal freezes over, with ice so thick that the Trans-Siberian Railway was briefly run over its surface. At this time of year the lake provides an unsurpassed venue for the pleasures of a tour by sleigh. In the summer, its crystalline blue waters are transparent to a depth of forty meters, and its shores are ringed with the brilliant colors of seasonal wildflowers. Boat tours offered during the warm months are one of the best ways to gain an introduction to the lake, as is hiking amongst the forests, streams, and waterfalls of Baikal's parks. The lake region is home to an enormous variety of plants and animals, most of which--like nerpas,the lake's freshwater seals, and its trademark delicacy, the omul salmon-- are found nowhere else in the world. Bears, elk, lynx, and sables abound in the surrounding forests.

Lake Baikal long ago became famous for the purity of its waters and surrounding shores, a pristine state that had been seriously threatened by planned industrial development in recent years. Luckily, Baikal was one of the first regions to benefit from the new Russian government's reversal of decades of anti-environmental industrial policies. Since 1992 Lake Baikal and the entire surrounding area have been designated as a national park, and Baikal is today a naturalist's paradise and an idyllic holiday destination. With fine beaches, excellent hiking, birdwatching, and pleasure boating, Baikal is well-positioned to become one of the most attractive vacation spots in Asia.

Hwaseong Fortress- Unesco World Heritage Site

Hwaseong Fortress is an impressive structure from the latter part of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and the official fortress of Suwon-si, Gyeonggi-do. The fortress (constructed from 1794 to 1796) was built as a show of the King’s filial piety towards his father Jangheonseja and to build a new pioneer city with its own economic power. The fortress wall stretches for a total of 5.52km and has a great variety of military facilities that’s hard to find anywhere else. Four gates face each of the cardinal directions—Janganmun (north), Paldalmun (south), Changnyongmun (east), and Hwaseomun (west)—and the seven-arch style Sumun gates straddle the point where the nearby stream reaches the palace. Above the Sumun gates is a pavilion called Hwahongmun.

Hwaseong Fortress was constructed under the guidance of Yu Hyeong-Won (1622-1673) and Jeong Yak-Yong (1762-1836), and is believed to have been constructed very scientifically. The fortress wall was built using Seokjae and Jeondol (bricks) and the holes between the bricks are just big enough to fire guns, arrows, or long spears through in case of an attack. During construction of the fortress Jeong Yak-Yong invented ‘Geojunggi,’ which uses a ‘hwalcha’ (lever) to lift up heavy stones, greatly reducing construction time.

The Suwon Hwaseong Fortress went through many turbulent times and damage, and in the battle of June 25th, many of the facilities became so damaged that they were deemed irreparable. Even though the fortress restoration initiative (1975-1979) restored many of the sites to their former glory, Paldalmun to Dongnamgakru (an area 491 meters in length) has still not been renovated.

The fortress was designated as Historical Monument No. 3 in January 1963, and in December 1997, it was designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul

Jongmyo Shrine was built by Lee Seong Gye (1335-1408), the first king and founding father of the Joseon Dynasty. It was a primary place of worship for kings throughout the Joseon Dynasty and has been registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site for its well-preserved ancient customs such as memorial services and traditional music. One of the many unique characteristics of Jongmyo Shrine is the 3-forked path of slightly raised roads that starts from in front of the main gate. The middle path is in honor of kings of the past and leads to Jeongjeon, where mortuary tablets of kings are preserved and memorial services are held. The tradition of enshrining successive kings was originally handed down from China, and has been well maintained. Jeongjeon has 19 different rooms in all, honoring 19 different kings.

The east road of the shrine’s forked path is for the living king and the west is for the living prince. These two paths connect to a room where the king and the prince used to go for ceremonial cleansing and to prepare for memorial services. After preparations had been complete, the king and the prince would then move into Jeonsacheong, a square-shaped room with a yard where the food for the service would be prepared.

The memorial service, called ‘Jongmyo Jaerye,’ is said to be the oldest complete ceremony in the world. It is annually reenacted on the first Sunday of May. Jongmyo Jaeryeak, the musical part of the ceremony, is produced by instruments, songs, and, dances that originated over 500 years ago.