African Road trip – Bissau Guinea Bissau to Dakar Senegal


I was looking for a quick African adventure, and I was not disappointed.  Bissau delivered on the feel of being on the edge of civilization.

Bissau Bus

When we landed we went straight to a hotel and we asked them what time the bus was going to leave.  Online I’d heard it was sometime around 7, but something to do know about African buses is they leave when they are full.  The hotel front desk encouraged us to be ready by 6am.  Sure enough without asking for a wake up call, we got a call at 5:30am telling us to get ready to go and a car was ready and would take us to the bus.  Before light the bus was nearly full of people.  We got on the list and there was only 1 or 2 spots left.  It took another 45 minutes to fill the last couple spots and to fill the top and side of the bus.  This bus for about $10 USD would take us all the way to the capital of The Gambia including two border crossings as it would pass into southern Senegal before arriving in Banjul.  Apparently there’s a bridge under construction so this route may end up being more efficient soon.

African Snacks

This young girl brought fresh cakes to sell.  Very easy to get great snacks along the route.

Day 1: Arrive in Bissau – Explore Bissau, Guinea Bissau

Day 2: Depart for Banjul by Large bus arrive 4pm – Explore Senegambia

Day 3: Explore The Gambia: Banjul & Senegambia – Depart by Ferry then catch a smaller bush taxi or van toward the border (about 1 hour ride), then short 2Km ride to the bus stop to catch a ride to Dakar.

One of the great things about road trips in Africa is the various different markets you’ll see where the tribes and local villagers come together.  Trade is one of the things that makes the world go round.

Sengalese Market

How many stores or commerce do you see in this photo?

African women

I see no less than 4 different stores.  The local industry is really thriving and people are very passionate about what they are selling.  No need to give money away, you can help out the local economy by buying fresh bread, fruit, nuts, and getting a ride across town.

On the bus we made a lot of friends with the friendly people.  The relatively short 6-7 hour bus ride cross from Portuguese speaking Guinea Bissau through French speaking Senegal to English speaking The Gambia.  Many of the people also speak a couple of different tribal languages.  Incredibly diverse.

When we arrived in the greater Banjul area we got some advice from our new friends to head toward Senegambia the beach area.  Huge variety of food including local varieties and also European and even Thai varieties.  I was trying to get some cultural experiences and local food.

Drumming in Senegambia, The Gambia

The wild monkey fit the bill.  We listened to local drumming and dancing while we had some vantastic local food.

African Dancing

Here the locals mix a spicy peanut sauce with a variety of meats

Domoda

Local dish usually served with Rice known as Domoda

“Caramelized onions, chicken and tomato stock, and hot chili peppers are also added. Maggi bouillon cubes are readily available in many parts of Africa and are commonly used in African cooking, including this dish.

In The Gambia there are some great opportunities to see African Animals.  I didn’t have a lot of time, but I was anxious to see the Chimpanzees of Chimp Island.  There are apparently 3 islands that have over 75 individuals.  It’s not easy to get to, so when I was offered a ride to a Chimp Reserve.  Unfortunately the driver was mistaken and he instead took me to a place with Baboons.  Not the same.  If I had more time I would have tracked down the Stone Circles of Wassu which is a lot like the Stone Henge of Africa.  There are a couple of UNESCO sites in The Gambia.

Baboon IslandNight in The GambiaWassu stone circles

Sites of The Gambia

image

Sunset in Senegambia

Senegambian beach

Beautiful beach of Senegambia.  These beaches are shared by the hotels and the fisherman.

China Aid Gambian Confernce Center

China Aid is building a massive convention center.  China has the most interesting agreements in injecting stimulus into so many countries in Africa.  It blew me away the projects I saw in Ethiopia.  Incredible.

image

Big variety of African birds

green vervet

green vervet monkey

image

We bought a thing of natural peanuts to give to the troop of monkeys in a small reserve area.  They are very use to humans.

There’s a monkey park with 3 different varieties of monkeys with a couple

red monkey

The Monkeys are so amazing

cute baby monkey

I love the baby monkeys!  So cute!

I do really love the monkeys.  Such beautiful animals.  So human like in their features.

beautiful monkeys

The Gambia mosque

Mosque

gateway to the gambia

Gateway to Banjul

Streets of Banjul, The Gambia

The old city has seen better days, but it’s quite interesting to wander

image

My ticket from Banjul to Bara on the ferry.  The cost was less than 1 US dollar.

Ferry women

Getting ready to unload the fascinating colors of The Gambian people with their loads get off the Ferry

 

colorful gambian boat

Fisherman off the coast of Barra.  These boats become an alternative method to getting around the port as well.

car wrapped in duck tape

Cars last a lot longer in Africa.  I’m sure this van had seen 1 million miles.  The duck tape keeps it together.  We stopped asking for AC and started trying to just make sure we got a window.  One of the tricks to local overland travel in Western Africa is learning that for comfort you can simply buy more seats.  Rather than simply trying to negotiate a private car which would have cost us 200-300 euro to get from Barra to Dakar, we instead took the local transport to the border for about $10 or less then negotiated buying seats next to us to give us more room.  When we couldn’t do that in the vehicle that was ready to leave, they offered to put us in the next vehicle, and it was there that we’d negotiated 4 seats for the 2 of us, and since they considered 6 seats as full we simply needed to pay for 2 more and we were on our way for about $40 USD, saving us hundreds of dollars from a private taxi.

Primitive house

donkey cart senegal

transportation in a lot of the smaller villages is still by donkey cart, but they go far for efficiency.  It’s not unusual to see large groups on a cart.

donkey carts

The race to Dakar…

Senegal mosque

Spires of the mosque at sunset

Baobab trees

The majestic beauty of the Baobabs.  The locals have superstitions that keep them from cutting them down… which is fantastic.  There are so many more for us to appreciate.

broken down car in senegal

Interestingly along the way we saw another vehicle that was having issues, and we took half their passengers on in our vehicle.  More the merrier.

Roadtripping West Africa: Lagos Nigeria to Accra Ghana


I had a blast on Two recent road trips in West Africa.  Immersive experiences in cities not use to tourists.  The world’s past and future are tied up in these budding African cities.  Nigeria and Ghana are going to be so important not just to Africa, but to the world.  They represent where the developing world has been and the potential for tomorrow.

 

Road Trip from Nigeria to Ghana with stops in Cotonou, Benin and Lome, Tome and final destination of Accra Ghana

Before I left home I had to make sure to get both the Nigerian and Ghana visa ahead of time, Benin (e-visa) and the Togo visa on arrival at the border.

 

ghana to nigeria

Day 1: Lagos, Nigeria

 

Lagos Cathedral

Downtown Lagos, Nigeria – The hustle and bustle of street markets are everywhere.  Lagos is filled with energetic youth… Africa’s promise.

bus ridersbus riders lagos nigeria

The beginning of the road trip… City bus ride

 

The key information in roadtripping in West Africa is understanding how people move.

1. The first thing to understand is the key is finding the bus depot/bus garage.  In any given African city there’s the main bus stop where everyone gathers who wants to go to the next major city.  Early in the morning starting not later than 6am the people will gather and start to fill up the big buses.  The big ones often only go between the capitals, but there are the smaller bush taxis that go between all the major cities.  Buses don’t necessarily leave on a schedule, but instead leave when the bus is full.  Each seat will be filled or paid for and the tops and any given space is filled and then they are on their way.

 

Transportation in Africa isn’t like your traditional Western countries

moto taxi

Moto taxis are guys who drive their motorbikes around.  In some countries the drivers where little vests

gotta love the tuk tuk

Tuk tuks are for local rides.

modern dirt roads

In Western Africa you’ll see everything.  Contrast of old dirt roads and brand new buildings and infrastructure

My friend had some business we needed to attend to in Lagos before we left, but getting around the city on a bus wasn’t too difficult.  We did have to get to the right bus stop to find the bus that would take us to Contonou.

inside the bush taxi

The bush taxis can be quite crowded.  They don’t leave until their full and they get stacked up.

 

 

Day 2: Cotonou, Benin

 

temple robes

A Celestial religious group complete with White Robes and Caps.  They even have their own radio show.

royal palace togo

Outside the royal Palace.

statue in tribal Togo

Large statue of the old Tribal King in Togo

African voodoo

VooDoo is the official religion.  Superstition is rampant, and faith runs very deep.

 

African Courts in Togo

The green grass isn’t always what it seems.  You’re looking at the royal courts at the Imperial Palace near Port Novo, Benin

 

Togo and Benin border

A friend recently asked me if I’ve ever been scared while traveling.  This was clearly one of the the scariest experience I’ve had while traveling.  It was on the border of Tome and Benin.  I was dealing with a strange situation of the immigration officer trying to figure out why I had a visa and exit stamp in two different places.  It was just then that I saw a big truck barrel toward the border crushing people as it went and then topple over into the embankment crushing a small stand as it went.  People screamed and rushed to the place where the truck lay.  Immediately after the commotion they locked the fence to the border and the people gathered together to roll the truck off of a child.  A motorbike with a casket arrived at the scene and the locals sobbed as they put the child in the casket and marched around.  I felt so very vulnerable.  No ambulance rushed to the scene.  No police came to the aid, and instead the border police brought out their clubs and worked to clear the road and scatter the people.  It was a very sad scene.  I did think to myself I could have been crushed if I had only finished with my visa 30 seconds to 1 minute earlier.

 

Day 3: Lome, Togo

 

image

Goat intestines, millet porridge and okra spicy dipping sauce… great local breakfast.

 

African tribal facade

Old traditional style on the façade of a building in Togo

Togoalese fishing

Major western African port with big and small boats

fishing nets of Togo

The men relax on the fishing nets and the children play

Voodoo Market signVoodoo market

While I was looking for the Voodoo market, I was not willing to pay 5000F just to get in and take a photo.  I found a nearby voodoo market that didn’t charge to take photos.  So I didn’t get the baboon heads and strange bones and all sorts of odd stuff they sell.  It seemed like it was either becoming tourist trap or was one.  I don’t know when the last time they sold a baboon skull.  I started feeling bad for being there anyway.  5000 is about 7 dollars.  Very pricey.

cat cage

Why were these cats in such a small cage at the market.  Sad.

 

Togo child femaletogo child male

The cutest kids waiting for their parents to work in the market

Togo Market

The hustle and bustle of the market in Togo

intestine stew

Intestines simmering in chili sauce

watermelon

How many watermelons can you balance on your head?

 

Togo monument

National Monument of the struggle in Togo

Day 4: Accra, Ghana

 

markets

Our bush taxi stops for a moment and the locals bring up selling, fruit,  nuts and snacks

Ghana fishing boats

On the shores in Accra Ghana… at a fishing village

Ghana foods

Fresh grilled

 

Ghana LDS Temple

Accra Ghana LDS Temple

Giant water urn

Water Urns outside an impromptu squatter tent village

littered beach

The scattered littered beaches of Accra Ghana.  I have high hopes this will change.  There are many who live on these beaches who struggle.

Accra Ghana National Monument

My friend Ifeatu and me at the national monument in Accra Ghana

Modern Apartment building in Accra Ghana

Modern Apartments in Ghana

traffic in Accra Ghana

Ghana is changing fast!  Accra is a leading city in Western Africa

Beautiful beaches in Accra Ghana

Beautiful beaches and pier in Accra outside the old fort with beautiful little fishing villages that could easily be seen as squatters, but these locals have been here for generations.

As I reflect on this road trip, I think about the crazy foods, old religions and voodoo that’s on the edge of tourist fascinations and the sights, smells, and sounds… I saw so much and experienced so much in just a few days.

 

I was happy to have shared much of my experiences with my good Nigerian Biafran friend Ifeatu Osegbo travel blogger on that other city.

Visit Beautiful Palau Micronesia Islands Nation of Nature


When I first thought about visiting Palau I for sure wanted to visit the Jelly Fish Lake, but then after researching it I found out it had been closed due to mass loss of jelly fish due to a number of factors and they’ve denied access to humans until they repopulate.  Palau is an archipelago of over 500 islands including the popular rock islands, part of the Micronesia in the vast Pacific Ocean. Koror Island is home to the former capital, also named Koror, and is the islands’ commercial center.  It’s really where most of the island population is.  It was an island territory of the United States until 1986.  It is now an independent UN nation of Micronesia, but is defended by the US.  

Palau Islands

Where is Palau?  It’s in between the Philippines and Guam.  You can fly direct from Guam.  The airport is quite small.  Palau has become very attractive for diving and as such has become fairly expensive.  We stayed at an airbnb and the frequency or infrequency of flights kept us on the island for a few days.  It was very relaxed and chill on the island… very low crime.  The largest city feels like a small village.

Map of Federated States of Micronesia

Nearest neighbors are Yap Island and Guam.  There are a ton of other reasons to go to Palau.  The diving is the best in the world.

The Republic of Palau is scenically magical. For such a tiny area of land, it packs a big punch. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by its extraordinary array of natural wonders it’s an island archipelago of about 500 largely pristine limestone and volcanic islands

kayaking in Palau

But there are a lot of other non diving reasons as well.

24174587_10156098504318783_270904215779435193_n

The “bai” traditional huts preserve the history. The monoliths connect to the old ways and old religion of the island. The symbols are fantastic. The people of Palau were Matriarchal and the women were the backbone of society. I see how this continues today based on our interactions at the market with a mother who gave her son permission tp take us around the island. very rich culture and customs that are overlooked as most spend their times in the best waters in the world.

Babeldaob

The larger Babeldaob has the present capital, Ngerulmud, plus mountains and sandy beaches on its east coast. In its north, ancient basalt monoliths known as Badrulchau lie in grassy fields surrounded by palm trees.

Reality Check:  The new capital building seems like it is away from everything, much like Palau in the world.  It’s distant, but also disconnected… but there is hope the little island nation will grow.  I personally worry it is already setup on an expensive path that keeps the tourists away.  If the island could find a way to get more attractive flights from China and reduce their permits for just about everything, tourism would definitely grow.  There is a lot to see and experience, but the lawman of this little nation state need to understand the laws of supply and demand.  Cheaper prices will attract more tourists and they don’t need to nickle and dime the tourists to use the water.  I would love to go back, but it was quite expensive to get there, and it was one of the most permit heavy islands I’ve ever visited.  It was extremely beautiful and I would have loved to have dove here.  I did some snorkling and enjoyed it, but the prices encourage you to bring your own equipment which is cost prohibitive.  I’m hoping they’ll learn.  Don’t let this totally detract.  We found a way to work around most of the expensive water use permit issues by spending most of our time on the island.  Vote in new politicians and say we want more visitors who will obviously spend more money on the island when they visit.  Protect the Jelly Fish and preserve the nature.  I hope to see them when they are recovered.

24131462_10156098504348783_8529664333860961640_n

24232237_10156098504738783_3856858704031149789_n

24231795_10156098504793783_7536221778721537441_n

The bai is the school, the community council meeting place, the town hall, the place where laws are made.
Funny enough the young men we were with shared that there’s a pee hole in the floor. So yeah. They rarely need to even leave.

Palau Monolithic Stones

24231883_10156098506123783_2011266486909099034_n

Stone Face Monoliths of Ngarchelong State.  On the grassy flats along the eastern coastline

of Ngarchelong sit 37 ancient monoliths.  Many of them have carved faces.  They say the purpose of the monuments and when they were constructed are still unknown.  The largest is over 5 tons.  Some experts believe the monoliths were built in 100 AD.  Some of these large Monoliths use to hold a bai. One of those old community houses. Some of them have faces like the Easter Island heads

Palau – Ngardmau Waterfall

It’s a nice hike to the waterfall on the western coast.  It is worthwhile, but quite slippery.

Palau - Ngardmau Waterfall

Don’t eat the Turtle it tastes too good so you might like it.

24176704_10156099120253783_3125204227011672996_n

We did find a local food place, which they said you couldn’t find.  They served Clam, Pork, or Turtle wrapped in banana leaf.  We ate a variety of meats with Taro and rice.

Amazing to visit such an interesting island.

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.

Silk Roads of Tajikistan Land of Mountains


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

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

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

Panchshanbe Bazaar and Fountain

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

Panchshanbe Bazaar

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

Khujand Tajikistan Market and Bazaar

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

Masjidi Jami mosque and medrese Tajik New Mosque

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

Tajikistan Lunch

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

Tajikistan breads

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

Khujand Market

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

Khujand Market

Minaret outside the old mosque

Soviet memorial in Khujand Tajikistan

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

Sughd Museum in the old citidel

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

Amazing Tajikistan door

Amazing door to the fortress and citadel.

Ismail Somoni monument

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

Tajikistan Lions

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

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

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

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

From Mary to the Ancient City of Merv Turkmenistan

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.

image

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.

 

1613898_10152487818723783_4531171870644960438_n

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.

WP_20140513_03_27_43_Pro

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.

WP_20140513_03_30_09_Pro

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

WP_20140513_05_39_22_Pro

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.

10258947_10152487821178783_6278711866411733933_n

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

10365755_10152487823533783_2369626311431317439_n

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

WP_20140513_10_17_50_Pro

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

WP_20140513_07_19_13_Pro

WP_20140513_07_27_19_Pro

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.”

WP_20140513_08_10_26_Pro

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.

WP_20140513_08_14_29_Pro

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.

WP_20140513_08_14_54_Pro

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

WP_20140513_08_17_22_Pro

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.

 

WP_20140513_08_36_01_Pro

WP_20140513_08_39_28_Pro

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

 

 

 

10265345_10152155770612914_813845775079772176_o

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.

10277407_10152155770682914_4332134633834876882_n

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


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.

1505558_10152478407248783_7359052948919835483_n

Old Arabic in grave markers

 

1001967_10152478414013783_1447322472791534598_n

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).

1907336_10152478414218783_4134476479354760918_n

10258515_10152478414098783_356079739402933330_n

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)

 

10308197_10152478415123783_5817749982514220999_n

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.

 

10300702_10152478420638783_7461413179488941329_n

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

1557737_10152500310313783_7365827764814491592_n

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.

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


wild camels

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Women of the desert of Turkmenistan

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

 

desert yurt

Desert Yurt in Turkmenistan

furry camel

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

 

dome

Old Dome in Merv

merv

Merv, Turkmenistan

bukhara, uzbekistan

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

blue mosque of mazar-e sharif afghanistan

Blue Mosque and Shrine in Mazar-e Sharif Afghanistan

uzbekistan yurt

Countryside in Uzbekistan

sheep herding

Wandering Sheep in Uzbekistan

 

shakrazabh

Old Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan

ark in shakrazabh

Ark of Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan

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.

10010828_10152391309728783_1947510340_o

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.

1795851_10152392633428783_411931677_o

 

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

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.

855202_10151529015783783_2069434166_o

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