All-surprising stats and fantastical facts, our info nerds’ world tour will have you pointing out the planet’s most unknown ‘did you knows?’
1. Mt Everest, Nepal
Some things just don’t know they can quit when they’re ahead. Take this stunning snow-dusted peak on the Nepal–Tibet border. At around 8850m, Mt Everest is the highest point on earth. But is it satisfied? Oh no – it’s actually still growing at an estimated 4mm a year, pushed ever upwards by a monumental meeting of tectonic plates. A trip to Everest Base Camp brings you face to face with countless climbers, a colourful tent city and truly extraordinary mountain views. Because they’re still stretching skywards save on the legs; get onto that hike in the foothills sooner rather than later.
Any number of adventure companies will guide you to Everest Base Camp – for a full list of local operators check the official tourism website www.visitnepal.com
2. Mexico City
Mexico City meanwhile is sinking at an average rate of 10cm a year, 10 times faster than Venice. The reason? Building on a soft lake bed then pumping out subterranean water reserves, isn’t a good idea. The alarming descent is evidenced in the cracked pavements, wonky buildings and the 23 extra steps up to the iconic Angel of Independence monument; added because the city has subsided around it. Fight that sinking sensation by floating on the ancient canals at Xochimilco. Each weekend this World Heritage Site transforms into fiesta-filled waterways packed with party boats, musicians and marimba players.
Xochimilco is 28km south of Mexico City – hop aboard the light rail train from Tasqueña Metro station for the 40-minute trip www.unesco.org
3. Vatican City
Encircled by design-conscious Italy’s cutting-edge couture, the world’s smallest independent state is sticking firmly to its sartorial traditions. The Vatican’s Swiss Guard still wears a uniform inspired by the Renaissance painter Raphael (compare and contrast it with the garb worn by figures in his frescos in the Papal apartments). In fact, the 44 hectare Holy See has many a geek treat. Point out the population (800), number of citizens (450), licence plates (SCV, CV, international abbreviation V) and flag (yellow and white), not to mention the anthem (Pontifical Hymn) and coins, which are legal tender throughout Italy and the EU, you know.
Procure geekish souvenirs at the gift shop of St Peter’s Basilica, where you can even buy an (empty) bottle of holy water; www.saintpetersbasilica.org
4. El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles, USA
What’s in a name? A whole lot less in Los Angeles’ case. Originally rejoicing under the not-so-pithy moniker of the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, this farming community sprung up in 1781 near what’s now El Pueblo Historical Monument. Today its cluster of museums, ancient plazas and vibrant markets serves up a taste of LA life 1800s-style. For an ultramodern echo of the city’s linguistic origins, head to the 21st-century Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. This innovative structure soars 11 storeys into the sky, its alabaster mosaics flooding the immense interior with opaque light.
Olvera Street is the centre of the site; visit in early September to see the celebratory procession known as the ‘LA Birthday’; www.ci.la.ca.us/elp
5. Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire, Argentina
Originally Our Lady St Mary of the Good Air, these days it’s just Buenos Aires. A seductive city of colonial avenues, cosmopolitan cafes and many an all-night party, BA is also the spot to savour that most deliciously melancholic dance: the tango. It pulses through faded ballrooms, leafy parks and vibrant squares, but do you know how to secure a partner? Gentlemen, fix the lady with a long look; if she returns your stare, just give a gentle nod. Ladies, sit with your legs outstretched so a man might stumble at your feet. An encounter occurs; an invitation can follow.
Don’t take the tango lightly – it’s a complex business so learn the etiquette or face public humiliation; swat up at www.buenosairestango.com
6. London Underground, England
Great geek fact: London’s Metropolitan Railway was the world’s first subway. The 6km section opened in 1863, ran between Paddington and Farringdon, and proved a hit despite steam trains filling stations and tunnels with dense smoke. Riding today’s Circle Line from Paddington to Covent Garden and the London Transport Museum retraces part of that original route. The museum has one of those original sulphur-belching engines; the Metropolitan No 23. As you trundle on a subterranean tour of the capital’s grime and tiles, note the world’s second subway opened in Budapest in 1896, pipping Paris to the post by four years.
Ride the Piccadilly Line to Covent Garden to visit the London Transport Museum; www.ltmuseum.co.uk.
7. Venice, Italy
It’s one of those totally touristy things that you really can’t resist: gliding around Venice in a gondola. But as you go grandly down the Grand Canal, ponder a few factoids. Each elegant craft is made from 280 pieces of eight different types of wood. The left side is larger than the right by 24cm, producing a list to starboard, while the slender, raised bow means increased manoeuvrability. Most intriguingly, the parts of a gondola represent bits of this baroque, lagoon-laced city: the front echoes its six districts, the back is Giudecca Island, while the lunette is the Rialto Bridge.
The first Sunday in September sees Venice celebrate the Regatta Storica, a procession of decorated craft followed by a race for expert gondoliers; www.turismovenezia.it
8. Great Wall of China
Any geek worth their salt knows this is the biggest military construction on earth – and know to dismiss the ‘only man-made structure able to be seen from space’ claim as urban myth. Rippling across huge swathes of the Chinese countryside, around 2000km still exists of its earlier 7300km sections. They were built by independent kingdoms between the 7th and 4th centuries BC, and were unified under China’s first Emperor Qin Shi Huang around 210 BC. Countless thousands flock to the wall’s tourist hot spots near Beijing, but do those snap-happy hordes know that bit is a Ming dynasty (14-17th century AD) reconstruction?
To see more than the touristy bits, take a trip 120km out of Beijing to Simatai, where more of the wall’s original construction is yours to explore.
9. Table Mountain, South Africa
You wouldn’t think a ‘table’ this big could possibly have a decorative covering, but that’s exactly what this immense ridge of sandstone has. Looming large (1087m to be exact) over Cape Town, the lofty plateau has its own cloud cover: the ‘tablecloth’, which gathers quickly across the top and pours down the sides when the wind whips up from the southeast. While you’re trekking Table Mountain’s trails (or sneaking a lift to the top in the cable car) look out for the recently reintroduced klipspringer, a tiny surefooted antelope that can sometimes be spotted surveying the scene from rocky outcrops.
Experience extraordinary scenery by hiking the six-day, 97km Hoerikwaggo Trail from Cape Point to Table Mountain, sleeping under canvas as you go; www.sanparks.org.
10. Uluru, Australia
It’s curious to think that without a little rust, Uluru wouldn’t be red at all. This extraordinary rock formation rears abruptly from the heart of Australia’s dusty, russet desert and famously glows a fiery orange-red, especially at sunset. As you hike round the base of what’s probably the world’s largest monolith, think also about Uluru being made up of arkosic sandstone. This acquires its distinctive reddish hue when exposed to oxidation and the iron in the arkose rusts. So what colour would this iconic, vivid chunk of rock be without a little chemical decay? A dismal, rather dull grey.
Visit between April and October to avoid the scorching 45ºC heat of mid-summer.
The world is full of amazing geek facts. Discover them country by country in Lonely Planet's Travel Book.