Stairway to heaven, chariots of fire and other remarkable virtual travels

HE IS so big that 100 people can sit on each of his feet; he stands 233ft tall, and there are 1,021 curls in his hair.

Little wonder that the Leshan Giant Buddha, on Lungyun Mountain’s Qifeng Peak in Sichuan province is a huge attraction.

Yet it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site less known and visited by British tourists.

The biggest stone Buddha in the world, it was carved out of a red sandstone cliff face during China’s Tang dynasty.

And, says our guide Cassie, the sculpture was ninety years in the making between 713 and 803 – a remarkable achievement.

Such was the dedication of Hai Tong, the monk who dreamed up the idea, that, when faced with crippling taxes which threatened his dream, he poked out one of his own eyes to show his devotion.

There’s more to the Leshan Buddha than meets the eye, too. As recently as 50 years ago, a treasure room was discovered in his chest – although sadly it had already been looted.

And there’s a clever drainage system that runs between his 23ft tall ears, helping to preserve his looks from erosion. There are also hidden gutters and channels scattered in his hair, collar and chest.

The temple close by is worth visiting, too, with its beautiful artwork, sculptures and candles.

None of which I would have known had I not taken the opportunity to visit Leshan on a virtual trip from the comfort of my armchair, with live guided stream platform Heygo.

The service, which has helped local guides hit by the collapse of the tourism industry during the Covid-19 pandemic, has grown rapidly in a year and now offers 2,327 tours in 399 locations.

Here are nine other amazing places I have visited during lockdown, each of them virtually offering up their secrets.

Guatape Rock, Colombia

We pause as we reach the 650th step on our progress to the top of La Piedra Del Penol to catch our breath. There are, says guide Santi, only nine more steps to go.

He’s right, and he’s wrong. Once you reach the top of this 7,005ft high monolith, there’s still a small tower you can ascend to get even better views of the islands far below.

The stone was formed millions of years ago, and was worshipped by the Tahamies Indians who once lived here, now around two hours drive from the city of Medellin.

Unusually, the rock is almost entirely smooth, but has one long crack running top to bottom on one of the faces. So where better to build the twisting staircase that looks just like giant stitches holding the split rock together?

At the top there’s a small fenced in area with stalls offering food and drink, snacks and souvenirs – but it’s the views that make the exhausting climb worthwhile. It’s easier online…

Diamond Beach, Iceland

It does what it says on the tin, to quote the famous TV advert. This strip of black sand beach, by the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon on the South coast, is the site of natural treasures.

Cross currents wash the many small icebergs which fill the lagoon up onto the beach, where they linger long on the volcanic sand in the low temperatures, glistening like diamonds in the sun.

The ice comes from the mighty Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, from which huge blocks calve, and large chunks float out into the lagoon.

Guide Albert reckons that it is one of his favourite spots in Iceland, a country that has no shortage of scenic delights, and it has become particularly popular with photographers.

One of the most unique things about the beach is that it never looks the same. Even if you visited the day before, the beach will have changed completely on the following day.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Just eight miles north-east of Kegalle in Sri Lanka, you’ll find the small village of Pinnawala, home to some of the largest inhabitants on the island nation in the Indian Ocean.

Because here, conservationists run an orphanage, nursery and safe breeding ground for Asian elephants orphaned in the wild, and guide Dilip gets us up close to watch the gentle giants.

Opened in 1975 with just five baby elephants, it has grown rapidly and by 2012 was home to more than 100 of them, spanning three generations and living in peaceful sanctuary.

Female and young elephants range freely as a herd during the day, coming back to the centre twice a day to drink and be bathed in the river. Males do some light work, helping transport feed.

And here’s one for the kids. Visit the stores in the village to stock up on Poo Paper – paper made from the mashed dung of elephant droppings. If in any doubt, check out the statue outside!

The Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an

You’ve doubtless seen many pictures of the massed ranks of terracotta warriors unearthed by farmers in China’s Lintong County – but they are still slowly revealing their secrets.

Guide Eva takes us on a trip through the museum built around the excavation including not just the main hall but also the outlying pits where even more spectacular sights, such as life-size chariots and horses, can be seen.

Dating from the third century BCE, the sculptures depict the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China and each is painstakingly carved in remarkable detail. No two are the same.

Buried with the emperor with the purpose of protecting him in his afterlife, each figure was originally brightly painted but the colour vanished within minutes of being exposed to the air.

Many are still believed entombed at the site, and will remain so until scientists come up with a way of preserving them in all their original glory.

The Chand Baori Stepwell

Chand Baori, in the small Indian village of Abhaneri, is a sight that initially makes you blink. It is like an Escher drawing supersized and set in stone, a real wonder of the world.

Built at the end of the eighth century, it is a 13-storey stepwell recognised as the oldest and largest of its kind, its 3,500 criss-cross steps leading down to a 30-metre deep pool.

The water is green and stagnant because the well, like others of its ilk, is no longer used. Instead, Chand Baori has become a monument looked after by India’s governmental National Trust.

“It looks like a pyramid placed upside down,” says guide Dilip. And, indeed, you’ll find that your brain initially struggles to make sense of the strange sight before your eyes.

Film director Christopher Nolan was so taken by Chand Baori that he chose it as one of the exotic locations for his Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. You can read more about that here.

The Karnak Temple Complex

You’ve seen it in countless movies, including Death On The Nile and Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, but the majestic ruins near Egypt’s Luxor are more spectacular than any blockbuster.

The second most visited historical site in Egypt – only the Giza Pyramids attract more tourists – it is a large area boasting temples, chapels, sculptures and sphinxes.

As such it is usually teeming with people but the pandemic has greatly reduced numbers, offering guide Saffy the chance to roam through the ruins and show virtual travellers open views.

There are times on several tours I have taken with Saffy, and with his wife Lesley, where it feels as if we have the place to ourselves, with chance to savour the giant columns and often remarkably intact statues.

Here’s a tip: take a trip to learn all about the history of the site, then return on one of Lesley’s ‘silent’ tours, where she lets you take in all the atmosphere, sometimes as the sun is setting.

Venice’s Hidden Banksy

The sights of romantic Venice are many and iconic – the Doge’s Palace, the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge, St Mark’s Square … it’s a list that goes on and on.

But step off the well-trodden tourist track and there are surprises around every corner of Venice’s backwater. Hidden churches, beautiful buildings and historical sites rub shoulders here.

Taking a gondola trip with guide Igor opens up the city from the water, from the mysterious lagoon and familiar faces of Venice to those places less visited.

Bringing the city’s art treasures bang up to date is a Banksy in the Dorsoduro district, depicting a migrant girl wearing a lifejacket and holding aloft a neon pink flare.

Dating from 2019 – at least, that was when it was first spotted – it’s a treat that we float past on our gondola, with not another tourist anywhere in sight. This really is a private viewing.

The Fagradalsfjall Volcano

I have already written a number of times about Iceland’s fiery furnace but it is the gift that just keeps on giving as the lava reshapes the landscape, defying attempts to restrain it.

Last night, I joined guide Albert on our ninth tour of the natural wonder – eight by foot and one by plane when the site was closed off by the authorities – to find it changed yet again.

New lava flows have branched off in an unexpected direction, leaving locals to build a wall of earth in a bid to contain them, but already it shows signs of being breached.

The eruption began on March 19 this year after weeks of earthquakes on the Reykjanes Peninsula, close to the town of Grindavik, and the volcano shows no signs of sleeping soon.

You can read about Albert’s exploits at the volcano site in a profile piece here; there’s more about the plane trip here – and you can learn the fate of brave Webcam Bob here.

Machu Picchu’s Window on the World

Photographs of the ruins at Peru’s Machu Picchu are among the iconic sights of world travel – but few of us get the chance to wander through the streets and alleyways of the mountain site.

I’ve joined guide Mike on several trips around the landmark now, and each one tends to unearth more secrets and surprises plus, of course, guest-starring turns by the llamas who live there.

One of the most memorable sorties took us into the remains of house where a gaping window opened up sensational views of the valley far below. You need a head for heights up here.

Mike’s encyclopedic knowledge of the site offers up fascinating facts peppered with wry humour and delightful trivia. The drainage system, for example, was way ahead of its time.

But just wandering these streets during the pandemic – heck, at any time for that matter – is both a pleasure and a privilege afforded by the growth of virtual travel in these tough times.

Head to for the tour calendar and destination schedule. All trips are free of charge but please do take the opportunity to tip the guides if you enjoy the experience. You can live chat with guides and fellow guests, and take ‘postcard’ screenshots to download or share.

Categories:Asia, Europe, Film & TV, heygo, Long haulTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


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