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… I purposely took this picture of the boat near ours.

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.

Sleeping Buddah

Hard to tell, but this is the 170 meter long sleeping buddha… do you see him?

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 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.

  • Giant Panda Research Base – The most popular with over 50 pandas. Recommendation is to go early. They are most active in the morning and the feeding is happening. It opens at 7:30am.

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 this simple map together.

Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi’an China – Warriors and Horses 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 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.

Panorama Pit #1

Scientists working in pit #2

This is what the uncovered portion looks like. They have yet to dig into much of this area, but they have scanned with ground penetrating radar for miles around.

Pit #3

Brass horses and carriage

These are not full size… they are a little smaller.

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.

But further excavations of the tomb itself are on hold, at least for now.

“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.

Xi’an is a beautiful city. Many in our group said it was their favorite. The street market and Muslim food market in Xi’an is very worthwhile. Great food, puppets, fish eating the dead skin off your toes. We had a lot of fun.

Tower in Xi’an the old capital of China.

The Wall in Xi’an

Cultural experiences are easy to find in Xi’an

Big Wild Goose Pagoda is surrounded by fantastic gardens and large squares. The light show at night is amazing.

This Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a Buddhist pagoda located in southern Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China. It was built in 652


Even Dairy Queen and Pizza Hut are in the Chinese spirit.

Gateway to Heaven Tianmen Mountain China


I had a fantastic spring break in China and saw some of the most amazing places on the planet. If you’ve never been to China. Now is the time to start dreaming. In this series I will share 7 Bucketlist level places in China. It was out of this world amazing.  Tianmen mountain is UNESCO world heritage.

#1 Heaven’s Gate or Tianmen Cave at Tianmen Mountain, Stairway to Heaven

A mountain with the world’s largest natural bridge or “cave” located within Tianmen Mountain National Park, Zhangjiajie, in the northwestern part of Hunan Province, China.  This UNESCO heritage mountain is ancient and has since been developed into an important pilgrimage including one of the world’s most interesting roads with 99 hairpin turns, a stairway to heaven with 999 steps or an alternative way to get to the portal to heaven by taking the escalator followed by a second escalator up to the top of the mountain which has 3 optional very affordable glass walkways, chairlift, and one of the longest cablecar like gondola rides down the mountain and through the city.

Stairway to Heaven… Portal to Heaven, Heavens gate.  My 9 year old and I and my sister in law walked up the 999 stairs as my wife and brother in law and his daughter took the series of escalators.  A half hour later both of us arrived around the same time at the top of the stairs.  

Tianmen mountain may seem like it’s all about the portal to heaven, but there are a lot more surprises including glass walkways, gondolas, and the longest sets of escalators you’ve ever been on (unless you went to Kiev).

The Magical Map of Tianmen Mountain.

The walkways hang on the edge of cliffs.  Beautiful, breathtaking, and as my wife says… you get use to it after a while.

Tianmen Glass walkway: note the booties…  Christine, pictured didn’t think she’d be able to handle the glass walkways, but really you do get used to it and it is amazing and a must see!  You feel like you’re invincible.

Looking down from the glass walkways at the 99 turn road that led up to the gateway.  The road is thousands of feet below.

The Mountain is rich with a variety of experiences:

  • 999 Steps up to Tianmen Cave the Stairway to Heaven
  • You can take an escalator or walk up the 999 Steps
  • 99 Turns up the mountain
  • 3 Glass walkways with booties
  • East Glass Walkway
  • Ghost Path
  • West Glass Walkway
  • Tianmen Cableway
  • Tianmen Mountain Temple
  • Cave of the Godess of Mercy

This post is in a series about our spring break trip to the most amazing places in China. Natural wonders, Pandas, the Terra Cotta Warriors and more!

Prambanan Indonesian Historical Javanese Temples


Indonesia has been my favorite country for many years.  This trip started with my son saying if he could go anywhere in the world he wanted to go to Singapore.  I had been planning that if and when I got back to Indonesia I wanted to see the incredible great temples of Java… the temple complex of Prambanan.  When built there were 1000 temples, the complex is 240 temples for which

Prambanan is the largest and most beautiful Hindu temple complex in Indonesia. It is the masterpiece of Hindu culture of the ninth century. Prambanan is a collection of massive Hindu temples built by the Mataram Kingdom, rulers of central Java and defeaters of the Sailendra Dynasty in the 9th century.  Built in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, dedicated to the Trimūrti, the expression of God as the Creator, the Preserver and the Transformer. Consisting of Brahma as the creator god, Vishnu as the keeper god, and Shiva as the god of destruction.

The complex was laid out in the form of a mandala, and features the towering, broad spires that are typical of traditional Hindu temple architecture, and represent the holy mountain where the gods live… enjoy!

prambanan Yogyakarta

Hindu Temple of prambanan Yogyakarta

Hindu Temple of prambanan Yogyakarta

Massive Hindu Temple of Prambanan Yogyakarta

Massive Hindu Temple of Prambanan Yogyakarta temple of the gods

Ruins of Massive Hindu Temple of Prambanan Yogyakarta temple of the gods

Joel Oleson Banner Temple

Indonesian Dancing Girls

A mix of modern and ancient traditions and dance

Cultural costumes of Indonesia

Preserving the culture

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.

Tracking THE Migration: Wildebeest Worlds Largest Migration in the World!


When I told my guide I wanted to see the the wildebeest migration he told me I’d see so many wildebeest I’d cry.  I was up for the challenge.  This wasn’t my first African Safari, so I knew I wasn’t going to be satisfied with a herd of a few hundred wildebeest.  The family I was with was up for everything.  The Serengeti and the Crater is clearly the best places in the world to see the diversity of the world’s last greatest animals like the lion, cheetah, elephant, hippo, rhino and so much more.

Wildebeest the great migration

Spoiler.  I got my moment.  I was completely surrounded by a herd of migrating wildebeest who were climbing all over each other falling into ravines and it took me to a moment when I was in southern Utah and saw billions of crickets crawling and consuming everything in their path a mile wide.  These wildebeests for a moment were the crickets and I was in that moment looking at them in god mode like they were a swarm of crickets.  Incredible life experience.

cricket swarm

What many don’t realize is it’s possible to see the Migration all year round.  The river crossings are from July to November, the huge herds in Serengeti in April to June and calving season with babies and predators from December to March.

wall to wall wildebeest

I was looking for moments where all I could see was wildebeest everywhere I looked.

Wildebeest in water

It’s sad how after a couple of days you start rooting for the predators and are hoping a crocodile is in the water.

Wildebeest migration dates

One major myth is it being hot.  We went in July and needed jackets some nights.  It was NOT hot, the weather was hotter at home.  If you were hoping to go before it became a major tourist destination, with major international tour companies, and fees like you were in a top park.  Too late.  The fees were quite disappointing.  Tanzania knows that the Serengeti is a major international destination and getting accommodations in the park for less than $200 per night are nearly impossible.  Just pulling up a random date the cheapest per night is $500 for the 28 properties near Serengeti.  Go check booking.com… I’m serious!   There are primitive camping options at around $150, but for the most part I found most accommodations are only accessible at reasonable rates only through tour companies.  These companies seem to have a monopoly on the prices.  If you’re thinking you’ll skip the tour and do the drive yourself after 5 days in the park I can tell you they’ve tightened it up so it’s next to impossible to do yourself.  The park fees are $50 per person per day, but included in trip costs if you go through a company.  The crater entrance fees $200 per vehicle.  Let me get off the topic of fees.  It’s not cheap, but please do your research.  This can be an epic trip, and very worthwhile.  It was two days into the trip that I found out from my driver if I went direct I would have had a better price, and here I thought I had the direct price.  We must have priced out 30 or more different outfitters.  I’ve seen prices commonly between 5K to 30K for a week for a comprehensive inclusive package.

Family in Serengeti Africa

Ultimately there were 9 of us with my wife and our 9 year old, my brother in law and his son, and my other brother in law his wife and 2 kids.  We elected to do 2 different big safari vehicles. 

Family in Serengeti Africa

My African Safari family – In the back is our guide. 

hippos

Yes those are hungry hippos in the background.  No they don’t have access to us there’s a 30 ft cliff behind us.

06 Days/5 nights Tanzania Serengeti & Ngorongo Crater Safari

Day 1: Arusha Lake Manyara National Park Pick up from Arusha
Drive to Lake Manyara with picnic lunch .Arrive and start game
viewing later check out of the park and drive to Karatu .
Dinner and overnight at Country lodge/Eileen tree in/Crater rim
lodge.

Mad baby elephant

You never know when a young elephant might jump out of the forest and be a little upset that you cut her off from her mommy.  Let me tell you… they aren’t afraid of cars.

Day 2- Karatu- Serengeti
Depart for Serengeti after breakfast, with picnic lunches, you
will drive via Ngorongoro conservation area. Arrive at the park and
start your game viewing. Later drive to Ikoma/katikati for dinner and
overnight.

Leopard lookout

Of course you start tracking the big 5.  The Leopards are beautiful.

Sunset in serengeti

Driving nearly all day tracking animals went by quickly, and the sunsets were spectacular!

Giraffe at sunset

Even better when a giraffe would pose.

Day 3- Serengeti Full day
Spend this day with game drives within the Great Serengeti.
Serengeti is the home to Africa’s Big Five. There will be picnic lunch.
Dinner and overnight at the ikoma Camp

Disney in real life simba

This is Disney in REAL LIFE!  Simba headed out on the edge of the rock.  Circle of life!  Hakuna Matata

(Contact me joel.oleson@gmail.com for use of any of the photos.  A couple of them are my nephews.)

Day 4: Serengeti – Transfer to Ngorongoro After breakfast, depart
for Ngorongoro Crater passing through Olduvai Gorge. Enjoy an
introductory game drive as you arrive at the crater as you head to the lodge.
There will be no other game drive so spend the remaining hours at
leisure enjoying walking around the surrounding areas and exploring the
lodge’s facilities. Dinner and overnight at the Rhino
lodge/Country Lodge

Lion in tall grass

Ngorongoro is quiet unique as its physical protection from man
natural beauty ranks it among the most pristine wilderness on the earth.
It has been also declared the world heritage and is the largest
intact crater in the world.

Ngorongo Crater

rhinos in grass

The crater didn’t disappoint on providing the illusive black rhino as well.

Day 5: Ngorongoro Crater Full day
After breakfast, check out of the lodge with packed picnic lunch
and depart for a tour of the crater floor, which is home to numerous
plains game and the big five. Spend the day within the crater and
have lunch at one of the famous picnic spots in the park. In the
evening you will return to the lodge which is strategically perched on the
rim of the collapsed volcano, with the most magnificent views of the
crater floor.Dinner and overnight at the Eileen trees camp/Crate rim

image

running hyena

leopord in tree

chetah

lion hunt

For the most part by day 5 we were already saying we’ve seen enough of the antelope, elephants, and we’ve clearly found the big 5.  Let’s track leopards, lions or cheetahs and see them land a kill.  We weren’t disappointed, we caught a very interesting hunt of a four male lions tracking a female lioness who was hunting a water buffalo.

Day 6: Ngorongoro Crater Arusha.
After breakfast at the hotel depart and drive to Arusha. Drop off.

savanah

No one told this young one she was in the wrong place.

PRICE BASED ON USE 4X4 SAFARI LAND CRUISERS.
Price per vehicle @ $ 2,150 x 2 vehicles = $ 4,300
Per per adult @ $ 950 x 6 adults = $5700
Per per child 16 yrs. old @ $ 780
Per per child 7, 9 yrs. old @ $ 595 x 2children= 1190
TOTAL $ 11,970

So for my share it was around $3,785 for the 3 of us for 6 nights and 5 days all inclusive.

hyena

SAFARI QUOTATION INCLUDES:
Accommodation on Full board basis on safari.
Ground transportation in a private 7-seater Safari 4×4 safari Land
cruiser in Tanzania driven by a professional driver/guide Game drives
and park entry fees.
Mineral water during game drives only 1 litre bottle per person per day

EXCLUDES:
x Arrival Airport Transfer
× Visas (currently US$ 50 per person)
× Cost of international and Local Flights
× Inoculations and personal insurance
× Beverages unless stated otherwise

× Gratuities/guide tips to Hotel/Lodge staff
× Laundry and other personal expenses

monkey on roof

Of course the animals don’t know where the wild ends and the homes are.  In fact most of the lodges we stayed at warned us not to wander at night.  There were no fences around the camps.  In most camps we had armed guards who stayed up late chasing off animals or potential predators that wandered into camp, but the monkeys didn’t care.

boy with wildebeests

Our vehicles do have the pop top which was extremely handy and we ended up using it A LOT!

trekking the serengeti

Make sure you bring a good camera.  The photos you see in my blog here are all from an iphone.  Imagine what they’d be with an SLR.

Horny lion

Horny lion

You do get quite close to the wild life and the exhilaration you experience when you see a lion chasing it’s game is incredible!

Ostrich

Africa has some incredible animals and to imagine them all in such a short distance is pretty mind blowing.

Masai culture

Don’t let the animals be the only reason you want to visit Africa.  As a traveler the cultures of the tribes are easily what keeps me coming back for more.  There’s so much we can learn, and increase in our perspectives by learning from each other.  The Masai tribes were extremely welcoming.  They had a very formal way of receiving us into their village, with traditional greetings, jumping and dancing, and showing us their arts and crafts and then taking us into their homes.

Jumping Masai

  It’s not without a price these days, but if you get past that part, it’s a fascinating journey and your funds are shared among the whole tribe.  We were told our money was going to go for medicine for the cows.  Having visited the school of the village, I was happy to share that and more.  We left books and school supplies that we had purposely brought with us in extra bags.

Zanzibar

If you end up planning a trip something like this.  I highly recommend what I call a detox in Zanzibar.  Go relax in Zanzibar, go to the night markets and relax on the beach.  There’s the best food of Tanzania is in Zanzibar.  Very easy to find great food on the island, and the pace is perfect for relaxing as well stone town has some fantastic culture, history, and feels a little less like that extremes of tons of tourists or primitive… lots of great deals to be had on Zanzibar.  I really enjoyed taking in the culture and spices of the island.

Thanks for sharing my journey! 

Lion attacking baby rhino

I’m not selling anything.  If you are curious who I used reach out to Edward Massawe I asked Edward how people can reach out.  He says “Hello Joel! Jambo? Hope all is good with you my friend!! Here is my email address edwardtz@ymail.com, or WhatsApp me at +255 763 122 626.”  He was our driver who said he could even do better direct.  He recently posted on Facebook how he saved the life of a baby rhino with some other drivers.  He’s got some fascinating tales from Leopards inside the vehicle… stories you’d never believe!

(Note the photo above is from Edward’s friend posted to his Facebook page.)

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.

Visit Beautiful Palau Micronesia Islands Nation of Nature


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

Palau Islands

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

Map of Federated States of Micronesia

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

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

kayaking in Palau

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

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

Babeldaob

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

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

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

Palau Monolithic Stones

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

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

Palau – Ngardmau Waterfall

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

Palau - Ngardmau Waterfall

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

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

Amazing to visit such an interesting island.

Traveling 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.

Easter Island Travel – Isla de Pascua Mystery


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!