Martin Chambers

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The History of the world in 7 cities

It may be that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, but perhaps if we spend too much time looking back we won’t see what is in front of us.  

We flew into London and started a history lesson inside buildings older than any in Australia. We wandered around streets from the pages of Dickens and saw plays in the resurrected Globe Theatre just as Shakespeare would have. In places with names from school time history books and the songs of the Beetles we watched the still operating old world and marveled that such old stone could adapt to the computer age. 

And that is how the British seemed. From these streets and buildings an empire was built and there is the sense that, oblivious to the tourists at the gate, in hidden halls and secret rooms there are meetings deep inside between those in charge who think they still are.

At Hampton Palace we walked in the kitchens of Henry viii. He was a man who ruled the known world and knew he did. In the kitchens lavish feasts for hundreds were prepared, food intended to impress as much as the magnificent art and tapestries of the dining hall, in a way that demonstrated to all who came that this was the man in charge. So much food was consumed that the court had to move every few months to another castle or palace in the country.

The royal families of Europe where all playing the same game, building palaces each more opulent than their neighbour’s, but ultimately the only people fooled were their own. And what did that matter, so long the masses believed they were insignificant and that their king was nearly a god? 

In Stockholm we saw Swedish palaces that outshone the English. They are also better preserved; in fact while the English preserve a vista from Richmond Park all the way to St Paul’s Cathedral, the Swedish have preserved the entire old city. It is a sort of Fremantle of steroids. Ships, small boats, cobblestone streets, intricate little shops, cosy bars, bronze statues and magnificent old buildings with height and style limits on new buildings in the old town area. They would never have allowed ‘The Gerkin’, London’s dildo shaped glass and steel business tower that was neon lit green on its opening night. 

But Stockholm is nothing compared to St Petersburg. When it came to impressing the relatives, no one did it better than the Romanoff’s. Despite two revolutions, world wars, a siege so severe the residents’ resorted to cannibalism and half a century of communist neglect, what survives is proof that beauty transcends politics. One building, The massive Winter Palace, is now The Hermitage Museum. It has been restored and houses a collection of over 3 million priceless works of art including Egyptian mummies, statues by Michelangelo and paintings by famous European masters. The rooms are packed with exhibits but even so the collection is so large only a portion of it is on display. In London we paid money to visit empty rooms less impressive than these and we are starting to learn that London is not, was not, the centre of the world. 

The rule of kings and czars and communists is momentary. Perhaps God will live forever. Cathedrals, like palaces, are built to make the man that stands in them feel small. In London we awed and the “masterpiece of the Genius Sir Christopher Wren”, St Paul’s Cathedral. In St Petersburg we stumbled upon the smaller but more impressive St Isaac’s. In Moscow there are five of them in one place, to the side of Red Square.

There is a sense of the dramatic past imbued in the walls of these places and nowhere was this more apparent than as we paid for our ticket and walked in the strangely hushed crowd towards Red Square. Police directed queues towards the cathedrals where the fallen bell of Nicholas 111 lies broken and silent on the grass. Each Czar would make a bell to be bigger and louder than the one before. Quite a few of them built cathedrals too, and as the tourists view these in the square, an occasional black limousine with secret service escort would rumble across the cobblestones towards the rather plain Kremlin building opposite. It was as if the leaders, realizing the folly of buildings to impress, had retreated behind stone walls to carry on the charade of empire. A bit like London, really. 

We headed east. Irkusk in Siberia, along the trans Siberian railway, is a likeable colonial Russian city. Behind the neat town centre of well maintained stone buildings and bronze statues are earthy two storey wooden houses. It is reminiscent of Asia, Vientiene perhaps, a thought helped by the third world jumble of electric power cables and the chaos of traffic. We sense that history, the Gulags, the revolutions, and the faceless men behind stone walls, all this happened elsewhere. Life goes on much as it has forever, here and now and closer to Asia than Europe. 

In Mongolia, Asia arrives as soon as you step from the Ulaanbaatar station. Chaos, noise and smells. Taxi’s shout for business. Street stalls sell food, drink, magazines. They do this too in Russia but here it is without the Russian reserve. People smile, laugh, shout for business. This is a harsh land and there is only today. They live in round houses and don’t have fences, in a wide brown landscape that is as it has been since before the time of Genghis Khan and while they are proud of Genghis there seems to be no desire to build that empire again. After all, standing in the middle of endless rolling hills under a limitless sky, where summers bake and winters freeze, empires seem as permanent as clouds. Here is the history of the world. Humans are nothing despite all the cathedrals and palaces.

But the real Asia arrives at Beijing. Crowds, high rise, choas, organisation despite chaos, and, food. Glorious food. Henry viii’s kitchens cooked for hundreds. The Russians treat food as if you were on scout camp. In Mongolia, food is as varied as the landscape and best described as ‘interesting’. But in China, food is a celebration of being alive. It comes in a thousand styles and flavours and smells and back alleys and has been stolen and traded and modified over thousands of years. More than anything it is the food that makes this part of the world so exotic, so dynamic, and if food is the way to mans heart it is also the way to a nation.            

In the new Beijing, suburbs of 50,000 people are being created with massive high rise apartments, whole suburbs of not quite identical buildings that are interesting. Interesting in the good sense, for just as they have taken food ideas from around the world so now architecture and suddenly high rise is not the square monsters we make. They have spice, (even gerkin), but it works. Looking up at the tops of these monsters it is as if I am living in a comic fantasy city. I half expect to see batman. 

These seven cities all have great history. Kings and castles, heroes and hardship, stories of battles won and lost. But history is more than buildings and stories for it can give us insight. In far far distant days perhaps someone will stand upon the brown hills of Mongolia and think upon the rise and cause of empires and realise that our time was more than just a story. But before then, in London, shoppers will look for discount designer labels in market stalls run by immigrants. Now, in Russia, western style is sought from western style shopping malls complete with blue jeans and logo’d tee shirts. On the fifth floor of the state department store in Ulaanbaatar, tourists shop for genuine Mongolian and pictures of Ghengis Khan while the Mongolians fill the aisles of the first four floors buying European.

And in Beijing they make the clothes the whole world shops for and these are now the clothes the Chinese wear. Welcome to the future.