Magical Avatar Stone Forest Hallelujah Mountains in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park China


Avatar Forest, Stone Forest, Hallelujah Mountains in the movie Avatar were inspired by Heavenly Pillar in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in Wulingyuan, China

The First National Park in China. It is in Wulingyuan, China in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. It has some of the most incredible hikes. There’s also the world’s tallest outdoor and glass elevator.

This incredible national park is only 1 hour away from Tianmen mountain. It’s the same train stop, same airport, and that’s not all. The Grand Canyon of China is also nearby! China has been working on improving the ability to get to this very, very beautiful area. Today there’s no direct high speed rail from Beijing or Shanghai. We ended up taking the overnight sleeper from Yichang to Zhangjiajie and later flew out from Zhangjiajie back to Beijing. I loved every minute in this beautiful natural area of China. It’s becoming more popular, so try to avoid holidays and weekends.

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Avatar Forest – Forest Does this look familiar from the movie?


Stone Forest

I couldn’t get enough panoramas of the Stone Forest and the amazing natural bridges. The views were spectacular every few feet.

The World’s highest outdoor elevator.

Glass elevator

While we were waiting for the elevator we saw this guy. Not sure where his troop was.

While waiting for the elevator Dean took some pictures.

This beautiful pagoda is the entrance of the park.

While there is a lot of construction going on in in Wulingyuan, China with beautiful new hotels, the older buildings and community are quite cultural and beautiful. Very easy walking. These National parks are some of the most beautiful in the world. Surprisingly it seemed like more than 80% of the tourists we saw were Chinese. We got recommendations on how to spend our time. You could easily spend the entire day… scratch that 3 days if you wanted. We did a highlights trek seeing the Heavenly Pilar that inspired Avatar, the bridges, the stone forest.

There are a lot of local ancient cultures in China. While Beijing is interested in consolidating cultures and making them all Chinese. You’ll see a variety of ancient cultures and tribal clothing including in a part of the park where you can see some of the old ways, customs and culture.

Worlds Largest Ancient Statue Leshan Buddha Statue and Giant Pandas of Chengdu


Chengdu is the old capital and is known for preserving the old ways.  When you think of Chengdu you should think Pandas and Giant Panda or Mount Emei one of the most holy mountains in China.  I was very blessed to see the Leshan Buddha as we saw it just two days after it finished a very long restoration. I was just there and the fantastic news is it’s now complete. I was lucky to visit when there were very few visitors due to the restoration project. The Leshan is a 71 meter or 233 ft tall stone statue, built between 713 and 803 (during the Tang dynasty). For scale comparison the giant sphinx in Egypt is 20m (66 feet) high, the Buddha is 3 times taller, the Colossus of Rhodes in Ancient Greece was 33 meters or half as tall and would have been destroyed about 60 years before the Leshan Buddha began construction. The Buddha is carved out of a cliff face of red sandstone that lies at the Min and Dadu River in the southern part of Sichuan province, right outside the city of Leshan. The stone sculpture faces Mount Emei, with the rivers flowing below its feet. It is the largest and tallest stone Buddha statue in the world and it is by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

The Mount Emei Scenic Area, including Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996.

The Best view is from the water, but it’s a quick trip…

Generally speaking, you can go to Leshan from Chengdu (about 2hrs’ driving), and the Giant Buddha first, then transfer to Emeishan City or the foot area of Mount Emei for accommodation. Have a day tour to the top of Mount Emei – Golden Summit, then descend the mountain, and drive or take a high speed train back to Chengdu. You can spend a lot of time in the area. There’s a buddha park right next door as well as the holy mountain Mount Emei so close nearby. It’s up to you how much time you spend.

You can even find the 170 meter long sleeping buddha… It’s hidden among the trees.

The Buddha park nearby which is a lot newer has some great carvings and a great hike with fantastic carvings.

This Standing Buddha is at least 4 stories high and in a cave.

We don’t even come up to the toe.

After a full day in Leshan, and after the ride back we were ready for Sichuan Hot Pot, a delicious popular local dish.

5. Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base

There are a few places to see the pandas in Chengdu, but that’s the place to go to see the Pandas. In Chengdu there are 3 main places to visit pandas. Out in the world there are fewer and fewer places that have the endangered pandas.

We spent half a day at the giant panda research base. We stood in a long line to take the shuttle to the back of the park and then we walked back visiting each of the panda stations with a focus on the youngest pandas. The Red Pandas were fantastic as well. The best Panda watching in the world is to be had in this area.

We saw dozens of Pandas and had as much time as we wanted with them. While we didn’t get to pet them as some have told in the past, those prices have skyrocketed. It also doesn’t make sense these days with potential spread of disease.

Red Pandas

The young pandas are so fun!

Thanks to China Highlights for putting together a simple map.

Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi’an China – Guards of the Largest Tomb in the World


The story of the Terra Cotta Warriors is an incredible one. I’ve been wanting to go to see the Terra Cotta warriors for years… since before my first trip to China.  Xi’an is a short 3 hour bullet train away from Beijing or you can take the overnight train and get there in about 12 hours… the flight is even quicker.  We ended up looking at all options.

Ying Zheng took the throne in 246 B.C. at the age of 13. By 221 B.C. he had unified a collection of warring kingdoms and took the name of Qin Shi Huang Di—the First Emperor of Qin. He is credited for the first version of the great wall. Beijing was not the capital of China at the time.

largest tomb in the world

The terra cotta warriors are the guards of the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi—he was the first emperor of China in 221 B.C.  The tomb itself has not yet been excavated due to mercury poison concerns, but understand this… it is the largest mega tomb in the world.

For almost four decades, archaeologists have been excavating the site. So far, they’ve uncovered about 2,000 clay soldiers, but experts estimate there are more than 8,000 in total.

For over 2000 years the story of the thousands of warriors and horses was lost to the world.  While the tomb was known, but was also known as extremely dangerous we didn’t know there were pits of thousands of warriors over a mile from the actual tomb of the emperor.  A group of farmers were digging a well when they came upon the greatest discovery of the century… if not since king Tut’s tomb… what they found was extraordinary underground treasure: an entire army of life-size terra cotta soldiers and horses, interred for more than 2,000 years. Over the past 35 years, archaeologists have located some many pits, a complex of underground vaults as yet largely unexcavated, across a 22-square-mile area. Some are hard to get to, but three major pits are easily accessible, enclosed inside the four-acre Museum of the Terracotta Army, constructed around the discovery site and opened in 1979. In one pit, long columns of warriors, reassembled from broken pieces, stand in formation. With their topknots or caps, their tunics or armored vests, their goatees or close-cropped beards, the soldiers exhibit an astonishing individuality. A second pit inside the museum demonstrates how they appeared when they were found: some stand upright, buried to their shoulders in soil. The third pit has horses and chariots made from bronze. Our guide explained there are many thousands of warriors and more that are purposely still buried that are filled with color that burns off in the days after it is exposed to the air. For this purpose they are waiting to unbury a large quantity of warriors and more. Read more about the history of the terra cotta warriors on Smithsonian magazine.

The Back of Pit #1

The warriors look different and there are different warriors indifferent groups with different skills and even different shoes.

Scientists work in pit #2 to uncover and put the warriors back together. Think about it… they’ve been doing this since 1979.

Meeting the man. This was the farmer who was digging the well in 1974 when he found the terra cotta warriors.  Still blows my mind.

In addition the actual tomb is still unexcavated. Imagine us saying we haven’t been inside the pyramids, and as well haven’t yet been inside King Tuts tomb. We know there are traps and danger with large amounts of mercury. “The tomb was filled with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious stones and rarities,” reads a translation of the text.

The account indicates the tomb contains replicas of the area’s rivers and streams made with mercury flowing to the sea through hills and mountains of bronze. Precious stones such as pearls are said to represent the sun, moon, and other stars. Modern tests on the tomb mound have revealed unusually high concentrations of mercury, lending credence to at least some of the historical account. Chinese archaeologists are also using remote-sensing technology to probe the tomb mound. The technique recently revealed an underground chamber with four stair like walls. An archaeologist working on the site told the Chinese press that the chamber may have been built for the soul of the emperor.”

Experimental pits dug around the tomb have revealed dancers, musicians, and acrobats full of life and caught in mid-performance, a sharp contrast to the military poses of the famous terra-cotta soldiers.

Pit #3

But further excavations of the main tomb itself are very very slow, at least for now.
I expect when China is really ready for tourism they will excavate the main pyramid. It will absolutely be the reveal of the century if not the mellenium. China has the largest pyramid in the world under wraps due to danger…. what would it take for them to decide it is worth the risk?!!

“It is best to keep the ancient tomb untouched, because of the complex conditions inside,” Duan Qinbao, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute, told the China Daily.

When will the world be ready for the mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China, this UNESCO mausoleum was constructed over 38 years, from 246 to 208 BC, and is situated underneath a 76-meter-tall tomb mound shaped like a truncated pyramid

Year in Review 2018 – Joel Oleson Adventure Traveler Fun Photos


At the beginning of 2018, I started working at Blizzard Entertainment and visited a couple of offices in Europe as well and now two of my oldest sons started college.  Great accomplishments for which I’m very pleased.  As a result of supporting 2 in college, I’ve had to get good at cashing in airline miles.   Our big family trip this year was to Ethiopia and Tanzania and it was awesome!  The great migration and seeing the It’s one my wife has been asking to do for years.  I finished the Western Hemisphere UN (North and South America).  I started the year with 155 to go and ended with 163… but lots of great highlights as you’ll see below.

Screenshots above are from “App in the Air” based on Tripit.  Reality is somewhere around 1.5 million miles, but who’s counting?

These stats are primarily based on flights alone since I left Microsoft about 11 years ago.  It doesn’t count the visits by car or train.

8 New UN Countries

Roadtrip from Bissau to Dakar

  • Guinea Bissau
  • The Gambia
  • Senegal

Island hopping around Madagascar

  • Seychelles
  • Madagascar
  • Mauritius
  • Reunion (TCC)
  • Mayotte (TCC)

Weekend in the Caribbean

  • Antigua
  • Grenada

Revisits and some New Areas (Some selected photos below)

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The tribes in the Omo Valley were like visiting my ancestors from 5,000-10,000 years ago.  Huddling in the grass huts and talking about their experiences was surreal. Having my son and nephew experience this ancient tribe was so fantastic.  I do worry these days are limited.  Life on this planet is changing quickly… There was a group of Chinese tourists complete with green screens and lighting equipment that beat us to one of the tribes and I struggled to not be heartbroken.  Just when you think there’s no way you’ll see a tourist…

The Great Migration is one of the most amazing things on the planet, and is the largest mammal migration of it’s kind with more than 1.5 million individuals.  I was told by my driver that I would cry I’d see so many wildebeests. I think my heart was full, but it was others in the group that voted to move on. I couldn’t get enough of these odd creatures.

Travel can be so much more interesting you see a place not how it is, but how it changes… our perspective changes…  a place can be so different at different times of the year.  Our driver was telling us about the different times of the year based on baby animals, the rainy seasons with the hippos and crocks, the dry season where the animals get close and the lions have an easier time.  Imagine how the Serengeti looks if you’re standing in the middle of a meercats den… every day a different story. (Yes, I did see Meerkats and they did NOT dissapoint!) The Wildebeests were a testament to a creator.  The creations of this planet make us think of organization on a massive scale rather than pure chaos.

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Watching The Lion King… in Nature play out in front of my eyes… now that brings you to tears!

lion hunt

Watching the lions in the Ngorongoro Crater was fascinating.  The density of large mammals is the most dense on the earth in the crater.   (Minus the lemurs in Madagascar more on that later). It was incredible to see this lioness be first tracked by a male, then go hunting. 

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This massive 49 meter tall bronze statue located on top of one of the twin hills known as Collines des Mamelles, outside Dakar, mixture of corruption, Stalinist architecture, and North Korean architecture.

I LOVED Madagascar…  The Lemurs, the Baobabs, the surprise trekking of nocturnal night lemurs by flashlight… oh, so amazing… There is so much rich and unique biodiversity in Madagascar, and while it’s so difficult to get there, it ended up being more amazing than I hoped.  Madagascar as a culture is still quite primitive and not without problems, but wow what an amazing experience.   You can read more about my experiences with the lemurs and baobabs of Madagascar. I couldn’t believe I found covered wagons like those who crossed the plains to Utah in Madagascar. I’ve seen a lot of camels, donkeys, and horses, but true classic covered wagons with wooden wagon wheels… that was a first in Madagascar for me.

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Seychelles with the largest nut, the large rocks, the beautiful beaches… I had the opportunity to do some diving.

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Venice is a magical city.  St Marcos Square with it’s looming tower and incredibly ornate frescoes, mosaics,and golden horses.  It’s a must see for any traveler, and even better on this my second visit.

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The Mosaics in Ravenna, Italy seem to capture lost mysteries.  It’s super fascinating to study and wander the dozens of basilicas and churches in the surrounding areas.

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From underwater sculpture gardens, to waterfalls and sulfur hot springs, Grenada was a very green relaxing spice island.

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Antigua is a beautiful island.  It got quite a bit of destruction recently mostly on Barbuda.  This dog followed me for over an hour.  By the end of my walk I had 6 dogs following me.

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Christ the Redeemer in Lisbon was a gift from Brazil

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Mont Sant Michel France

Mont Sant-Michel on the coast of France… very appropriate given the anniversary of the end of World War 1. Our visit to the coast included a walk along the beach in Normandy and a heavy heart.

Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more blogs on some of my adventures last year…  Thanks for your support!  Here’s to travel in 2019!

Current Travel Plans for 2019…

  • Family Spring Break trip to China – Xian Terra Cotta Warriors, Heavens gate, Glass bridge, Huge Buddah statues, Avatar Forest, and Pandas (My youngest LOVES Pandas!)
  • Remote South Pacific island hopping for my birthday including Vanuatu and Tuvalu and possible diving in the Great Barrier reef
  • TBD

Hope you’ll like and subscribe for more in 2019! Let me know what you’d like to see!

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Where did life begin? Traveling to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley – Early Man


My passion for understanding the past through early man caves, paleontology, archeology, encounters with ancient tribes with connections to the past and life origins and what matters most…  these strike directly at the heart of what I find meaningful in travel.  Indiana Jones wasn’t just looking for gold statues… he was looking for answers.

Early Man Ethiopia

If you’re trying to connect with the past, there really isn’t any place where you’ll find more diverse tribes in such a small area than in Ethiopia.  Seriously.  If you have found something more diverse and connected with the past, I’d really like to know.  While the exact number is unknown, there are around 80 tribes and 86 living languages with an incredibly diverse ethnic groups living in Ethiopia. Most of the urban population belongs to the Amhara or Oromo tribes.  Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world.  Ethiopia today is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and yet has some of the best preserved untouched primitive tribal living in the world. What makes Ethiopia unique is the longevity of Ethiopia without much outside influence.  Italy was trying to build an empire in Ethiopia had such a small impact, you’ll struggle to find anything Italian unless you visit Gondar where there are a few buildings that look Italian.  Italians made an attempt to have Ethiopia as their share of Africa. They invaded in 1893 but were shamefully defeated by the Ethiopians to become the first European losers in a colonial war. This led to the Italy-Ethiopia war conducted in 1930’s.  Ultimately Ethiopia was colonized by Italy from 1936 to 1941.  Only 5 years, so you can understand how little impact would come from that.  Things will change. 

So, going back to it.  Ethiopia has a lot of primitive tribes that continue to live the way they have for thousands of years… I was anxious to visit early man, and what an incredible experience I had making so many new friends and gaining insights about ancient life.   

Early Man Lucy

While it may seem like Ethiopia has always been the cradle of civilization it was not until 1963 that ancient hominids were discovered in Ethiopia where stone tools that were over a million years old at Kella.  Since then many important finds have propelled Ethiopia to the forefront of paleontology. The oldest hominid discovered to date in Ethiopia is the 4.2 million year old Ardi found by Tim White in 1994. The most well known hominid discovery is Lucy, found in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia’s Afar region in 1974 by Donald Johanson, and is one of the most complete and best preserved, adult fossils ever uncovered. Lucy is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago.  You can see Lucy and Ardi bones in the museum in Addis Ababa in the capital.  

early man skulllucy bones

There have been many other notable fossil findings in the country. Near Gona stone tools were uncovered in 1992 that were 2.52 million years old, these are the oldest such tools ever discovered anywhere in the world.  In 2010 fossilized animal bones, that were 3.4 million years old were found with stone-tool-inflicted marks on them in the Lower Awash Valley by an international team, which is the oldest evidence of stone tool use ever found anywhere in the world.  In 2004 fossils found near the Omo river at Kibbish at 195,000 years old, the oldest date in East Africa for modern Homo sapiens. Imagine walking around in a valley where the bones you might stumble across could be an ancient ancestor.

tribal encounters

You really don’t have to spend much time with the tribes to find their simple, but ancient traditions to be enlightening.  You really don’t have to go to distant islands where you risk getting shot by arrows.  You can come to the Omo Valley, and get a guide and scout who are provided for your safety and convenience to communicate with the chief and his warriors, who are really quite friendly.

olmec headimage

Last summer I traveled to Mexico to see the Olmec heads.  I was NOT expecting to see one in Addis Ababa outside the museum in Ethiopia.

National Museum of Ethiopia

The National Museum of Ethiopia is worthwhile.  Even in just the last few years it has gotten a lot better.  It was the Lucy bones that drew me the first time, but taking my 9 year old boy to put some context in paleontology was very worthwhile.

 imageNational Church Ethiopia

My friend Abeye who I met on a trip to Lalibella, Ethiopia 8 years earlier with his school friends.  It was him and his friends who were our guides when we were trying to locate an orphanage.  I had the biggest epiphany… everything you think you know about Africa is wrong.  Everything you think you know about Ethiopia is also wrong.  Giving money to the orphanages in Lalibela would have been a mistake.  They were the only spoiled kids in the city.   Who would have guessed?  Instead I found a blind kid and his friend who helped us locate school supplies which we were able to distribute to as many kids as we could find.  It was a life changing event.  Bringing books and school supplies to a few schools along our route on our trips was a lot of fun for the whole family.  Mission accomplished.  My 9 year old and his cousin will never forget how they felt as they had many first contact type experiences with the kids at the markets.  If you’ve never had the opportunity to be a minority, I highly recommend it.  It’s important to get out of your comfort zone, and let a villager touch your freckles or softly pinch your skin and stare right through your blue eyes.  You sort of feel like an alien.  Imagine if everyone had the opportunity to feel like an alien.  How much prejudice and bigotry would melt away to empathy?

first contact

first contact ethiopia

No matter how much you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you will still struggle to understand how someone could put such a large plate in their lip, but if you don’t try to connect with them and imagine life in a straw hut and attempt to connect with their present and your past… to see what life might have been like 3,000 or 30,000 years ago.

Mursi tribe

The Mursi tribe are a nomadic people known for their lip plates, they live in grass huts between the Omo River and its tributary the Mago, one of the most isolated regions of the country.  They are animists. Lip plates are a well known aspect of the Mursi and Surma, who are probably the last groups in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear large pottery, wooden discs, or plates in their lower lips. 

happy tribal encounters

I had a great time with my new friend.  We were taking selfies and could keep a straight face.  After traveling 3 days to get deep into the Omo Valley I was so excited to spend time with one of the most primitive tribes in Ethiopia.  Clothing optional, this tribe could construct their grass hut village in less than 24 hours.  They are a nomadic tribe.

Zebra kids

As we drove by these zebra stripped kids I was struck.  I was really on the edge of the planet.  Our guide said, “don’t take their picture they’ll throw rocks!”  It was too late.  I caught this beautiful photo first.  I hope it represents them well.  For the most part prior to us arriving at a village there were terms on photos and we’d work it out with the chief.  It’s true… sometimes they wanted money for each picture, but it was my preference to trade.  If we could bring things the tribe needed, I felt a lot better…. school supplies, solar lantern, or simple toys.

Ancient Konso pole

This pole may look like a bunch of poles lashed together, but actually this is a clock.  The tribe adds a new pole to this central point in the village every generation (18 years.)  Konso, this ancient UNESCO heritage village is over 400 years old.

Tiye UNESCO

Tiya, a UNESCO site of large stones from an ancient burrial ground.  No one recognizes the swords.  They don’t match any on record in Ethiopia.   I love it.  The site is still being understood.  You can be an archeologist and figure it out!  The guides on site have some good ideas, but you can tell much of what they are saying is guestimates.

Ethiopian sword and shield

You can compare these swords from the museum… Doesn’t look anything like it.  The 1600s was a pretty exciting time in Ethiopia with the royal courts, castles, and conquests.  You wouldn’t believe the history.  Gondar Ethiopia where the castles are is a must for a longer trip to Ethiopia.

Ethiopian crock Lake Chamo

Humans aren’t the only ancient thing in Ethiopia.  Very old crocodiles and hippos in the lake.  You can take a guide, captain and scout by boat and go trekking for animals in Lake Chamo Nechi Sar

Adadi Mariam

Ancient stone churches are both in the North and in the South.  Lalibella in the North has some of the best monolithic buildings in the world.

The only southerly rock hewn church Adadi Mariam… It’s like visiting a cave church carved out of rock, not unlike the cave churches in Cappadocia, but those churches don’t have a holy of holies and these are all fashioned after Solomon’s temple and often have a ark of the covenant replica based on the real one… just ask them.  The religion runs very deep in Ethiopia, and there’s no doubt they are from lost tribes of ancient Israel… the DNA studies and the heritage back up the stories.  The stories are fantastic and rich as the countries culture.

Ancient New York

Breathtaking natural beauty outside the windows of the ancient village near Konso.  This valley is coined New York for what look a vast city scape in dirt… like sky scrapers.

Mursi Warrior

This Mursi Warrior may look tough, and they are, but they are also very sweet.

Raw Beef

If you don’t stick to tourist food, you can try some amazing tibs.  Tare tare may be a french term, but at this shop, they chop off cuts of fresh beef, seasoning optional.  Strips of raw meat – Tere Sega.  I LOVE Ethiopian food.  It took some convincing my driver that I had an iron stomach, then I could get to the really good places where the locals eat.  Tibs, Shiro, Kifto, Gomen, Doro Wat, Shiro Feces, served with a layer of Injira. 

Ethiopian Market

Incredible markets.  Tribes would come to trade or sell their vegetables or clothes.  Markets aren’t every day, but on market day it’s a treat to meet those that come from far away.  I did find it annoying that some local government officials thought we needed a permit to go to the market.  They were persistent.

Konso tribal hut

Traditional ancient Konso tribal Hut.  These are really the nice huts.  There are much more primitive and temporary huts.

Ethiopian hard working women

The hardest working women in the world.  I believe.  These women spend all day looking for sticks to turn to charcoal to sell or to use as firewood to feed their families.

Konso Tribal Elders

The wise tribal elders of Konso

Tribal market

Those wooden seats double as a pillow and are one of the few items you might find in a hut.

Ancient tribal hut

The inside of a hut.  This women was near the center of the village so she has some additional amenities.

huts

The animals live in the stone walled in village for protection.  The further outer rings of the village the newer but more risky.

inside Mursi hut

The inside of the grass hut.  Embers still warm.

 

In a spirit of transparency.  I’m fine sharing what I got

Omo valley cultural tour

Day 1 – Rock Hewn church, Tiya UNESCO site

Day 2 Trekking for Zebras, visiting crocks and hippos

Day 3 Jinka!!! Konso tribes the 400 year old UNESCO village including New York

Day 4 Mursi tribe and Mago National Park.  This is the lip plate tribe.  Dimeka Market…

Day 5 Turmi cultural tribal city in the middle of Omo Valley

Day 6 Dorze village

I ended up going back to Paradise Lodge.  We loved that place.  The view was incredible.  So we elected for 3 nights there in Arba Minch. 

King Dawit tours

For $75 a day for $525 we had a Toyota Land Cruiser driver and vehicle for about 7 days.  I felt pretty good about what I negotiated.  Our driver knew the route, and while he didn’t like driving in the dark.  We were able to push him to put in 12 hour days and saw an incredible amount of Southern Ethiopia on this trip.

It was so great to get back to Ethiopia one of my favorite countries not only in Africa, but in the world.

If you enjoyed this post… you might enjoy my previous post on Ethiopia on Lalibela and the Rock Hewn Churches where I first met Abeye and fell in love with ancient Ethiopia.  My friend Abeye is now building his own ethiopian tours.

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.

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.

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.

Flickr: 29541450@N07

“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!

Biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

Death Road Memorial

It started out as an idea.  What would be the coolest thing to see in Bolivia?  I’d heard and seen the dangerous road featured on SciFi and National Geographic programs, so getting a glimpse of the road was my objective.  I’d also heard about some other things featured on Sci Fi, like Puma Punku and Tiuanaku, but I’ll save that for another post.  In my search for information on seeing the world’s most dangerous road, I came across Gravity Bolivia, a high adventure extreme sports adventure travel site for the adventure traveler.  If you’re going to go… you have to go with them. Best in safety equipment and support.  On this one, I believe it does matter.  I usually don’t endorse, but on this adventure, you have to be extremely careful.

Death Road Bolivia

In their own words…

“Quite deservedly, this mountain bike ride is our most popular and World famous. Gravity has been featured guiding and riding this road in more than 60 magazine and newspaper articles, (as well as six television shows and on the lips and Blogs of almost every backpacker and adventure traveler in South America), this downhill mountain bike ride is not only famous, but so is GRAVITY!”

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My brother in law Jeff, who had never even been to South America joined us on this adventure.  He said it was absolutely the craziest, scariest, best adventure, day of his life.  He rode on the middle bar of one of our instructors this wasn’t the original plan.  They didn’t have a small enough bike, but they accommodated in a serious way.

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The ride is one of a kind with the most spectacular descent of 3,600m/11,800 feet from snow-covered high-altitude mountain ranges down to the Amazonian Jungle with most of the 64kms (40 miles) of downhill riding on the road locally known as “The Death Road” or “Camino de la muerte!”  The true stories you’ll hear are real.  This road is not a joke.  It’s serious with sheer cliffs with 3000 ft (1000 meter) drops.  The long ropes they carry aren’t long enough for the longest drops and there isn’t a survival rate on those drops either.

Death RoadRuta De La Muerta

Why would someone ride on a road called the death road?  For me, I wanted to do the investigation, read the stories and determine if it was something I wanted to do.  Initially I simply wanted to see what the fuss was about, but when I heard I could take it at my own speed and with instructors who would tell you about the turns along the way, and give you professional equipment I was slowly convinced I could do it.

On the site they say the ride is for “Confident beginners to experts, average fitness and above, and in particular, those looking for a long, world-class, downhill mountain bike ride.”  The Trip Advisor ratings for Braving the World’s Most Dangerous Road and scores for this ride were off the charts at the level of Chernobyl.  Here’s what I said in my review “I just got back from a whirlwind tour of 3 capitals in South America and the thing that stands out above all was my ride down the Worlds Most Deadly road. I was a little scared, but I did my homework and read all the reviews and looked into the various companies that do this ride.
First off Gravity is quality. The whole time my needs were met. Andy our guide watched out for us. He told us at each stop what to expect and how to handle it. He wasn’t pushy and allowed us to take things at our own pace.”

Death Road Cliffs of Bolivia

I don’t want to tell anyone they have to do this.  I don’t want any responsibility at all for convincing anyone to put their life in their own hands.  It’s liberating, and will scare you, but it’s also likely one of the most dangerous things I’ve done.  That being said, I know I was riding a good 40 miles an hour down the hill at times and feeling an incredible rush.  My front brakes needed to be adjusted part way down the mountain, and a guy in our party hurt his arm and shoulder scraping them on the road.

Road Rash

La Paz is an amazing place.  When we landed at the airport I was pleased to find they had reduced their visa fees.  I got a Bolivian visa for only $60.  Only 3 years ago I was looking at $160 x 3 since I was with my wife and baby and at the time none of us had the yellow fever shot.  This time we were all ready and got our visa on arrival and yes at the new reduced fare.  As of Nov 16, 2014.

La Paz Cliffs

When we got off the plane an older lady fell on her face, and after a quick jog, we were all dangerously out of breath.  Don’t push it here.  When you first get off the plane, the Swahili mountain words of wisdom come to mind… “pole, pole” comes to mind.  “Slowly, slowly.”  Chewing the cocoa leaves and sucking out the juice (a local remedy) do the trick for helping alleviate the high elevation headache, or bring your high elevation pills.  We decided to ride on day 2 of our stay in Bolivia.  That was intentional and smart.  It allowed us to acclimate at the world’s highest capital.

On Top of the World Bolivia

These cliffs are no joke!

Deadliest Road

The ride is beautiful.  The jungle really sucks you in, and the views are out of this world.  We stopped 15 times along the route to take pictures, drink liquids, and take in the amazing view.

The Death Road Crew

Michael Noel, Jeff Beaulieu, and Joel Oleson geared up and ready to ride.  Bike, gloves, jacket, pants, helmet and goggles all provided by Gravity Bolivia.  We all made it.  Incredible experience.

GoPro3 Youtube Highlight Video of our Crazy Experience

World’s Deadliest Road Highlights from Helmet and Chest Cam

“Mountain Biking for 64km down the World’s Most Dangerous Road (WMDR, aka Yungas Road, aka Camino de las Muertas, aka Camino de las Yungas) in Bolivia. The trip starts at an altitude of 4650m and ends at 1200m. I tried to edit this down to the highlights of the journey. Taken from my GoPro3 with myself, Joel Oleson, and Jeff Beaulieu sharing camera duty throughout the ride” uploaded and edited by Michael Noel http://sharingtheglobe.com

I facebooked a video of the narrowest part of the road as we drove back on the road.  In a lot of ways it was more scary riding the bus back on that crazy road than on a bike.

https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152932118078783

I’ll be uploading more video to my youtube channel in the coming weeks.  You can subscribe to my traveling epic youtube videos.  I’ve gotten over 1.4 million views across the channel.

Top 10 Must See in Baku Azerbaijan: Fire Temple, Mud Volcano, and Early Man sites


In my quest to visit every country I wasn’t sure what to expect with Azerbaijan.  What looked like a small country with a checkered past sprinkled with war and conflict with Armenia.  I was definitely interested in learning about the people, the culture and learning what Azerbaijan had to offer the world and for fellow travelers. I wasn’t disappointed, in fact I was blown away with the treasures of this land.

What I found was fantastic.  Azerbaijan is a very culturally rich country with a deep past.  A former soviet block country with it’s own history and it’s own identity, Azerbaijan is rich.  Rich culturally and figuratively with oil and very culturally rich.

Baku is in and of itself a stand out city that should be held up against the greatest in the region in comparison with Dubai and Doha .

1. Baku Zoroastrian Fire Temple – Ateshgah of Baku.

The Temple of Fire “Ateshgah” on the List of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO. It’s been a museum since 1975.  The fires use to come out of the top of the 4 corners.  This fascinating fire temple was a place of worship long ago and most of the history before 1700 has been lost.

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In front of the fire temple

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This recreated piece shows what it would have been like, complete with Zoroastrian pilgrims and Persians

Modern Baku – Baku is a fascinating city with many modern buildings that would boggle the mind.  I thought I was in Dubai or Qatar when I started seeing the array of modern, brilliant and fantastic architectures.

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2. Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

– amazing example of modern architecture. The white building is a major landmark in the heart of Baku City.  The immaculately white building comes in the shape of waves. It is no doubt an impressive structure and an great achievement in field of modern architecture and engineering.  I can’t imagine trying to make the bricks for this.  No lines are straight!

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3. Baku Flame Towers

is a striking new addition to the skyline of Baku. Located atop a hill on the Caspian Sea overlooking Baku Bay and the old city center, the three towers were inspired by Azerbaijan’s ancient history of fire worshipping, and will illuminate the city and act as an eternal flame for modern Baku. 190 Meters… towering above old town.

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4. World’s 2nd Largest Flag Pole – National Flag Square

The flag square is one end of the boardwalk, so really you’re just on one end of the Caspian sea and 5K walk through the park across the street from the Old Town.

The flag you see was the largest in the world until Dushanbe Tajikistan took it over by just 3 meters.  Big flag.

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I suggest you either take the

5. Steps for City View Funicular and night time viewing of the Flame Towers

up to the top to get a close up view, or ask your taxi or driver to take you to the steps shown to get a close up view of the Flame Towers.  This is a must see spectacle lighting up the night sky with fires.

image.

6. Must See Sunrise and Caspian Sea and seaside boardwalk

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Baku is a beautiful city, and walking along the seaside boardwalk and heading for a jog at sunrise is incredible.  Beautiful sunrise creeping up over the Caspian sea.  You can see the oil residue in the water.  It’s not appealing, but the jog or walk along the the sea side can’t be beat.  I recommend Milli Park, which is right near the Maiden tower, which is in Old Town.  So very easy to combine visits to a bunch of this stuff.

Seaside Boulevard was opened in May 2012 and extends from the ‘Baku Sports Palace’ (Bakı İdman Sarayı) to the ‘National Flag Square’.

7. Mud Volcanoes

– The worlds mud volcanoes are in large part in Azerbaijan.  They say that more than 50% of the worlds mud volcanoes are in this country.  I don’t doubt it.  It hasn’t become the tourist attraction it deserves.  We had the whole place to ourselves.  Our driver really didn’t want to take us in his nice car, but we twisted his arm and the offroad dirt roads he took to get there, I now understand his hesitation.  It was probably my favorite thing we did there.  The mud was bubbling up creating cinder cones of mud, we played around.  It’s not hot to the touch, in fact it was cool.  Very strange and fascinating world.

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8. Gobustan Early man site and Petroglyphs – UNESCO world heritage site.

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Early man carved out these holes to capture water for drinking.

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Gobustan Rock Art – outstanding collection of more than 6,000 rock engravings bearing testimony to 40,000 years of rock art. The site also features the remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials, all reflecting an intensive human use by the inhabitants of the area during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.  The invading armies of Alexander the Great and Trajan also left some interesting grafitti.  We didn’t find this on our journey… may have been inside the gated area, but we really enjoyed what we saw.  So much there, but you’d likely need a guide to get off the route and see more.

There were a lot of petrogliphys.  We did the self guided tour, and later stopped in the museum that’s near the entrance of the park.  It was fascinating to see.  We combined seeing the mud volcanoes and the petrogylphys and early man stuff in Gobustan.

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Walking through the center of town you’ll find a fascinating walking street through the town. Be sure to take the underground walk ways when you encounter busy streets and obey the traffic signs.  The cars won’t stop for you.  There are lots of fountains and fascinating things to view walking through the city.

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9. Old City and Maiden’s TowerOld City (a UNESCO World Heritage site)

First thing to see in the city and likely where you should stay near… this mysterious and eccentric tower was built somewhere between the 7th and 12th centuries and may have served as a fire beacon, defensive fortification, astronomical observatory, or Zoroastrian temple

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Old City Baku

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If you like Sports… check out the 2015 European Games planning on Baku Azerbaijan as the host.  They are getting state of the art stadiums to host the games.

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10. Bibi-Heybat Mosque –

The Bibi-Heybat Mosque is a historical mosque in Baku, Azerbaijan. The existing structure, built in the 1990s, is a recreation of the mosque with the same name built in the 13th century by Shirvanshah Farrukhzad II Ibn Ahsitan II, which was completely destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936. The Bibi-Heybat Mosque includes the tomb of Ukeyma Khanum (a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad), and today is the spiritual center for the Muslims of the region and one of the major monuments of Islamic architecture in Azerbaijan.

What I missed, that I wanted to see.

  • Go and enjoy the oil baths of Naftalan.  Seriously baths of crude oil… petrol!
  • The Baku Airport is one of the few in the world offering flights to Nakhchivan and travelers heading that way should book a flight from here.  My friend Michael who traveled with me was able to fit it in and spent a good day there.