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.

Getting pounded1956856_10152391309973783_32965855_o

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

Mystic Mountain Rain Forest Adventures

Mystic Mountain Rain Forest

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

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

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

 

Mystic Mountain Rain Forest

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

Food – Eat Jamaican!

Jamaica Cliffs

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

Get All Right Jamaica

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

Conch Salad

Conch salad

Curry Lobster

Curry Lobster!

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

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

Scotchies

Jamaican Cooking

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

 

Native Fish plate

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

 

Bonus: More Nightlife and Carnival

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

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

Jamaican Carnival1960958_10152392626948783_489767884_o

 

Jamaican Dancer

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

Mas Camp

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

Some Warning and Caution

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

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

Fresh Coconut

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

Don’t miss my post on my Reggae Jamaica

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

Sidi Bou Said, Blue and White houses in Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

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

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

hijab with headphones

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

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

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

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

1. Tunis Bardo Museum

Bardo Museum

Old Door in the Bardo Museum

Tunisian Muslim Girls

Beautiful Ancient Doorway Nailwork

Stones found with religious art…

Adam and Eve Ancient stoneDaniel and the Lions Den Ancient

L: Adam and Eve  R: Daniel and the Lions

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

Sidi Bou Said

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

Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said

3. Carthage Cathedral

St Louis Cathedral in Carthage

St Louis Cathedral in Carthage

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

St Louis Statue in Carthage

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

Acropolium

Acropolium

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

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

Carthage Museum Statues

Carthage MuseumCarthage Museum

5. Medina in Tunis

La MedinaLa Medina Markets

Narrow walkways of the old Medina in Tunis

Doors of Tunis Doors of Tunis

Old doorways that tell the story of time…

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

6. National Cathedral in Tunis

National Cathedral

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

7. Tunis Fresh Food Market      

Fresh Market

Open Air Fresh Foods Market in downtown Tunis

Tunis Theatre

Tunis Theatre

Tunis Theatre – Very Ornate Theatre

Angel Falls Venezuela – World’s Tallest Waterfall

Angel Falls - World's Tallest Waterfall

One of the biggest adventures in my life included a recent trip to Angel Falls.  Angel Falls is very deep in Venezuela.  First there was getting to Venezuela.  The cheapest way we found was to go through Curacao.  With a friend we arranged an overnight van transport from Caracas to Ciudad Bolivar airport, and from there we flew on a small plane to Canaima, the absolute edge of any sort of civilization.  The area we flew into is a crossways of a number of Amerindian tribes where the river is the road.  From that point we met up with our native guides.  At the local market, call it arrivals and departures where I saw a native wearing a loin cloth.  We were really out there.  After jumping on an army transport vehicle we went up stream past a big waterfall to get in our hollowed out canoe.

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I had heard we were up for a four hour canoe ride, what I didn’t know was that it was going to be four hours of white water on a hollowed out canoe with a motor!  This wasn’t a motor boat.  This was a native boat turned into a motor boat.  We stuffed all of our stuff for 2 days plus our group of 10 and our two native guides.  The first wave, I thought we were going over.  I think the canoe was even more rocky than you’re average canoe.  We were literally in a log that as hollowed out.  It didn’t feel very steady.  Our guides knew it.  If we put our hands on the side of the canoe it was enough to throw off the equilibrium.  Ask anyone who rode in our canoe, during the first couple of hours they had to yell at us every few minutes to make sure we kept a low center of gravity.  Getting bashed by cold waves over and over did much to make us listen to every warning from our guides.

Land of the Lost

Land of the lost… A view of Angel Falls from the other side of the river where we were camping… we woke up to this.

There wasn’t anything on our cold soaked bodies that was dry.  I had prune hands and feet by the time we reached our destination 4 hours up the river.  I later learned the conditions were right for us to make such good time.  The river was high due to lots of rain.  What I missed out on mentioning was the fact that as we sped up the river getting drenched with whitewater, we saw some of the most incredible views of waterfalls coming down from high plateaus rising up from the plains.  The terrain changed from sparse forest to thick dense jungle.

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Our guides informed us that the peninsula we saw was over 700 Sq Km at the top and rises over 3000 meters from the ground to the top.  The terrain itself is a thing of stories.  From the stories of a land where dinosaurs still live to a place where an old man flies his house on balloons.  It was also part of the stories of El Dorado in search of the cities of gold.  This place is so inaccessible, it is the place of stories.

Angel Falls Venezuela

Angel Falls Venezuela Mirador Salto Angel

The reveal of the world’s tallest waterfall was scintillating.  When I realized what it was and had it confirmed by our guides, our boat was a flutter with video, cameras and phones clicking snapping as we all hoped the waves would stay at bay while we got shots of a lifetime.  Within minutes the boat stopped, and we started a hike across streams and small rivers up the mountain toward a vantage point to see the best of Angel Falls.  A five mile hike with wet feet and wet clothes.  My friend Michael did the hike barefoot as his flip flops broke early on.  I was wearing knock off crocks that I bought for about the equivalent of $5 back in the camp.  It worked out for me.  The hike was pretty wild.  I was looking for jaguars and monkeys, but ultimately I missed seeing any significant wild life.  On the way down, the trail got darker and darker.  Most of the group had head lamps.  Despite the new batteries I put in it, they were dead when I found it at the bottom of my bag and the light was switched to on.  I wouldn’t find out until our guide brought down the last group that he saw a 3 meter (10 feet) long boa constrictor!

That night we slept on a dozen hammocks slung up next to each other displayed in what looked like a wedding chapel.  Swinging just a little, you’d bump into you’re neighbor and we were a cozy bunch… That is until the next morning when I found out that I slept like a log when I laid down.  Apparently I was snoring (I hadn’t really slept in two days) and made it a bit of a challenge for a few of my new friends… which made it a bit uncomfortable over the next couple of days.  I guess the snoring was a bit of a joke in camp.  It kind of felt like a summer camp after 3 days with these folks.

I’d like to share more of our experience on this trip, but I don’t want to detract from the falls… What an amazing falls.  After we got back down closer to canaima we had the opportunity to do some smaller hikes including one behind a HUGE waterfall. That as well was truly incredible.  Another night on hammocks with the option of a room or bed… I think I got bit by something even though I was sleeping in a mosquito net.  Strange.

The final day we had the option of taking a little flight up around the falls.  Doing the fuzzy math with the cheaper exchange rate, it came to around $50 to go fly in a 6 seat plane around Angel Falls.  I convinced my friends we should do it.  Another amazing add-on and this was the best $50 spent in a really long time.  It was incredible.

After we got up we had some amazing views of the falls.  With four passes, twice each window and a rainbow, and a different view each time… we got some amazing shots!

1231230_10151940569408783_461482637_o flying over Auyantepui

Flying over Auyantepui and the great Cataract – Angel Falls, named for a pilot from Missouri who crash landed his plane on top of Auyantepui

Overall I really loved the little plane flight.  It gave me a real appreciation for how high up we were and provided the chance to really gain another vantage point otherwise impossible.  It made me think about the history and discovery of this area of the world from the European perspective.  There is some fascinating stories about the history and discovery with Jimmy Angel and his search for Gold and Diamonds… Can you believe that they didn’t believe him when he told the stories of a fall that fell 1KM

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More stories to tell… but I really want to get these amazing pictures shared… We walked behind this falls!

More later…

5 Incredible Alaska Adventures


Alaska is amazing.  Everything you’re heard and then some.  My visit to Alaska was my last state in the US (50/50).  For that reason alone I was excited to visit.  I was debating doing a cruise from Seattle or from Vancouver, Canada but ultimately decided on a flight to Anchorage.  It took me by surprise when I was trying to figure out what I should do with my Alaska Miles. I had 45,000 miles and after my move to Salt Lake City, I found my miles were going to expire.  What I discovered in my searches, I could fly from SLC to anywhere in Alaska even as far as Borrow, AK for 25,000 round trip.  That’s not the same case with Hawaii.  It was 40,000 round trip, but flying from Salt Lake City to Boise Idaho was the same number of miles.  At first I was thinking I should go with a friend to Alaska, but my wife expressed interest, and getting a multi day baby sitter to watch my 3 boys has never been easy, and they are all great travelers.  Then I was talking to my parents, and they expressed interest.  At first I thought I could go with my dad, but then my mom wanted to go as well.  Why not make this a super family trip?  With the partnership with Alaska I found a direct Delta flight from SLC to ANC (Anchorage.) I had to check to see how much the Delta points were for this same flight.  25,000 miles!  With this discovery I decided to book 5 award tickets on Delta in addition to the 2 on Alaska.  I even ended up buying 5,000 miles to make up the difference.

Lessons Learned:

  • Alaska/Delta miles let you book a flight to Alaska for the same price as a domestic (48 states) ticket – (Best Deal was 25,000 Award Miles)
  • Same number of miles for adjoining cities as it is for Miami to Alaska

One other thing that came in looking at the best way to book Alaska was in discovering that an Alaska Cruise would ultimately mean getting on a smaller boat to see the glaciers and getting closer to the wild life ultimately.  I did find that both food and hotels are pricey in Alaska.  So that was definitely points toward cruise, but I used some tricks to find a hotel in Anchorage for less than $100 using Priceline.com.  Food was a different challenge.  Most meals were about $5 more than in the states.  The 2 for 20 deal at Chilis was 2 for $25.  A large bowl of Pho soup was $12 in contrast to 6 or $7 in UT or WA.  The IHOP average meal was around $12 vs. 7 as well.  At fast food places, the $1 menu was $2.  Anchorage did have a lot of choices for food, and out in the smaller cities the deli’s and sandwich shoppes could get you a meal.

Rustic Cabin with fire

Some of my best advice for the adventure traveler is to think outside the box.  There are hostels that have much better rates, but also consider camping and cabins, some of the best deals and most flexible options are in this area.

5 MUST DO ACTIVITIES IN ALASKA

1. Glaciers and Fjords – The Glaciers and Fjords in Alaska are simply amazing.  The size and scale of these things dwarf most things on earth.  They sure seem like they are alive.  Calving, Moving, Groaning, Shrinking, Growing, Cracking, Carving…  There are multiple ways of reaching these amazing beauties.

Fjords with Calving Glacier

The best way is to get right up to the Fjords of Kenai by cruise.  Right out of Seward there are multiple cruise companies with multiple cruise options.  I took the 10am Kenai Fjords Cruise with Salmon Bake Dinner on the island.  I have no regrets.  It was a great cruise, we saw a couple of Fjords up close, but also amazing wild life.  I’ll talk about that later.

Kenai Fjords Cruise

As well, you can hike up to the Glaciers.  Exit Glacier has a great hike that starts with a flat handicap accessible viewpoint within a mile, or add another mile and hike up the mountain to view them up closer, and add another mile to touch the glacier, or add another few miles and you can hike up the largest snow field in the US.

exit glacier sea ice kayaking

or even Sea Kayak to the Fjords, not too close because these things are very active and can create amazing tides.  I’m sure you could even dog sled in the winter.  There are options to take a sled with wheels to help the dogs practice for the Iditarod.

2. Whale Watching – Some of the best viewing of whales in the world is right here in Alaska.  On this short 8 hour Fjords and Nature cruise of the Kenai peninsula, Kenai National Park from the water, we saw a half dozen hump backs, a couple of pods of Orcas with many individuals covering a large distance, half dozen porpoises, hundreds of seals and sea lion and dozens of sea otters. Such a great feeling when you see these gigantic creatures of the sea.  It’s not the same as watching National Geographic, because you’re seeing it and experiencing it first hand.  I can imagine whale watching in a kayak or small boat would also be quite “wild.”

orca pod wild

Orcas, Hump Backs, and Belugas are all within reach, I saw a couple of pods of Belugas driving along the Arm headed to Seward.  I’m sure the population increases and changes based on the seasons, but the Orcas and Hump Backs and the Belugas all call it home.  I’m sure they have additional whale friends who come and visit.  I’m also sure it’s a different experience every time, but reading the reviews from the Kenai Fjords Cruise, I think you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t think it was incredible.

hump back whale tail

As a photographer, catching the tale of the whale, or the even more rare breach of a hump back whale is beyond exhilarating.  These are wildlife memories that will ruin any future visits to sea world, or at least remind me when I saw it IN THE WILD.

seal rock

While seeing large groups of seals and sea lions and the like, I am reminded of a number of encounters the docks in San Francisco or Seal Beach California, the docks in Ensenada or the elephant seals on the beach in Antarctica, but seeing them in their native habitat on rocks away from people is pretty darn cool.  I can’t tire of seeing these amazing animals.

3. Encounter the Animals of the Forrest – With more than 3 types of Bears, and some of the densest and largest populations of large land mammals, Alaska is the best place to find bears, moose, elk, caribou and more in their natural habitat.  You can go flight seeing and bear viewing they’ll take you right to where they are dinning on salmon.  We saw a little brown bear chewing on a carcass on the side of the road.

little black bear eating

While I can’t guarantee you will see a moose or bear while simply driving.  There are plenty of signs to watch for moose.  That’s a big concern.  They are big animals and cause serious damage to your vehicle if you hit one.

big rack carribou

If you are looking for guaranteed great sightings, I won’t send you to the Anchorage zoo which does have them, I would suggest going to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which has decent rates (carpool for even better rates).  You can definitely get up and close.  With a simple fence separating you.  While you don’t feed them, you can visit the Musk Ox or Reindeer center in Palmer (close to Anchorage) for even closer encounters.  The good news is the money goes to rehabilitating animals and reintroducing and strengthening the population of endangered animals.

big black bear in meadow

We saw…

  • Baby Musk Ox
  • Huge Herd of Wood Bison
  • Elk Herd
  • Black Bears
  • Moose
  • Caribou/Reindeer
  • Porcupine

baby musk ox cute

4. It’s a Birders Paradise – Eagles, Swans, Cormerans, Puffins, and way more.  If you love birds, you’re in paradise.  Even if you aren’t you’re going to see some amazing examples of some of the most beautiful birds.  Below this is one example.  We’re watching this elk herd and noticed a bald eagle in the tree nearby.  Incredible.

Eagle watching over the elk herd

This pair of swans was swimming with their three ugly duckling swan babies in a pond just outside of Seward.

Swan Family

Seems like every where you turn, there’s some amazing majestic bird watching.

bald eagle alaska

On our cruise we saw the funniest little puffins.  The rare crested puffins, and the more common puffin were so funny to watch trying to take flight.  Seeing them on their terms in these huge rock fortresses which seem designed for birds.

puffin bird rocks

5. It’s a Fisherman’s Paradise – Every where we went people asked if we were doing a charter.  No, we were there to observe, and observe we did.  We started stopping at the streams to see the salmon.  Amazing salmon jumping up their fish ladders and making their way to spawn.  Huge fish, many with their humps out of the water, finding their way upstream.  The rivers were teaming with life.

teaming with life spawning

Red Salmon

In addition as a sportsman’s paradise it wasn’t hard to find huge halibut and a variety of fish on the walls, and in boxes being shipped home.  Lots of great finishing and amazing catches.

After such an amazing trip, I can’t answer why it took Alaska so long to get on my list.  Amazing place… Highly Recommended.  Yes, it does rain and it get’s cold in the winter and dark 22 hours of darkness, but in the summer you get 16 hours of light, and 2 months without much rain in June and July.  Rain starts back up in August.  While I didn’t see the Aurora Borealis, I can see reasons why the time of year has it’s benefits.  It’s a different place with different experiences.  Do you’re research and consider Alaska a great destination to make the most of your miles.

 calving glacier with baby seals

Hitchhikers guide to the Baltics: Part 1 – Tallinn, Estonia

Russian Orthodox Alex Nevsky

I have really enjoyed exploring Eastern Europe.  After you visit western Europe a bunch of times, you’ll really appreciate Eastern Europe.  First it just seems so much more raw, so much more fresh.  It hasn’t had as much time in the media and still feels a bit undiscovered and off the radar of most tourists, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so amazing.  It’s that sense of adventure.  I was once visiting Helsinki, Finland just across the sea from Tallinn, Estonia and in fact saw that there was fast ferry that would take you across the sea to visit Tallinn in 3.5 hours.  I went to a nearby island and saved the Baltics for a trip where I’d get more than just a few hours.  Road trip across the Baltics and then meet up with friends at the border of Belarus sounded like a blast.

The Baltic states are three countries east of the Baltic Sea – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  The full drive was around 8 hours on the road.  It’s a great road, and traffic wasn’t bad.  We didn’t need a GPS.

From Tallinn to Vilnius

I’ll cover a little bit on each one, but the point of these is to share my photos.  I flew into Tallinn, and my friend Paul and I rented a car one way and drove from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania.  We had most of a day and a night in each capital.

Old Town within the gates of the city was our target.

 

town square in old town estonia

Above: Beautiful Town hall square in Old Tallin

cobble stone street in old town

Quaint old cobblestone streets

Alex Nevsky Russian Orthodox in Estonia

Above: Alex Nevsky – Russian Orthodox Church

 

Russian Hats in Estonian Hat store

Above: Fun with Hats: Left- Paul, next shop owner, and Me on the Right.

 

Must see top 5:

1. St Catherines Passage in Old Town

2. Old Town & Town Hall

3. Alex Nevsky Church

4. Walls & City Gates (especially Fat Margaret)

5. Toompea – Garden on Toompea Hill

Also sneak out to the waterfront, some beautiful views of the Baltic Sea.

 

Looking for more? My friend Michael shared his experience on Sharing the Globe – Journey through the Baltics – Estonia

Taj Mahal of Agra India – New 7 Wonders of the World

Taj Mahal Mausoleum in India

My trek through India was truly EPIC.  One of the most interesting and amazing trips.  The assault on the senses was so intense fascinating world of spice.  Some of the oldest cities on the earth are in India.  India is the second most populated country in the world, but driving across the country you wouldn’t know it. The Indus of 3000 BC had a written language, a complex society.  In a country with 1.2 Billion people with one of the richest cultural destinations in the world, I highly recommend India for the adventure seeker, the world traveler, and for those looking to find themselves.  The eat pray love movie suggested that Bali and India are great destinations for getting at your soul.  Trying to find your inner being.  I agree.  India is fantastic, and the wonder the Taj Mahal is the most impressive display of love in the world.  You haven’t seen India, until you’ve seen it the way I have.

Incredible India

This post is in an Adventure Travel Series on the “New 7 Wonders of the World”

Bikaner Holy Rats

I wrote about my experiences with the holy rats of Bikiner.  That one incident was culture shock like no other.  I definitely dove head first and loved it.  I throw out everything I have ever known about rats, and listen to the kids and humble followers that told me to remove my shoes and walk among the rats barefoot.  They say no one has ever even gotten sick from these special rats.  Hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of rats in the temple.  That was my real introduction to India and while an extreme it prepared me for what I would experience through the nearly 5000KM trip across India and ultimately to Kathmandu, Nepal and up into the Himalayas and up around Mt Everest.

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The Gates of Jodhpur, the Pink City

Three dips in the Ganges the dirtiest but holiest river in the world as well, was a fascinating experience that made me really consider the healing effects of water and help me appreciate and respect the faith of all people.

Amazing old city of Varansi

The Gattes… steps to the Holy Ganges river

The Gattes of the Ganges

As these men hosed down the steps into the water, not far pilgrims were drinking the holy water

Floating in the Ganges

Dipping in the Silty powerful Holy Ganges River

We drove nearly straight for 3 days across the Rajasthan province of north western India through the the most amazing cities of Jaipur (The Pink City) and Jodhpur (The Blue City) [map].

mehrangarh fort in jodhpur

Mehrangarh Fort high on the high on the hill in Jodhpur

Jodhpur Blue City

Above Jodhpur the Blue City!

Jaipur Floating Palace

Floating Palace near Jaipur

It was after seeing these awesome examples of great kingdom with palaces and forts, that I arrived in Agra the home of the Taj Mahal.  I had already been in India for about a week by the time I arrived.  We parked outside of the site, and walked.  It was a pretty good hike.  In our visits across Agra and even in the south in Pune and Chennai we hadn’t seen many tourists, but here we weren’t alone.  Here we across our trip we saw more tourists than we had seen in total.  I try to avoid tourist spots, but I also have to see the wonders of the world.  They draw me in.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal Mosleum – Designed for the Favorite Wife of the Emperor Shah Jahan built in 1632–1648 as a tomb

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India has such a rich culture.  Amazing people filled with joy, sadness, and a rich history.

From Taj Mahal, side buildings at Sundown

Watching sundown from the Taj Mahal

World UNESCO Heritage, Wonder of the World, as a true legend of eternal love of an Emperor for his favorite Queen!  It is an amazing story.

Though he spent much of his time subduing Hindu kingdoms to the south, Shah Jahan left behind the colossal monuments of the Mughal empire, including the Taj Mahal (his favorite wife’s tomb), the Pearl Mosque, the Royal Mosque, and the Red Fort. The Taj is an immense mausoleum of white marble, built in Agra between 1631 and 1648 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife.  It is the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage.

Great Wall of China – New 7 Wonders of the World (1 of 7)

Greatest Wall in the World

If you ever feel like getting to China is just too impossible.  Have Faith.  It’s definitely possible.  I had seen most of Asia before I made it to China.  For some reason I just kept finding other things, and I felt like if I was going to visit China, I wanted to see it all, I wanted to have enough time.  I changed my attitude.  The forbidden city wasn’t going to remain forbidden any more.  I visited the Chinese embassy on a visit to San Francisco and within a couple of hours I had my visa.  I was on my way to the Forbidden city with explicit plans to see the Great Wall of China one of the most exclusive travel lists in the world… the New 7 Wonders of the World!

Forbidden City China at Night

The Forbidden City, in Beijing at night near Tiananmen Square

I decided, I wasn’t going to have time to spend a month or more in China anyway so I should break up my trip to China and plan it like I would Australia and simply break it into regions.  Same as seeing Canada, you just can’t see it all at once.  I’m sure many people say the same thing about the USA, or they should.  Those who go to NYC and Las Vegas and think they’ve seen the US are kidding themselves.  Those who rent an RV and Drive along route 66 are still only seeing one piece, but I understand the draw.

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

 

Forbidden City at Dusk

Gate to the Forbidden City

China is an amazing country.  Looking for a culture shock!?? China is awesome at that.  I’ll save another post for digging into my travels into China, and share my Wonder Experiences in a series.

172680_10150163215808783_4779820_o climbing to the great wall

We woke up early to head out to the Great Wall of China.  It was surreal.  Dux one of my techie friend’s from the Philippines who speaks great Chinese was our real connection to the locals.  He helped us arrange a van to take us out to the Great Wall.  We drove for a good hour from our hotel.  The homes were getting more and more spread out.  As we drove along it felt like we were entering the country side.  I can’t remember if it was 2 hours, but it seemed like when we thought we were there, it was another 20 minutes.  Then once we got into the parking lot, we realized it was going to be another 20-30 minutes of hiking up steps.  The wall wasn’t designed for accessibility.

More steps to the great wall of China

Seeing the wall was promising, but we could really see it from the car.  We could see it weaving across the mountains for as far as we could see.

Towers of the Great Wall of China

At first it just seems a lot like a wall made of bricks, but then as you take it in… in its magnitude, and splendor to realize its age, its role in history and in its preservation of culture and history… and then really start to understand the sacrifice of this man made feat.  It brings humility and awe.  Lots of sacrifice.

While we all decided we didn’t want to go down the way we came up, Michael and I decided we wanted to go for a walk, and the other guys decided to take the roller coaster.  There were some interesting options once on top.  You could walk 2 miles to a gondola one way, or another way was the gravity based roller coaster with a metal track, it was next to an impromptu zoo.  We all decided we’d meet back at the bottom of the hill near where they were.

(A few of these photos are from Michael at Sharing The Globe a Traveling companion and Great photographer.)

Snaking across the hills - great wall of China

Walking from tower to tower it seems close, but it really isn’t.  It might be 1KM or more between towers.  The area where we were while there were a number of tourists, we found space to be alone and found it not too challenging to take people-less photos.  Yes, that’s me trying to run between the towers.  It isn’t the easiest running, but I imagined those working the walls trying to share a message.

Running on the great wall

I picked up the Chinese Police hat.  While it didn’t go with my jacket, I did like the fun reactions from the locals.

Deep Thoughts on the wall of China

After walking along the wall for a few miles at a pretty fast pace (Can you believe there is a Great Wall Marathon?), I took a couple of early moments to reflect on this incredible structure.  While I know it wasn’t all maintained as well as where we saw it, it was amazing about it.  It started as far back as the 7th century BC against intrusions and nomadic groups and incursions and in protecting the spice route.  Amazing how these towers were used in defense and in notifying the troops of what was coming.

How long is it actually?  Depends on if you count the structures that also help support the defense of the wall.  I’m going to say more than 5000 miles!  Wikipedia proposes a couple of different estimates:

The Great Wall stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east, to Lop Lake in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that the Ming walls measure 8,850 km (5,500 mi). This is made up of 6,259 km (3,889 mi) sections of actual wall, 359 km (223 mi) of trenches and 2,232 km (1,387 mi) of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers. Another archaeological survey found that the entire wall with all of its branches measure out to be 21,196 km (13,171 mi)

This post is designed to be post 1 in a series of 7 of the Wonders of the World. Follow this blog to be notified of the rest of the series.

Christian Cave Churches and Monasteries in Cappadocia Turkey


Iconic Early 5th Century Christian Cross

As a traveler one of the thing that really stands out in digging in to understand a people is how much of culture is influenced by faith and religion.  In Europe you must visit the cathedrals because it was the center of the universe for the people.  In Istanbul you must visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia or you haven’t seen Istanbul. I have found Israel, Jerusalem, Bethehem, and Jordan to be quite amazing.  Even Cairo had places that reminded me of Moses and the red sea.  I have found the cathedrals across Europe to be quite amazing, even Ireland had some amazing history as it relates to early Christianity.  Rome and the catacombs.  Early Christians in Ireland, or Monserrat in Spain… incredible.  These early Christians driven into caves and into the mountains the hermits of Bulgaria and Macedonia are fascinating and must see.  The monasteries in the cliffs of Meteora where they survived from decimation for more than 500 years.  I love thinking about Thessaloniki or the Thessalonians.  My visit to Armenia and connecting with locals and making friends the thoughts and attitudes of the people cannot be separated from their faith as a people.  Mount Arrarat and Noah’s Ark and God’s dealing with the Armenian people is so deeply ingrained in their art, their life and spirit.

A One trying to understand the mind of the pre-Nicean church can do much study the rich art and paintings captured on the walls of the hundreds if not thousands of painted caves now abandoned art work of Cappadocia.  The cave paintings while much has been destroyed have preserved a lot of history and messages through the images.  I find it quite inspiring and very peaceful.  In some of the churches that you pay to see one with no cameras allowed.  I could easily spend an hour staring at the ceiling and unweaving the thoughts in the heads of these early christians.  Their faith, their perspectivies, their stories.  Much of the tradition has been preserved, but a lot has been lost as well.  Lots of contemplation are required to understand not just the story, but the perceptions of the artist.

Cave homeMary the mother of Jesus

This photo is not a direct photo, but actually a photo of what I saw, but photographed from a book at the gift shop, or a post card.  You can see how much color is still in the images.   The color alone is quite the story as the paint was made from pigeon poo.

My travels took me to Goreme, in central Turkey.  These natural occuring ferry chimneys are amazing.  I’ve only been in a few places in the world where they have these, Utah’s Goblin Valley, and Bryce Canyon, but what those places don’t have are the primitive Christian churches and the underground cities.  The Tuff left from the volcanic ash turned rock helped provide a substance that was very easy to carve, but also very strong, like a more dense pumice.

Goreme Open Air Museum Entrance

There are multiple locations in Cappadocia where you can find these cave churches.  First the largest collection in a small area is the Goreme Open Air Museum.  There are lots of great cave hotels in Goreme.  I recommend staying in a cave at least one night.  It’s a unique experience and it’s quite affordable.

Unfortunately nearly all of the churches would not allow photography or video cameras at the Open air musuem.  You could take pictures outside, but definitely not as  compelling.

high cave churchThe Snake Church

There were a few select churches that they allowed photography in.  The names of the churches come from the art work inside.  Apple church, snake church, etc…

Christian Column Inside the cave church

While these may look impressive, the reality is these were pretty bare.

On a walk through the various churches you’d mostly get directed at the various figures and stories from the bible, but it was stories like the animal below that represents paganism that really caught my interest.  I was interested in the explanations of what was different and how they lived and what they believed.  Like can you believe that most of the well preserved cave paintings have the eyes of the people carved out.

Pagans

I was told the local muslim people felt threatened and the eyes alone could convert.  So you have these scary pictures where the eyes are carved out.

Greek Influece on Caves in Turkey The Hive of Caves

Not only were the churches carved into the stone, the people as well lived in caves in stone where archways could be fancied up.  On the left you have the homes of displaced Greeks in Turkey.  Most of them moved back to Greece.

Next we travel to the Ihlara Valley were over a dozen caves were turned into churches.  One of the most amazing hikes… Combines peaceful walk along a stream with basalt canyon walls like the snake river valley in Idaho or, and pillars of the Giants Causeway in Ireland.

Ihlara Valley Map

As you can see by the little yellow dots along the slides of the river in the Ihlara valley, for miles along the river, caves were turned into places of worship.  If you were simply walking along the river, you would have really No idea this was happening.  It’s Fantastic!!

Ihlara valley cave churchesPainted Cave

Do these caves above look like they might contain this… image to the right.

Beautiful art still remains on the walls.  Much has been destroyed or defaced.  Eyes of the saints in the pictures are scratched out.  One guide told us that the people were worried about how the beautiful icononic art might convert them.  The watching eyes were just too powerful.  So much so that for much of what you see there are few eyes you’ll find.

The Three Magi

Below the three magi or wisemen and their gifts for the birth of the savior minus their eyes.  If you look near the hat you can see names in Greek.  It looks like the names of the magi were added afterward. The shape of their hats is interesting.  It brings a historical understanding.  Studying this brings much more understanding of the early 6th century church.

Mary on a donkey

Mary on the Donkey… Did you know the reference to Mary riding a donkey is actually not found in the bible, but in apocryphal writings in the text the Infancy Gospel of James?  This may be one of the earliest paintings that exists showing Mary on a Donkey.

The dome in pigeon poo

It is very incredible to think of the condition that these paintings were made.  These were painted many many years prior to the crusades, and the spread of the ottoman empire.  These were made at time when the Christians were hiding in caves.  The paint was made from pigeon droppings.  To think about that part of it it’s really very remarkable much remains at all.

Open Air churchesGoreme

When in Goreme and surrounding you’ll find that you need at least 2 to 3 days to simply race through everything.  4 days to a week will allow you to take a slower pace to really enjoy the valleys and take more in.  The tours are very inexpensive, and they are organized into the blue tour, the red tour and so on, and they really are packed with places to see and visit.  One morning you need to do the balloon ride for the adventuresome.  If you are thinking about the balloon, don’t wait till the last day because they are frequently cancelled due to weather conditions.

Goreme from above

View of Goreme from the top of the hills.

Abandoned fairy homes

The Fairy chimneys… turned home and now abandoned. A honeycomb of mystery and intrigue.

The Messiah scratched out

The Messiah, with a scratched out face…

Selime Cathedral

For more adventure… On one end of the Ihlara valley is the Selime Cathedral.  Walking to simply get to this Cathedral makes you feel like you’re rock climbing.  It isn’t for little old ladies or old men.  This requires a little bit of skill to navigate across the rocks, through tunnels and a bit of scrambling…

Selime Cathedral

But the payoff is big.  Huge rooms with archways and columns still remain while much of the artwork is destroyed and soot covers the ceilings.

Selime Cathedral

If you look closely you can still see remains, of what was once majestic.

Cappadocia Central Turkey Valleys and the all seeing eye

If there was any doubt that this valley wasn’t backed with mystery, intrigue and wonder… I hope a few of these picture have opened your mind.  Goreme and Cappadocia still remains one of my favorite destinations and the my appreciation for the early church and their cave dwelling days has shaped what we think of even as a catheral or church.  We have much to share in appreciation for these devoted follower of central Turkey.