Natural Wonders of the World – Underground River of Puerto Princesa


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

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

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Tourists getting ready to enter the cave

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Just inside the cave system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring Madagascar Land of Lemurs and Baobabs


I long for places in this world that have experiences that will blow my mind.  Madagascar achieved mind blown status and challenged me on some levels as a traveler.  I’m so glad I decided to do it right and spend the time it takes to travel a large country with much to offer.  Some how it feels like saving the best for last, or at a minimum saving an incredible adventure for when I have more time.  Madagascar was breathtaking beautiful and had unique experiences that couldn’t happen outside the island.  It’s not just the lemurs, but the diversity of the night primates as well was incredible.

Sunrise at Avenue of the Baobabs

Sunrise at Avenue of the Baobabs

I spent my time primarily in two regions plus a 12 hour road trip between the two.  I spent about a week in Madagascar and was really taken in by the place.  I really enjoyed the amazing experiences, but I also felt for the place.  I do feel it won’t last.  The forests need help.  There isn’t much tourism that is not the issue.  The issue is the human deforestation and I’m sure corruption in many parts of the government contribute to large amounts of poverty and lots of societal issues that are levels worse than many poorer countries in other parts of Africa.  The poverty in the capital was rough with the fairly large population that appear to be living on the streets and begging.  It’s sad, I don’t want to overlook this as I focus on how amazing the country is, but it’s another reminder of the amount of impact that travelers can have that I hope can influence this for good.

Antananarivo also known locally as Tana, the capitol of Madagascar

Just 1.5 to 2 hours outside of Tana is a Lemur park.  While it isn’t a forest that is naturally filled with lemurs, it likely once was.  It is now a preserve and a rescue area for Lemurs.  For those with not much time, this is a must see.  I was anxious to see the lemurs and figured I’d start with the rescued lemurs that were relatively nearby.

The word lemur derives from the word lemures (ghosts or spirits) from Roman mythology

Indri Lemur

Indri Lemur

Black and White Ruffed Lemur

Black and White Ruffed Lemur

Ring Tailed Lemurs

Ring Tailed Lemurs – King Julian’s friends from the Show Madagascar

coquerels sifaka lemur

Coquerel’s sifaka Lemur – These look like relatives of Jovian, the Zaboomafoo star.  They also like to dance.

The lemurs look so human like it’s eerie.  From the fingers to the little faces and ears. 

We were told not to get too close, but we were still able to get some amazing shots.  No fences in this place.  Apparently the lemurs don’t like water, so water is a natural boundary.

Getting around Madagascar can be relatively expensive.  The locals on average don’t use many of the vehicles so it is really just tourists and people with money in the cars and those locals don’t drive cross country very much it seems. It requires a lot of negotiating.  While you’d expect the drivers would have a lot of motivation, most don’t own their cars and are working where most of the money goes to someone else who seems to have artificially high prices.  That being said, with some negotiation we did get out to this park and added a couple of additional stops for about $70-80.  Note we were able to negotiate a ride across the island after our van/bus ride was cancelled.  We paid the equivalent of 240 Euros (shared) for a 12 hour one way ride and flew back on the approximately $300 flight.

Kirindy Forest

After a 12 hour ride from the capital we arrived in Morondava on the coast.  We found an airbnb and did daily trips to the Kirindy forest, the densest amount of primates on the planet.  When walking through the forest, we could hear the lemurs and quickly we’d find an individual and then we’d find their troop or family.  We’d then walk a little ways and find yet another.   I highly recommend Kirindy National Park for visiting the lemurs.  You are 100% guaranteed to see Lemurs.  They say they have 10 different type.  We saw 4 types in the morning and 4 in the evening.  We ended up doing both the night hike and the day and thoroughly enjoyed them both.  We had some troubles with our 4×4 related to the battery and the crew willingly helped us go all the way back out to the trail and push start our car.  There are unique species of Mouse lemur that are still being discovered in the forest, and we came across biologist scientist crews from Europe.  I believe a couple of types of lemurs have been discovered this past decade.  This forest is dense, but has some great trails.  The guides are very knowledgeable and can make different sounds to call to the lemurs.

White Sifika Lemur

White Sifika Lemur

Brown Lemur

Brown Lemur

Mouse Lemur

Mouse Lemur

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Nocturnal Rare Mouse Lemur – smallest primate in the world

Nocturanal jumping rat

Giant Jumping Rat – Looks and acts like a cross between a bunny, rat and wallaby or kangaroo.

We saw Fork Mark Lemurs, Brown Lemurs, and we even saw a rare Fossa run across the road on our way.  The Fossa is like a big gray cat with steely eyes.  Just like in Madagascar the movie, we saw some Lemurs way up in the Baobab tree which I’ve heard isn’t supposed to happen.

Lizard

The lizards, geckos, and chameleons were really common even by in the road apparently they like to sun on branches by the road.  There were enough chameleons to go around for each kid to find one and bring it along to try to get tourists to take pictures to give them money. 

Avenue of the Baobobs

Sunset at Avenue of the Baobabs

The Avenue of the Baobobs was a highlight.  I spent the afternoon with the villagers watching them carve little trees. 

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.”

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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Top 10 Activities in San Diego California


I recently moved to Oceanside California, a suburb of San Diego, and this holiday season we had an opportunity to look at San Diego like tourists.  Southern California is a tourists paradise.  In Orange County you have Disneyland and Knottsberry farm.  Go to the coast and you have world famous beaches Newport and Long beach.  In this post, I want to focus on San Diego.  San Diego is packed with some of the most popular activities.

Foreigners who think they want to visit Los Angeles when they come to the US would do well to come south a few hours to San Diego area.  After seeing a little bit of Hollywood or Disney, you’ll have a lot better time

1. San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park – The world famous San Diego Zoo

Most of my life this was THE zoo.  San Diego, California housing over 3,700 animals of more than 650 species and subspecies.  Some of the highlights from my most recent visit were the baby panda who has been really growing, the baby gorilla.  The lion was awesome.

Baby Panda eating bamboo

Baby Panda eating Bamboo

Baby Gorilla

Baby Gorilla right up against the glass…. so cute!

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The Male Lion vocalizing… Serious Yawn!  Amazing King of the Jungle.

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After spending time at the San Diego, it made me wonder what are the best zoos.  My favorite are the real animal parks in South Africa and Botswana, but when you can’t have that the Wild Animal Park in San Diego and the San Diego Zoo are really tops.

World’s Top 10 Zoos according to TripAdvisor

1. Henry Doorly Zoo (Omaha, Nebraska)

2. San Diego Zoo (San Diego)

3. Loro Parque (Puerto de la Cruz, Spain)

4. St. Louis Zoo (St. Louis)

5. Singapore Zoo (Singapore)

2. La Jolla – The Cove

My favorite place to relax in San Diego is in La Jolla.  The beaches, the calm seas, the birds, the seals… I’ve done some snorkeling at the underwater park.  What a wonderful place.

The Cove, Seals, Kayaks

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This water arch is accessible by Kayak rental

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Sunset at La Jolla Shores, bon fires along the beach

Flickr: 57108987@N00

Don’t miss the seals!

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3. Legoland California + water park in Carlsbad and Aquarium

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Kids love legoland.  Rides, and entire cities and cityscapes including life sized Star Wars figures

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Really… This Chewbacca is totally out of legos!

4. San Diego Harbor Cruise, Speed boat or Whale Watching

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The San Diego skyline with a cruise ship.  The harbor cruise, whale cruises, and even jet boats and duck boats are available for a ride out in the bay.

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Battleships and navy battalions, the USS Midway is on the dock available for a self guided tour

5. Balboa Park – Science Museum

Balboa Park is a San Diego must-see, just minutes from downtown, and ranked as one of the Best Parks in the World. The Park is home to 15 major museums, several performing arts venues, lovely gardens and many other cultural and recreational attractions, including the San Diego Zoo. With a variety of cultural institutions laid out among its 1,200 beautiful and lushly planted acres, Balboa Park is the nation’s largest urban cultural park.   Yes it is huge… and bigger than even central park in NYC.

The tower and the Museum of Man were designed by Bertram Goodhue, who was inspired by the churches of Mexico and Spain. Even though the tower and museum resemble a church, they’ve never been used as one. They’ve always housed exhibits, except when used as a Navy hospital during World War II.

Flickr: jimnix

Balboa park is definitely something to see.  A huge collection of museums right off from the zoo which house great collections of science, natural history, and culture.

As a public service, Balboa Park organizations offer free admission on a rotating basis on the first four Tuesdays of the month to San Diego City & County residents (with ID), active military & their dependents.

Please note: Some museums may offer complimentary admission to their permanent collections only and charge admission to special exhibitions or films.

Also note: Some museums may require ID for minors

First Tuesday

  • Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
  • Centro Cultural de la Raza
  • San Diego Model Railroad Museum
  • San Diego Natural History Museum (Not valid for 3-D films)

Second Tuesday

  • Museum of Photographic Arts
  • San Diego History Center
  • Veterans’ Museum and Memorial Center

Third Tuesday

  • San Diego Art Institute
  • Mingei International Museum
  • San Diego Museum of Art
  • San Diego Museum of Man
  • Japanese Friendship Garden

Fourth Tuesday

  • San Diego Air & Space Museum (Not valid for special exhibitions)
  • San Diego Automotive Museum (Last admission 3:45 PM)
  • San Diego Hall of Champions
  • Select House of Pacific Relations International Cottages

Museum Month: Half-Off Admission  2/1/15 – 2/28/15

The Timken Museum of Art is always free.

Due to large crowds and for visitor safety some museums may restrict entrance to strollers.

For more information visit http://www.balboapark.org/visit/tuesdays

6. Oh yeah, there’s Sea World… or Tons of Beaches to explore (be a whale?)

Sure go see Shamu or whoever, or why not go to some of the best beaches on the planet.  You could even catch a whale cruise. (The 3 day Go San Diego pass offers discounts to Sea World) See bottom.

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  • Coronado (more below)
  • Ocean Beach
  • La Jolla
  • Mission Beach
  • Torrey Pines
  • Oceanside
  • Del Mar
  • Solana Beach
  • Moonlight Beach
  • …. So many choices!

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Check out the list of Top 10 Beaches in San Diego

7. Old Town San Diego

Credits: SanDiego.org

San Diego Historical Society: Old Town State Historic Park

Old town San Diego is a favorite. Very easy walking to historic churches, homes, great authentic Mexican food, and markets, shops and fascinating history.  I recommend the Mormon Batallion.  I have an ancestor that made that longest march in US history from Missouri to San Diego for the Mexican American War.  The visitors center has an 3D style interactive movie that puts you back in those times.

8. Day Trip to TJ

As a global traveler I can’t resist going to Tijuana for a day trip.  My favorite excursion is the drive to Ensenada and the Blow hole south of the city by another 15 minutes to El Bufadorra, but most would want to spend the weekend in Ensanada and a little more planning.  The day trip to walk along Revolution street complete with street tacos and a visit to one of the many markets and lots of cheap souvenirs.  This last trip we caught a cab after walking across the border and took us to the cultural museum and walked back to the border.  We got some street tacos, churros, and I got a very cheap TJ Harley Davidson pullover Mexican style hoodie.  The border crossings can be a pain, but really you only have to wait coming back.  The way to Mexico is just a turn style.  Make sure you have your passports to get back!

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Cultural Museum of the Americas in Tijuana

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Fresh and Cheap Pomegrantes… just across the border!

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And who doesn’t love all of your favorite characters made up into Piñatas!  Yes that is Anna, Elsa and Olaf and a couple minions.. for the right price

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The Famous Jai Alai stadium at one end of the Avenue Revolution

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The Arch at the other end of the Avenue

I could do a whole post on TJ, and probably should.  There are so many people who visit Tijuana the wrong way, and as well there are so many people who are afraid of the border for the wrong reasons.

9. Hotel and Beach Coronado – Mystery surrounds the Hotel Coronado

Coronado’s famous beaches are known for their fine white sand that sparkles in the sun thanks to the mineral mica

  • Parents Magazine named Coronado Beach one of the Best Beach in the U.S. for Families
  • A stroll through the historic Hotel del Coronado, a truly enchanting experience.

Never change, San Diego.

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“Coronado is home to the famous Hotel del Coronado, built in 1888 and long considered one of the world’s top resorts. It is listed as a National Historic Landmark and appeared in films such as Some Like It Hot and The Stunt Man.”  Read more about the Historic Hotel Coronado and Beach… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coronado,_California

If you decide to go for a drive swing by the Mission in San Diego or follow the beaches north to Oceanside to the mission there.  Best time to stop by is during the Day of the Dead where over 5000 people come to celebrate the dead!

Oceanside Mission

I’m loving it here.  I have to wonder if it has the best weather in the world…?  Incredible number of days that are simply just right, but I don’t want to convince everyone to move here…. just that it’s a great destination, but apparently you probably already know that.

Even though I’m not getting a dime for this, let me see if I can save you some money.  There is a Go San Diego Card that allows you to get into multiple places at once for a fixed price.  I used the groupon San Diego deal to save even more.  We did the two day and just bought the adult one ($97 for All Inclusive 2 day pass) and used the Legoland kids get in free coupon with full fared paid adult… We had to find someone who was paying full price to let our kid in with them from a $ perspective… It worked.  Worked out wonderfully.  We saved $50-60 on each day.  Combining the activities into a string of events in a day is exhausting, but we had a great time!

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.

Discovering Kyrgyzstan Land of Mountains


Oh Kyrgyzstan, how I love thee.  What an incredible culture.  I really really enjoyed the people and mountains of this vast rugged territory.  The loyalty and incredible friendliness of the people still strikes me.  I really enjoyed visiting these amazing places that were important sites of the silk road and played an important part of the world’s history that has since been lost in much of the history books and easily overlooked.  These former soviet republics have a history of their own and are very worth visiting as they each have their own cultures and traditions.

Basura Kyrgzystan Undiscovered Territory

I didn’t really know what to expect when I discovered I’d have 4 days in Bishkek before we’d continue on to Almaty.  At first I was a little worried by what I’d seen on simple image searches of Bishkek.  As a city you can see it in a day or based on my drivers thoughts… an hour, but get outside the city and day trips and you’re in one of those lifetimes that you need to have to find the depth.  I need to share some stories to help you really understand why Kyrgyzstan really captured my heart and became one of my favorites.

I want to help you understand how I saw this place which really reveals my formula.  If you look at the pictures of what I saw vs. a quick image search of Bishkek or even a virtualtourist.com search of Bishkek and you see a big difference.  On this trip, I took a traveler’s perspective.  I did very little research before going.  I made a reservation because I had heard from a friend who was there a few months prior that I might have a challenge in the airport.  I personally have never allowed language to stop me from visiting a place, but I did once have to visit more than half a dozen taxis on an island in China to find one driver who could take me where I wanted to go.  In this case, I like to build a home base.  I like to make a connection with a local and a hotel to start my travel from.

On facebook I started with a search, “My friends who live in Kyrgyzstan” – 0 results.  “My friends of friends who have friends who live in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan” – a handful of results.  I reach out to Monica, and ask her if she could introduce me to her friend Azat.  After being introduced, I discovered that not only did Azat live in Bishkek, but he spoke pretty good English and had even visited the United States.  Monica had visited him while in Bishkek and with that introduction, I had a true friend.  In the world of Kyrgyzstan that friendship I would find would be so profound.  The people have a rich heritage and rich loyalty.

I was traveling to speak at a conference in Barcelona and planning a trip across Central Asia, but my friend Michael had already visited Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  He’s the one who had mentioned language may be a challenge.  With Barcelona as my starting point I found a flight on Pegasus airlines a very discounted airlines that has some really fascinating destinations.  For approximately $250 I could fly from Barcelona and connect in Istanbul to Bishkek on a flight that would take about 10 hours or so to arrive.  For the price, I was crazy not to take it.  In all my travels across Central Asia, this flight would save me about $1000 vs other routes.  I did some searching and made a reservation with Booking.com at RIch Hotel.

rich hotel

Four stars and an 8.4 user rating for $70.  I was pretty excited.  I was pretty happy with Rich Hotel.  The facility met my needs.  Good bed, clean sheets, ok (free) hot personally made breakfast (eggs and toast) and juice, but it was the driver that I really connected with.  He didn’t speak a lot of English, but over the course of the few days, we both got really comfortable with each other.

My driver would me on private tours of the city, take us to some fantastic places.  Here’s the quick list of where we went and amazing must see places.  I’ve been surprised how some of these fantastic places haven’t really been discovered.

Bishkek

Ala-Too Square

Ala too square

This square is the central square for the city and in the past has been a place of gathering for political protest it still is a great place to see the people gathering and children playing around the fountains.  Across central asia, fountains are found in the centers of cities and the people go there to relax and socialize with their friends.

central square bishkek

Ала-тоо аянты Площадь Ала-Тоо is the central square in Bishkek,Kyrgyzstan. The square was built in 1984 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kyrgyz SSR.  At one point it had a statue of Lenin that was later moved to a smaller square.  Erkindik(Freedom) was installed in its place it has a statue of Chinghiz Aitmatov.  You can read about it’s significance in the Tulip revolution for gathering and protest in 2005.

Ala Too Square

Interesting Soviet style buildings from 1984 surround the fountains.

Old Kyrgyz Man with Hat

It was at the square that I saw this wise man, I wanted to talk with him and ask him if I could take his picture.  He didn’t speak any english, but my driver from the hotel helped us find out that he was from deep on the other side of Kyrgyzstan and he was visiting.  He was anxious to talk with me and share.  As my first real interaction with a local that wasn’t associated with airport or hotel, I was very impressed with how nice he was and how he was happy to let me take his photo and share his wisdom.

Beautiful Kyrgyz Child

This little Kyrgyz girl was gathering dandelions and flowers.  I couldn’t resist taking a photo to capture the memory.  So innocent.

 

Kyrgyz Russian Orthodox ChurchKyrgyz Russian Orthodox Church

Old Russian Orthodox church in Bishkek was a quick pass by.  I asked the driver to stop so I could take a picture.  Going inside was even more fascinating.  During the Soviet times, religion was repressed, and few of these buildings remain.  The church on the right above  is bombed out, but the domes remain.

Kyrgyz MosqueKyrgyz Mosque

Kyrgyz World War 2

It so happened while I was in Kyrgyzstan there were celebrations to honor the world war II veterans and remember… Never forget.  With as much opposition as there has been it’s very interesting to think that the US and Russia were allies during both world wars.

 

Ala Archa

Less than an hour outside the city and for about $30, I full day trip to explore the mountains.  Think Switzerland, but even more remote and unseen and unknown by western ways.  Ala Archa is a national park that has a small fee, but has trails to falls and along glacial rivers with incredible views of the valleys.

Ala Archa National Park

Ala Acha

Swiss Chalet?  Looks like it, but here you can get fresh water or some soup or local horse or sheep milk yoghurt drink.

yurt kyrgyz

This is life in rural Kyrgyzstan.  Simple, traditional, and living life the way the ancestors did.  Huge respect for this type of natural living.  Is there more green ways than the idea that no one should own the land and that we are simply transient and all of us will move on in our journey in life?

Kyrgyz Shepherd and horse

It wasn’t unusual to find shepherds tending their flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle.  What was unique about this was my driver offering to talk to the shepherd to allow me to ride his horse.  Sure enough he obliged and I had a great ride around the little hills.

I referred to my facebook friend Azat.  He arranged to meet me after my excursion in the hills.  He was getting off work and invited me to have a traditional meal with his family.  I was very very excited to have such an authentic experience to really meet locals that I could talk to and better get to know what life was like in Kyrgyz.  He was a technology guy like myself, so we already had that in common.  He picked us up at our hotel and brought us to his apartment in the city of Bishkek.  Azat has two little boys and an amazing wife who spent probably all day working on our meal.  The food was amazing.  What’s better than traditional Kyrgyz Home cooking?  They made this traveler feel like I was a dignitary.  Very special treatment.  They were so nice and kind, and so willing to do whatever was needed.  I wasn’t hungry for days afterward.  I still get a big smile when I think about how incredible it was to make a local connection and meet a real family to experience the traditions and values.  Even though I was only in Kyrgyzstan for a few days, this connection will last a lifetime.  I hope I can return the hospitality some day Azat!

Azat and his beautiful Kyrgyz family

Azat and family were so cute.  I had an amazing time getting to know them and sharing some of my life experiences with them.  We shared stories and really connected.  His wife played on her traditional instrument the komuz the national instrument.

Komus playing

 

Top of the Yurt

At the top of the Yurt is the iconic symbol of Kyrgyzstan.  At Ala Acha there was a family that was setting up their yurt and was happy to let us see it come together.  There is much pride and honor in these portable homes.  The history and family traditions run very deep.

Kyrgyz Yurt

The locals are very humble and extremely nice.

 

yurt

This is what the finished product will look like.

Kyrgyz teens

As we were hiking, I saw this group of Kyrgyz teens.  They were making soup.  Cutting up carrots and potatoes.  Really.

Kyrgyz picnic at Al Acha

Kyrgyz picnic spread

Soup

Cooking the soup!

Yoghurt Drink

Traditional meal after our hike.  Carbonated yoghurt sheep milk and soup.

Kyrgyz Com

Kyrgyz Money – som, com, pronounced some or soums

primitive out house

All of this talk of nature and simplicity should also include some caveats.  While the cities have plumbing, the more remote villages have out houses.  This make shift outhouse has a hole and boards in a very traditional rest room out back behind the restaurant.

kyrgyz graves

In life and in death there are many of the same symbols.  Religious symbols and the national symbols that are incorporated from the Yurts are very common.  Lots of symbols in the impressively ornate graves that celebrate the next chapter of our journey.

Burana Tower

80 KM from Bishkek on great roads.  The tower, along with fascinating stone  grave markers, some earthworks, is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun, but now there’s a yurt with souvenirs, and a little museum of odd things from the area. (Not much in English. Mostly Russian.) This area was at one point a large city established by the Karakhanids at the end of the 9th century.

Burana Tower

The Tower is fantastic.  It’s been restored, but it really is very unique and if you’re claustrophobic you’ll find a real challenge.  It’s quite dark and daunting, but as you can see in my pictures, if these kids could make it up, I could.  There is an external staircase and then a steep, winding stairway inside the tower allowing you to climb to the top.

Muslim Girls Top of the Burana Tower

The grave markers and stone carvings contain a fascinating mix of Buddhist, Islamic, and early man.  It’s a fascinating area that gives you the impression that this place has been inhabited since the dawn of man and is a very important place.

Burana Grave Markers

All that’s left of the city is earthen mounds and rooms.  It’s still amazing to feel like an archeologist to walk around and put together stories of the castle and mausoleums that once were here.

Burana Ruins

These mounts were once a great city in the 9th century.  The ancient city of Balasagun also known as Gobalik (pretty city) by the Mongols who captured the city in 1218.

Balasagun was founded by Soghdians, a people of Iranian origin and the Soghdian language was still in use in this town till the 11th century.  It was the capital of the Kara-Khanid Khanate from the 10th Century until it was taken by the Kara-Khitan Khanate in the twelfth century.  The Khitans used this as their capital, but were a mix of buddhist nomads, and muslim people as well as traditional khitan.

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Old Arabic in grave markers

 

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The food in Kyrgystan is not to miss.  The freshest meats you’ll ever find.  Sheep, Chicken, Beef skewers called Shishka.  The dinning is nice.  Traditionally we’ll sit on the floor with cushions around a short table.  It’s very family and socially oriented.  It’s not about eating fast, it’s about enjoying the company you are with.  The drapery helps you get some level of privacy if you want it.  There are similarities in the food across central asia, but each country does their traditional rice dishes very different.  Each tribe of people has their own way, so you’ll often find different cities have their own flavor.  In Bishkek it’s traditional to have a little bit of horse meat with the Osh (regional rice dish).

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Fresh food!

Lake Issuk Kul

One of the largest lakes in Central Asia and really what the locals consider going to the beach.  There are even changing rooms and sand.  Highly recommended to see what a Kyrgyz retreat is like.  With the help of our driver we found a variety of small cheap hotels for around $20 even with wifi.  I did end up jumping in the lake and swimming around with some Russians on vacation.  They didn’t speak any english and my handful of words in Russian didn’t keep us from having a good time splashing around in the fresh, but freezing water as the sun set.

Issuk Kul Lake - Иссык-Куль

Beautiful and serene Lake Issyk Kul (Иссык-Куль) in the northern Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. It is the tenth largest lake in the world by volume and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. (Wikipedia)

 

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The lake is a very important region supporting life of all types and is recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Izzyk kul.  The snow leapord is in the mountains surrounding this lake.  Ladies sell dried fish and honey on the road near the banks of the lake.  Also near the lake is a prehistoric tribal outdoor museum that contains many mounds, mausoleums, rock carvings, and petroglyphs.

izzyk kul beach on the lake

Glacial Mountains in the background of the sandy beaches of lake Izzyk kul.

 

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

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I dove into Kyrgyzstan and made some great friends and a new favorite place in this world.  I highly encourage it you to visit Bishkek and surrounding.  Don’t stay in the city, go into the mountains, and valleys, visit the lake.  You must roam!  Don’t let Kyrgystan be one of those places you’ve never been.  It’s an incredible experience.

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.

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

Jamaican Beach Sandy

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

Jamaica Fall

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

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

Mystic Mountain Rain Forest Adventures

Mystic Mountain Rain Forest

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

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

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

 

Mystic Mountain Rain Forest

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

Food – Eat Jamaican!

Jamaica Cliffs

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

Get All Right Jamaica

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

Conch Salad

Conch salad

Curry Lobster

Curry Lobster!

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

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

Scotchies

Jamaican Cooking

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

 

Native Fish plate

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

 

Bonus: More Nightlife and Carnival

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

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

Jamaican Carnival1960958_10152392626948783_489767884_o

 

Jamaican Dancer

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

Mas Camp

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

Some Warning and Caution

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

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

Fresh Coconut

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

Don’t miss my post on my Reggae Jamaica