Magical Avatar Stone Forest Hallelujah Mountains in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park China


Avatar Forest, Stone Forest, Hallelujah Mountains in the movie Avatar were inspired by Heavenly Pillar in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in Wulingyuan, China

The First National Park in China. It is in Wulingyuan, China in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. It has some of the most incredible hikes. There’s also the world’s tallest outdoor and glass elevator.

This incredible national park is only 1 hour away from Tianmen mountain. It’s the same train stop, same airport, and that’s not all. The Grand Canyon of China is also nearby! China has been working on improving the ability to get to this very, very beautiful area. Today there’s no direct high speed rail from Beijing or Shanghai. We ended up taking the overnight sleeper from Yichang to Zhangjiajie and later flew out from Zhangjiajie back to Beijing. I loved every minute in this beautiful natural area of China. It’s becoming more popular, so try to avoid holidays and weekends.

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Avatar Forest – Forest Does this look familiar from the movie?


Stone Forest

I couldn’t get enough panoramas of the Stone Forest and the amazing natural bridges. The views were spectacular every few feet.

The World’s highest outdoor elevator.

Glass elevator

While we were waiting for the elevator we saw this guy. Not sure where his troop was.

While waiting for the elevator Dean took some pictures.

This beautiful pagoda is the entrance of the park.

While there is a lot of construction going on in in Wulingyuan, China with beautiful new hotels, the older buildings and community are quite cultural and beautiful. Very easy walking. These National parks are some of the most beautiful in the world. Surprisingly it seemed like more than 80% of the tourists we saw were Chinese. We got recommendations on how to spend our time. You could easily spend the entire day… scratch that 3 days if you wanted. We did a highlights trek seeing the Heavenly Pilar that inspired Avatar, the bridges, the stone forest.

There are a lot of local ancient cultures in China. While Beijing is interested in consolidating cultures and making them all Chinese. You’ll see a variety of ancient cultures and tribal clothing including in a part of the park where you can see some of the old ways, customs and culture.

Worlds Largest Ancient Statue Leshan Buddha Statue and Giant Pandas of Chengdu


Chengdu is the old capital and is known for preserving the old ways.  When you think of Chengdu you should think Pandas and Giant Panda or Mount Emei one of the most holy mountains in China.  I was very blessed to see the Leshan Buddha as we saw it just two days after it finished a very long restoration. I was just there and the fantastic news is it’s now complete. I was lucky to visit when there were very few visitors due to the restoration project. The Leshan is a 71 meter or 233 ft tall stone statue, built between 713 and 803 (during the Tang dynasty). For scale comparison the giant sphinx in Egypt is 20m (66 feet) high, the Buddha is 3 times taller, the Colossus of Rhodes in Ancient Greece was 33 meters or half as tall and would have been destroyed about 60 years before the Leshan Buddha began construction. The Buddha is carved out of a cliff face of red sandstone that lies at the Min and Dadu River in the southern part of Sichuan province, right outside the city of Leshan. The stone sculpture faces Mount Emei, with the rivers flowing below its feet. It is the largest and tallest stone Buddha statue in the world and it is by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

The Mount Emei Scenic Area, including Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996.

The Best view is from the water, but it’s a quick trip… I purposely took this picture of the boat near ours.

Generally speaking, you can go to Leshan from Chengdu (about 2hrs’ driving), and the Giant Buddha first, then transfer to Emeishan City or the foot area of Mount Emei for accommodation. Have a day tour to the top of Mount Emei – Golden Summit, then descend the mountain, and drive or take a high speed train back to Chengdu. You can spend a lot of time in the area. There’s a buddha park right next door as well as the holy mountain Mount Emei so close nearby. It’s up to you how much time you spend.

Sleeping Buddah

Hard to tell, but this is the 170 meter long sleeping buddha… do you see him?

The Buddha park nearby which is a lot newer has some great carvings and a great hike with fantastic carvings.

This Standing Buddha is at least 4 stories high and in a cave.

We don’t even come up to the toe.

After a full day in Leshan, and after the ride back we were ready for Sichuan Hot Pot, a popular local dish.

5. Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base

There are a few places to see the pandas in Chengdu, but that’s the place to go to see the Pandas. In Chengdu there are 3 main places to visit pandas. Out in the world there are fewer and fewer places that have the endangered pandas.

  • Giant Panda Research Base – The most popular with over 50 pandas. Recommendation is to go early. They are most active in the morning and the feeding is happening. It opens at 7:30am.

We spent half a day at the giant panda research base. We stood in a long line to take the shuttle to the back of the park and then we walked back visiting each of the panda stations with a focus on the youngest pandas. The Red Pandas were fantastic as well. The best Panda watching in the world is to be had in this area.

We saw dozens of Pandas and had as much time as we wanted with them. While we didn’t get to pet them as some have told in the past, those prices have skyrocketed. It also doesn’t make sense these days with potential spread of disease.

Red Pandas

The young pandas are so fun!

Thanks to China Highlights for putting together this simple map together.

Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi’an China – Warriors and Horses Guards of the Largest Tomb in the World


The story of the Terra Cotta Warriors is an incredible one. I’ve been wanting to go to see the Terra Cotta warriors for years… since before my first trip to China.  Xi’an is a short 3 hour bullet train away from Beijing or you can take the overnight train and get there in about 12 hours… the flight is even quicker.  We ended up looking at all options.

Ying Zheng took the throne in 246 B.C. at the age of 13. By 221 B.C. he had unified a collection of warring kingdoms and took the name of Qin Shi Huang Di—the First Emperor of Qin. He is credited for the first version of the great wall. Beijing was not the capital of China at the time.

largest tomb in the world

The terra cotta warriors are the guards of the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi—he was the first emperor of China in 221 B.C.  The tomb itself has not yet been excavated due to mercury poison concerns, but understand this… it is the largest mega tomb in the world.

For over 2000 years the story of the thousands of warriors and horses was lost to the world.  While the tomb was known, but was also known as extremely dangerous we didn’t know there were pits of thousands of warriors over a mile from the actual tomb of the emperor.  A group of farmers were digging a well when they came upon the greatest discovery of the century… if not since king Tut’s tomb… what they found was extraordinary underground treasure: an entire army of life-size terra cotta soldiers and horses, interred for more than 2,000 years. Over the past 35 years, archaeologists have located some many pits, a complex of underground vaults as yet largely unexcavated, across a 22-square-mile area. Some are hard to get to, but three major pits are easily accessible, enclosed inside the four-acre Museum of the Terracotta Army, constructed around the discovery site and opened in 1979. In one pit, long columns of warriors, reassembled from broken pieces, stand in formation. With their topknots or caps, their tunics or armored vests, their goatees or close-cropped beards, the soldiers exhibit an astonishing individuality. A second pit inside the museum demonstrates how they appeared when they were found: some stand upright, buried to their shoulders in soil. The third pit has horses and chariots made from bronze. Our guide explained there are many thousands of warriors and more that are purposely still buried that are filled with color that burns off in the days after it is exposed to the air. For this purpose they are waiting to unbury a large quantity of warriors and more. Read more about the history of the terra cotta warriors on Smithsonian magazine.

The Back of Pit #1

The warriors look different and there are different warriors indifferent groups with different skills and even different shoes.

Scientists work in pit #2 to uncover and put the warriors back together. Think about it… they’ve been doing this since 1979.

Panorama Pit #1

Scientists working in pit #2

This is what the uncovered portion looks like. They have yet to dig into much of this area, but they have scanned with ground penetrating radar for miles around.

Pit #3

Brass horses and carriage

These are not full size… they are a little smaller.

Meeting the man. This was the farmer who was digging the well in 1974 when he found the terra cotta warriors.  Still blows my mind.

In addition the actual tomb is still unexcavated. Imagine us saying we haven’t been inside the pyramids, and as well haven’t yet been inside King Tuts tomb. We know there are traps and danger with large amounts of mercury. “The tomb was filled with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious stones and rarities,” reads a translation of the text.

The account indicates the tomb contains replicas of the area’s rivers and streams made with mercury flowing to the sea through hills and mountains of bronze. Precious stones such as pearls are said to represent the sun, moon, and other stars. Modern tests on the tomb mound have revealed unusually high concentrations of mercury, lending credence to at least some of the historical account. Chinese archaeologists are also using remote-sensing technology to probe the tomb mound. The technique recently revealed an underground chamber with four stair like walls. An archaeologist working on the site told the Chinese press that the chamber may have been built for the soul of the emperor.”

Experimental pits dug around the tomb have revealed dancers, musicians, and acrobats full of life and caught in mid-performance, a sharp contrast to the military poses of the famous terra-cotta soldiers.

But further excavations of the tomb itself are on hold, at least for now.

“It is best to keep the ancient tomb untouched, because of the complex conditions inside,” Duan Qinbao, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute, told the China Daily.

Xi’an is a beautiful city. Many in our group said it was their favorite. The street market and Muslim food market in Xi’an is very worthwhile. Great food, puppets, fish eating the dead skin off your toes. We had a lot of fun.

Tower in Xi’an the old capital of China.

The Wall in Xi’an

Cultural experiences are easy to find in Xi’an

Big Wild Goose Pagoda is surrounded by fantastic gardens and large squares. The light show at night is amazing.

This Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a Buddhist pagoda located in southern Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China. It was built in 652


Even Dairy Queen and Pizza Hut are in the Chinese spirit.

Gateway to Heaven Tianmen Mountain China


I had a fantastic spring break in China and saw some of the most amazing places on the planet. If you’ve never been to China. Now is the time to start dreaming. In this series I will share 7 Bucketlist level places in China. It was out of this world amazing.  Tianmen mountain is UNESCO world heritage.

#1 Heaven’s Gate or Tianmen Cave at Tianmen Mountain, Stairway to Heaven

A mountain with the world’s largest natural bridge or “cave” located within Tianmen Mountain National Park, Zhangjiajie, in the northwestern part of Hunan Province, China.  This UNESCO heritage mountain is ancient and has since been developed into an important pilgrimage including one of the world’s most interesting roads with 99 hairpin turns, a stairway to heaven with 999 steps or an alternative way to get to the portal to heaven by taking the escalator followed by a second escalator up to the top of the mountain which has 3 optional very affordable glass walkways, chairlift, and one of the longest cablecar like gondola rides down the mountain and through the city.

Stairway to Heaven… Portal to Heaven, Heavens gate.  My 9 year old and I and my sister in law walked up the 999 stairs as my wife and brother in law and his daughter took the series of escalators.  A half hour later both of us arrived around the same time at the top of the stairs.  

Tianmen mountain may seem like it’s all about the portal to heaven, but there are a lot more surprises including glass walkways, gondolas, and the longest sets of escalators you’ve ever been on (unless you went to Kiev).

The Magical Map of Tianmen Mountain.

The walkways hang on the edge of cliffs.  Beautiful, breathtaking, and as my wife says… you get use to it after a while.

Tianmen Glass walkway: note the booties…  Christine, pictured didn’t think she’d be able to handle the glass walkways, but really you do get used to it and it is amazing and a must see!  You feel like you’re invincible.

Looking down from the glass walkways at the 99 turn road that led up to the gateway.  The road is thousands of feet below.

The Mountain is rich with a variety of experiences:

  • 999 Steps up to Tianmen Cave the Stairway to Heaven
  • You can take an escalator or walk up the 999 Steps
  • 99 Turns up the mountain
  • 3 Glass walkways with booties
  • East Glass Walkway
  • Ghost Path
  • West Glass Walkway
  • Tianmen Cableway
  • Tianmen Mountain Temple
  • Cave of the Godess of Mercy

This post is in a series about our spring break trip to the most amazing places in China. Natural wonders, Pandas, the Terra Cotta Warriors and more!

Prambanan Indonesian Historical Javanese Temples


Indonesia has been my favorite country for many years.  This trip started with my son saying if he could go anywhere in the world he wanted to go to Singapore.  I had been planning that if and when I got back to Indonesia I wanted to see the incredible great temples of Java… the temple complex of Prambanan.  When built there were 1000 temples, the complex is 240 temples for which

Prambanan is the largest and most beautiful Hindu temple complex in Indonesia. It is the masterpiece of Hindu culture of the ninth century. Prambanan is a collection of massive Hindu temples built by the Mataram Kingdom, rulers of central Java and defeaters of the Sailendra Dynasty in the 9th century.  Built in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, dedicated to the Trimūrti, the expression of God as the Creator, the Preserver and the Transformer. Consisting of Brahma as the creator god, Vishnu as the keeper god, and Shiva as the god of destruction.

The complex was laid out in the form of a mandala, and features the towering, broad spires that are typical of traditional Hindu temple architecture, and represent the holy mountain where the gods live… enjoy!

prambanan Yogyakarta

Hindu Temple of prambanan Yogyakarta

Hindu Temple of prambanan Yogyakarta

Massive Hindu Temple of Prambanan Yogyakarta

Massive Hindu Temple of Prambanan Yogyakarta temple of the gods

Ruins of Massive Hindu Temple of Prambanan Yogyakarta temple of the gods

Joel Oleson Banner Temple

Indonesian Dancing Girls

A mix of modern and ancient traditions and dance

Cultural costumes of Indonesia

Preserving the culture

Natural Wonders of the World – Underground River of Puerto Princesa


Philippines is hidding a real gem.  In fact, scratch that, they are hiding some of the most amazing islands for vacation in the world.  I’ve been to the main island a couple of times, but it was this intentional visit to go see the 7 natural wonders of the world that brought me to the little gem of an island of Palawan.  Puerto Princesa Underground River started with a motor boat ride to the nearby beach to an outfitter to provide us with smaller boats bright mandatory big orange life jackets and shiny hard hat helmets. 

The puerto princesa national park is a limestone karst mountain landscape. The actual St. Pauls Underground River Cave is more than 24 km (15 mi) long and contains an 8.2 km (5.1 mi) long underground section of the Cabayugan River. The river system of the cave flows into the West Philippine Sea and is navigable by boat up to 4.3 km (2.7 mi) in from the entrance. The cave includes major formations of stalactites and stalagmites, and several large chambers, including the 360-meter-long Italian’s Chamber with approximate 2.5 million square meters of volume making it one of the largest cave rooms in the world.

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Tourists getting ready to enter the cave

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Just inside the cave system

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On the first boat headed to the beach with the smaller boats

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The island of Palawan has many uniquely styled canoe boats designed to move quickly over the water

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The boat captains love and live on the water.  It is life.

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Bats, snakes, birds, there’s a lot of life going in and out of the caves.

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Chili crab.  Some of the best food on a banana leaf.

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The boats are a very important part of life on Palawan island

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I stand back to back with our guide and she’s next to one of the indigenous oldest elders.  They are known as pygmy people due to their height.

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Palawan not only has an underground river cave system, but also native tribes!  This friendly looking tribe recently emerged from the forest.  They danced with us and taught us about their mythologies and shared traditions.  A young guide who is from another nearby tribe can speak their language and helped us communicate with them.   The young ones are now attending a school built right next to the huts, the teacher resides nearby.

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There are 70 indigenous peoples and the Bataks are thought to come from Asia 50,000 years ago.   The island of Palawan, the largest province in the Philippines, is home to several indigenous ethnolinguistic groups namely, the Kagayanen, Tagbanwa, Palawano, Taaw’t Bato, Molbog and the Batak tribes. They live in remote villages in the mountains and coastal areas.  We drove as far as we could and then walked across 6 streams to this remote village.  We visited this small tribe of about 17 individuals, some of the last of the Batak tribe.  The Batak tribe is a group of indigenous people who reside in the rugged interiors of the northeast portion of the province of Palawan. These group of people lives close to nature and are extremely peaceful and shy, traditionally they believe in nature spirits with whom they communicate with through the aid of a shaman. At present, there are only about 500, or less, Batak people remaining in the Philippines.  This group is now Christian and preferred not to talk about the old beliefs, but did tell us how much their lives changed when they found rice.  It was rice ultimately that drove them from hiding in the forest to coming out and coexisting with the other people.

Mass Dance Pyongyang North Korea Travel


It wasn’t until I was in Chernobyl that I met my first traveler that had visited North Korea.  I’d later meet a traveler in Mongolia.  It always felt impossible until this older lady said she it was amazing adventure.  I’m a time traveler, so I get a kick out of visiting the 60s.  There are really very few places that allow one to go back in time and DPRK is definitely in that category.

Update: Travel is now blocked for the majority of US Citizens.  I visited a couple of years ago when it was just thought impossible.  Now it’s a lot harder for Americans.

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More details on the Chinese Consulate website.  If you’re looking for a special passport that would allow you to travel to North Korea you can get one here on the

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Travel Restriction

As of September 1, 2017, U.S. passports will not be valid for travel to, in, or through North Korea (also known as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK).

The U.S. Department of State may grant an exception to qualified applicants by issuing a passport with a special validation that will be valid for only one trip.  These specific, one-time-use validations will be issued on an extremely limited basis.

Travel to, in, or through North Korea on a U.S. passport without this special validation may justify revocation of your passport for misuse under 22 C.F.R. § 51.62(a)(2) and may subject you to felony prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 1544 or other applicable laws.

Who Can Get a Special Validation Passport?

We will only issue a Special Validation Passport if your trip is in the national interest, and you meet all regular passport requirements.

Your trip might be in the national interest if any of the following are true:

  • You are a professional reporter or journalist and the purpose of your trip is to collect, and make available to the public, information about the DPRK.

 

  • You are a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross or the American Red Cross traveling on an officially-sponsored Red Cross mission to the DPRK.
  • Your trip to the DPRK is justified by compelling humanitarian considerations.
  • Your trip to the DPRK is otherwise in the national interest.
  • More information on the US State Department website on Travel to North Korea. 

    All of this being said, let me tell you a little about my trip to the isolated country.

    I won’t use this post to talk about the politics… Anyone who ever decides to go to a place that has a required guide and package encourages one to follow the rules.  Iran, Turkmenistan, and DPRK are all good examples of places where you should follow the rules to the “T”.  It would be insane to cross any of these regimes as a traveler within their borders.

     

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    Mansu Hill Grand Monument

    The central part of the monument consists of two 20-meter (66-foot) tall bronze statues of Supreme North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

    In North Korea, the following – whether done knowingly or unknowingly – have been treated as crimes:

    • Showing disrespect to the country’s former leaders, Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, or the country’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, including but not limited to tampering with or mishandling materials bearing their names or images;

     

  • Entering North Korea without proper travel documentation;
  • Possessing material that is in any way critical of the DPRK government;
  • Proselytizing or carrying out religious activities, including activities that may be construed as such, like leaving behind religious materials;
  • Engaging in unsanctioned political activities;
  • Traveling without authorization, even for short distances;
  • Having unauthorized interaction with the local population;
  • Exchanging currency with an unauthorized vendor;
  • Taking unauthorized photographs;
  • Bringing pornography into the country;
  • Shopping at stores not designated for foreigners; and
  • Removing or tampering with political slogans and signs or pictures of political leaders.
  • Our guides explained to us if we couldn’t do the 

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    September 9 Mass Dance

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    Pyongyang, DPRK

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    The old Korean Ladies at the Park who love to dance and sing

    Pyongyang city of contrast

    Pyongyang a city of contrast – Where else in the world can you rise to political marching music

     

    Pyongyang Train

    Ride the train.  Are we riding the train that rides to nowhere with passengers that are riding it because that’s what they were assigned to do?

     

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    History

    Mansudae Fountain Park

    Spectacular fountains reaching for grandeur

    Mansudae Fountain Park The park’s centerpiece, 28 angelic-looking white statues of women performing a dance called the “Snow Falls.”

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    There are more statues in Pyongyang…

    North Korean Happy Kids

    Sad, happy, the kids are the future.

    Pyongyang Times

    The Times… The Pyongyang Times

     

     

    A Chollima is a mythical winged horse

    A Chollima is a mythical winged horse that originates from the Chinese classics and is commonly portrayed in East Asian cultures. This winged horse is said to be too swift and elegant to be mounted (by any mortal man)

     

    Traffic Police North Korea

    My favorite thing about the very light traffic of Pyongyang was the old school but lovely super cool traffic police

     

    Pyongyang Beerfest

    Pyongyang Beerfest performances

     

    Pyongyang Mass Dance

    Mass Dance under the watch of the Dear Leaders

     

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    It was on this ride in Pyongyang that I had a moment.  I held the hand of a DPRK citizen for about 2 minutes.  It was as if to reach out in a silent way and attempt to connect with my soul.  It worked.  I really feel for the people.  I pray for the people of North Korea I wish them the best, I hope for them God given freedoms of faith, expression, and thought.

    As Kim Jong Un meets with the Chinese President and the American President may they all consider the future of the people of all nations.  There are good innocent people that deserve our love.

    I’m very hopeful for peaceful resolution.  I welcome a denuclearized Korean peninsula.  I visited Guam last Winter after the escalations.  It’s no fun to travel with the idea that something may happen and everyone is on their toes.

    I still can’t believe I was in my hotel room in Pyongyang when I found out a Nuke had been tested in North Korea and the TV in the hotel told me while I was there shared news through the only news channel in the hotel… Al Jazeera TV.  Quickly our situation escalated.  What if we couldn’t get home?  The next morning we were bumped from our flight.  The first plane leaving the country was overbooked and we joined a number of locals headed to China for education on the next flight.  That easily was one of the highest risk nights of my life….

     

    Kim Statues

     

    DPRK Beerfest
    Here’s to peace and a denuclearized Korean Peninsula!  Anyone in the world considering a trip should consider the risks and make sure you have no ulterior motives.

 

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.

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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.

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.

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Old Arabic in grave markers

 

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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).

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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)

 

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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.

 

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

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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