Category Archives: Travel Tips

Top 10 Activities in San Diego California


I recently moved to Oceanside California, a suburb of San Diego, and this holiday season we had an opportunity to look at San Diego like tourists.  Southern California is a tourists paradise.  In Orange County you have Disneyland and Knottsberry farm.  Go to the coast and you have world famous beaches Newport and Long beach.  In this post, I want to focus on San Diego.  San Diego is packed with some of the most popular activities.

Foreigners who think they want to visit Los Angeles when they come to the US would do well to come south a few hours to San Diego area.  After seeing a little bit of Hollywood or Disney, you’ll have a lot better time

1. San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park – The world famous San Diego Zoo

Most of my life this was THE zoo.  San Diego, California housing over 3,700 animals of more than 650 species and subspecies.  Some of the highlights from my most recent visit were the baby panda who has been really growing, the baby gorilla.  The lion was awesome.

Baby Panda eating bamboo

Baby Panda eating Bamboo

Baby Gorilla

Baby Gorilla right up against the glass…. so cute!

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The Male Lion vocalizing… Serious Yawn!  Amazing King of the Jungle.

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After spending time at the San Diego, it made me wonder what are the best zoos.  My favorite are the real animal parks in South Africa and Botswana, but when you can’t have that the Wild Animal Park in San Diego and the San Diego Zoo are really tops.

World’s Top 10 Zoos according to TripAdvisor

1. Henry Doorly Zoo (Omaha, Nebraska)

2. San Diego Zoo (San Diego)

3. Loro Parque (Puerto de la Cruz, Spain)

4. St. Louis Zoo (St. Louis)

5. Singapore Zoo (Singapore)

2. La Jolla – The Cove

My favorite place to relax in San Diego is in La Jolla.  The beaches, the calm seas, the birds, the seals… I’ve done some snorkeling at the underwater park.  What a wonderful place.

The Cove, Seals, Kayaks

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This water arch is accessible by Kayak rental

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Sunset at La Jolla Shores, bon fires along the beach

Flickr: 57108987@N00

Don’t miss the seals!

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3. Legoland California + water park in Carlsbad and Aquarium

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Kids love legoland.  Rides, and entire cities and cityscapes including life sized Star Wars figures

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Really… This Chewbacca is totally out of legos!

4. San Diego Harbor Cruise, Speed boat or Whale Watching

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The San Diego skyline with a cruise ship.  The harbor cruise, whale cruises, and even jet boats and duck boats are available for a ride out in the bay.

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Battleships and navy battalions, the USS Midway is on the dock available for a self guided tour

5. Balboa Park – Science Museum

Balboa Park is a San Diego must-see, just minutes from downtown, and ranked as one of the Best Parks in the World. The Park is home to 15 major museums, several performing arts venues, lovely gardens and many other cultural and recreational attractions, including the San Diego Zoo. With a variety of cultural institutions laid out among its 1,200 beautiful and lushly planted acres, Balboa Park is the nation’s largest urban cultural park.   Yes it is huge… and bigger than even central park in NYC.

The tower and the Museum of Man were designed by Bertram Goodhue, who was inspired by the churches of Mexico and Spain. Even though the tower and museum resemble a church, they’ve never been used as one. They’ve always housed exhibits, except when used as a Navy hospital during World War II.

Flickr: jimnix

Balboa park is definitely something to see.  A huge collection of museums right off from the zoo which house great collections of science, natural history, and culture.

As a public service, Balboa Park organizations offer free admission on a rotating basis on the first four Tuesdays of the month to San Diego City & County residents (with ID), active military & their dependents.

Please note: Some museums may offer complimentary admission to their permanent collections only and charge admission to special exhibitions or films.

Also note: Some museums may require ID for minors

First Tuesday

  • Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
  • Centro Cultural de la Raza
  • San Diego Model Railroad Museum
  • San Diego Natural History Museum (Not valid for 3-D films)

Second Tuesday

  • Museum of Photographic Arts
  • San Diego History Center
  • Veterans’ Museum and Memorial Center

Third Tuesday

  • San Diego Art Institute
  • Mingei International Museum
  • San Diego Museum of Art
  • San Diego Museum of Man
  • Japanese Friendship Garden

Fourth Tuesday

  • San Diego Air & Space Museum (Not valid for special exhibitions)
  • San Diego Automotive Museum (Last admission 3:45 PM)
  • San Diego Hall of Champions
  • Select House of Pacific Relations International Cottages

Museum Month: Half-Off Admission  2/1/15 – 2/28/15

The Timken Museum of Art is always free.

Due to large crowds and for visitor safety some museums may restrict entrance to strollers.

For more information visit http://www.balboapark.org/visit/tuesdays

6. Oh yeah, there’s Sea World… or Tons of Beaches to explore (be a whale?)

Sure go see Shamu or whoever, or why not go to some of the best beaches on the planet.  You could even catch a whale cruise. (The 3 day Go San Diego pass offers discounts to Sea World) See bottom.

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  • Coronado (more below)
  • Ocean Beach
  • La Jolla
  • Mission Beach
  • Torrey Pines
  • Oceanside
  • Del Mar
  • Solana Beach
  • Moonlight Beach
  • …. So many choices!

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Check out the list of Top 10 Beaches in San Diego

7. Old Town San Diego

Credits: SanDiego.org

San Diego Historical Society: Old Town State Historic Park

Old town San Diego is a favorite. Very easy walking to historic churches, homes, great authentic Mexican food, and markets, shops and fascinating history.  I recommend the Mormon Batallion.  I have an ancestor that made that longest march in US history from Missouri to San Diego for the Mexican American War.  The visitors center has an 3D style interactive movie that puts you back in those times.

8. Day Trip to TJ

As a global traveler I can’t resist going to Tijuana for a day trip.  My favorite excursion is the drive to Ensenada and the Blow hole south of the city by another 15 minutes to El Bufadorra, but most would want to spend the weekend in Ensanada and a little more planning.  The day trip to walk along Revolution street complete with street tacos and a visit to one of the many markets and lots of cheap souvenirs.  This last trip we caught a cab after walking across the border and took us to the cultural museum and walked back to the border.  We got some street tacos, churros, and I got a very cheap TJ Harley Davidson pullover Mexican style hoodie.  The border crossings can be a pain, but really you only have to wait coming back.  The way to Mexico is just a turn style.  Make sure you have your passports to get back!

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Cultural Museum of the Americas in Tijuana

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Fresh and Cheap Pomegrantes… just across the border!

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And who doesn’t love all of your favorite characters made up into Piñatas!  Yes that is Anna, Elsa and Olaf and a couple minions.. for the right price

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The Famous Jai Alai stadium at one end of the Avenue Revolution

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The Arch at the other end of the Avenue

I could do a whole post on TJ, and probably should.  There are so many people who visit Tijuana the wrong way, and as well there are so many people who are afraid of the border for the wrong reasons.

9. Hotel and Beach Coronado – Mystery surrounds the Hotel Coronado

Coronado’s famous beaches are known for their fine white sand that sparkles in the sun thanks to the mineral mica

  • Parents Magazine named Coronado Beach one of the Best Beach in the U.S. for Families
  • A stroll through the historic Hotel del Coronado, a truly enchanting experience.

Never change, San Diego.

Flickr: 29541450@N07

“Coronado is home to the famous Hotel del Coronado, built in 1888 and long considered one of the world’s top resorts. It is listed as a National Historic Landmark and appeared in films such as Some Like It Hot and The Stunt Man.”  Read more about the Historic Hotel Coronado and Beach… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coronado,_California

If you decide to go for a drive swing by the Mission in San Diego or follow the beaches north to Oceanside to the mission there.  Best time to stop by is during the Day of the Dead where over 5000 people come to celebrate the dead!

Oceanside Mission

I’m loving it here.  I have to wonder if it has the best weather in the world…?  Incredible number of days that are simply just right, but I don’t want to convince everyone to move here…. just that it’s a great destination, but apparently you probably already know that.

Even though I’m not getting a dime for this, let me see if I can save you some money.  There is a Go San Diego Card that allows you to get into multiple places at once for a fixed price.  I used the groupon San Diego deal to save even more.  We did the two day and just bought the adult one ($97 for All Inclusive 2 day pass) and used the Legoland kids get in free coupon with full fared paid adult… We had to find someone who was paying full price to let our kid in with them from a $ perspective… It worked.  Worked out wonderfully.  We saved $50-60 on each day.  Combining the activities into a string of events in a day is exhausting, but we had a great time!

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!”

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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.

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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.

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.

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In front of the fire temple

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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Old City Baku

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

 

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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

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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

Traveling the Silk Road from across the “STANS” Introducing Central Asia


wild camels

I recently got back from traveling across Central Asia. Some things have changed and some things haven’t.  The road is now mostly paved roads, but you will still find sheep herders, and wandering camels in some places.  When I shared with my friends I was going to Central Asia and even mentioned some of the countries by name… Most don’t know what I’m even talking about even when I added Silk Road or Central Asia.  I needed to fill in the detail between China, Russia and Turkey.  In this post, I want to give you some of the highlights and background.

My friend Michael and I have been planning to travel the silk road and visit “the stans.”

Our plan involved spending time in each of the following countries:

  • Kyrgyzstan – Serene Kyrgyzstan Land of Mountains
  • Kazakhstan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Afghanistan – A day as a tourist in Afghanistan
  • Tajikistan

I plan to share some of my experiences from each of these amazing and diverse countries.  Each of them is different in their own way and I saw amazing and fascinating things in each of these places.  There are incredible people in every country.  I continually get asked if I ever felt threatened or at risk.  No, I didn’t.  I did have some moments where I was feeling eyes watching me and moments where I felt like I was out of place, but I really enjoy that feeling of being the minority and feeling odd.  If I’m traveling and I’m not feeling that then I’m not challenging myself enough.  This trip was the most logistically challenging.  It took over 3 months just to get visas and I still didn’t get all the visas I wanted.  I missed out on Pakistan due to my Jamaica and trip to Quebec and Montreal earlier this year.  The only country that didn’t require a visa for US Citizen was Kyrgyzstan, and the hardest to get into ended up being Turkmenistan who assigned us a monitor and required traveling company which ended up being our most expensive of the trip.  In addition Pakistan was a challenge for time.  The visa would have been an additional 4-6 weeks and I couldn’t surrender my passport long enough make it with my Jamaica plans.

Samarqand, Bukhara, and so many of these places stir up the magical and mystical old world of East meets west.  Where Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and a variety of old faiths like Zoroastrianism met through caravans and trade routes.  I had the incredible opportunity to visit some of these places and soak up the influence of this melting pot of culture, religion, food, and history.  I plan to share the highlights and some favorite stories, but wanted to get this post out as a placeholder.  I’ll link to the subsequent posts from this one to be as a landing page of the best of Central Asia.

 

Women of the desert of Turkmenistan

Turkmeni ladies of the desert selling camel hair trinkets on the side of the road

 

desert yurt

Desert Yurt in Turkmenistan

furry camel

One of the friendliest camels I’ve ever met. This friendly hairy camel enjoyed posing with us.

 

dome

Old Dome in Merv

merv

Merv, Turkmenistan

bukhara, uzbekistan

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

blue mosque of mazar-e sharif afghanistan

Blue Mosque and Shrine in Mazar-e Sharif Afghanistan

uzbekistan yurt

Countryside in Uzbekistan

sheep herding

Wandering Sheep in Uzbekistan

 

shakrazabh

Old Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan

ark in shakrazabh

Ark of Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan