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

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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!

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.

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


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

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

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

1. Baku Zoroastrian Fire Temple – Ateshgah of Baku.

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

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In front of the fire temple

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

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

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2. Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

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

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3. Baku Flame Towers

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

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

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

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

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I suggest you either take the

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

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

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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.

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


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

Basura Kyrgzystan Undiscovered Territory

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

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

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

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

rich hotel

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

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

Bishkek

Ala-Too Square

Ala too square

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

central square bishkek

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

Ala Too Square

Interesting Soviet style buildings from 1984 surround the fountains.

Old Kyrgyz Man with Hat

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

Beautiful Kyrgyz Child

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

 

Kyrgyz Russian Orthodox ChurchKyrgyz Russian Orthodox Church

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

Kyrgyz MosqueKyrgyz Mosque

Kyrgyz World War 2

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

 

Ala Archa

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

Ala Archa National Park

Ala Acha

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

yurt kyrgyz

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

Kyrgyz Shepherd and horse

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

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

Azat and his beautiful Kyrgyz family

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

Komus playing

 

Top of the Yurt

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

Kyrgyz Yurt

The locals are very humble and extremely nice.

 

yurt

This is what the finished product will look like.

Kyrgyz teens

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

Kyrgyz picnic at Al Acha

Kyrgyz picnic spread

Soup

Cooking the soup!

Yoghurt Drink

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

Kyrgyz Com

Kyrgyz Money – som, com, pronounced some or soums

primitive out house

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

kyrgyz graves

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

Burana Tower

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

Burana Tower

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

Muslim Girls Top of the Burana Tower

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

Burana Grave Markers

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

Burana Ruins

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

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

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Old Arabic in grave markers

 

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

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Fresh food!

Lake Issuk Kul

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

Issuk Kul Lake - Иссык-Куль

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

 

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

izzyk kul beach on the lake

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

 

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

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

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


wild camels

I recently got back from traveling across Central Asia. Some things have changed and some things haven’t.  The road is now mostly paved roads, but you will still find sheep herders, and wandering camels in some places.  When I shared with my friends I was going to Central Asia and even mentioned some of the countries by name… Most don’t know what I’m even talking about even when I added Silk Road or Central Asia.  I needed to fill in the detail between China, Russia and Turkey.  In this post, I want to give you some of the highlights and background.

My friend Michael and I have been planning to travel the silk road and visit “the stans.”

Our plan involved spending time in each of the following countries:

  • Kyrgyzstan – Serene Kyrgyzstan Land of Mountains
  • Kazakhstan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Afghanistan – A day as a tourist in Afghanistan
  • Tajikistan

I plan to share some of my experiences from each of these amazing and diverse countries.  Each of them is different in their own way and I saw amazing and fascinating things in each of these places.  There are incredible people in every country.  I continually get asked if I ever felt threatened or at risk.  No, I didn’t.  I did have some moments where I was feeling eyes watching me and moments where I felt like I was out of place, but I really enjoy that feeling of being the minority and feeling odd.  If I’m traveling and I’m not feeling that then I’m not challenging myself enough.  This trip was the most logistically challenging.  It took over 3 months just to get visas and I still didn’t get all the visas I wanted.  I missed out on Pakistan due to my Jamaica and trip to Quebec and Montreal earlier this year.  The only country that didn’t require a visa for US Citizen was Kyrgyzstan, and the hardest to get into ended up being Turkmenistan who assigned us a monitor and required traveling company which ended up being our most expensive of the trip.  In addition Pakistan was a challenge for time.  The visa would have been an additional 4-6 weeks and I couldn’t surrender my passport long enough make it with my Jamaica plans.

Samarqand, Bukhara, and so many of these places stir up the magical and mystical old world of East meets west.  Where Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and a variety of old faiths like Zoroastrianism met through caravans and trade routes.  I had the incredible opportunity to visit some of these places and soak up the influence of this melting pot of culture, religion, food, and history.  I plan to share the highlights and some favorite stories, but wanted to get this post out as a placeholder.  I’ll link to the subsequent posts from this one to be as a landing page of the best of Central Asia.

 

Women of the desert of Turkmenistan

Turkmeni ladies of the desert selling camel hair trinkets on the side of the road

 

desert yurt

Desert Yurt in Turkmenistan

furry camel

One of the friendliest camels I’ve ever met. This friendly hairy camel enjoyed posing with us.

 

dome

Old Dome in Merv

merv

Merv, Turkmenistan

bukhara, uzbekistan

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

blue mosque of mazar-e sharif afghanistan

Blue Mosque and Shrine in Mazar-e Sharif Afghanistan

uzbekistan yurt

Countryside in Uzbekistan

sheep herding

Wandering Sheep in Uzbekistan

 

shakrazabh

Old Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan

ark in shakrazabh

Ark of Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan