Death Road Memorial

Biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia


It started out as an idea.  What would be the coolest thing to see in Bolivia?  I’d heard and seen the dangerous road featured on SciFi and National Geographic programs, so getting a glimpse of the road was my objective.  I’d also heard about some other things featured on Sci Fi, like Puma Punku and Tiuanaku, but I’ll save that for another post.  In my search for information on seeing the world’s most dangerous road, I came across Gravity Bolivia, a high adventure extreme sports adventure travel site for the adventure traveler.  If you’re going to go… you have to go with them. Best in safety equipment and support.  On this one, I believe it does matter.  I usually don’t endorse, but on this adventure, you have to be extremely careful.

Death Road Bolivia

In their own words…

“Quite deservedly, this mountain bike ride is our most popular and World famous. Gravity has been featured guiding and riding this road in more than 60 magazine and newspaper articles, (as well as six television shows and on the lips and Blogs of almost every backpacker and adventure traveler in South America), this downhill mountain bike ride is not only famous, but so is GRAVITY!”

10393699_10152927088513783_3453318691317917296_n

My brother in law Jeff, who had never even been to South America joined us on this adventure.  He said it was absolutely the craziest, scariest, best adventure, day of his life.  He rode on the middle bar of one of our instructors this wasn’t the original plan.  They didn’t have a small enough bike, but they accommodated in a serious way.

10420411_10152927088353783_2926563149191372372_n

The ride is one of a kind with the most spectacular descent of 3,600m/11,800 feet from snow-covered high-altitude mountain ranges down to the Amazonian Jungle with most of the 64kms (40 miles) of downhill riding on the road locally known as “The Death Road” or “Camino de la muerte!”  The true stories you’ll hear are real.  This road is not a joke.  It’s serious with sheer cliffs with 3000 ft (1000 meter) drops.  The long ropes they carry aren’t long enough for the longest drops and there isn’t a survival rate on those drops either.

Death RoadRuta De La Muerta

Why would someone ride on a road called the death road?  For me, I wanted to do the investigation, read the stories and determine if it was something I wanted to do.  Initially I simply wanted to see what the fuss was about, but when I heard I could take it at my own speed and with instructors who would tell you about the turns along the way, and give you professional equipment I was slowly convinced I could do it.

On the site they say the ride is for “Confident beginners to experts, average fitness and above, and in particular, those looking for a long, world-class, downhill mountain bike ride.”  The Trip Advisor ratings for Braving the World’s Most Dangerous Road and scores for this ride were off the charts at the level of Chernobyl.  Here’s what I said in my review “I just got back from a whirlwind tour of 3 capitals in South America and the thing that stands out above all was my ride down the Worlds Most Deadly road. I was a little scared, but I did my homework and read all the reviews and looked into the various companies that do this ride.
First off Gravity is quality. The whole time my needs were met. Andy our guide watched out for us. He told us at each stop what to expect and how to handle it. He wasn’t pushy and allowed us to take things at our own pace.”

Death Road Cliffs of Bolivia

I don’t want to tell anyone they have to do this.  I don’t want any responsibility at all for convincing anyone to put their life in their own hands.  It’s liberating, and will scare you, but it’s also likely one of the most dangerous things I’ve done.  That being said, I know I was riding a good 40 miles an hour down the hill at times and feeling an incredible rush.  My front brakes needed to be adjusted part way down the mountain, and a guy in our party hurt his arm and shoulder scraping them on the road.

Road Rash

La Paz is an amazing place.  When we landed at the airport I was pleased to find they had reduced their visa fees.  I got a Bolivian visa for only $60.  Only 3 years ago I was looking at $160 x 3 since I was with my wife and baby and at the time none of us had the yellow fever shot.  This time we were all ready and got our visa on arrival and yes at the new reduced fare.  As of Nov 16, 2014.

La Paz Cliffs

When we got off the plane an older lady fell on her face, and after a quick jog, we were all dangerously out of breath.  Don’t push it here.  When you first get off the plane, the Swahili mountain words of wisdom come to mind… “pole, pole” comes to mind.  “Slowly, slowly.”  Chewing the cocoa leaves and sucking out the juice (a local remedy) do the trick for helping alleviate the high elevation headache, or bring your high elevation pills.  We decided to ride on day 2 of our stay in Bolivia.  That was intentional and smart.  It allowed us to acclimate at the world’s highest capital.

On Top of the World Bolivia

These cliffs are no joke!

Deadliest Road

The ride is beautiful.  The jungle really sucks you in, and the views are out of this world.  We stopped 15 times along the route to take pictures, drink liquids, and take in the amazing view.

The Death Road Crew

Michael Noel, Jeff Beaulieu, and Joel Oleson geared up and ready to ride.  Bike, gloves, jacket, pants, helmet and goggles all provided by Gravity Bolivia.  We all made it.  Incredible experience.

GoPro3 Youtube Highlight Video of our Crazy Experience

World’s Deadliest Road Highlights from Helmet and Chest Cam

“Mountain Biking for 64km down the World’s Most Dangerous Road (WMDR, aka Yungas Road, aka Camino de las Muertas, aka Camino de las Yungas) in Bolivia. The trip starts at an altitude of 4650m and ends at 1200m. I tried to edit this down to the highlights of the journey. Taken from my GoPro3 with myself, Joel Oleson, and Jeff Beaulieu sharing camera duty throughout the ride” uploaded and edited by Michael Noel http://sharingtheglobe.com

I facebooked a video of the narrowest part of the road as we drove back on the road.  In a lot of ways it was more scary riding the bus back on that crazy road than on a bike.

https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152932118078783

I’ll be uploading more video to my youtube channel in the coming weeks.  You can subscribe to my traveling epic youtube videos.  I’ve gotten over 1.4 million views across the channel.

Baku Azerbaijan Fire Temple

Top 10 Must See in Baku Azerbaijan: Fire Temple, Mud Volcano, and Early Man sites


In my quest to visit every country I wasn’t sure what to expect with Azerbaijan.  What looked like a small country with a checkered past sprinkled with war and conflict with Armenia.  I was definitely interested in learning about the people, the culture and learning what Azerbaijan had to offer the world and for fellow travelers. I wasn’t disappointed, in fact I was blown away with the treasures of this land.

What I found was fantastic.  Azerbaijan is a very culturally rich country with a deep past.  A former soviet block country with it’s own history and it’s own identity, Azerbaijan is rich.  Rich culturally and figuratively with oil and very culturally rich.

Baku is in and of itself a stand out city that should be held up against the greatest in the region in comparison with Dubai and Doha .

1. Baku Zoroastrian Fire Temple – Ateshgah of Baku.

The Temple of Fire “Ateshgah” on the List of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO. It’s been a museum since 1975.  The fires use to come out of the top of the 4 corners.  This fascinating fire temple was a place of worship long ago and most of the history before 1700 has been lost.

10575255_10152839245738783_4871003037215284682_o (1)

In front of the fire temple

10460860_10152839243103783_1680413429912863672_o (1)

This recreated piece shows what it would have been like, complete with Zoroastrian pilgrims and Persians

Modern Baku – Baku is a fascinating city with many modern buildings that would boggle the mind.  I thought I was in Dubai or Qatar when I started seeing the array of modern, brilliant and fantastic architectures.

10355587_10152839246843783_9151379301988529088_o (1)

2. Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

– amazing example of modern architecture. The white building is a major landmark in the heart of Baku City.  The immaculately white building comes in the shape of waves. It is no doubt an impressive structure and an great achievement in field of modern architecture and engineering.  I can’t imagine trying to make the bricks for this.  No lines are straight!

10714323_10152804499793783_1379778306979652064_o

3. Baku Flame Towers

is a striking new addition to the skyline of Baku. Located atop a hill on the Caspian Sea overlooking Baku Bay and the old city center, the three towers were inspired by Azerbaijan’s ancient history of fire worshipping, and will illuminate the city and act as an eternal flame for modern Baku. 190 Meters… towering above old town.

1462728_10152804321598783_6051810257745373765_o (3)

4. World’s 2nd Largest Flag Pole – National Flag Square -

The flag square is one end of the boardwalk, so really you’re just on one end of the Caspian sea and 5K walk through the park across the street from the Old Town.

The flag you see was the largest in the world until Dushanbe Tajikistan took it over by just 3 meters.  Big flag.

10658796_10152805460368783_2491170478501658036_o (1)

I suggest you either take the

5. Steps for City View Funicular and night time viewing of the Flame Towers

up to the top to get a close up view, or ask your taxi or driver to take you to the steps shown to get a close up view of the Flame Towers.  This is a must see spectacle lighting up the night sky with fires.

image.

6. Must See Sunrise and Caspian Sea and seaside boardwalk

10662211_10152804500348783_6365062794699058794_o (1)

Baku is a beautiful city, and walking along the seaside boardwalk and heading for a jog at sunrise is incredible.  Beautiful sunrise creeping up over the Caspian sea.  You can see the oil residue in the water.  It’s not appealing, but the jog or walk along the the sea side can’t be beat.  I recommend Milli Park, which is right near the Maiden tower, which is in Old Town.  So very easy to combine visits to a bunch of this stuff.

Seaside Boulevard was opened in May 2012 and extends from the ‘Baku Sports Palace’ (Bakı İdman Sarayı) to the ‘National Flag Square’.

7. Mud Volcanoes

– The worlds mud volcanoes are in large part in Azerbaijan.  They say that more than 50% of the worlds mud volcanoes are in this country.  I don’t doubt it.  It hasn’t become the tourist attraction it deserves.  We had the whole place to ourselves.  Our driver really didn’t want to take us in his nice car, but we twisted his arm and the offroad dirt roads he took to get there, I now understand his hesitation.  It was probably my favorite thing we did there.  The mud was bubbling up creating cinder cones of mud, we played around.  It’s not hot to the touch, in fact it was cool.  Very strange and fascinating world.

10470168_10152805235533783_277269005232699855_o

10636494_10152839255333783_4815636395403299518_o

10688353_10152839256693783_6793966215229914217_o

8. Gobustan Early man site and Petroglyphs – UNESCO world heritage site.

1597256_10152839249668783_7910179236316081794_o (1)

Early man carved out these holes to capture water for drinking.

image

Gobustan Rock Art – outstanding collection of more than 6,000 rock engravings bearing testimony to 40,000 years of rock art. The site also features the remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials, all reflecting an intensive human use by the inhabitants of the area during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.  The invading armies of Alexander the Great and Trajan also left some interesting grafitti.  We didn’t find this on our journey… may have been inside the gated area, but we really enjoyed what we saw.  So much there, but you’d likely need a guide to get off the route and see more.

There were a lot of petrogliphys.  We did the self guided tour, and later stopped in the museum that’s near the entrance of the park.  It was fascinating to see.  We combined seeing the mud volcanoes and the petrogylphys and early man stuff in Gobustan.

10575442_10152804502723783_8648916739655317754_o

Walking through the center of town you’ll find a fascinating walking street through the town. Be sure to take the underground walk ways when you encounter busy streets and obey the traffic signs.  The cars won’t stop for you.  There are lots of fountains and fascinating things to view walking through the city.

10014031_10152804497908783_6447397313612444688_o

1899368_10152804498683783_6415527473304600276_o

9. Old City and Maiden’s TowerOld City (a UNESCO World Heritage site)

First thing to see in the city and likely where you should stay near… this mysterious and eccentric tower was built somewhere between the 7th and 12th centuries and may have served as a fire beacon, defensive fortification, astronomical observatory, or Zoroastrian temple

10631202_10152804348753783_4024316196148582620_o

Old City Baku

10712649_10152804497683783_7637149655669880696_o

10703956_10152839246123783_1902051570338842865_o10661935_10152839245778783_7850360382453191661_o

If you like Sports… check out the 2015 European Games planning on Baku Azerbaijan as the host.  They are getting state of the art stadiums to host the games.

10608228_10152805451433783_1792984038153777374_o

10. Bibi-Heybat Mosque -

The Bibi-Heybat Mosque is a historical mosque in Baku, Azerbaijan. The existing structure, built in the 1990s, is a recreation of the mosque with the same name built in the 13th century by Shirvanshah Farrukhzad II Ibn Ahsitan II, which was completely destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936. The Bibi-Heybat Mosque includes the tomb of Ukeyma Khanum (a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad), and today is the spiritual center for the Muslims of the region and one of the major monuments of Islamic architecture in Azerbaijan.

What I missed, that I wanted to see.

  • Go and enjoy the oil baths of Naftalan.  Seriously baths of crude oil… petrol!
  • The Baku Airport is one of the few in the world offering flights to Nakhchivan and travelers heading that way should book a flight from here.  My friend Michael who traveled with me was able to fit it in and spent a good day there.
chernobyl carnival

Chernobyl Tour: Nuclear Disaster Day Trip


My first experience with Chernobyl was a fly over.  I was flying out of Belarus to Ukraine and my friend Michael mentioned we were flying over the area where Chernobyl happened.  My curiosity and thoughts went wild.  Then it was a couple of b movies, TV show, and Hollywood Horror Flick that really got me interested.  An article from national geographic about the people that lived in the exclusion zone really got me curious. чернобыль to locals in Ukraine isn’t a place people would want to visit?  Why go to a contaminated place?  Have you ever been curious to visit a place after a volcano? Mt St Helens… A hurricane? New Orleans… or curious about Berlin? Why not Hiroshima or Chernobyl?  There is actually a name for this now. Disaster Tourism – the act of traveling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity.

Chernobyl Nuclear silo

Was it possible to visit such a place?

Yes!  After looking into it, I found a visit to Chernobyl is not only 5 stars and ranked number 1 nearly every review on Trip Advisor for day trips from Kiev, there were multiple tour companies doing nearly daily tours.   As well Chernobyl Tour has 106 Five star ratings and not even one one, two, or three star rating.   There is only one way for normal people to visit Chernobyl… on a tour.  Let me pick a few select titles from the reviews that pushed me over the edge on this…

Chernobyl Ferris Wheel

The infamous and creepy carnival in Pripyat

These rides were never enjoyed by children. The city was evacuated before the park’s launch at the May day celebration.

“Best tour of my life!”

“Ammmmazing!”

“Best Journey of my life!”

“A metaphysical experience”

Chernobyl tour

Chernobyl Tours with UkrainianWeb.com

So I tried to track down a tour that would be able to pick me up on the day the only day I was going to be available.  Thursday Sep 25.  Here’s the confirmation mail from my reservation that shares a lot of the details.  We reserved the private tour.  This gave us more flexibility.  We stopped at a market on the way and I got a jacket and locally made yoghurt (it had been pretty cold.

Chernobyl tour friends

In front of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster monument. Behind us is Nuclear reactor #4.

“Today the fiercely radioactive remnants of reactor four continue to smolder beneath the so-called sarcophagus, a decaying concrete-and-steel crypt, hastily built after the accident, that now threatens to collapse. Work is about to get under way on a replacement: an arched structure, the size of a stadium, that will slide over the sarcophagus and seal it off. With its completion the destroyed reactor will be out of sight. But for the region’s people it will never be out of mind, as a slow-motion catastrophe continues to unfold.” – Ny Times Chernobyl Capping a Catastrophe

Chernobyl Sarcaphagus

It’s been covered by what they call a sarcophagus and they are in the process of building the new one which is the biggest engineering project of this kind.  This New York Times article describes the new construction.

The Chernobyl Arch will end up costing about $1.5 billion

“If all goes as planned, by 2017 the 32,000-ton arch will be delicately pushed on Teflon pads to cover the ramshackle shelter that was built to entomb the radioactive remains of the reactor that exploded and burned here in April 1986. When its ends are closed, it will be able to contain any radioactive dust should the aging shelter collapse.”

NY times: Chernobyl Capping a Catastrophe

IMPORTANT:

Make sure to carry your passport with you on the day of your tour.

Dear Mr Oleson:
Below is your Chernobyl tour pick-up contact information:
1. On Thu, Sep 25th, at 8:15 a.m., a car from the Chernobyl agency will be waiting for you at the address (in front of the hotel):

Dnipro Hotel, 1/2 Kreschatik Str

The Dnipro Hotel is situated in the Сentre of the city, on the European Square.

Make: Mercedes Sprinter (Color: white)

The driver’s name is Vladimir. His cell # is  (He doesn’t speak English.)

AS SOON AS you check-in at your hotel in Kiev, call a taxi service and arrange for a cab pick-up in the morning, for example, at 8:00 a.m. or so -the taxi people will be able to give you a more accurate estimate. Normally, there is a HEAVY TRAFFIC in this part of the city at this time of the day.

2. Your English speaking pick-up manager’s cell phone # is:  His name is Anton

3. Your total for 2 persons is: $398.0, already paid: $90.0 (reservation fee). So your balance with us is $308.0

You will have to pay it in UA Hr though.

Unfortunately, the UA Hr exchange rate fluctuates these days pretty vigorously.

If it was today, it would be an equivalent of 4405 (four thousands four hundred five) Ukrainian Hryvna.

However for now this is just a reference point for you, while the exact amount will be confirmed by the tour manager on the day of your tour, as you come to board your tour vehicle.

The Zone authorities just introduced a mandatory accidental insurance for each day/person of the trip. The insurance is 80 UA Hryvna (it is an equivalent of $7 usd and has to be paid inside the Zone directly to the Zone authorities who are the exclusive operator of this tour.)

You will have to pay this amount in Ukrainian currency. Please mind, the tour manager will not accept currencies other than Ukrainian Hryvna.

IMPORTANT:

Make sure to carry your passport with you on the day of your tour.

IMPORTANT:

It’s not uncommon to experience problems with obtaining cash from Mastercard, Visa and other credit/debit cards at ATMs in Kiev, Ukraine. We strongly recommend that you bring some Euro and/or US$ cash with you to avoid possible unpleasant last-minute surprises.

IMPORTANT (in summer):

Please make sure to wear a close type of clothing: long sleeves, no shorts, close sports or casual type footwear (no flip-plops, no sandals).

“The one piece of advice I would say is bring sturdy shoes as there is lots of walking on broken glass in Pripiyat.”

Pripyat hotel broken glass

(Picture not included in email… but yes there’s lots of glass!)

Don’t forget the mosquito spray. (We didn’t need any)

Radiation dosimeters are available for rent.  The daily rental rate is 200UAHr/day (equivalent of 13Euro).  Please indicate explicitly the number of dosimeters you wish us to reserve for your.

Radiation dosimeters are also available for purchase at $175 each. Your will have to pre-order the quantity you need.  (The docimeter was actually a Geiger counter and we rented 1 between us)

Please confirm receiving this email.

Thank you for your business.

Sincerely,
Customer Service

www.UkrainianWeb.com

————————————————-

So how did I get to Ukraine? I was invited to speak in Kiev at a SharePoint conference http://spcua.com/ (my day job, see my technical blog for more details).  I booked an amazing flight from Amsterdam down to Kiev, and on to Azerbaijan and back to Stockholm for about $500 on Ukraine air. Less than 24 hours later Malaysian airlines went down and I got cold feet and cancelled the flight.  A couple weeks later I was convinced that the real conflict was 500 Km away and the people could use the morale from a visit.  After some convincing for my wife and making sure my insurance policy was still in place, I rebooked the flight on condition that I’d be able to visit one of my new bucketlist items.  Chernobyl, the worlds worst disaster and one of the most fascinating places.  It’s amazing how this 1000 square miles now known as the exclusion zone has become a wild animal park.  With humans having been evacuated the bears, wolves, moose, wild horses, fish have really made

Life in Pripyat came to a shuddering end on April 26, 1986, less than two miles (less than three kilometers) south of what was then a city of 50,000, as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s number four reactor exploded. Thirty people died in the blast and fire or exposed to lethal doses of radiation. The destroyed hulk burned for ten days, contaminating tens of thousands of square miles in northern Ukraine, southern Belarus, and Russia’s Bryansk region. It still is the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen!

Read more about the history of Chernobyl and the blast : Great Article on Chernobyl from National Geographic

Exclusion Zone 1st Check Point

An exclusion zone of about 1,000 square miles still exists around the plant, with access controlled through checkpoints. Although radiation levels have declined somewhat through the natural process of radioactive decay, the zone remains virtually empty. Some of the villages were bulldozed to contain the radiation (it didn’t help); forest has overtaken others. In Pripyat, where 45,000 people once lived, paint peels off the murals in the community center and a tree grows in the middle of a gym floor. In one apartment, all that remains is a smashed piano.

image

The fallout, 400 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima, drove a third of a million people from their homes and triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancer in children. Over the years, the economic losses—health and cleanup costs, compensation, lost productivity—have mounted into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

image

Here’s the Chernobyl tour itinerary interspersed with my photos:

Unscheduled stop.  Saw some places in the woods and asked top stop.  This was a community center complete with stage.

WP_20140925_11_19_03_Pro

  • Arrival at the town of Chernobyl

WP_20140925_11_55_40_Pro

These are the robots that were used to clean up the nuclear disaster.  The best ones were the ones without electrical components.  The best ones apparently were the old soviet ones.

  • Transfer to the village of Leliyov. Passing the 10-km zone border.
  • Transfer to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and sightseeing of Reactor 4.

WP_20140925_12_35_26_Pro

Reactor 4

I captured video of our Geiger counter going crazy right in front of Reactor #4

WP_20140925_12_24_55_Pro

The Fish of the cooling water.  These are nuclear hot.  Reminds me of the Simpsons fish what you can’t see in the picture is the scale.  The catfish is so big it is the size of a shark.  They often will feed it a loaf of bread!

  • Visit to Pripyat (Prypiat), the highlight of your trip. Sightseeing of “The Dead (Ghost) Town” – swimming pool area, ferris wheel, amusement park, river boats, abandoned buildings, school, etc..

Pripyat pool

scary kids bumper cars

bumber cars chernobyl

Watch my video “Stroll through Pripyat” where you can see the natural surroundings.

A customized (private) trip; 2 day trip is available too.

Chernobyl Zombies

There is some pretty strange graffiti, maybe this is from one of those scary movies?

Somebody important

Large strange poster inside the hotel.

Urban Stalactites

How long does it take to grow stalactites?  Well as the large hotel turns into a cave, maybe 30 years?

  • Stop nearby the “Red Forest”

Nuclear Stop Sign

Near the Red Forest we stopped by this sign.

  • Return to Chernobyl. Lunch* (Food is clean, it is delivered from outside of the Exclusion zone)

I didn’t really take any pictures of our basic lunch.  We all laughed about the apples.  The soup was fine.

  • Visit to Chernobyl Scientific Center: physical and radiochemical laboratories (optional).
  • Visiting the Opachychi village, meeting with “re-settlers”, people who have moved back to their villages after evacuation (optional).

My old Chernobyl Friends

True Survivors

  • Passage through the Dytyatky check-point. Checking the radiation, deactivation.

Decontamination

After 2 checks like the above at each of the checkpoints.

  • Return to Kiev at around 6 p.m.

We still got rid of our clothes and shoes and took a detox shower.

Incredible amazing tour.  All those comments make sense now.  Chernobyl was amazing as a ghost town, a wasteland, and unlike anywhere in the world due to its size and culture.

1966955_10152817323703783_8430959063152712175_n

One of the most interesting thing was listening to the real survivors.

More on travel in Kiev, the revolution conflict in a follow up post…

It was an interesting time to be in Kiev…

Color!

Silk Roads of Tajikistan Land of Mountains


Yep.  I was able to secure a visa and go to the off the radar and relatively unknown (to the west) land of Tajikistan.  If you have the opportunity to go, you should too.  My trip was really a quick one, but what was expected to be a day trip to Khujand, what I expected to be an uneventful city near the border, was nothing like that.  WIkitravel even had a line that made it seem like a yawn.  Not so.  It was really cool, and well worth the excursion that we did on our trek across Central Asia.  Visiting Khujand was a relatively inexpensive and very easy day trip from Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

On this trip across Central Asia following old silk road trade routes we visited Merv, Turkmenistan, Mountains and Valleys of Kyrgyzstan, Mazar-e-Sharif Afghanistan.

In my quest to visit all the countries of the world, I was really pleasantly surprised by Tajik.  It was really cool, and the taxi guy we met at the border was very reasonable and treated us well.  Not only is Khujand not simply a border town, it is the second largest city in Tajikistan, a land with mostly mountains.  Khujand was formerly known as Khodjend or Khodzhent until 1936 and also named Leninabad until 1991.  Apparently there is a large lenin statue somewhere, but I didn’t find it. I’ve seen Lenin himself still resting in Moscow and his birthplace and statue in Slovenia, so I wasn’t disappointed.  On the contrary, it was a fanstastic visit.  It has over 150,000 people and has an amazing square, vibrant city center, and a lot of history that is visible.

Panchshanbe Bazaar and Fountain

Panchshanbe Bazaar and Fountain– This is the ornate old soviet era bazaar.  Filled with spices, meats, and hustle and bustle, but stop and watch a game of chess or a card game out by the fountain. 

Panchshanbe Bazaar

The faces of these Tajiks capture my experience… yes a diamond in the rough.  A peacock amongst guinea fowl.  This bright smile was one that asked me to take her picture.  When was the last time you had someone really stop you in a market and ask you to take a picture??? In my travels, that’s a very rare thing.  She wasn’t looking for money, she wanted to share her smile with the world, and I’m happy that I was able to bring this happy Tajik smile to you.

Khujand Tajikistan Market and Bazaar

Our visit to the central markets of Khujand was really an opportunity to be indudated with color.  The women wear fabulous colors while most wear colorful head scarves as well.  A day earlier I was in Afghanistan, a world where colors were much more muted with the burkas.  There was a positive vibe and the colors worn in this market really helped bring out that spirit.

Masjidi Jami mosque and medrese Tajik New Mosque

Masjidi Jami mosque and medrese These roses were growing near this mosque which is still under construction.

Tajikistan Lunch

You can eat well and for very cheap in Tajikistan.  The cup of fresh natural apricot nectar is about 40-50 cents (USD) each, and the meat skewers or Shishka or Kabob are only $1.

Tajikistan breads

This amazing looking bread was extremly cheap, but is the staple of life.  You get bread like this with every meal, but the designs do vary across the cultures.

Khujand Market

The Market and bazaar is filled with nuts, breads, spices, and bustling people selling and buying.

Khujand Market

Minaret outside the old mosque

Soviet memorial in Khujand Tajikistan

At a park across the street from the bazaar is this monument. There are a few reminders of the old soviet times.

Sughd Museum in the old citidel

The Old Citidel and fortress has been restored and turned into a museum and contains a historical museum of the Sughd region.  While there are very many forts in the area that are more impressive, the door itself up close is quite ornate and worth visiting for that alone.  The lions and stars are incredible.

Amazing Tajikistan door

Amazing door to the fortress and citadel.

Ismail Somoni monument

Ismail Somoni monument – Surrounded by Lions and the Tajik flag, this majestic king looks over the city and valley with the strength of the mountains to his back. Popular statue and fountain.  Amazing landscape view of the city & valley.

Tajikistan Lions

The power of the lion is a common symbol in Tajikistan.

I had an amazing time in Tajikistan.  After having such an amazing day, I’d love to come back to spend my time with my gracious hosts.  They friendly people who refilled my apricot juice about 6 times, and the ladies in the market selling us nuts and letting us try and sample as much as we wanted.  Thanks to the smiles and the nods and the long looks that made me feel like I was a stranger in an amazing strange, and mysterious land.

While I didn’t feel at Risk, and I made some great friends, I point at this travel forum on Tajikistan Lonely planet safety for anyone considering travel there.  I think Tajikistan was amazing.  In my mind it’s about being smart just as it is in most countries around the world.  Avoiding Police and Military makes sense and connecting with locals makes a lot of sense for Tajik travel…

There are other travel references on Tajik travel to Khujand including Virtual Tourist Khujand, and Khujand on Wikitravel.  The wikitravel page made me think it was worth skipping.  I totally disagree.  It was definitely worth the day trip from the Uzbek capital and the taxi on both sides really was a bargain.

Merv Turkmenistan

From Mary to the Ancient City of Merv Turkmenistan


If you haven’t traveled to Turkmenistan, you’re not alone. I bet they really don’t see many visitors due to the challenges of getting approval to visit.  You can read about it on the Lonely Planet guide to Turkmenistan or trust me, there is no such thing as independent travel.  You’re required to have a guide and simply taking your guide to places you decide you want to go is also off the list.  You strictly have to check in as scheduled and not deviate off course.  In our travel along the silk road, Turkmenistan was initially planned to be a quick stop, but they wouldn’t have it.  They required us to spend at least one night and even that came across as extremely suspicious to them.  I do think we had some extra scrutiny, but after all the attention, we did make it through the border fairly quickly (about an hour).  It was good to know that we could essentially got to the front of the line as “tourists.”  We didn’t see any other tourists the entire time we were in the country, but I did meet a lot of friendly people and the nicest camel I’ve ever met in my life… and in my travels that is a lot!  The opposite end of the spectrum is the camel at Petra that spit and bit at me.

Turkmen Camel

While I’m on the topic of camels which is one of my favorite things about Turkmenistan, we saw a lot of camels simply roaming through the desert.  In some countries you see sheep on the hills.  In Turkmenistan, you see groups of camels by themselves just walking along the desert.  It’s amazing how long they can go without water.  There were often 2 or 3 adults among a group which may have a handful of young ones eating near by.  For these more wild camels we never knew how crazy they might be, but we took our chances for some good shots being cautious and then snuggling up with this lovable camel.

Turkmenistan Wild Camel

Kissy Camel lips

Turkmenistan Desert

The deserts of Turkmenistan do have a lot of green in them.  Our guide was pointing that from space it looks pretty green.  Much of what Turkmenistan looked like on the drive across looked like the picture above.  I hear there are even more great adventures out through the sand, but we didn’t get to spend that kind of time.  Our trip to Turkmen was a part of a bigger trip across the silk road.

image

Some maybe most wouldn’t be able to point out where Turkmenistan is on the map.  It’s north of Iran, West of Afghanistan, and shares a large border with Uzbekistan and finally the Caspian sea to it’s West.  We would start our journey in Bukhara and spend the night in Mary after seeing Merv. I want you to see a few pictures of life today in Turkmenistan based on what I saw as we drove across this fascinating land.

 

1613898_10152487818723783_4531171870644960438_n

First you do see lots of flags and statues including the famous Turkmen symbols from the special star to the Turkmen rug symbols for the tribes on the national flag.  I think every tour in Turkmenistan starts out by explaining the nomadic tribes and their tribal symbols on the flag.  Great story or unifying tribes.

WP_20140513_03_27_43_Pro

These ladies were selling their wares on the side of the road out in the desert.  Most of it looked hand made from camel fur.  Pretty amazing what they could make with a little wool and camel yarn.  These ladies covered up their faces pretty quickly when they saw us take our camera’s out.

WP_20140513_03_30_09_Pro

Kyrgystan has yurts in the mountains, and Turkmen has yurts in the desert.

WP_20140513_05_39_22_Pro

Many muslims in Turkmenistan (93%).  They are a very religious people it seemed to me for the most part, despite being a former soviet country.

10258947_10152487821178783_6278711866411733933_n

Women wear very long dresses and young girls wear their long hair down.  Once married the hair goes up.

10365755_10152487823533783_2369626311431317439_n

Statue and Soviet looking bus.  You do really see a variety of old and new in the cities.

WP_20140513_10_17_50_Pro

Traditional dinner in Mary.  Yep more Shishka, but these were very fresh and tender.

Now for the old.  In Merv I had two favorites both part of the ancient city of Merv which is part of the Unesco heritage site.  Merv is the oldest and best-preserved of the oasis-cities along the Silk Route in Central Asia. The remains in this vast oasis span 4,000 years of human history. A number of monuments are still visible, particularly from the last two millennia.

Clay Walls of Kyzkala Palace Unesco Turkmenistan

Clay Walls of Kyzkala Palace Unesco Turkmenistan

The oasis formed part of the empire of Alexander the Great.  Fluted Clay Wall of Kyzkala Palace

Read more about the UNESCO site on their website  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/886

WP_20140513_07_19_13_Pro

WP_20140513_07_27_19_Pro

Palace, Dome and Ruins… (even a little came in the photo… can you see it?)

I appreciate this quote on Merv.  While I saw there, I tried to imagine the city in it’s 12th century times as potentially the largest city in the world!!  “Merv (Turkmen: Merw, Persian: مرو‎ Marw), formerly Achaemenid Satrapy of Margiana, and later Alexandria (Ἀλεξάνδρεια) and Antiochia in Margiana (Greek: Ἀντιόχεια τῆς Μαργιανῆς), was a major oasis-city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, located near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. Several cities have existed on this site, which is significant for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value. It is claimed that Merv was briefly the largest city in the world in the 12th century. The site of ancient Merv has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.”

WP_20140513_08_10_26_Pro

Merv was home to practitioners of various religions beside the official Sassanid Zoroastrianism, including Buddhists, Manichaeans, and Christians of the Church of the East.  While in much of it now you see mounds these were once great walls.  The idea that Zoroastrians were in the same town as Buddhists and Christians is amazing to me.

 

“It is during this period that Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it “the mother of the world”, the “rendezvous of great and small”, the “chief city of Khurasan” and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said to have a market that is “the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan” (Herrmann 1999). It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000”

As we walked around trying to soak in the history and imagine the vast cities within cities, we were in awe.

WP_20140513_08_14_29_Pro

Now in much of what was the largest city, you see mounds.  In 1221 Merv opened it’s gates to the son of Genghis Khan, named Tolui.

WP_20140513_08_14_54_Pro

Not much to see now.  Looking from the walls of the city toward the dome at sunset.

WP_20140513_08_17_22_Pro

Artists rendition of the “before”

It is during this period that Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it “the mother of the world”, the “rendezvous of great and small”, the “chief city of Khurasan” and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said to have a market that is “the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan” (Herrmann 1999). It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000” – Merv Wikipedia Article

Fascinating to read the largest cities of the world over time.  Surprised not to see any Incan or Mayan cities or even Angkor Wat.  I think it’s a fun list but not complete.

 

WP_20140513_08_36_01_Pro

WP_20140513_08_39_28_Pro

From the top of the tower.  Dome in the distance.

 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum, the old dome.  It really is the best preserved of everything we saw in Merv.  This 12th-century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, also in Sultan Gala is the largest of Seljuk mausoleums and is also the first dated mosque-mausoleum complex.

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum old 1890

 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum dome merv

The stacked rocks reveal that buddhists have visited the place and leave prayer rocks.

muslim star

 

 

 

10265345_10152155770612914_813845775079772176_o

The ruins of Merv were fascinating to explore.  With civilization after civilization for millinum it is overwhelming to think of this area as some of the oldest continuous civilization.

10277407_10152155770682914_4332134633834876882_n

In conclusion… Turkmenistan was a fascinating visit.  I do recommend Turkmenistan on any silk road tour.  I wish I could have made it to the door to hell or derweze.  Make sure you look that up to see if it fits you’re schedule.  Otherwise if you want some history and friendly camels, Soviet city of Mary/ and Ancient city of Merv is a great destination.

Discovering Kyrgyzstan Land of Mountains


Oh Kyrgyzstan, how I love thee.  What an incredible culture.  I really really enjoyed the people and mountains of this vast rugged territory.  The loyalty and incredible friendliness of the people still strikes me.  I really enjoyed visiting these amazing places that were important sites of the silk road and played an important part of the world’s history that has since been lost in much of the history books and easily overlooked.  These former soviet republics have a history of their own and are very worth visiting as they each have their own cultures and traditions.

Basura Kyrgzystan Undiscovered Territory

I didn’t really know what to expect when I discovered I’d have 4 days in Bishkek before we’d continue on to Almaty.  At first I was a little worried by what I’d seen on simple image searches of Bishkek.  As a city you can see it in a day or based on my drivers thoughts… an hour, but get outside the city and day trips and you’re in one of those lifetimes that you need to have to find the depth.  I need to share some stories to help you really understand why Kyrgyzstan really captured my heart and became one of my favorites.

I want to help you understand how I saw this place which really reveals my formula.  If you look at the pictures of what I saw vs. a quick image search of Bishkek or even a virtualtourist.com search of Bishkek and you see a big difference.  On this trip, I took a traveler’s perspective.  I did very little research before going.  I made a reservation because I had heard from a friend who was there a few months prior that I might have a challenge in the airport.  I personally have never allowed language to stop me from visiting a place, but I did once have to visit more than half a dozen taxis on an island in China to find one driver who could take me where I wanted to go.  In this case, I like to build a home base.  I like to make a connection with a local and a hotel to start my travel from.

On facebook I started with a search, “My friends who live in Kyrgyzstan” – 0 results.  “My friends of friends who have friends who live in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan” – a handful of results.  I reach out to Monica, and ask her if she could introduce me to her friend Azat.  After being introduced, I discovered that not only did Azat live in Bishkek, but he spoke pretty good English and had even visited the United States.  Monica had visited him while in Bishkek and with that introduction, I had a true friend.  In the world of Kyrgyzstan that friendship I would find would be so profound.  The people have a rich heritage and rich loyalty.

I was traveling to speak at a conference in Barcelona and planning a trip across Central Asia, but my friend Michael had already visited Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  He’s the one who had mentioned language may be a challenge.  With Barcelona as my starting point I found a flight on Pegasus airlines a very discounted airlines that has some really fascinating destinations.  For approximately $250 I could fly from Barcelona and connect in Istanbul to Bishkek on a flight that would take about 10 hours or so to arrive.  For the price, I was crazy not to take it.  In all my travels across Central Asia, this flight would save me about $1000 vs other routes.  I did some searching and made a reservation with Booking.com at RIch Hotel.

rich hotel

Four stars and an 8.4 user rating for $70.  I was pretty excited.  I was pretty happy with Rich Hotel.  The facility met my needs.  Good bed, clean sheets, ok (free) hot personally made breakfast (eggs and toast) and juice, but it was the driver that I really connected with.  He didn’t speak a lot of English, but over the course of the few days, we both got really comfortable with each other.

My driver would me on private tours of the city, take us to some fantastic places.  Here’s the quick list of where we went and amazing must see places.  I’ve been surprised how some of these fantastic places haven’t really been discovered.

Bishkek

Ala-Too Square

Ala too square

This square is the central square for the city and in the past has been a place of gathering for political protest it still is a great place to see the people gathering and children playing around the fountains.  Across central asia, fountains are found in the centers of cities and the people go there to relax and socialize with their friends.

central square bishkek

Ала-тоо аянты Площадь Ала-Тоо is the central square in Bishkek,Kyrgyzstan. The square was built in 1984 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kyrgyz SSR.  At one point it had a statue of Lenin that was later moved to a smaller square.  Erkindik(Freedom) was installed in its place it has a statue of Chinghiz Aitmatov.  You can read about it’s significance in the Tulip revolution for gathering and protest in 2005.

Ala Too Square

Interesting Soviet style buildings from 1984 surround the fountains.

Old Kyrgyz Man with Hat

It was at the square that I saw this wise man, I wanted to talk with him and ask him if I could take his picture.  He didn’t speak any english, but my driver from the hotel helped us find out that he was from deep on the other side of Kyrgyzstan and he was visiting.  He was anxious to talk with me and share.  As my first real interaction with a local that wasn’t associated with airport or hotel, I was very impressed with how nice he was and how he was happy to let me take his photo and share his wisdom.

Beautiful Kyrgyz Child

This little Kyrgyz girl was gathering dandelions and flowers.  I couldn’t resist taking a photo to capture the memory.  So innocent.

 

Kyrgyz Russian Orthodox ChurchKyrgyz Russian Orthodox Church

Old Russian Orthodox church in Bishkek was a quick pass by.  I asked the driver to stop so I could take a picture.  Going inside was even more fascinating.  During the Soviet times, religion was repressed, and few of these buildings remain.  The church on the right above  is bombed out, but the domes remain.

Kyrgyz MosqueKyrgyz Mosque

Kyrgyz World War 2

It so happened while I was in Kyrgyzstan there were celebrations to honor the world war II veterans and remember… Never forget.  With as much opposition as there has been it’s very interesting to think that the US and Russia were allies during both world wars.

 

Ala Archa

Less than an hour outside the city and for about $30, I full day trip to explore the mountains.  Think Switzerland, but even more remote and unseen and unknown by western ways.  Ala Archa is a national park that has a small fee, but has trails to falls and along glacial rivers with incredible views of the valleys.

Ala Archa National Park

Ala Acha

Swiss Chalet?  Looks like it, but here you can get fresh water or some soup or local horse or sheep milk yoghurt drink.

yurt kyrgyz

This is life in rural Kyrgyzstan.  Simple, traditional, and living life the way the ancestors did.  Huge respect for this type of natural living.  Is there more green ways than the idea that no one should own the land and that we are simply transient and all of us will move on in our journey in life?

Kyrgyz Shepherd and horse

It wasn’t unusual to find shepherds tending their flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle.  What was unique about this was my driver offering to talk to the shepherd to allow me to ride his horse.  Sure enough he obliged and I had a great ride around the little hills.

I referred to my facebook friend Azat.  He arranged to meet me after my excursion in the hills.  He was getting off work and invited me to have a traditional meal with his family.  I was very very excited to have such an authentic experience to really meet locals that I could talk to and better get to know what life was like in Kyrgyz.  He was a technology guy like myself, so we already had that in common.  He picked us up at our hotel and brought us to his apartment in the city of Bishkek.  Azat has two little boys and an amazing wife who spent probably all day working on our meal.  The food was amazing.  What’s better than traditional Kyrgyz Home cooking?  They made this traveler feel like I was a dignitary.  Very special treatment.  They were so nice and kind, and so willing to do whatever was needed.  I wasn’t hungry for days afterward.  I still get a big smile when I think about how incredible it was to make a local connection and meet a real family to experience the traditions and values.  Even though I was only in Kyrgyzstan for a few days, this connection will last a lifetime.  I hope I can return the hospitality some day Azat!

Azat and his beautiful Kyrgyz family

Azat and family were so cute.  I had an amazing time getting to know them and sharing some of my life experiences with them.  We shared stories and really connected.  His wife played on her traditional instrument the komuz the national instrument.

Komus playing

 

Top of the Yurt

At the top of the Yurt is the iconic symbol of Kyrgyzstan.  At Ala Acha there was a family that was setting up their yurt and was happy to let us see it come together.  There is much pride and honor in these portable homes.  The history and family traditions run very deep.

Kyrgyz Yurt

The locals are very humble and extremely nice.

 

yurt

This is what the finished product will look like.

Kyrgyz teens

As we were hiking, I saw this group of Kyrgyz teens.  They were making soup.  Cutting up carrots and potatoes.  Really.

Kyrgyz picnic at Al Acha

Kyrgyz picnic spread

Soup

Cooking the soup!

Yoghurt Drink

Traditional meal after our hike.  Carbonated yoghurt sheep milk and soup.

Kyrgyz Com

Kyrgyz Money – som, com, pronounced some or soums

primitive out house

All of this talk of nature and simplicity should also include some caveats.  While the cities have plumbing, the more remote villages have out houses.  This make shift outhouse has a hole and boards in a very traditional rest room out back behind the restaurant.

kyrgyz graves

In life and in death there are many of the same symbols.  Religious symbols and the national symbols that are incorporated from the Yurts are very common.  Lots of symbols in the impressively ornate graves that celebrate the next chapter of our journey.

Burana Tower

80 KM from Bishkek on great roads.  The tower, along with fascinating stone  grave markers, some earthworks, is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun, but now there’s a yurt with souvenirs, and a little museum of odd things from the area. (Not much in English. Mostly Russian.) This area was at one point a large city established by the Karakhanids at the end of the 9th century.

Burana Tower

The Tower is fantastic.  It’s been restored, but it really is very unique and if you’re claustrophobic you’ll find a real challenge.  It’s quite dark and daunting, but as you can see in my pictures, if these kids could make it up, I could.  There is an external staircase and then a steep, winding stairway inside the tower allowing you to climb to the top.

Muslim Girls Top of the Burana Tower

The grave markers and stone carvings contain a fascinating mix of Buddhist, Islamic, and early man.  It’s a fascinating area that gives you the impression that this place has been inhabited since the dawn of man and is a very important place.

Burana Grave Markers

All that’s left of the city is earthen mounds and rooms.  It’s still amazing to feel like an archeologist to walk around and put together stories of the castle and mausoleums that once were here.

Burana Ruins

These mounts were once a great city in the 9th century.  The ancient city of Balasagun also known as Gobalik (pretty city) by the Mongols who captured the city in 1218.

Balasagun was founded by Soghdians, a people of Iranian origin and the Soghdian language was still in use in this town till the 11th century.  It was the capital of the Kara-Khanid Khanate from the 10th Century until it was taken by the Kara-Khitan Khanate in the twelfth century.  The Khitans used this as their capital, but were a mix of buddhist nomads, and muslim people as well as traditional khitan.

1505558_10152478407248783_7359052948919835483_n

Old Arabic in grave markers

 

1001967_10152478414013783_1447322472791534598_n

The food in Kyrgystan is not to miss.  The freshest meats you’ll ever find.  Sheep, Chicken, Beef skewers called Shishka.  The dinning is nice.  Traditionally we’ll sit on the floor with cushions around a short table.  It’s very family and socially oriented.  It’s not about eating fast, it’s about enjoying the company you are with.  The drapery helps you get some level of privacy if you want it.  There are similarities in the food across central asia, but each country does their traditional rice dishes very different.  Each tribe of people has their own way, so you’ll often find different cities have their own flavor.  In Bishkek it’s traditional to have a little bit of horse meat with the Osh (regional rice dish).

1907336_10152478414218783_4134476479354760918_n

10258515_10152478414098783_356079739402933330_n

Fresh food!

Lake Issuk Kul

One of the largest lakes in Central Asia and really what the locals consider going to the beach.  There are even changing rooms and sand.  Highly recommended to see what a Kyrgyz retreat is like.  With the help of our driver we found a variety of small cheap hotels for around $20 even with wifi.  I did end up jumping in the lake and swimming around with some Russians on vacation.  They didn’t speak any english and my handful of words in Russian didn’t keep us from having a good time splashing around in the fresh, but freezing water as the sun set.

Issuk Kul Lake - Иссык-Куль

Beautiful and serene Lake Issyk Kul (Иссык-Куль) in the northern Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. It is the tenth largest lake in the world by volume and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. (Wikipedia)

 

10308197_10152478415123783_5817749982514220999_n

The lake is a very important region supporting life of all types and is recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Izzyk kul.  The snow leapord is in the mountains surrounding this lake.  Ladies sell dried fish and honey on the road near the banks of the lake.  Also near the lake is a prehistoric tribal outdoor museum that contains many mounds, mausoleums, rock carvings, and petroglyphs.

izzyk kul beach on the lake

Glacial Mountains in the background of the sandy beaches of lake Izzyk kul.

 

10300702_10152478420638783_7461413179488941329_n

Kyrgyz Kids playing on the beaches on the coastline of the worlds 2nd largest high lake of Izzyk-Kul.

1557737_10152500310313783_7365827764814491592_n

I dove into Kyrgyzstan and made some great friends and a new favorite place in this world.  I highly encourage it you to visit Bishkek and surrounding.  Don’t stay in the city, go into the mountains, and valleys, visit the lake.  You must roam!  Don’t let Kyrgystan be one of those places you’ve never been.  It’s an incredible experience.

A Day as a Tourist in Afghanistan


When I started planning my trip across Central Asia, I always had the idea that it would be fascinating to visit one of the most talked about places on the planet.  A place where tourists really don’t get.  In 12th century Spice Route Afghanistan was an important stop to visit the shrine of Ali, even Genghis Khan felt it was worth a visit or a razing.  If you think about it, Afghanistan hasn’t been as safe as it is now, for the past decade, and even before that it may have been since the 50’s that it was a place that outsiders could visit.  After getting all my visas for the variety of places I was going I got in a good conversation with my traveling partner about the possibility of visiting the city of Mazar-e Sharif.  I had a friend on Facebook who I connected with over the past couple of years and have been asking him all about life in Afghanistan.  Zaki, my good facebook friend said he’d be willing to show me around his town.  It really came together and Zaki fulfilled his promises.  Not only that, he ended up spending a couple of extra hours waiting at the border for us to get through.  After getting through security and walking across the bridge at Termez going through Uzbekistan and Afghanistan security we finally made it and what an adventure it was.

Strolling in a Burka in the Park

Is there really anything to see in Afghanistan?  Oh Yes!!

Shrine of Ali and Blue Mosque Afghanistan

Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue MosqueThe Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue Mosque, is a mosque located in the heart of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. It is one of the reputed burial places of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in law of Prophet Muhammad. The site includes a series of five separate buildings, with the Shrine of Hazrat Ali being in the center and the mosque at the western end. The site is surrounded by gardens and paths including an area with white pigeons.  You can see more of them in my pics in this post. Read more about the Ali shrine on Wikipedia

Our Afghan Driver

Our driver, the head of security in Mazar-e Sharif, and the uncle of our friend Zaki.

Driving in Afghanistan

We all piled into Zaki’s uncles taxi and headed out from the border for the city.  We decided we didn’t have enough time to make it to Balkh, but we were anxious to see the Blue Mosque and Shrine of Ali.

Afghan House

On the drive to Mazar-e Sharif, about an hour from the border, we drove by a number of homes build by mud bricks and natural elements.

Desert Sands of Afghanistan

The sands of the desert working their way to the road.  It won’t be long before the sands need to be handled.

 

Peace in Afghanistan

Peace to Afghanistan!

Blue Mosque Begging

This little guy was persistent.  He didn’t speak a word of English and I don’t know what he was saying, but he was carying a can of hot ashes and mumbling something in a persistent manner.  He wouldn’t let go of my clothes.  I’m sure he was very poor and hoping for assistance, but not sure what I could do to help.

Do you want Gum

These young boys were a joy to talk to.  While language wasn’t our forte, I had some real moments where we exchanged smiles and introduced ourselves.

Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif

My friend and I with our Afghan Friends Zaki and Hamid in front of the Shrine and Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan IT University

IT University.  Talking with Ahmad professor at the technical college in Mazar-e Sharif.

 

Full Burka with kids

Mother in Burka with her sons…

Full Burka with hand holes

Burka with Arm holes and lady with Hijab

Burka Peek

Burkas

One of the differences between Afghanistan and all of neighbors to the north is the Burka.  In terms of cultural differences I found it to be the most start contrast.  I’ve been around a lot of Hijabs (head scarves) in a variety of places, and even ran into a lot of Saudis in black full burkas in Kuala Lumpur, and Dubai.  I haven’t gotten use to it.  It’s really a fascinating thing.  The women cover up when they go out.  It not only keeps the sun off their faces, but keeps them from being attractive to men outside the home.  The thing that really surprised me was seeing women that would pull up the burka to interact with their kids at the park.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Based on what I’d heard and gathered on TV I was really worried they were going to get in trouble.  In this far north town in Afghanistan, there were plenty of women in the city that both wore and didn’t wear the burkas.  It did seem like most that didn’t wear the full burka would wear the hijab.

I grew out my beard for months in planning on my visit across Central Asia and “the Stans” coming to Afghanistan hoping to blend in, but ended up not noticing too many beards.  I did see some good beards, but for the most part the young men in their twenties would shave, and the older men involved in business seemed to shave into mustaches.

Afghanistan Beard

I wore an Uzbekistan hat and a shirt I also got in Uzbekistan a couple days earlier.  I’m sure it confused the locals, but at the time I wasn’t going for American, even though I’m sure I came across as traveler or tourist which may not necessarily be a be a best practice.

The locals were a mix of stand offish, and quite a bit curious.  I only had a couple of stares that came across as mean ones.  I ended up in a line at the mosque and park to visit the toilet, or what was really just a line of Turkish style toilets or better said, hole in the ground.  First time I’ve waited nearly 5 minutes in a toilet line for a squat style toilet.  The conditions weren’t great.  A few more public toilets would be a good thing when they decide to open up the town as a tourist attraction.

Why did I decide to come to Afghanistan?

I have been told that I’m crazy for wanting to visit a country at war.  In reality, I found a people very in need of outside love.  They are ready for outside investments, education, access to more.  I’m sure there are many challenges to getting the right kinds of services in.  The youth are very anxious to better understand the world, and connect.  I’ve had a number of facebook messages since my visit.  There’s so much hope.  I pray for my friends Zaki and Hamid, and the Admad at the technical school.  Be anxiously engaged in a good cause.  Hamid wants to be involved in security, and Zaki wants to be successul in consulting and IT.  Personally, I’m very anxious for this area to blossom. 

This far north the risk wasn’t as great.  It really is tightly controlled.  We saw the drone balloon, and there were reminders that we were being watched.  Even crossing the border we went though a couple of check points, and got some strange looks, but overall, it wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be getting in and out. 

Getting the visa for Afghanistan took less than a week, the easiest of the visas on our Central Asia tour.

I felt like we timed this right.  We spent an afternoon, I wish we could have seen Balkh which was another hour and has so much more history, but based on our plan of get in and out while seeing what we could in daylight, we did pretty well.  I have no regrets really.  I have been blessed in my life to live where I do and I hope the time I spent in this part of the world has helped me and my perspectives and outlooks on life, and I hope that the time I spent with my new Afghani friends helps spread peace and inspires them in their righteous pursuits.

Peace Tree Afghanistan

These pigeons look like doves.  They bring peace and happiness to the people.  They make people smile and laugh.

So do I recommend Afghanistan?

I think for those who are real travelers, yes. Mazar-e Sharif has a lot to offer as does Balkh based on my research.  At this point, our strategy of in and out, worked quite well.  We weren’t there long enough to cause a stir, which I find has been a great strategy for us. Whenever we feel like we might be going to an area involving any kind of risk, we play it safe and not spend too much time in any one area, and we don’t back track.  We’re always moving.  That’s been a great strategy for us.  We try to be unpredictable, so no one could plan anything.  I don’t have a death wish, it really was a fairly safe and calculated risk.  On my pursuits to see and connect with folks in every country in the world, this was an important one for me.  I still have strong feelings for the people I met.  It really makes this place very real to me now.  I think that’s really important.  When there’s a war on the other side of the world in an unknown place that’s being fought in a way that’s unimaginable, it’s easy for ignorant people to say, just bomb the place.  I have friends there, and it means something to me.  The only way to find peace is to find empathy and understanding.  Travel has helped provide a mechanism for that.  I’ve never met a military person who would want to go back to Afghanistan to visit, but I would.  I have friends there that are great people who are making a difference for life in there town.

I admit I am a bit of a travel junkie, and I believe that there are good people everywhere as do many of those that visit every country in the world… a pursuit of mine.

You can read about some of my extreme travels to Iraq (Kurdistan), Tunisia, Venezuela, Egypt