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…

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.

You can even find the 170 meter long sleeping buddha… It’s hidden among the trees.

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 delicious 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.

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 a simple map.

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

Where did life begin? Traveling to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley – Early Man


My passion for understanding the past through early man caves, paleontology, archeology, encounters with ancient tribes with connections to the past and life origins and what matters most…  these strike directly at the heart of what I find meaningful in travel.  Indiana Jones wasn’t just looking for gold statues… he was looking for answers.

Early Man Ethiopia

If you’re trying to connect with the past, there really isn’t any place where you’ll find more diverse tribes in such a small area than in Ethiopia.  Seriously.  If you have found something more diverse and connected with the past, I’d really like to know.  While the exact number is unknown, there are around 80 tribes and 86 living languages with an incredibly diverse ethnic groups living in Ethiopia. Most of the urban population belongs to the Amhara or Oromo tribes.  Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world.  Ethiopia today is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and yet has some of the best preserved untouched primitive tribal living in the world. What makes Ethiopia unique is the longevity of Ethiopia without much outside influence.  Italy was trying to build an empire in Ethiopia had such a small impact, you’ll struggle to find anything Italian unless you visit Gondar where there are a few buildings that look Italian.  Italians made an attempt to have Ethiopia as their share of Africa. They invaded in 1893 but were shamefully defeated by the Ethiopians to become the first European losers in a colonial war. This led to the Italy-Ethiopia war conducted in 1930’s.  Ultimately Ethiopia was colonized by Italy from 1936 to 1941.  Only 5 years, so you can understand how little impact would come from that.  Things will change. 

So, going back to it.  Ethiopia has a lot of primitive tribes that continue to live the way they have for thousands of years… I was anxious to visit early man, and what an incredible experience I had making so many new friends and gaining insights about ancient life.   

Early Man Lucy

While it may seem like Ethiopia has always been the cradle of civilization it was not until 1963 that ancient hominids were discovered in Ethiopia where stone tools that were over a million years old at Kella.  Since then many important finds have propelled Ethiopia to the forefront of paleontology. The oldest hominid discovered to date in Ethiopia is the 4.2 million year old Ardi found by Tim White in 1994. The most well known hominid discovery is Lucy, found in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia’s Afar region in 1974 by Donald Johanson, and is one of the most complete and best preserved, adult fossils ever uncovered. Lucy is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago.  You can see Lucy and Ardi bones in the museum in Addis Ababa in the capital.  

early man skulllucy bones

There have been many other notable fossil findings in the country. Near Gona stone tools were uncovered in 1992 that were 2.52 million years old, these are the oldest such tools ever discovered anywhere in the world.  In 2010 fossilized animal bones, that were 3.4 million years old were found with stone-tool-inflicted marks on them in the Lower Awash Valley by an international team, which is the oldest evidence of stone tool use ever found anywhere in the world.  In 2004 fossils found near the Omo river at Kibbish at 195,000 years old, the oldest date in East Africa for modern Homo sapiens. Imagine walking around in a valley where the bones you might stumble across could be an ancient ancestor.

tribal encounters

You really don’t have to spend much time with the tribes to find their simple, but ancient traditions to be enlightening.  You really don’t have to go to distant islands where you risk getting shot by arrows.  You can come to the Omo Valley, and get a guide and scout who are provided for your safety and convenience to communicate with the chief and his warriors, who are really quite friendly.

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Last summer I traveled to Mexico to see the Olmec heads.  I was NOT expecting to see one in Addis Ababa outside the museum in Ethiopia.

National Museum of Ethiopia

The National Museum of Ethiopia is worthwhile.  Even in just the last few years it has gotten a lot better.  It was the Lucy bones that drew me the first time, but taking my 9 year old boy to put some context in paleontology was very worthwhile.

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My friend Abeye who I met on a trip to Lalibella, Ethiopia 8 years earlier with his school friends.  It was him and his friends who were our guides when we were trying to locate an orphanage.  I had the biggest epiphany… everything you think you know about Africa is wrong.  Everything you think you know about Ethiopia is also wrong.  Giving money to the orphanages in Lalibela would have been a mistake.  They were the only spoiled kids in the city.   Who would have guessed?  Instead I found a blind kid and his friend who helped us locate school supplies which we were able to distribute to as many kids as we could find.  It was a life changing event.  Bringing books and school supplies to a few schools along our route on our trips was a lot of fun for the whole family.  Mission accomplished.  My 9 year old and his cousin will never forget how they felt as they had many first contact type experiences with the kids at the markets.  If you’ve never had the opportunity to be a minority, I highly recommend it.  It’s important to get out of your comfort zone, and let a villager touch your freckles or softly pinch your skin and stare right through your blue eyes.  You sort of feel like an alien.  Imagine if everyone had the opportunity to feel like an alien.  How much prejudice and bigotry would melt away to empathy?

first contact

first contact ethiopia

No matter how much you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you will still struggle to understand how someone could put such a large plate in their lip, but if you don’t try to connect with them and imagine life in a straw hut and attempt to connect with their present and your past… to see what life might have been like 3,000 or 30,000 years ago.

Mursi tribe

The Mursi tribe are a nomadic people known for their lip plates, they live in grass huts between the Omo River and its tributary the Mago, one of the most isolated regions of the country.  They are animists. Lip plates are a well known aspect of the Mursi and Surma, who are probably the last groups in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear large pottery, wooden discs, or plates in their lower lips. 

happy tribal encounters

I had a great time with my new friend.  We were taking selfies and could keep a straight face.  After traveling 3 days to get deep into the Omo Valley I was so excited to spend time with one of the most primitive tribes in Ethiopia.  Clothing optional, this tribe could construct their grass hut village in less than 24 hours.  They are a nomadic tribe.

Zebra kids

As we drove by these zebra stripped kids I was struck.  I was really on the edge of the planet.  Our guide said, “don’t take their picture they’ll throw rocks!”  It was too late.  I caught this beautiful photo first.  I hope it represents them well.  For the most part prior to us arriving at a village there were terms on photos and we’d work it out with the chief.  It’s true… sometimes they wanted money for each picture, but it was my preference to trade.  If we could bring things the tribe needed, I felt a lot better…. school supplies, solar lantern, or simple toys.

Ancient Konso pole

This pole may look like a bunch of poles lashed together, but actually this is a clock.  The tribe adds a new pole to this central point in the village every generation (18 years.)  Konso, this ancient UNESCO heritage village is over 400 years old.

Tiye UNESCO

Tiya, a UNESCO site of large stones from an ancient burrial ground.  No one recognizes the swords.  They don’t match any on record in Ethiopia.   I love it.  The site is still being understood.  You can be an archeologist and figure it out!  The guides on site have some good ideas, but you can tell much of what they are saying is guestimates.

Ethiopian sword and shield

You can compare these swords from the museum… Doesn’t look anything like it.  The 1600s was a pretty exciting time in Ethiopia with the royal courts, castles, and conquests.  You wouldn’t believe the history.  Gondar Ethiopia where the castles are is a must for a longer trip to Ethiopia.

Ethiopian crock Lake Chamo

Humans aren’t the only ancient thing in Ethiopia.  Very old crocodiles and hippos in the lake.  You can take a guide, captain and scout by boat and go trekking for animals in Lake Chamo Nechi Sar

Adadi Mariam

Ancient stone churches are both in the North and in the South.  Lalibella in the North has some of the best monolithic buildings in the world.

The only southerly rock hewn church Adadi Mariam… It’s like visiting a cave church carved out of rock, not unlike the cave churches in Cappadocia, but those churches don’t have a holy of holies and these are all fashioned after Solomon’s temple and often have a ark of the covenant replica based on the real one… just ask them.  The religion runs very deep in Ethiopia, and there’s no doubt they are from lost tribes of ancient Israel… the DNA studies and the heritage back up the stories.  The stories are fantastic and rich as the countries culture.

Ancient New York

Breathtaking natural beauty outside the windows of the ancient village near Konso.  This valley is coined New York for what look a vast city scape in dirt… like sky scrapers.

Mursi Warrior

This Mursi Warrior may look tough, and they are, but they are also very sweet.

Raw Beef

If you don’t stick to tourist food, you can try some amazing tibs.  Tare tare may be a french term, but at this shop, they chop off cuts of fresh beef, seasoning optional.  Strips of raw meat – Tere Sega.  I LOVE Ethiopian food.  It took some convincing my driver that I had an iron stomach, then I could get to the really good places where the locals eat.  Tibs, Shiro, Kifto, Gomen, Doro Wat, Shiro Feces, served with a layer of Injira. 

Ethiopian Market

Incredible markets.  Tribes would come to trade or sell their vegetables or clothes.  Markets aren’t every day, but on market day it’s a treat to meet those that come from far away.  I did find it annoying that some local government officials thought we needed a permit to go to the market.  They were persistent.

Konso tribal hut

Traditional ancient Konso tribal Hut.  These are really the nice huts.  There are much more primitive and temporary huts.

Ethiopian hard working women

The hardest working women in the world.  I believe.  These women spend all day looking for sticks to turn to charcoal to sell or to use as firewood to feed their families.

Konso Tribal Elders

The wise tribal elders of Konso

Tribal market

Those wooden seats double as a pillow and are one of the few items you might find in a hut.

Ancient tribal hut

The inside of a hut.  This women was near the center of the village so she has some additional amenities.

huts

The animals live in the stone walled in village for protection.  The further outer rings of the village the newer but more risky.

inside Mursi hut

The inside of the grass hut.  Embers still warm.

 

In a spirit of transparency.  I’m fine sharing what I got

Omo valley cultural tour

Day 1 – Rock Hewn church, Tiya UNESCO site

Day 2 Trekking for Zebras, visiting crocks and hippos

Day 3 Jinka!!! Konso tribes the 400 year old UNESCO village including New York

Day 4 Mursi tribe and Mago National Park.  This is the lip plate tribe.  Dimeka Market…

Day 5 Turmi cultural tribal city in the middle of Omo Valley

Day 6 Dorze village

I ended up going back to Paradise Lodge.  We loved that place.  The view was incredible.  So we elected for 3 nights there in Arba Minch. 

King Dawit tours

For $75 a day for $525 we had a Toyota Land Cruiser driver and vehicle for about 7 days.  I felt pretty good about what I negotiated.  Our driver knew the route, and while he didn’t like driving in the dark.  We were able to push him to put in 12 hour days and saw an incredible amount of Southern Ethiopia on this trip.

It was so great to get back to Ethiopia one of my favorite countries not only in Africa, but in the world.

If you enjoyed this post… you might enjoy my previous post on Ethiopia on Lalibela and the Rock Hewn Churches where I first met Abeye and fell in love with ancient Ethiopia.  My friend Abeye is now building his own ethiopian tours.

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.

Easter Island Travel – Isla de Pascua Mystery


The island who seems to be on every bucket list has got to be Easter Island.  They mysterious Moai stand guard for all time.  The knowledge seemingly of these majestic statues is truly timeless.  First off let me tell you, you won’t accidentally come to Easter Island.  This is a place that takes real planning.  The first time I priced out travel to Easter Island I was the round trip flight from Santiago out to Easter Island at $700 or $800.  So for many years, it was a dream.  Then, it was a breakthrough.  Simply adding Easter Island to my itinerary from LAX to Santiago, it was only an incremental $200.  I booked early and wow, what a payoff!

Easter Island Sunset - Joel Oleson

While likely one of the most fantastic destinations it is out of range for most.  Only the truly dedicated will make it.  The community there is one of the most remote in the world!  It’s over 1000 miles to the nearest land mass of Chile, which by the way is most likely where you’ll fly from.  For me, I’ve continued to think of Easter Island as one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world that reminds us of lost knowledge.

Easter Island Moai with Hats - Joel Oleson

Surely these massive ancient rocks did walk from the quarry and down the mountainside and make their way across the island.  There’s no disputing the fact that the natives cut these amazing massive moai and brought them to their resting places.  There’s a lot more I could say about the mystery but instead I’ll save the mystery and encourage you to go.  The first thing to know is there isn’t just one group.

easter island silouette

There are so many fun places to see on the island.  My recommendation is a minimum of 2 days, but 3+ is preferred.    There are around 887 Moai scattered across the island.  There were no standing moai in 1825.  There are groups that have been put back to their proper places and you’ve gotta see the quarry where there are Moai half cut out of the stone with many working their way down the mountain.

Easter Island Rainbow

Rainbow follows the rain.  This beautiful rainbow taught us a good lesson… “After the storm comes a rainbow!”  We were standing under cover waiting for the rain to part, then bam!

Ancient Stone Masons

Does this stonework remind you of another group of people?  Me too.  This looked very much like Machu Picchu of the Incas.  You can also find stonework like this in ancient Egypt.

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Moai on the beach… minutes later wild horses would sweep across the sand!

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There are still many mysteries of the island.  The culture is very strong with the people.  Spanish is widely spoken, but the native traditions and language are well respected and celebrated.

Easter Island Wedding - Joel Oleson

We happened to happen onto a wedding performed both in the native tongue and translated into Spanish.

Kneeling Moai Easter Island

The stones carry a message from a time gone.  They teach us to respect the past and reverence the gods.  There’s something bigger than us, a mystery that will not be discovered until we connect with the cosmos and return to the earth.  We have an amazing wonderful world.  I hope you get to visit Easter Island sometime in your life.  Amazing!

Biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

Death Road Memorial

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.

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

Colosseum Ampitheatre of the Roman Empire – 7 New Wonders


The Colosseum or Coliseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre is an elliptical amphitheatre in the centre of the city of Rome, Italy.  Definitely growing up you hear all about the colleseum.  You hear about the stories of the gladiators the Ben Hur, the Christians and lions.  Colosseum could hold, it is estimated, between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, and was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas.  It is a UNESCO heritage site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

The Colosseum

This post is in a series of 7 posts on the 7 Wonders of the New World

  • Great Wall of China – Sacrifice of a Nation
  • Christ the Redeemer Statue – Religious Icon of Rio Brazil
  • Taj Mahal – Sacred Mausoleum of Agra India
  • Petra Jordan – Nabataean Cave City of the Desert
  • Machu Picchu – Lost Sacred City of the Incas
  • Chichen Itza – Ancient Mayan Temple Pyramid
  • Colosseum Amphitheatre of the Ancient Roman Empire
  • colloseumEmperor Vespasian had it built in around 70–72 AD, funded by the spoils taken from the Jewish Temple after the Siege of Jerusalem, but since then it has been robbed itself of blocks to build other things.

    You do have to pay to go into the colloseum.  Despite the fact that huge parts of it are now decrepid and missing, it’s handled time quite well.  It really is huge and impressive… Definitely worth seeing.  People dress up in Roman costumes.  There’s a lot to see nearby as well with the arch, great restaurants, and museums… it really does feel like the center of town and hey, there are more things close to this tube station than most others.  Getting around this was one of the easiest ancient things to find.

    Italian in Italy with a view of the coloseum

    Great Italian food nearby!!

    When in Rome!

    As they say… When in Rome!

    I’ve been to Rome a few times and it’s a city that’s a great city filled with tons of things to see and do.  Very easy to spend a week in.  In fact we did that a few years ago as a family.  While driving was a challenge, after a couple of days I was getting around pretty well.  Driving in Rome has gotten a lot easier than it was a few years ago with tons more scooters.  I do have to warn you that if you have your own rental car make sure you understand there are areas you can’t park without a permit.  As well, certain lanes you can’t drive in (bus/taxi lanes).  I’ve gotten towed in Rome once, and a ticket in the mail once.  So let’s just say, I’ve had some experience in this area.

    Rome is filled with tons to do.  There have to be more nuns and priests in Rome/ Vatican city than anywhere else in the world!

    Here are a few ideas…

    5 Additional Places to go when visiting Rome (or Italy) when visiting the Coliseum

    Happy Nuns

    1) St Peters Basilica, PLUS Vatican Musuem, and the MUST SEE! Sisteen Chapel… Shhhh! No Photos!

    Spanish Steps

    2. The Spanish Steps…

    Great social place to meet the locals and throngs of tourists as well

    Trevi Fountain Rome Italy

    2. Trevi Fountain

    Florence

    4. Day trip to Florence to see Michelangelo’s David

    Track down the Catacombs.  There are a few different ones.  We absolutely loved them as well.  Depends on your interests…

    5. Day trip to Pompeii and YOU MUST GO TO POMPEII! It’s one of the most amazing places on the planet.  There is another amphitheatre there, but you’ll see ruins like no other on the planet… KM or miles of them.

    There really area ton of things to see in Rome, pace yourself so you don’t get “ruin”-ed out or museum’ed out.  The Blocks and Columns start looking the same and religious paintings as well start blending together.

    Coliseum