Mass Dance Pyongyang North Korea Travel


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

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

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

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Travel Restriction

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

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

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

Who Can Get a Special Validation Passport?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

     

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    Mansu Hill Grand Monument

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

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

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

     

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

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    September 9 Mass Dance

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    Pyongyang, DPRK

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

    Pyongyang city of contrast

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

     

    Pyongyang Train

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

     

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    History

    Mansudae Fountain Park

    Spectacular fountains reaching for grandeur

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

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    There are more statues in Pyongyang…

    North Korean Happy Kids

    Sad, happy, the kids are the future.

    Pyongyang Times

    The Times… The Pyongyang Times

     

     

    A Chollima is a mythical winged horse

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

     

    Traffic Police North Korea

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

     

    Pyongyang Beerfest

    Pyongyang Beerfest performances

     

    Pyongyang Mass Dance

    Mass Dance under the watch of the Dear Leaders

     

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

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

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

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

     

    Kim Statues

     

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

 

Algerian Saharan Oasis Walled Cities of M’zab Valley


Algeria has really been lost as a tourist destination.  In my experience, Algerian embassy really wasn’t big on outsiders.  While it has been off the radar to tourists, it’s really quite incredible with treasures so preserved.  From the ancient UNESCO sites in Algiers, to the imperial french colonial buildings.  The massive mosque in Algiers.  In one of the largest countries in Africa in Algiers deep into the Sahara desert.

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There are five “walled villages” (ksour) located on rocky outcrops along the Mzab collectively known as the Pentapolis. They are Ghardaïa, the principal settlement today; Beni Isguen; Melika; Bounoura; and El Atteuf. Plus a couple more recent settlements of Bérianne and El Guerrara, the Mzab Heptapolis.

The combination of the functional purism of the Ibāḍī faith with the oasis their way of life has led to a strict organization of land and space.  Each citadel has a fortress-like mosque, whose minaret served as a watchtower. Houses of standard size and type were constructed in concentric circles around the mosque. The architecture of the M’zab settlements was designed for egalitarian communal living, with respect for family privacy. The Mzab building style is of Libyan-Phoenician type, more specifically of Berber style and has been replicated in other parts of the Sahara.

The Mzab Valley was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, as an intact example of traditional human habitat perfectly adapted to the environment.

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I love the story of the walled villages.  The ibadi people escaped into the desert and literally build their cities out of the stone.  They turned it into an oasis.  Far from outside influence they were free to worship and develop in their own ways.  Today you will find a mix of Arabs, and black african people from across Africa mix with Ibadi in the markets.  It’s cool to see the diversity in the markets.

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Some of the harshest environments on the planet provide the most dear people.  In the harsh climate of the Sahara desert, not far from the middle of nowhere… you’ll find a magical place.

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A place where the residents themselves were attempting to escape from any civilization around them.  They created their own Oasis amongst the rocks of the M’zab valley.

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The unbelievable stories I heard about wells taking three generations to dig through solid rock inspire you and help you understand just how dedicated these people are to their faith, their families and each other.   You may see the lady in the white.  They usually scurry around quickly to not be seen and show only one eye.  Depth perception can be a real problem, but they’ve become experts.

 

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These five small walled villages designed to keep out the hate and influences, but now the walls are open.  You can take a peak at a place seemingly untouched for 1000 years.  As a traveler one of my favorite things to do is time travel.  Wandering through the souks (markets) of these small villages eating some of the most delicious fruit grown with their precious life giving water.  Let me take you there.

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The more bumps on top the more the important the person is.

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When times get rough in the south.  The people migrate north.  While there are few black Africans in the north, there are an increasing number in Southern Algeria.  From Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mali these black Africans look quite out of place among the Berber, Arabs, and

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I didn’t end up with too many photos of people and families because many cities outlawed it.  It was illegal to take photos of the people.  Check out these rules on the side of a mosque.

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These walled cities are walking cities no cars.  A few found a work around with their motorbikes.

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A secret Jewish cemetary and even a Christian churches

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An abandoned mosque was fun to explore.  It’s sad to see the current state.  Even saw a scorpion under a brick.

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Getting ready to pray to close the end of the day during Ramadan.

Until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes you can’t judge them or so the saying goes… This past year I got to celebrate Ramadan with some friends while visiting the M’zab valley to a special set of beautiful walled cities in Algeria. It was a dream. Our host was a one we found through Airbnb only to find out he was a new father and family had come from out of town. We stayed in a dusty abandoned building by ourselves. My friend stayed on the roof and I took the bottom floor under the fan. Our host didn’t even have a way to collect on Airbnb, because he can’t hook up any system of payment so he couldn’t receive our payment if we paid. It was quite the odd arrangement, but ultimately he told us we could pay whatever we wanted. He really just wanted to meet foreigners. We surprised him by saying we really wanted to try to live like they did from prayers to eating. There were a few false starts and I struggled to go without food and water after walking nearly 15 miles in 100 degree heat. I cheated and snuck some water thinking the water part was optional. Apparently not. On day two we did a little less walking and decided to follow the path of the locals and take a nap in the heat of the day… that part worked out well and we were able to make it through the day without any cheating.

That night as it got dark we met up with our friends to break the fast. While I couldn’t speak any berber, french or arabic, I passed my phone back and forth using translator in arabic to share my experience with my new friends. One of them our host spoke pretty good english and his friend, who owned the home, not so much. By the end of the night we found common belief in a God who loved us, in Jesus and his kind words. We also both found safety and love in the community and family.

The Ibadi community simply wants to worship the way they have for a thousand years. They built their community out in the desert and if their stories of multi generational well digging is true, they are one of the heartiest communities ever. My grandparents as well established communities and had to escape persecution for freedom of worship. I could identify. In the end we shared some empathy for each other and again my perspectives grew. Travel helps defeat prejudice bigotry and hate and can open your eyes.

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This diverse group of muslims represented Ibadi as well as Arabs and young men from Togo & Benin.

Travel with me during Ramadan, and imagine fasting with no food or water from morning till night.  I was really surprised how seriously they took the no water and we were walking 10-15 miles that day.  The dates and milk tasted so good after a very long day of fasting in the Sahara.

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Ramadan meal with the community

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Algeria may not be on the top of your travel list, but never discount the loyalty and love and care of the Algerian.  If you wonder if you could ever find a more ancient version of Morocco you don’t need to go further than Algeria.  It was worth the trouble of the visa… amazing people, fascinating stories, loving people.  We got ours… just make sure you have the 4-6 weeks to wait.

 

Read more about M’zab valley on Wikipedia and on UNESCO “A traditional human habitat, created in the 10th century.  Built by the Ibadites around their five ksour(fortified cities), has been preserved intact in the M’Zab valley. Simple, functional and perfectly adapted to the environment, the architecture of M’Zab was designed for community living, while respecting the structure of the family. It is a source of inspiration for today’s urban planners.”

Tribal Adventures in Papua New Guinea


The tribal chief would explain to us that when he was a boy he was wandering through the forest and he and the other boys heard a sound.  Large bats up in the sky.  They were afraid.  This was first contact.  What an incredible story to hear how their entire tribe would be transformed with World War II.  War planes would later land and change their lands forever adding roads, infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and more.  Papua New Guinea has an ancient and very modern history.  They hold onto tradition and have a rich culture which provides an insight into the past I haven’t seen elsewhere to such depth.  I have lived with tribes in Mali, Swaziland, and Fiji and LOVE the opportunity to connect with these tribes on their terms.

Tribal feather headdresses of papua new guinea mt hagen sing sing

Yotube my footage: Massive Tribal Sing Sing in Papua New Guinea in Mt Hagen

All of the photos and videos you see linked here are mine captured during my trip. Enjoy, but if you want a copy of any of these let me know, I have higher res ones.  In addition, I created a number of fun short videos you can see in a single playlist  Joel Oleson Travel Youtube Channel Papua New Guinea Tribal Playlist and visit these videos be sure to like and subscribe!

Joel Oleson Youtube Channel - Papua New Guinea Playlist

It started with a friend of a friend on Facebook, named Felix.  I explained to him I wanted to have a true tribal experience and he replied quickly saying we could visit his tribe in the hills.

Felix - the SharePoint and Exchange guy on the island of Papua New Guinea

Felix from Port Moresby, PNG

He was an Exchange Administrator who had even done SharePoint in the capital.  He had a good job.  We had arranged to meet Felix at the airport and continue on.  He said he wasn’t able to get off work, but that his brother Saki would be there.  Saki has been out of work, and had ample time to take us around.  His english was very good and he was very well educated.  Come to find out, Felix and Saki’s dad is the tribal chief.  When we arrived at the village, the villagers surrounded our van and cheered.  It was an incredible feeling.

Sari tribe, Kali Clan, Puman Clan Papua New Guinea Highlands

Some of our new friends from the Sari Hill Tribe (Kali Clan and Puman Clan) … Saki is in the middle with the hat.  The boy with the gun is a gangster (just kidding, it’s a toy gun, but for real he was our body guard as was a half dozen other guys)

The tribes and clans in Papua New Guinea still operate on foundation of offerings of pigs and tribal war rules.  We stayed with a tribe that was very peaceful, loving, and trusting.  They worried about our health and safety at all times and made sure we had plenty of villagers to be with us.

 

We attended a funeral

PNG Traditional Tribal Funeral March

At a funeral the mother’s tribe traditionally puts mud on their bodies and adds ferns to the waist line.   Marriage is very frequently across tribal lines which create alliances and offerings that create stronger bonds in the community.  A bride price could easily be dozens and dozens of pigs.

View the video on Youtube: Traditional Funeral March in Papua New Guinea

Sharing an umberella with the colorful tribal friends

Colorful rainbow umbrellas are popular among the villagers.  The people sometimes look Mauri, native Australian, they love their beatlenut which is another form of currency.

Looking for something to eat

Shoes are optional.  Don’t get me wrong.  These are some of the happiest peaceful people on the planet.  They live off the land.  I wouldn’t call them poor, as they have some of the most beautiful land in the world, and they have fruit on the trees and yams and sweet potatoes in the ground.  With a few pigs for trade, they are doing great.  The family, tribe and clan bonds go very very deep.  The wealth of the tribe contributes to the wealth of the individual and visa versa  It is commune style living.

We saw a sing sing in action as tribes from across the island gathered in Mt Hagen in anticipation of the Prime Minister of PNG.

PNG Mudmen

Mudmen

SingSing in Full Swing Mt Hagen Cultural Dance Festival

You can identify a tribe based on their paint and look.  These tribesmen are from Mt Hagen.

Tribal Abs of Steel

Tribal thumbs up

Their beautiful features are some times from endangered birds so that creates controversy, but these guys don’t seem too concerned.  There is a hierarchy of needs.

what are you looking at willis?

Scary kids!

Some of the war paint is definitely designed to look scary.  Shaving the heads down the middle too.  Yikes.

Cultural Dancing in Mt Hagen with little kid

I love how the kids get into the tribal dancing too.  Traditions being passed on.

Enga dance troupe

Saki recognized some of his friends, he was showing us how it was done… drumming on the SharePoint mug

beautiful head dress

Youtube: A Walkthrough of the Beautiful Tribal Sing Sing of Papua New Guinea in the Highlands

Catholic Church Singing in the Small Village in Highlands Papua New Guinea has a Tribal Sound and Feel

loin cloth

I have to imagine the tribes are in different stages of living off the land or embracing western society, but it is great to see them coming together to sing and dance.

There is one serious thing the tribes and clans still need help fixing.  It is the tribal to modern warfare.  It was a great education to see how problems would have been settled in the past.  I’ve heard even in the capital some Enga people still don’t trust the judges to settle issues if they feel marginalized and wronged.

Enga is still known to have tribal fighting.  This is a clip from the museum in Wagga.

Modern Warfare Papua New Guinea

Rules of Warfare in Papua New Guinea

The tribe where we stayed has not been involved in a war since the mid 90s.  They have decided it is better to pay the bigs and kina than retaliate.  The tribal warfare goes back many many years, but it has become more dangerous due to the escalation in weapons.  All tribes have weapons including bows and arrows, how most of the wars start.  We did visit a tribe where their huts and buildings had been burned to the ground.  It was sad to see, but they were happily rebuilding.

Rebuilding the town with a smileEnga Tribal Dancer

Left: Rebuilting their houses and huts.  Right: Traditional look of the tribes we were visiting.

 

 

 

 

PNG traditional hut

We spent one night in this hut.  It was Felix’s Uncle’s house.  We all slept in one big room on the elevated floor on mats around a fire in the middle.

 

On our last night the kids caught a cecada massive flying bug, and asked us to eat it.  Saki explained that’s what they use to eat and they still did.  He popped one in his mouth.  They found another and another and before long I was crunching down on what I can only describe as a cream puff taste.  Michael thought it tasted like peanut better.

Eating bugs

Youtube video: The kids brought me a treat!  A large Cicada, of course I’d give it a try….

 

I’d love for you to see some video as well… go to my Joel Oleson Travel Youtube Channel Papua New Guinea Tribal Playlist and visit these videos be sure to like and subscribe!

 

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YT Video: Cool Dancing Music with PVC pipes with Funny Dancer

Traveling the Nubian Pyramids of Sudan


 

Nubian Pyramids

Who goes to Sudan?  I did and it was awesome!  My planning started by scouring the internet for stories of people who visited Sudan and searching for stories of visiting the Nubian Pyramids of Meroe.  Thought they were in Egypt???

Pyramids in Sudan? Indeed!  In fact there are more Pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt.  There are 255 pyramids in Nubia in three sites built over a few hundred years.

Yes, there are 120 large pyramids built over the period of 3000 years.

Nubian Pyramids of Sudan

Pyramids of Meroe

I had heard getting the visa for Sudan may take up to 6 weeks.  In fact 6 weeks is about what it took for my friend to get his passport back which pushed it almost too far.  He ended up having to call them twice for additional materials.  I had another trip where I needed my passport and had only 4 weeks.  My biggest breakthrough was connecting with Acropole Hotel.  Simply reaching out to these guys and we had a place to stay, we had a ride, and we were able to get customized trip with a driver and everything we needed.  In fact they were able to provide an invitation which then allowed for visa on arrival with a letter.  The turn around was less than a week, but they recommend a few more weeks, but can make it happen with simply a scan of the passport and $200 wire.  Normally I wouldn’t dive into details, but these guys were so great, and reasonable, and trustworthy, I do recommend them.  The owner is of greek parents but born in Sudan and has a great education and speaks great English and was very responsive and insightful.  On top of all this, I recommend getting the tourist permit and the photo permit (frequently on the same page, which the hotel can organize ahead of time), make sure you have lots of copies as every stop you’ll need to provide a copy.

ACROPOLE HOTEL

Your Home Away from Home

tel:  +249 1 83 772860

+249 1 83772518

Fax: +249 1 83770898

Email :  acropolekhartoum@gmail.com

Web : acropolekhartoum.com

P.s. No credit cards are accepted in Sudan

         only cash Usd,Euro,Sterling,Swiss Franc.

          Please bring 4 Passport photos.

 

When we landed we quickly found that the exchange for money happened on the ground as soon as you arrive.  There is no ATM, and the currency exchange is done primarily person to person as the official rate is 6 to 1, where the street rate is closer to 20 to 1.  Dollars and Euros are in high demand.

My trip to Sudan was super rich even though it was quick.

We visited three archeological sites each very distinct and unique.  The first was a real adventure offroading across the desert in a 4×4.  There was a new road under construction, which even made it more challenging.  We ended up picking up a nomad to help us track down the site.  Fantastic adventure.

First stop was a few temples that reminded me of Karnack and Luxor, but in miniature including the rams on either side of the approach and columns, but you’d find a mix of roman columns as well as egyptian looking temples and columns.

 

The time period of the pyramids is from about 700BC to 300AD.

 

 

Musawwarat es-Sufra

Musawwarat es Sufra is one of the most important archaeological heritage sites of Sudan. Situated in the semiard landscape of the Keraba, 25 km away from the Nile, it was the earliest site outside the Nile valley which the Kushites developed into a monumental arena of religious life in the Napatan period. Most standing monuments, including the unique sacral complex of the Great Enclosure and the famous Lion Temple, date from the Meroitic period (300 BC to 350 AD). Musawwarat is a UNESCO World Heritage.  Enjoy the discovery to find it.

Nubian Temples in Sudan

Nubian Columns in Sudan

Naqa

Nubian Heirogliphics

Horus and Isis

 

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The most extensive Nubian pyramid site is at Meroë, which is located between the fifth and sixth cataracts of the Nile, approximately 100 km (62 mi) north of Khartoum. During the Meroitic period, over forty queens and kings were buried there.

 

Pyramids of Meroe in Northern Sudan

 

Exploring these pyramids we were alone for the most part except for a couple of locals and guys with their camels trying to get us to take rides.  By the time we we were done with the first dozen or so we rode camels to the next set of pyramids and back to the 4×4… with bartering for the two of us the total cost was around 100 Sudanese pounds or about $5.

Camel Jockeys of Sudan

 

I got this info from the hotel, but it served very valuable:

· Passport Registration at the Ministry of Interior that all foreigners must do thru our hotel upon arrival is 42.5 Usd.  Please bring four passport photos.

· The cost of Tourist Visa is 120*** Usd paid to us plus 150 Usd (for US passport holders) paid at the airport upon arrival

Airport Authorities accept only U.S. dollars, all Bank notes of U.S. dollars should be edited after year 2006.

· Passport should be valid for at least SIX months and without Israeli Immigration stamps.

· For those who need a letter of invitation addressed to the Sudanese Embassy

· To issue exclusively a tourist visa**** (20 days before arrival Maximum) or a letter of invitation we need a clear scanned passport copy ASAP, guest must stay at our hotel for the whole period of his stay in Sudan and can travel outside Khartoum only to archeological sites.  We can organize excursions to all Archeological sites and also arrange for a Boat cruise in the Nile.

( From day trip to the Pyramids or more  up to 14 days in the desert with camping and food). We can arrange for free Photo and Travel permit to the North as without travel permit from authorities you will not be allowed to travel.*

· All foreign guests of the hotel must pay in foreign exchange currency as per regulations of Sudan’s Central Bank policy.

· Please note that NO credits cards are accepted in Sudan and there are no ATMs to withdraw money. Us dollar Bank notes should be edited after 2006.

 

 

My last night ended with attending a local wedding.   I wish I could attend a wedding in every culture across the globe.  Women on one side of the tent and men on the other with dancing in the middle.

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Best time to be at the pyramids for light is the sunrise, but I was able to get some interesting shots with the sun on it’s way down.

Sunset in Moroe

 

Beautiful People of Sudan

This young sudanese girl was selling traditional jewlery and rock carvings.  She was happy with the exchange and allowed me to take her photo.

 

Sudanese Food

Traditional Sudanese Lamb and Dipping sauce

 

Read more about Sudanese Archeological sites and pyramids at Wikipedia.

Persian Persepolis Road Trip Shiraz to Esfahan Iran


Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BC). It is situated 60 km northeast of the city of Shiraz in Fars Province, Iran. The earliest remains of Persepolis date back to 515 BC

I shouldn’t be one to give advice on where to go or where not to go, because I really see the world differently than the average person sitting at home wondering where to go on vacation.  People judge a place based on politics and past events.  I judge a place after visiting it and spending time with the people.  I find much of the warnings that people pass on are really unfounded for so many places in our amazing little world.  Really, Persia, Iran WOW!  Amazing.  Mind blowing stuff.  Thanks Obama for making this possible.  In 2008 I met a fellow technology enthusiast at a conference in Dubai who had an English Father and Persian Mother.  He grew up in Iran.  He invited me to visit.  The next time I’d come to the Persian Gulf about a year later I’d exhausted every method I could find on any website to get a valid visa to visit Iran.  I even found a professor at Berkeley who had a special program, but in the end I didn’t have the visa, but I was able to get an invitation.  Unfortunately no matter what I tried I could not get in.  After refused entry I boarded my plane back to Dubai and spent 4 hours at security in Dubai airport at the end of a 36 hour day trying to explain to security that I sincerely felt like my invitation and lack of visa was a good enough reason to be allowed to visit.  The Visa desk in Tehran explained there was no way he’d be allowed to let me enter without a visa.  No matter what my techy friend would say, there wasn’t a way to make it happen.

Couple more interesting things: “Normally they ask us to start the process two months before passenger trip and if they send the documents sooner they don’t start the visa process till two months before the trip.”

At the time, this was correct, it is subject to change…

Interests Section of Islamic Republic of Iran

2209 Wisconsin Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20007

Tel  :202-965-4990

Fax:202-965-1073

Email: info@daftar.org  www.daftar.org

Office hours: 8:00 am – 4:30 pm (except for official Holidays)

Customer Service Representatives can speak with you Monday through Friday from 8:00am to 8:00pm EST.

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Then after Obama made that agreement, doors opened.  I was able to not only line up a travel company, but was able to get a visa through the Pakistan Consulate.  In fact, I found a half dozen tour companies that were willing to take me around.  I ultimately went with one that wasn’t an American one, and was one that met the price point.  They were on the list of approved companies.  For American’s you can’t just show up, and you can’t just get a visa and visit.  You have to go on an organized tour, but this tour was not exactly your typical Japanese tourist bus or the leader with the umbrella.  We were able to say where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see and it was off the charts fantastic!!  As you can tell from the title, we flew into Shiraz and spend a few days there, then visited Persepolis, and then went on to Isfahan.

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Travel Itinerary:

Day 1

Shiraz: arrive at the airport transfer to the hotel and dinner.

Day 2

Full day city tour of Shiraz including Zandiyeh Complex(Bath,

Castle, Bazaar,Mosque/Ali Ebn Hamze Shrine, Hafez tomb,

Naranjestan garden, Eram garden

Day 3

Shiraz-Isfahan: drive to Isfahan via  Persepolis, Naqshe rostam

and Naqshe rajab and Pasargade

Day 4

Isfahan:  Full day city tour of Isfahan including Imam Complex (

Ali Qapu palace , Shah and Sheikh lotfollah, Khajoo and Sio She

pol bridges

Day 5

Isfahan: full day city tour of Isfahan to visit Vank cathedral,

Jame mosque and chehel sotoun palace, Fire temple

 

 

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The Most Beautiful and Peaceful Places in the World

 

After the visit.  I’ll never be the same.  It wasn’t any one place.  It was the people, the faith, the diversity… yes really.  Armenian Christian, Old Zoroastrians, Young Jews,

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Our wheels.  One day in Esfahan we decided to get closer to the people, so for a couple bucks we were on bikes.  This wasn’t the only amazing bridge in this old incredible city.  Found something you wouldn’t find in many other places.  Found a guy singing at the top of his lungs in under the bridge.  He wasn’t a crazy guy, he was a popular singer… Everyone loved it!

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Relaxing on a nice cool day.

 

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Modern Zoroastrian Temple we tracked down… Super cool place.  Yep it’s a fire temple still in use!!  We had a very interesting talk with the Zoroastrian Priest

 

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Atashgah – Ancient Zoroastrian Fire temple overlooking Esfahan. This religion is the oldest monotheistic religion in the world.

 

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Kabeh-e Zarthusht – Cube of Zoroaster, Naqsh-e Rustam, near Shiraz in Iran. This building is still a mystery. Is it connected to the Zoroastrianism religion?

 

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Naqsh-e Rostam

Tombs of the great Kings of Persia!  Fantastic!!  These are bucket list items.  Definitely a must see in Persepolis outside of Shiraz.  The great Persian Kings from thousands of years ago really left their mark.  This really is the equivalent to the pyramids left by the kings of Persia and you can just imagine how magnificent they were in their heyday.

Xerxes, Cyrus, Darius… Amazing still very popular.

Persepolis

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Grand entrance to the Palace of the Persian Empire

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Ancient Ruins of Persepolis

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It’s been 2500 years since the world was making their offerings to the Persian Kings of the vast empire.  With the pictures of the offering chiseled in stone it’s easier to imagine.  From a Christian perspective of history, it’s amazing how many of these kings stories in the bible contain these kings.

Don’t let anyone tell you that Iran is a desert that doesn’t have anything worth saving.  It’s definitely the opposite.  Amazing people, amazing culture, and under rated in so many areas.  Fantastic country that has a very rich culture.

I will admit I did see a couple of concerning things.  I saw a Down with America sign at the police station where a heavily armed guard was standing.  He didn’t seem interested in us, but at this same time we got the opposite experience from the people.  They didn’t seem to care really.  Showing up during the beginning of the negotiations, the people would ask us… “Why do you hate us?”  I don’t hate them.  I’m trying to understand them just as I would any state.  Politics these days are nasty.  If the people everywhere can understand on main street people are much more down to earth and open and interested in the people and culture.  Here in Southern California I find a lot of Persian people, with access to persian foods and a wide variety of attitudes that provide diversity.

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Americans? Why do you hate us?  We don’t hate you…

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Really there’s a lot we have in common include a can of Coke.

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In this world, we have a lot to contribute and thank the Persians in our modern society. Cyrus allowed the Hebrews to continue living and worshiping as they chose, we know this not only from the bible, but from the writings on the clay tablets.   Rather than destroy local economies for their own selfish gain, the Persians worked to increase trade.

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Traveling Haiti Emperors Palace and Citadel

Cap Hatien Hills

When I told my friend Michael I was going to be visiting the REAL Haiti and not some resort and looking for a real adventure, he called me crazy at first.  He says I don’t know anyone but you that would be looking to take their family to Haiti on spring break.  My kids had a break coming up and two new UN countries was sounding really good.  There were plenty of ways to spend a week in Dominican Republic and people seem to not have an issue with the idea of a vacation there, but when I mentioned Haiti, people get confused.  Even in DR people were confused.  Why would we want to visit Haiti?  That’s truly what makes it a treat.  It’s virgin travel territory.  There are so few tourists. There’s this assumption that there is danger and security issues.  Sure crime rates are high, but the murder rate is actually higher in DR.  That’s not to say I don’t love DR.  Great place.  Save that for another travel post.

My trip to Haiti started with a border crossing.  One of the most fascinating border crossings in the world.  While crossing I saw a nude guy bathing in the river, as well as a baptism off in the distance in the same river.  People were crossing back and forth across the river as if there was no border.  I’d later find out that this no mans land of the border has a lot of vendors that live on one side and work on the other without actually going across the final border crossing.  They vendor there wares which may simply be a sack of used clothes.

Haitian Baptism

The Haitians are clever people that see the world in a different way.

Catcus Fence

It was only recently that I started seeing the cactus fence.  Very clever.  The animals stay out because otherwise they get poked by the spikes.

My favorite part of Haiti was simply the unexpected.  There was so much to experience that I had not seen anywhere.  While I have participated in Carnival festivities in Trinidad and spent plenty of time across the caribbean islands, I found a culture, and a people that are so fascinating and resourceful.  With 40% unemployment, and a non functioning system to really take care of them, the people find ways of keeping busy and really begging really doesn’t make sense since everyone around them is in a similar situation.

There were a few things that really surprised me.

slave beans

These beans were awesome!  These beans have probably been boiling for days.

lunch in Haiti

Add some fresh rice and chicken and stewed veggies and you have an incredible street meal for less than 2 dollars.

 

ecology

Before I went to Haiti, I had imagined it as a place with no trees across the country with only mud and dirt.  There are plenty of trees, they are a valuable commodity.  I saw a group pushing a big tree across the border and over the course of my time I saw them push the tree more than 10 Kilometers.

 

zombies

Voodoo is a strong tradition in Haiti…  So are zombies.  I jumped out of the car to take this quick photo with these boys in a small little village.  I was happy to see that even in the most dire circumstances, the people knew how to have fun.

 

poor kids haiti

I’m not sure why this kid has ripped pants that seem to not have much left of them.  We simply stopped to see what was going on after seeing some of the zombie looking guys.

whip it haitiCar Jacking

Had I not had a driver who was use to being stopped on the road with a whip and a chain stretched across the road, I may have freaked out.  The masked men dressed head to toe might have looked like criminals, but apparently this is like trick or treating in the road.  Due to the holidays, they’d stop the cars and ask for money or food.  Some would dance and

 

Haiti Hulk

Hulk mask is a nice touch, so is the cool whistle.  His buddy with the goggles is definitely pulling off a great trick or treat vibe… right?

Haiti Festival

The back pack makes it easy to put the food or goods.  It’s like the sack during trick or treat.

 

Haiti Domed Church

This was the first building I saw as we pulled into the UNESCO Herigate site of Sans Souci

 

These Haitian monuments date from the beginning of the 19th century, when Haiti proclaimed its independence. The Palace of Sans Souci, the buildings at Ramiers and, in particular, the Citadel serve as universal symbols of liberty, being the first monuments to be constructed by black slaves who had gained their freedom.

Glory of Sans Souci UNESCO Haiti

This bust gives you a bit of the glory days for this once amazing palace built for the first emperor of Haiti.  King Henri I.  The history of the building, takes one back to the founding of Haiti and it’s amazing fight to independence.  This is where slavery began its end… as they held off and defeated the Spanish, French, and English.  The only island in the Caribbean to have done so.

Henri Christophe (Henry Christopher) (6 October 1767 – 8 October 1820) was a former slave and key leader in the Haitian Revolution, which succeeded in gaining independence from France in 1804. In 1805 he took part under Jean-Jacques Dessalines in the capturing of Santo Domingo (now Dominican Republic), against French forces who acquired the colony from Spain in the Treaty of Basel.

Sans Souci

Haiti Emperors palace

sans souci palace

motor bike ride

We rode motorbikes up to the Citadel.  It was one of the steepest and craziest roads to drive on.  Drivers really didn’t want to take us.  We got 3 quotes for $100 to drive us to the Citadel.  The motorbikes were $10 to drive the crazy road, but we negotiated them down to $6 which still seemed steep until we actually started the trek.

 

Citadel Haiti UNESCO

The Citadel – Citadelle Laferrière another UNESCO Heritage site… rising out of the clouds.  Largest fortress in the Caribbean.  What would end up being the seriously craziest ride negotiation ever, would end with this view.  I had left my family back at the emperors palace and needed to get back. We were then on to Cap Hatien for the night and a night we’ll never forget in joining in Hatian Carnival.  Simply getting to the Citdel is a real challenge.  Getting from the town where the palace is to the horses is $10 by motorbike, and then once you get to the donkeys/horses, it’s $15 by horse or a steep walk of 45min-1hr or so. Negotiation is possible, but very difficult to get more than 50% off.

 

Cap Hatien

Cap Hatian – view from our hotel balcony.

haiti tv watching

Wandering through the streets of Cap Haiten Haiti, I found this group of kids gathered around this open window watching what they said was a Jackie Chan movie on a 20 inch TV from the 80s.  There were nearly 20 kids.  It was a Bollywood movie and not even in French, but they were watching it intently.

hatian carnivale wolf man haiti

Haitian Carnivale!  The crowds came out by the thousands and filled the streets.  People dressed up in whatever fun outfits they had. In largest conga lines I’ve ever seen in my life, the crowds started to slowly move at a snails pace.  After a half hour of hearing the music we could see lights up a head.  Preceding the carnival float was a UN truck with armed men that would slowly push the crowd forward. That scene was a bit scary.  The army men didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves very much, but the people were relaxed and having the time of their lives.

cap hatien carnival

Seas of people.  The tall truck had popular musicians playing carnival songs.  As was related in Port of Prince as the tall lighted trucks passed under power lines, the people would use sticks to lift the power lines over the truck.

happy hatian kids

Something I really loved about my trip to Haiti was the kids.  So happy.

 

Is Haiti worth visiting?  Oh, Yes!  Is it setup as a tourist destination.  Far from it.  This is virgin travel territory.  The taxis barely know how to negotiate.  They aren’t use to negotiating very well.  There really are 2 price levels.  Those at the local level and those at what I refer to as the Mafia level.  There are a few that artificially inflate some of the services.  We negotiated a ride from the Dominican Republic border to take us to the Emperors Palace Sans Souci and the Citadel and to then take us to Cap Hatien hotel, and then back to the border.  The first offer was $200 which was too much.  When we agreed on a $65 price and started driving, the driver changed and by the time we got to the palace, he was telling us that was only for 1 day and not for both.  We ended up paying $65 per day reluctantly after some fierce war of words.  That was really our only challenge.  We never felt for our safety outside of the van driver situation confusion.  My friend Michael had a couple of years of high school French, which was very useful.  We did find some who spoke spanish in our wandering around the city.  There are still some very poor conditions, but the food was amazing.  The Creole food was great, amazing flavor.

Haiti hotel room

The hotel conditions were quite simple.  Our night with approximately $20 in gourdes.  Not something you could book ahead online.  There’s a big delta between what is available online verses on the ground.  This place was near the bus station.  Notice no glass window and no air conditioning.  The bathrooms were shared, and no sink in the bathroom.  It was definitely an adventure.

chicken foot rice and beans

Getting back across the border and having a chicken foot breakfast while in a mass of crowded vendors like a mosh pit was another first for me.  They setup a temporary city on the border and much to my surprise didn’t even get in the passport control lines.  I happened to have arrived on a morning they setup an impromptu market at the border for exchanging goods.

If you want to go to a place where you can make a difference, or where people don’t don’t frequently visit… Haiti is adventure travel.  It’s fascinating and could use your assistance to grow.  There are good people there looking to have a better life and you can make a difference.

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.

Chernobyl Tour: Nuclear Disaster Day Trip


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

Chernobyl Nuclear silo

Was it possible to visit such a place?

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

Chernobyl Ferris Wheel

The infamous and creepy carnival in Pripyat

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

“Best tour of my life!”

“Ammmmazing!”

“Best Journey of my life!”

“A metaphysical experience”

Chernobyl tour

Chernobyl Tours with UkrainianWeb.com

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

Chernobyl tour friends

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

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

Chernobyl Sarcaphagus

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

The Chernobyl Arch will end up costing about $1.5 billion

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

NY times: Chernobyl Capping a Catastrophe

IMPORTANT:

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

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

Dnipro Hotel, 1/2 Kreschatik Str

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

Make: Mercedes Sprinter (Color: white)

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

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

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

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

You will have to pay it in UA Hr though.

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

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

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

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

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

IMPORTANT:

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

IMPORTANT:

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

IMPORTANT (in summer):

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

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

Pripyat hotel broken glass

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

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

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

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

Please confirm receiving this email.

Thank you for your business.

Sincerely,
Customer Service

www.UkrainianWeb.com

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

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

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

Exclusion Zone 1st Check Point

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

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

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

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

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  • Arrival at the town of Chernobyl

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

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

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Reactor 4

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

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

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

Pripyat pool

scary kids bumper cars

bumber cars chernobyl

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

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

Chernobyl Zombies

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

Somebody important

Large strange poster inside the hotel.

Urban Stalactites

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

  • Stop nearby the “Red Forest”

Nuclear Stop Sign

Near the Red Forest we stopped by this sign.

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

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

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

My old Chernobyl Friends

True Survivors

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

Decontamination

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

  • Return to Kiev at around 6 p.m.

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

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

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

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

It was an interesting time to be in Kiev…

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.

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