Persian Road trip – From Shiraz to Esfahan (Isfahan) Iran

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

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

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

Interests Section of Islamic Republic of Iran

2209 Wisconsin Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20007

Tel  :202-965-4990

Fax:202-965-1073

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

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

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

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

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Travel Itinerary:

Day 1

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

Day 2

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

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

Naranjestan garden, Eram garden

Day 3

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

and Naqshe rajab and Pasargade

Day 4

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

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

pol bridges

Day 5

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

Jame mosque and chehel sotoun palace, Fire temple

 

 

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The Most Beautiful and Peaceful Places in the World

 

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

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

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Relaxing on a nice cool day.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Naqsh-e Rostam

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

Xerxes, Cyrus, Darius… Amazing still very popular.

Persepolis

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Grand entrance to the Palace of the Persian Empire

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Ancient Ruins of Persepolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Easter Island Travel – Isla de Pascua Mystery

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The island who seems to be on every bucket list has got to be Easter Island.  They mysterious Moai stand guard for all time.  The knowledge seemingly of these majestic statues is truly timeless.  First off let me tell you, you won’t accidentally come to Easter Island.  This is a place that takes real planning.  The first time I priced out travel to Easter Island I was the round trip flight from Santiago out to Easter Island at $700 or $800.  So for many years, it was a dream.  Then, it was a breakthrough.  Simply adding Easter Island to my itinerary from LAX to Santiago, it was only an incremental $200.  I booked early and wow, what a payoff!

Easter Island Sunset - Joel Oleson

While likely one of the most fantastic destinations it is out of range for most.  Only the truly dedicated will make it.  The community there is one of the most remote in the world!  It’s over 1000 miles to the nearest land mass of Chile, which by the way is most likely where you’ll fly from.  For me, I’ve continued to think of Easter Island as one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world that reminds us of lost knowledge.

Easter Island Moai with Hats - Joel Oleson

Surely these massive ancient rocks did walk from the quarry and down the mountainside and make their way across the island.  There’s no disputing the fact that the natives cut these amazing massive moai and brought them to their resting places.  There’s a lot more I could say about the mystery but instead I’ll save the mystery and encourage you to go.  The first thing to know is there isn’t just one group.

easter island silouette

There are so many fun places to see on the island.  My recommendation is a minimum of 2 days, but 3+ is preferred.    There are around 887 Moai scattered across the island.  There were no standing moai in 1825.  There are groups that have been put back to their proper places and you’ve gotta see the quarry where there are Moai half cut out of the stone with many working their way down the mountain.

Easter Island Rainbow

Rainbow follows the rain.  This beautiful rainbow taught us a good lesson… “After the storm comes a rainbow!”  We were standing under cover waiting for the rain to part, then bam!

Ancient Stone Masons

Does this stonework remind you of another group of people?  Me too.  This looked very much like Machu Picchu of the Incas.  You can also find stonework like this in ancient Egypt.

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Moai on the beach… minutes later wild horses would sweep across the sand!

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There are still many mysteries of the island.  The culture is very strong with the people.  Spanish is widely spoken, but the native traditions and language are well respected and celebrated.

Easter Island Wedding - Joel Oleson

We happened to happen onto a wedding performed both in the native tongue and translated into Spanish.

Kneeling Moai Easter Island

The stones carry a message from a time gone.  They teach us to respect the past and reverence the gods.  There’s something bigger than us, a mystery that will not be discovered until we connect with the cosmos and return to the earth.  We have an amazing wonderful world.  I hope you get to visit Easter Island sometime in your life.  Amazing!

Traveling Haiti Emperors Palace and Citadel

Cap Hatien Hills

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

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

Haitian Baptism

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

Catcus Fence

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

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

There were a few things that really surprised me.

slave beans

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

lunch in Haiti

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

 

ecology

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

 

zombies

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

 

poor kids haiti

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

whip it haitiCar Jacking

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

 

Haiti Hulk

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

Haiti Festival

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

 

Haiti Domed Church

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

 

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

Glory of Sans Souci UNESCO Haiti

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

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

Sans Souci

Haiti Emperors palace

sans souci palace

motor bike ride

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

 

Citadel Haiti UNESCO

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

 

Cap Hatien

Cap Hatian – view from our hotel balcony.

haiti tv watching

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

hatian carnivale wolf man haiti

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

cap hatien carnival

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

happy hatian kids

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

 

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

Haiti hotel room

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

chicken foot rice and beans

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

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

Biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

Death Road Memorial

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

Death Road Bolivia

In their own words…

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

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

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

Death RoadRuta De La Muerta

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

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

Death Road Cliffs of Bolivia

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

Road Rash

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

La Paz Cliffs

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

On Top of the World Bolivia

These cliffs are no joke!

Deadliest Road

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

The Death Road Crew

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

GoPro3 Youtube Highlight Video of our Crazy Experience

World’s Deadliest Road Highlights from Helmet and Chest Cam

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

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

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

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

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

Baku Azerbaijan Fire Temple

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.

Chernobyl Tour: Nuclear Disaster Day Trip

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

Chernobyl Nuclear silo

Was it possible to visit such a place?

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

Chernobyl Ferris Wheel

The infamous and creepy carnival in Pripyat

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

“Best tour of my life!”

“Ammmmazing!”

“Best Journey of my life!”

“A metaphysical experience”

Chernobyl tour

Chernobyl Tours with UkrainianWeb.com

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

Chernobyl tour friends

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

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

Chernobyl Sarcaphagus

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

The Chernobyl Arch will end up costing about $1.5 billion

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

NY times: Chernobyl Capping a Catastrophe

IMPORTANT:

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

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

Dnipro Hotel, 1/2 Kreschatik Str

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

Make: Mercedes Sprinter (Color: white)

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

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

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

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

You will have to pay it in UA Hr though.

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

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

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

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

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

IMPORTANT:

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

IMPORTANT:

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

IMPORTANT (in summer):

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

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

Pripyat hotel broken glass

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

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

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

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

Please confirm receiving this email.

Thank you for your business.

Sincerely,
Customer Service

www.UkrainianWeb.com

————————————————-

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

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

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

Exclusion Zone 1st Check Point

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

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

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

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

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  • Arrival at the town of Chernobyl

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

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

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Reactor 4

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

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

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

Pripyat pool

scary kids bumper cars

bumber cars chernobyl

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

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

Chernobyl Zombies

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

Somebody important

Large strange poster inside the hotel.

Urban Stalactites

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

  • Stop nearby the “Red Forest”

Nuclear Stop Sign

Near the Red Forest we stopped by this sign.

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

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

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

My old Chernobyl Friends

True Survivors

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

Decontamination

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

  • Return to Kiev at around 6 p.m.

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

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

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

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

It was an interesting time to be in Kiev…

From Mary to the Ancient City of Merv Turkmenistan

Merv Turkmenistan

If you haven’t traveled to Turkmenistan, you’re not alone. I bet they really don’t see many visitors due to the challenges of getting approval to visit.  You can read about it on the Lonely Planet guide to Turkmenistan or trust me, there is no such thing as independent travel.  You’re required to have a guide and simply taking your guide to places you decide you want to go is also off the list.  You strictly have to check in as scheduled and not deviate off course.  In our travel along the silk road, Turkmenistan was initially planned to be a quick stop, but they wouldn’t have it.  They required us to spend at least one night and even that came across as extremely suspicious to them.  I do think we had some extra scrutiny, but after all the attention, we did make it through the border fairly quickly (about an hour).  It was good to know that we could essentially got to the front of the line as “tourists.”  We didn’t see any other tourists the entire time we were in the country, but I did meet a lot of friendly people and the nicest camel I’ve ever met in my life… and in my travels that is a lot!  The opposite end of the spectrum is the camel at Petra that spit and bit at me.

Turkmen Camel

While I’m on the topic of camels which is one of my favorite things about Turkmenistan, we saw a lot of camels simply roaming through the desert.  In some countries you see sheep on the hills.  In Turkmenistan, you see groups of camels by themselves just walking along the desert.  It’s amazing how long they can go without water.  There were often 2 or 3 adults among a group which may have a handful of young ones eating near by.  For these more wild camels we never knew how crazy they might be, but we took our chances for some good shots being cautious and then snuggling up with this lovable camel.

Turkmenistan Wild Camel

Kissy Camel lips

Turkmenistan Desert

The deserts of Turkmenistan do have a lot of green in them.  Our guide was pointing that from space it looks pretty green.  Much of what Turkmenistan looked like on the drive across looked like the picture above.  I hear there are even more great adventures out through the sand, but we didn’t get to spend that kind of time.  Our trip to Turkmen was a part of a bigger trip across the silk road.

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Some maybe most wouldn’t be able to point out where Turkmenistan is on the map.  It’s north of Iran, West of Afghanistan, and shares a large border with Uzbekistan and finally the Caspian sea to it’s West.  We would start our journey in Bukhara and spend the night in Mary after seeing Merv. I want you to see a few pictures of life today in Turkmenistan based on what I saw as we drove across this fascinating land.

 

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First you do see lots of flags and statues including the famous Turkmen symbols from the special star to the Turkmen rug symbols for the tribes on the national flag.  I think every tour in Turkmenistan starts out by explaining the nomadic tribes and their tribal symbols on the flag.  Great story or unifying tribes.

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These ladies were selling their wares on the side of the road out in the desert.  Most of it looked hand made from camel fur.  Pretty amazing what they could make with a little wool and camel yarn.  These ladies covered up their faces pretty quickly when they saw us take our camera’s out.

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

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Many muslims in Turkmenistan (93%).  They are a very religious people it seemed to me for the most part, despite being a former soviet country.

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

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

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Traditional dinner in Mary.  Yep more Shishka, but these were very fresh and tender.

Now for the old.  In Merv I had two favorites both part of the ancient city of Merv which is part of the Unesco heritage site.  Merv is the oldest and best-preserved of the oasis-cities along the Silk Route in Central Asia. The remains in this vast oasis span 4,000 years of human history. A number of monuments are still visible, particularly from the last two millennia.

Clay Walls of Kyzkala Palace Unesco Turkmenistan

Clay Walls of Kyzkala Palace Unesco Turkmenistan

The oasis formed part of the empire of Alexander the Great.  Fluted Clay Wall of Kyzkala Palace

Read more about the UNESCO site on their website  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/886

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Palace, Dome and Ruins… (even a little came in the photo… can you see it?)

I appreciate this quote on Merv.  While I saw there, I tried to imagine the city in it’s 12th century times as potentially the largest city in the world!!  “Merv (Turkmen: Merw, Persian: مرو‎ Marw), formerly Achaemenid Satrapy of Margiana, and later Alexandria (Ἀλεξάνδρεια) and Antiochia in Margiana (Greek: Ἀντιόχεια τῆς Μαργιανῆς), was a major oasis-city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, located near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. Several cities have existed on this site, which is significant for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value. It is claimed that Merv was briefly the largest city in the world in the 12th century. The site of ancient Merv has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.”

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Merv was home to practitioners of various religions beside the official Sassanid Zoroastrianism, including Buddhists, Manichaeans, and Christians of the Church of the East.  While in much of it now you see mounds these were once great walls.  The idea that Zoroastrians were in the same town as Buddhists and Christians is amazing to me.

 

“It is during this period that Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it “the mother of the world”, the “rendezvous of great and small”, the “chief city of Khurasan” and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said to have a market that is “the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan” (Herrmann 1999). It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000”

As we walked around trying to soak in the history and imagine the vast cities within cities, we were in awe.

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Now in much of what was the largest city, you see mounds.  In 1221 Merv opened it’s gates to the son of Genghis Khan, named Tolui.

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

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Artists rendition of the “before”

It is during this period that Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it “the mother of the world”, the “rendezvous of great and small”, the “chief city of Khurasan” and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said to have a market that is “the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan” (Herrmann 1999). It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000” – Merv Wikipedia Article

Fascinating to read the largest cities of the world over time.  Surprised not to see any Incan or Mayan cities or even Angkor Wat.  I think it’s a fun list but not complete.

 

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From the top of the tower.  Dome in the distance.

 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum, the old dome.  It really is the best preserved of everything we saw in Merv.  This 12th-century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, also in Sultan Gala is the largest of Seljuk mausoleums and is also the first dated mosque-mausoleum complex.

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum old 1890

 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum dome merv

The stacked rocks reveal that buddhists have visited the place and leave prayer rocks.

muslim star

 

 

 

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The ruins of Merv were fascinating to explore.  With civilization after civilization for millinum it is overwhelming to think of this area as some of the oldest continuous civilization.

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In conclusion… Turkmenistan was a fascinating visit.  I do recommend Turkmenistan on any silk road tour.  I wish I could have made it to the door to hell or derweze.  Make sure you look that up to see if it fits you’re schedule.  Otherwise if you want some history and friendly camels, Soviet city of Mary/ and Ancient city of Merv is a great destination.

Discovering Kyrgyzstan Land of Mountains

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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.

A Day as a Tourist in Afghanistan

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When I started planning my trip across Central Asia, I always had the idea that it would be fascinating to visit one of the most talked about places on the planet.  A place where tourists really don’t get.  In 12th century Spice Route Afghanistan was an important stop to visit the shrine of Ali, even Genghis Khan felt it was worth a visit or a razing.  If you think about it, Afghanistan hasn’t been as safe as it is now, for the past decade, and even before that it may have been since the 50’s that it was a place that outsiders could visit.  After getting all my visas for the variety of places I was going I got in a good conversation with my traveling partner about the possibility of visiting the city of Mazar-e Sharif.  I had a friend on Facebook who I connected with over the past couple of years and have been asking him all about life in Afghanistan.  Zaki, my good facebook friend said he’d be willing to show me around his town.  It really came together and Zaki fulfilled his promises.  Not only that, he ended up spending a couple of extra hours waiting at the border for us to get through.  After getting through security and walking across the bridge at Termez going through Uzbekistan and Afghanistan security we finally made it and what an adventure it was.

Strolling in a Burka in the Park

Is there really anything to see in Afghanistan?  Oh Yes!!

Shrine of Ali and Blue Mosque Afghanistan

Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue MosqueThe Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue Mosque, is a mosque located in the heart of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. It is one of the reputed burial places of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in law of Prophet Muhammad. The site includes a series of five separate buildings, with the Shrine of Hazrat Ali being in the center and the mosque at the western end. The site is surrounded by gardens and paths including an area with white pigeons.  You can see more of them in my pics in this post. Read more about the Ali shrine on Wikipedia

Our Afghan Driver

Our driver, the head of security in Mazar-e Sharif, and the uncle of our friend Zaki.

Driving in Afghanistan

We all piled into Zaki’s uncles taxi and headed out from the border for the city.  We decided we didn’t have enough time to make it to Balkh, but we were anxious to see the Blue Mosque and Shrine of Ali.

Afghan House

On the drive to Mazar-e Sharif, about an hour from the border, we drove by a number of homes build by mud bricks and natural elements.

Desert Sands of Afghanistan

The sands of the desert working their way to the road.  It won’t be long before the sands need to be handled.

 

Peace in Afghanistan

Peace to Afghanistan!

Blue Mosque Begging

This little guy was persistent.  He didn’t speak a word of English and I don’t know what he was saying, but he was carying a can of hot ashes and mumbling something in a persistent manner.  He wouldn’t let go of my clothes.  I’m sure he was very poor and hoping for assistance, but not sure what I could do to help.

Do you want Gum

These young boys were a joy to talk to.  While language wasn’t our forte, I had some real moments where we exchanged smiles and introduced ourselves.

Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif

My friend and I with our Afghan Friends Zaki and Hamid in front of the Shrine and Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan IT University

IT University.  Talking with Ahmad professor at the technical college in Mazar-e Sharif.

 

Full Burka with kids

Mother in Burka with her sons…

Full Burka with hand holes

Burka with Arm holes and lady with Hijab

Burka Peek

Burkas

One of the differences between Afghanistan and all of neighbors to the north is the Burka.  In terms of cultural differences I found it to be the most start contrast.  I’ve been around a lot of Hijabs (head scarves) in a variety of places, and even ran into a lot of Saudis in black full burkas in Kuala Lumpur, and Dubai.  I haven’t gotten use to it.  It’s really a fascinating thing.  The women cover up when they go out.  It not only keeps the sun off their faces, but keeps them from being attractive to men outside the home.  The thing that really surprised me was seeing women that would pull up the burka to interact with their kids at the park.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Based on what I’d heard and gathered on TV I was really worried they were going to get in trouble.  In this far north town in Afghanistan, there were plenty of women in the city that both wore and didn’t wear the burkas.  It did seem like most that didn’t wear the full burka would wear the hijab.

I grew out my beard for months in planning on my visit across Central Asia and “the Stans” coming to Afghanistan hoping to blend in, but ended up not noticing too many beards.  I did see some good beards, but for the most part the young men in their twenties would shave, and the older men involved in business seemed to shave into mustaches.

Afghanistan Beard

I wore an Uzbekistan hat and a shirt I also got in Uzbekistan a couple days earlier.  I’m sure it confused the locals, but at the time I wasn’t going for American, even though I’m sure I came across as traveler or tourist which may not necessarily be a be a best practice.

The locals were a mix of stand offish, and quite a bit curious.  I only had a couple of stares that came across as mean ones.  I ended up in a line at the mosque and park to visit the toilet, or what was really just a line of Turkish style toilets or better said, hole in the ground.  First time I’ve waited nearly 5 minutes in a toilet line for a squat style toilet.  The conditions weren’t great.  A few more public toilets would be a good thing when they decide to open up the town as a tourist attraction.

Why did I decide to come to Afghanistan?

I have been told that I’m crazy for wanting to visit a country at war.  In reality, I found a people very in need of outside love.  They are ready for outside investments, education, access to more.  I’m sure there are many challenges to getting the right kinds of services in.  The youth are very anxious to better understand the world, and connect.  I’ve had a number of facebook messages since my visit.  There’s so much hope.  I pray for my friends Zaki and Hamid, and the Admad at the technical school.  Be anxiously engaged in a good cause.  Hamid wants to be involved in security, and Zaki wants to be successul in consulting and IT.  Personally, I’m very anxious for this area to blossom.

This far north the risk wasn’t as great.  It really is tightly controlled.  We saw the drone balloon, and there were reminders that we were being watched.  Even crossing the border we went though a couple of check points, and got some strange looks, but overall, it wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be getting in and out.

Getting the visa for Afghanistan took less than a week, the easiest of the visas on our Central Asia tour.

I felt like we timed this right.  We spent an afternoon, I wish we could have seen Balkh which was another hour and has so much more history, but based on our plan of get in and out while seeing what we could in daylight, we did pretty well.  I have no regrets really.  I have been blessed in my life to live where I do and I hope the time I spent in this part of the world has helped me and my perspectives and outlooks on life, and I hope that the time I spent with my new Afghani friends helps spread peace and inspires them in their righteous pursuits.

Peace Tree Afghanistan

These pigeons look like doves.  They bring peace and happiness to the people.  They make people smile and laugh.

So do I recommend Afghanistan?

I think for those who are real travelers, yes. Mazar-e Sharif has a lot to offer as does Balkh based on my research.  At this point, our strategy of in and out, worked quite well.  We weren’t there long enough to cause a stir, which I find has been a great strategy for us. Whenever we feel like we might be going to an area involving any kind of risk, we play it safe and not spend too much time in any one area, and we don’t back track.  We’re always moving.  That’s been a great strategy for us.  We try to be unpredictable, so no one could plan anything.  I don’t have a death wish, it really was a fairly safe and calculated risk.  On my pursuits to see and connect with folks in every country in the world, this was an important one for me.  I still have strong feelings for the people I met.  It really makes this place very real to me now.  I think that’s really important.  When there’s a war on the other side of the world in an unknown place that’s being fought in a way that’s unimaginable, it’s easy for ignorant people to say, just bomb the place.  I have friends there, and it means something to me.  The only way to find peace is to find empathy and understanding.  Travel has helped provide a mechanism for that.  I’ve never met a military person who would want to go back to Afghanistan to visit, but I would.  I have friends there that are great people who are making a difference for life in there town.

I admit I am a bit of a travel junkie, and I believe that there are good people everywhere as do many of those that visit every country in the world… a pursuit of mine.

You can read about some of my extreme travels to Iraq (Kurdistan), Tunisia, Venezuela, Egypt

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

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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