Silk Roads of Tajikistan Land of Mountains

Color!

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

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

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

Panchshanbe Bazaar and Fountain

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

Panchshanbe Bazaar

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

Khujand Tajikistan Market and Bazaar

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

Masjidi Jami mosque and medrese Tajik New Mosque

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

Tajikistan Lunch

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

Tajikistan breads

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

Khujand Market

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

Khujand Market

Minaret outside the old mosque

Soviet memorial in Khujand Tajikistan

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

Sughd Museum in the old citidel

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

Amazing Tajikistan door

Amazing door to the fortress and citadel.

Ismail Somoni monument

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

Tajikistan Lions

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

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

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

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

From Mary to the Ancient City of Merv Turkmenistan

Merv Turkmenistan

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

Turkmen Camel

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

Turkmenistan Wild Camel

Kissy Camel lips

Turkmenistan Desert

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clay Walls of Kyzkala Palace Unesco Turkmenistan

Clay Walls of Kyzkala Palace Unesco Turkmenistan

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Artists rendition of the “before”

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

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

 

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

 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum

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

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum old 1890

 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum dome merv

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

muslim star

 

 

 

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

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

Discovering Kyrgyzstan Land of Mountains

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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

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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

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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

Georgetown Guyana Picture Guide On the Road Less Traveled

Guyana Black Water Creek and Beach

In my travels across South America, I had the opportunity to visit some rarely visited parts of South America.  The former colonies of the Dutch, France, Portuguese, Spanish and the British.  Guyana was both Dutch and then most recently a British colony but became independent from the UK in 1966 and in 1970 became a republic.  The official language is English, the only country in South America where that’s the case.  While I’ve been to Belize a central american former british colony that speaks English, it wasn’t the best trip.  It is one of my least favorite.  It was a mainland drive and I had a run in with the police.  On my trip across Belize I found more depressing moments than not.  I do plan to give it another chance sometime in the future.  Guyana had a few sad moments, but  I don’t let poverty keep me from visiting a place.  I feel I both gain a greater appreciation for what I have, and I find what really matters in life.  Our families, relationships, faith and shared experiences.  I met the family of a couple of my local friends I met first on facebook through SharePoint the technology that I work with.

This post on Guyana will be part of a series on that part of the world.  When I was looking to visit I found very little written on it.  I’ll add the links as the stories go live.

Road less traveled series…

Traveling Georgetown Guyana Land of Waters

Paramaribo Suriname

Saint Laurent du Maroni French Guiana

 

“Guyana was originally colonized by the Netherlands. Later, it became a British colony, known as British Guiana, and remained so for over 200 years until it achieved independence on 26 May 1966 from the United Kingdom. On 23 February 1970, Guyana officially became a republic. In 2008, the country joined the Union of South American Nations as a founding member.” – More on Wikipedia article on Guyana

Map of Northern South America

 

Georgetown is pretty raw.  It’s a fascinating colonial town, but much of it looks like it hasn’t had much care since 1966.  This isn’t going to be a history lesson more than sharing what I saw and experienced.

 

Welcome to city hall… GeorgeTown

Georgetown City Hall Guyana

 

One of the most fantastic experiences was wandering the city.  I’ve collected 5 things to see in Georgetown and surrounding.

 

 

Guyana Light house and Beach

Guyana Beach

Guyana LighthouseGuyana Lighthouse

 

Colonial House in Georgetown Guyana

Back side of Georgetown City Hall

 

Starbroek Market

1. StarBroek Market… Fresh Meat and Food Market, Ferry Terminal and the heartbeat of the town.  The name of the market is the old name of the city during dutch times. The beautiful architecture is an important part and key attraction of the city.  It is organized chaos.  This country really doesn’t get much tourists and you can tell that by the reactions you’ll get at the market.  They aren’t pushy, they are simply surprised to see you.  The homeless people sleeping near the docs are really sad, but it gives you a temperature on the city.

Starbroek Market Vegtables

The market is raw, and it’s a great way to see life in Georgetown.

Georgetown Ferry

Ferry system in Georgetown to cross the great river

 

2. Capital and Grounds

Republic of GuyanaCapital of Guyana

In the national library we met a guy who wanted to show us something really cool… The real signed documents for independence!

Queen Elizabeth Signature

The actual signatures of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the Independence documents

Queen Elizabeth Statue Guyana

Judicial Court including statue of Queen Elizabeth herself

3. Promenade Gardens – a nice walk through the city will lead you to the gardens.  Everything is all pretty close and an easy walk.

Guyana Gardens

Gardens… While we didn’t end up spending so much time here.  I hear there are places where you can see manatees.  Virtualtourist Georgetown page has some more info on that.

 

Guyana Streets

There are some nice walking areas of town where you can get a feel for the bustling of the city while enjoying the people watching and soaking up the atmosphere.

homeless sleeper

A common site in Georgetown and a dose of reality is the sleepers.  Homelessness is a global phenomenon, and I don’t mean to be unfair, but this is the reality of Georgetown.  Lots of them.

sad horse

You can tell by the look of this horse that they’ve had some tough times.

You need to be ok with seeing a lot of poverty to visit this city, but believe me… there is hope.  There is a generation of powerful youth with a bright hope for the future.

Guyana Technology Youth

I had lunch with five bright young people that represent hope.  They are the future of Guyana.

There is a hindu influence that is also felt.  There are really 3 major groups of people that I came across while in Guyana.  The Blacks (former slaves), the Indians (former british labor), and the natives or AmerIndians.  All groups have been exploited and feel marginalized, but it was both my lunch with the technical group shown above that gives me hope and my visit to the Amerindians that also made me excited about the potential.  The teens were dancing to native songs that were designed to carry a positive message of pride in being an Amerindian.   Any travel to a country should and must involve really getting into the culture and trying to understand the people.

4. Local Small Temples and Churches

Guyana Hindu Temple and MosqueGuyana Hindu Temple and Mosque

Small temples and mosques from the Hindustani locals as seen on a short drive through the city.

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4. Amerindian Village – Ask Elvis…

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In the city there are a few reminders about the original inhabitants of Guyana.  They call the native people Amerindians.  They are comfortable with that name as well.

 

Amerindian Elvis

On a drive outside of Georgetown we saw a coconut stand and fresh coconut juice sounded refreshing.  In our conversation with “Elvis” we found an Amerindian village just down a small unmarked dirt road.  Our local friends had no idea the village even existed.  Elvis is the little guy between the two big white guys.  My friend Michael Noel, Sharing the Globe is the one with the massive camera.

Guyana Ameridian Dancing

The kids danced and sang songs of Amerindian bride and culture.  I really enjoyed seeing this. Loved it.

Stickball

Pickup game of stick ball or crickett.  I did try a whack at it, but all I got was laughs.  You gotta love an impromptu gave of cricket with a stick.

Cute little ameridian girl

How can anyone have racial prejudice?  This cute little amerindian little girl melts my heart.

 

5. Black Water Creek Park – an excursion about an hour outside the city is this beautiful palm tree surrounded creek with calm waters is setup as a swimming area with nice little huts.  It’s a beautiful escape, and the water is really funky.  Our local friends took us out here and we had an amazing time wading through the black water.

Kevon in the black water

 

Black water escape

 

Blackwater escape with friends

My hopes and dreams for Guyana are in the youth.  Thanks Kevon for showing us your amazing country!

Inland Jamaican Island Adventures and Excursions

Dunner River Falls Jamaica

I flew into Montego Bay (a fairly cheap flight from the east coast of the US), and while I had some commitments for work, I arrived early so I could see one of the most amazing islands in the world.  World Famous Jamaica!!! Known for Bob Marley, Music, the Reggae movement (read more in my other Jamaica post on  Reggae Jamaica), the amazing people and rich culture of friendly people.  What an incredible island with so much to see.  If Jamaica is a quick stop, you have to focus on what you can fit in.  I understand that.  I was luck to spend time in both sides of the island and see the best of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Kingston.  I hope this post gives you some great ideas of what to see and what to do!

Jamaica from the air

First off let me tell you all of the bad things I heard that were so  wrong!

– I heard they had horrible roads

– I heard I had to expect horrible drivers

– I heard it would take me forever to get from place to place

– I heard it would be dangerous for me and I should be really careful cause people would try to cheat me.

So wrong… Don’t believe everything you hear!

There were a few things that I learned for travel tips that I’ll cover at the end of this post.  A few words of caution, but for the most part, I was so glad to embrace Jamaica and not be afraid.  The people were amazing!

Driving

First stop was to pick up the car.  Yes, despite everything I was told, I figured I would want a car. I’m that kind of traveller that driving on the other side of the road and even with crazy roads and drivers, I still feel great, so I took on the challenge of Jamaican driving.  Reality is, the roads were great!  I’ve driven in Barbados and Puerto Rico and these roads were better than what I saw on both of those islands.  I kept saying, where are those bad roads?  Where are those crazy drivers?  I guess I fit right in.  I admit I did get pulled over by the police twice.  Now there is some advice and story to that.  I drove across the island.  In all I drove both ways across the island and logged at least 12 hours on the road and I admit I was looking for the best and worst of the island.  I drove to Nine mile, and I drove into trench town and some of the shady area of Kingston and suburbs.  More on driving at the end of the post

 

Rose Hall Great House

 

Rose Hall Jamaica

If you love history, you’ll love Rose Hall.  If you love romance, architecture, tours… you’ll love Rose Hall.  There is so much of the story of the island and it’s history that is locked up in the history of Rose Hall.  As the first real attraction just 15 min outside of Montego Bay, I was happy to have made Rose Hall my main investment of time the first night I arrived.  Rose Hall is one place during the day, and another during the night.  In the night you can tour the great house by candle light.  Constructed in 1770 the owners  had over 2000 slaves and was one of the many great houses that existed.  It is one of the few on the island that remain.  During slave revolt most of the great homes on the island were destroyed.  The history here is one of VooDoo and murder and the story of Annie the white witch as seen on World’s Scariest Places, and Ghost Hunters International.  It was $20 USD to visit the hall.  I found most of the attractions to land at about $20.

Rose Hall Haunted Bedroom of Annie

The bedroom of Annie Palmer.  Who murdered all of her husbands and lovers.

Tomb of Annie Palmer

The Tomb of Annie Palmer…  Listening to a story from our adorable guide in period dress.

You can read more about the tours at Rose Hall on their website RoseHall.com.

 

As far as spending money, we really didn’t even need to exchange our money.  Every place we went took both Jamaican dollars and US Dollars.  In fact, we were getting a better rate by using US Dollars as the money I exchanged at the airport was a worse rate than I was getting on the street.  Paying with US dollars worked great.

That first night we drove to Ocho Rios…  A stop at the night market

Market in Ocho Rios  (Great during the Day or Night!)

Jerk Chicken

Jamaican Jerk Chicken cooked right on the street.  Some are spicier than others.  None of them were as spicy as I was expecting, but you could add your own Scotch peppers to kick it up!

Night Market Jamaica Ocho Rios

The fruit of the night market.  For the most part the night market was one for the locals.  We really didn’t see any tourists as we visited the stalls and walked around Ocho Rios.  I think many were surprised to see us as so many of the travelers simply stay on their resorts, especially at night.  We had plenty of folks who wanted to show us around.  While I was fine doing my own tour, we stayed out pretty late… 1am and didn’t mind spending some time really getting to know some of the locals and hearing their stories.

Dunn’s River Falls

Dunns River Falls Jamaica

One of the most beautiful on the island, but one of many amazing waterfalls on the island.  Dunn’s River falls is famous across the island.  You can either bring your own water shoes or rent some for fairly cheap.  I learned on another trip that climbing with socks gives you pretty good grip.  So I hiked the falls in my socks and it worked just fine.  I really enjoyed the hike up the falls.  It was only as extreme as you made it.  It costs $20 for  adult foreigners enter the falls park. There were easy paths to climb.  I would have been fine with my boys climbing it and may just have to bring them back soon.

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The falls lands right into the beach.  Beautiful beach.  Since we weren’t on an organized tour we arrived early and had the entire beach to ourselves.  Amazing turquois waters including a life guard and a roped off area to help you know the area that’s safe and protected.  Of course, I tested the boundaries and even stood up on an old pier and jumped out into the beautiful waters.

Jamaican Beach Sandy

Beautiful sandy beaches.  So much warmer water than I’m use to on the West Coast of the US.

Jamaica Fall

You can see the hand holds here on the left.  I climbed the falls trying to take a medium difficulty route that I made up on my own.  You could hire a guide to follow.  I found that to be unnecessary.  It wasn’t challenging, it was fun.  I did try to put myself into some challenging positions.

Getting pounded1956856_10152391309973783_32965855_o

Having arrived early, I had the falls to myself.  One of my friends took pictures from a viewing area on the side.  Lot of great pools, and amazing waters.  This is a wonder of the island and one that should be appreciated.  I understand there are different falls in the interior of the island and this one while it does have a local price for the islanders, they end up going to different falls.

Mystic Mountain Rain Forest Adventures

Mystic Mountain Rain Forest

While we were on our way back to Ocho Rios, we saw the signs for Mystic Mountain.  I’m a fan of ziplines and canopy tours, and still had fresh memories of my time in Costa Rica.  It was a beautiful day and I felt like we had a little time to go.  So we decided to do the Sky Explorer which would take us through the rain forest on a chair lift (like a ski lift).  We also took the bobsled ride.  We were limited on time or we likely would have done the full package.  Honestly it was a bit pricey, but I’m sure it took a lot to put this together and while it was my intention to avoid the touristy areas, I felt like this allowed me to see and enjoy a lot in a short period of time.  The Bobsled theme was pretty cool as well.  We did find a moment to relax and enjoy the beautiful humming birds.  Fantastic colors.  If you end up doing this, I highly recommend slowing it down and enjoying nature and soaking up the rainforest and all it has to offer.  The adrenaline rush of the bobsled ride and zipline is awesome, but be sure to slow down and relax.  That’s really an important thing to realize that Jamaica is about.  Enjoying life and appreciating what you have.

  • Sky Explorer – chair lift
  • Rainforest Bobsled – bob sled ride through the rain forest (additional cost)
  • Canopy Zipline – multiple ziplines through the rain forest (additional cost)
  • Butterflies and Hummingbirds – little areas setup with humming bird food (included once you’re up there)
  • Waterslide and Infinity pool (included with your purchase)

More info from Mystic Mountain (be sure to read the reviews on Trip Advisor as well)

 

Mystic Mountain Rain Forest

Beautiful views from the chairlift of the amazing waters, beaches, and Ocho Rios off in the distance.  Floating slowly over the tops of the trees on the chair lift.

Food – Eat Jamaican!

Jamaica Cliffs

Up the road from Ocho Rios is a truly mystical place.  Talking of taking a moment and enjoying nature… As the water would come in and go back it would swell and shoot up like a blow hole spraying a fine mist.  We stopped here for lunch at Oracabessa.  Momma took care of us.  Incredible seafood, fish, and more.  I included a few photos.

Get All Right Jamaica

This is what you see from the road.  A fun Jamaican reggae guy was working on the roof of the place, but we went further over next to the cliffs.

Conch Salad

Conch salad

Curry Lobster

Curry Lobster!

Dishes you have to have while on the island after you eat the Jerk Pork and Jerk Chicken is… Curry Lobster, and bonus points for Ox Tail, and Curry Goat.

My Favorite Jerk Chicken on the Island is Scotchies… I ended up eating there in Montego Bay (the original) and in Kingston (in the bar area).  There’s another near Ocho Rios, maybe others!?

Scotchies

Jamaican Cooking

Thursday is ribs!  But you can get the chicken and pork every day.  Go for the pork! It’s the best, but the Jerk Chicken is famous.  You can tell it’s real by the corrugated tin.

 

Native Fish plate

We also ate at M10 in Kingston, a local place with great music and great food, and especially great seafood!  Great ginger beer as well.

 

Bonus: More Nightlife and Carnival

Now for something that most travelers and tourists would miss.  Though a friend we tracked down a party that was going on in one of the neighborhoods in Kingston.  It seemed like it was going to go on all night, we ended up leaving at 4AM and the DJs were just changing to start a new set.

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One other night we happened to be in Kingston for Mas Camp.  It’s basically practice leading up to Carnival.

Jamaican Carnival1960958_10152392626948783_489767884_o

 

Jamaican Dancer

Carnival dancer at Mas Camp with a couple of my friends.  High energy dancing… Kingston is where the best music and entertainment is on the island.  I didn’t see any tourists at this event.

Mas Camp

While I did end up staying on the island for 4 days, the first 24 hours of just soaking up the island was so incredible.  I had an amazing time.  I did mention that I drove across the island and spent more time than is spent in this post.  Refer to my post on Bob Marley’s Jamaica and Reggae tour to see what else I saw with my time on the island.  I do want to give you some balance to what else you’ll find on the island.

Some Warning and Caution

We did find a few hustlers and people begging, but for the most part when we asked them to leave they did.  It wasn’t as aggressive as other islands or even close to what I’ve seen in much of Africa.  This was less than what you’d see in big cities in the US.  Don’t be so afraid to venture out of your all inclusive resort.  Don’t believe the stories.  Experience it for yourself.

There is still some corruption.  I was pulled over by the police twice.  The first time, I got a warning to slow down.  There are basically two speeds on the ring road.  50 KM and 80 KM.  The police were usually hanging out where it would transition to the slow speed and they’d be on the side of the road with their speed guns waving people over.  By the time you see them or recognize, you’re likely going too fast.  The second time I got pulled over, I got a different answer.  The policeman asked me if I wanted to find a way to settle this.  He asked me to be subtle, but to take the papers back to the car and put some money in it.  Didn’t tell me how much.  I think we ultimately put in about $10 and he didn’t even look, he just put it in his pocket and told me to slow down.  I also got booted once.  The guy was wearing a blue shirt.  Everybody knew it was the guy in the blue shirt who was the one that booted the cars that weren’t suppose to leave their cars there.  We were stopping to get our tickets before taking the car back and it looked like others had left their cars parked for a few minutes, but ours was the one that got the boot.  $20 later, I was on my way.  No other real problems.  I grew up in Idaho and so I’m use to passing cars on two lane roads.  What was different was the need to slow down a bit when people didn’t allow enough time when passing.  It was much better driving than I experienced in Italy or especially than Naples, so I really can’t complain about the driving practices.  Seemed pretty normal to me.  There are some pretty narrow roads which go across the island, where you really need to be on watch.  In Kingston itself there are the early numbered streets like first street and fifth street and streets around Trench town that certain streets aren’t designed to be through streets that don’t have the road blocks on the GPS or on the maps.  For the most part you don’t need to be in there.  Make sure the GPS is sending you to the actual street you’re looking for, some times it would fail to find it, but default to somewhere else and that’s where we’d be driving in strange roads, but for the most part, I enjoyed the challenge and the people were great.  I would not compare Jamaica to most of the African villages.  It’s one of the best islands in the Caribbean (easily one of my favorite) and the industry is really up and coming.  The businesses and people really deserve your support.  I see Jamaica as a great place to do outsourcing and a great place to work with hard working happy people.

Fresh Coconut

Fresh coconut for $2 USD… Yes, Jamaica is paradise.  While this photo catches me right after I survived climbing the Dunn’s River waterfall and isn’t flattering it shows off a bit of the natural beauty of the island.  What an amazing place.  Can’t wait to get back so I can go to the other parts of the island…. Negril and Blue Mountains and so much more to see!

Don’t miss my post on my Reggae Jamaica

Bob Marley Adventure Guide to Reggae Jamaica

Bob Marley Tour of Jamaica

I’ve been wanting to go to Jamaica really bad.  When a few of my friends were asking when we’d go,  I knew I was going to be in Orlando and said why not?  At first I was planning on a dive, but most of my friends that were joining weren’t divers, so instead we made this an interior trip.  Why not explore the parts of the island that the tourists miss and be real travelers and go on adventures .  I did see a lot of Jamaica and I write about the other parts of Jamaica in my follow up post “Get all right in Jamaica”.

I was excited to connect with one of the greatest artists  Bob MarleyRobert Nesta “Bob” Marley (6 February 1945 – 11 May 1981) He’s had such an impressive impact on the music industry with popularizing Reggae on the world scene and bringing light to Rastafarian way of life.  More than just having a few Bob Marley songs, I’ve met some real Rastafarians that helped me understand it’s more of a lifestyle.  Many wouldn’t realize the commitment of the Rasta folks including not drinking alcohol and eating veggie.  Most seem to focus exclusively on the fact that marijuana is accepted and taken religiously.  It was in Zanzibar where I really gained an appreciation for the Rasta music and sacraments.  It was then that I really wanted to visit the island and see what it was all about.  In addition, it was visiting the grave of Haile Selassie I and the castles of the empire of Ethiopia that made me feel like I both needed to learn the ancient and modern manifestation of what was going on with the line of Solomon and Bob Marley as a Prophet?  There was a lot I needed to learn.  There were really three main places on the island we visited.  Most of the tours be prepared to pay $20 USD on the spot.  For some reason most of the attractions on the island are twenty US dollars and yes you can pay in USD or Jamaican Dollars (approximately 9 or 10 to 1), while we were there it was even better to pay in USD as the dollar was stronger, wasn’t even worth exchanging the money…

1. Bob Marley Experience – House and Record Label on 56 Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica (also where the attempted assassination took place) Tour required to see the house.

2. Trench Town Culture Yard – Birthplace of Reggae and where Bob Marley learned to play and where he lived after running away a few blocks. (a bit rough) Tour available. More on Trenchtown on Wikipedia

3. Birthplace, Mausoleum, and first home of Bob Marley in Nine Mile, his real retreat on his grandparents land.  Deep inside the island. (Multi hour drive from Kingston or much closer from Ocho Rios) Tour required to get to the mausoleum.

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There are a few ways to see the islands of the Caribbean, and while many simply get the all inclusive resort and catch a cab or van to their particular resort with a big fence and a private beach.  If they leave they are visiting a tourist attraction called an excursion where the entire path and time is laid out where very little interaction with the *real* islanders happen.  This trip on the other hand was the complete opposite.  While I did see a few attractions, where I drove, slept, ate, and spent my time was amongst the people.

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Popular Bob Marley Statue… One Love, One Life!

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I had some great opportunities to visit the homes of Bob Marley.  There are really three main areas to visit.

Bob Marley House on Hope Road – Bob Marley Experience

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This is the house where Bob Marley lived until his attempted assassination in 1976.  The house is now known as the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Jamaica dedicated to the reggae musician Bob Marley. The museum is located at 56 Hope Road, Kingston 6, and is Bob Marley’s former place of residence at his peak. It was home to the Tuff Gong record label which was founded by The Wailers in 1970.  They don’t allow any pictures to be taken inside the home, but there’s a great collection of the news, records, and history.  The guide takes you from room to room giving you history about Bob Marley and his success concluding in the theatre where they show a number of music videos and you get to listen to his music as it evolved over time.

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Trench Town, Kingston Culture Yard – Birthplace of Reggae and where Bob Marley learned to play guitar – Not a place some tourists will want to drive by themselves.  But for the adventurous traveler you’ll find a poor part of Kingston where the cement is the walls, floors, and many live in small spaces.  The place itself has a rough history.

Bob Marley’s mom moved to Trench town, a poor but cultural part of Kingston a few streets up from the Culture yard.  Bob moved to Trench town when he was 12 and wanted to stay on first street.

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Today Trench Town boasts the Trench Town Culture Yard Museum, a visitor friendly National Heritage Site presenting the unique history and contribution of Trench Town to Jamaica. Trench Town is the birthplace of rocksteady and reggae music, as well as the home of reggae and Rastafari ambassador and prophet Bob Marley.

“Though raised as a Catholic, Marley became interested in Rastafarian beliefs in the 1960s, when away from his mother’s influence. Marley formally converted to Rastafari and began to grow dreadlocks. The Rastafarian proscription against cutting hair is based on the biblical Samson who as a Nazarite was expected to make certain religious vows including the ritual treatment of his hair as described in Chapter Six of the Book of Numbers.”

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Trench Town Culture Yard… birthplace of Reggae and where Bob Marley ran away from home and learned to play guitar.  There you can see his first guitar and see his room.

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Left: Bob’s first guitar.  Right: Statue of Bob Marley in the Culture Yard.

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Out in Ocho Rios the Ganja smoking is not welcome in some areas, but you can find people who can get you whatever your heart desires.  There are many plants all over the island.

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This weed seems to spring up everywhere.  I can’t say I tried any, but I did see a few plants and was offered much of the Reggae sacrament.

Bob Marley Mausoleum, Resting Place, Birth Place and first home in Nine Mile.

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Bob Marley’s home where he grew started his life on his grandparents property.  The mausoleum in Nine Mile (deep in the island) contains family members on his mothers side of the family.

 

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While I couldn’t sit on the bed, I was offered the rock which was where many songs of inspiration came to the Bob.

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I had an incredible time on the island.  I’ll follow up this post with the non Bob Marley things I saw, but felt like the Reggae experience was worth a post alone.  I hope this post can stand as a reference that there’s a lot to see to better understand the great legend of Bob Marley, one of the most influential singers of the decade a man taken before his prime.

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The landscape in 9 mile is beautiful.  In my opinion it’s worth the drive.  You get to see a very different part of the island and if you can find a way to relax with the people… I recommend slowing it down and listening to the music.  Don’t be so afraid to leave your resort.  Jamaica is amazing!

In my search for the origins of Reggae I found Marcus Garvey and read all about Haile Salasie I, then looked up more quotes on his rein.  You can also get a lot more history of Bob Marley with tons more detail on Wikipedia.

Colosseum Ampitheatre of the Roman Empire – 7 New Wonders

Colloseum

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

Travel in Tunisia: Tunis, Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said, Blue and White houses in Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

I recently had the opportunity to explore a fascinating in the country of Tunisia.  Despite the news from the outside looking in, the other way around from those who are local have a very different perspective on the events these past few years.  Tunisia is being reborn with new found freedoms, but also is trying to find moderation that serves both the religious and the secular.

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Panorama of Lunch with my Tunisian friends.  I pray for the religious freedoms and the rights and freedoms of those who wish to be secular.  Tunisia represents the hopes of a new democracy built from a nation willing to rise up and demand for change.

hijab with headphones

This photo above captures the essence of modern and traditional.  The head scarves have been a fascinating debate throughout the middle east.  Great heated debates continue in many arab countries about whether the hijab should be worn to cover the head.  Should it be legislated.  Most now in Tunisia no longer wear it, but it also should be a choice for those that would choose to wear it.  It’s not for me to say, but I’ve found a lot of people in Tunisia are willing to share their opinions about freedom.

In my time in the country with local friends I met through my technical connections in the SharePoint community.  Tunisia is a very modern country with very strong ties to France.  A lot of my technical contacts have frequent visits from technical folks in France and visa versa with Tunisia.

Tunisia is a beautiful place.  While there I spent time across three main areas.  Tunis the capital, the ruins of ancient Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said.

Here are 7 MUST SEE Places in Northern Tunisia: Tunis, Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said

1. Tunis Bardo Museum

Bardo Museum

Old Door in the Bardo Museum

Tunisian Muslim Girls

Beautiful Ancient Doorway Nailwork

Stones found with religious art…

Adam and Eve Ancient stoneDaniel and the Lions Den Ancient

L: Adam and Eve  R: Daniel and the Lions

2. Sidi Bou Said – Amazing city of blue and white… very beautifully preserved

Sidi Bou Said

Lots of things for tourists in the beautiful sea side city of Sid Bou Said.  Incredible place to walk around and many shops will show you inside to see the interior of their homes and shops.

Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said

3. Carthage Cathedral

St Louis Cathedral in Carthage

St Louis Cathedral in Carthage

The days of Christianity are remembered by the large cathedral, but there aren’t many Christians left in Tunis.

St Louis Statue in Carthage

4. The Ruins of Carthage including many columns, statues and museum(s)

Acropolium

Acropolium

I have a lot to learn about Carthage, the Punic Wars, Hannibal… I think it was 5th grade and this part of history didn’t stick very well.  Here’s a quote from Wikipedia on Carthage.

“A city of the Pheonician and Punic periods from the 6th BC it was the base of a powerful trading empire spanning the entire south Mediterranean and home to a population of the order of half a million people. Its most famous general was Hannibal who crossed the Alps to battle with the Romans. Hannibal suffered his first significant defeat at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, which ended the 2nd Punic War. After over 50 years of being watched closely by Rome, they were eventually attacked in the 3rd Punic War. The citizens defended the city against the Republic of Rome in 146BC yet lost, and Punic Carthage was completely destroyed by the order of the Senate. The site was redeveloped by the Romans a century later and Carthage became the capital of the Roman province of Africa. A UNESCO World Heritage List site.”

Carthage Museum Statues

Carthage MuseumCarthage Museum

5. Medina in Tunis

La MedinaLa Medina Markets

Narrow walkways of the old Medina in Tunis

Doors of Tunis Doors of Tunis

Old doorways that tell the story of time…

While I can’t compare the medina of Tunis with the medina of Rabat or Marrakech, there are major differences in the fact that as you exit the Medina and walk a few blocks you run into this large cathedral.  Tunis has had a fascinating history that is captured in the museums and architecture of the old city.  Looking at the doors on the right you can see how the archways have been filled in, many times over.

6. National Cathedral in Tunis

National Cathedral

Tunisian National Catherdal across the street from French Embassy – I took this photo with a juxtaposition of the razor wire around the embassy.  This was to keep the people from protesting too closely outside the walls of the embassy.  Within a couple of blocks as well, you’ll find the fresh market.

7. Tunis Fresh Food Market      

Fresh Market

Open Air Fresh Foods Market in downtown Tunis

Tunis Theatre

Tunis Theatre

Tunis Theatre – Very Ornate Theatre