Places to see before they disappear

Taj Mahal

Places to see before they disappear

Taj Mahal

If the plan to close the Taj Mahal goes into effect, it would reduce this over-the-top mausoleum — built by Shah Jahan (fifth emperor of the Mughal dynasty) to mourn his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal — to a mere postcard silhouette instead of the spiritual experience it can be.

Even a recent rise in admission prices doesn’t deter floods of tourists from shuffling through the Taj Maha l — three to four million tourists every year. Between the crowds and the air pollution that’s eating away its white stone facade, tourism officials are considering closing this 17th-century landmark to the public, leaving its fabulous domed symmetry — that graceful center onion dome, the four smaller surrounding domes, the slender punctuating minarets, the serene reflecting pool — visible only from afar.

Shah Jahan placed this memorial beside the Yamuna River, despite the constant risk of flooding, because it was next to the bustling market of the Tajganj, where it is said he first saw Mumtaz selling jewels in a market stall. Work started in 1641, and it took 20,000 laborers (not to mention oxen and elephants) 22 years to complete; its marble came from Rajasthan, the precious stones from all over Asia. In the late 19th century, the badly deteriorated Taj Mahal was extensively restored by British viceroy Lord Curzon; what will today’s Indian government do to preserve this treasure?

Lord Howe Island

More than half of the original recorded species of birds on this island are extinct due to hunting; non-native predators such as black rats, cats, and owls; and overgrazing by farm animals. Now that Lord Howe Island is protected and managed, the most serious threats are oil and chemical water pollution, and groundwater pollution from sewage management.

Possibly Australia’s best birding site, Lord Howe Island is a carefully preserved nature sanctuary, where only 400 tourists are allowed at a time. Seventy-five percent of the island, including much of the southern mountains and northern hills, is a permanent protected nature reserve. The island is home to more than 130 bird species, between residents and migratory visitors. Walking trails along the island’s ragged east coast provide great views of seabirds, star among them is one of the world’s rarest birds, the Providence petrel, which nests near the summit of Mount Gower. This sturdy-looking seabird is so trustful of humans that it can even be called out of the air — and might even decide to rest in your lap.

For impressive aerial feats, look to the skies, especially over the tropical forests of the northern hills, and you’ll see the beautiful red-tailed tropic bird, with its elegant red tail streamers. When courting, it will fly backwards, in circles, and, for good measure, throw in some vertical displays. It’s a splendid sight, and one few birders ever get to see.

Pyramids of Giza

Of all the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one is still standing: the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Granted, its pinnacle was lopped off, and the polished white limestone that once faced its sloping sides was scavenged ages ago. But there it is in the Egyptian desert, the largest in a trio of stupendous royal tombs, with a quirky monument called the Sphinx alongside. It’s quite a sight to see — if only you could see it.

Today, aggressive throngs of souvenir vendors, tour touts, and taxi drivers crowd the entrance to the Pyramids of Giza. Though camel rides and horseback tours are now banned from the monument area, visitors still clamber unchecked over the ancient landmarks. The haphazard sprawl and pollution of Cairo comes right to the edge of the archaeological zone, yet Egyptian officials seem unconcerned about protecting the site.

It’s difficult now to get that iconic long-distance view of the three pyramids looming in the desert; you can’t really see them until you’re too close. Oriented precisely to the points of the compass, they were built for three Pharaohs of the 4th Dynasty (about 27th c. B.C.) — the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the slightly smaller Second Pyramid of Chephren, and the much smaller red-granite Third Pyramid of Mycerinus — and designed to imitate the rays of the sun shining down from its zenith. Most tourists expect a visit to the famed pyramids to be a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, not a tawdry letdown. It’s the only Ancient Wonder we have left — what a pity it’s come to this.

Gu Gong (Forbidden City)

This vast complex is half a millennium old — the emperors lived in the Forbidden City from 1420 to 1923, beginning long before Columbus sailed to the Americas and ending right before Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic — and the heavy traffic is taking its toll.

It may have been forbidden once, but nowadays nearly seven million visitors a year cross the threshold of this imperial palace, home to an unbroken line of 24 Chinese emperors. Limiting access would be a ticklish proposition for the Chinese government since most of the visitors are Chinese citizens getting in touch with their heritage. Many sections may be closed when you visit, due to a massive renovation lasting through 2020.

There’s no one must-see section — it’s the scale and harmony of the whole that’s so impressive, an irrefutable statement of Chinese imperial might. It was originally built by an army of workers in only 14 years, although after various ransackings and fires, most of what you see today was built in the 17th century. Check out the largest gate, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where Mao Tse Tung made his dramatic announcement founding the People’s Republic in October 1949. The nearby Gate of Supreme Harmony leads into the perfectly symmetrical outer court, and then into an inner court and increasingly private — at least in the emperor’s time — pavilions and structures.

Little Green Street

Little Green Street isn’t in the center of London, but maybe that’s why it survived so long — it’s one of only a few intact Georgian streets left in the whole metropolis. These two-story brick houses may have survived the Blitz in World War II, but the inexorable march of gentrification is another thing altogether. It’s not even a full neighborhood, just a one-block-long street, a narrow cobblestoned lane lined on both sides with perhaps a dozen modest 18th-century terraced houses.

The houses themselves being knocked down, it’s the street itself that lies in danger. A developer seeking to build nearby can only access the plot of land through the 2.5m (8 feet) wide street. Lorries and backhoes would barely scrape through this lane, coming within inches of the terrace’s neatly painted front doors and bow windows. No studies had been done to test how much the constant rumbling and vibrations of that traffic would affect the foundations of these 225-year-old buildings, given a projected construction period of 4 years.

Little Green Street looks like a perfect slice of Regency London; it’s been celebrated in the poetry of that quintessentially British poet John Betjeman, and used as the setting for music videos and photo shoots. The campaign to save Little Green Street has not only knit together the dozen families who live there, it has attracted actors, writers, musicians, and others concerned with preserving London’s historic character. On February 28, 2008, the Camden Town Council denied the developers construction access to Little Green Street, but the appeals process continues.

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