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

Touring Iraq – Travel Adventures in Kurdistan

Iraq travel

Middle East Peace Talks - Iraq

Everyone I know who have ever visited Iraq were there for military reasons.  When I told a local in Iraq I was a tourist, they said… “Tourist?” What’s that? Tourism is really a foreign word, but no longer.  The Kurdistan region of Iraq is open.  Visa restrictions in Iraqi Kurdistan aren’t bad for many western countries.  For Americans you can currently get a 15 day visa on arrival!  I was impressed how easy it would be to get into such an incredible place.  The cradle of civilization.  Abraham himself is said to have traveled to this area.  Chaldeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, there is a serious history to this region of the two rivers.  I stayed in the Kurdistan region my entire stay, but traveled through a number of check points going both ways between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.  We ultimately took two routes between the two cities by cab.  One went on the highway and through check points.  We were worried there might be problem with driving between the cities, but the road itself was controlled by Kurdish forces.  So while we did get our passports checked a couple of times.  We did avoid entering Kirkuk and we avoided Mosul.  I really wanted to go to Nineveh and the tombs of the prophets, but instead stuck with our plans to spend time exclusively in the cities.

Iraq road map

Our route through the Iraqi-Kurdistan region.  Syria just on the other side of Mosul and the hills of Iran on the other side of Suliamaniyah.  Yep those hills!  While we were in Erbil (Arbil/Irbil) we met a man in the square who was a Syrian refugee.

Erbil, Iraqi-Kurdistan

Citadel fountain

I started my visit with the best, the ancient Citadel.  At 6000 or 7000 years old this citadel is the one of the longest continuously inhabited cities.

Erbil Iraq Clock Tower

The fountain and clock tower attract vendors and families coming to the beautiful square to shop and take pictures.

Old pictures of Erbil show the Citadel and the Minaret.  Over 500 years ago the city of Erbil was only what was on the hill protected by the city walls, and the minaret.

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We walked nearly all the way around the citadel hill.  “A city on a hill cannot be hid.” I have to wonder if this old saying came from this city.  As we walked I saw a group of old men.  I needed to find a restroom.  I just had to go and decided to ask them.  We found this tea house was actually a game center.  The men were drinking tea and playing some high volume game of dominoes involving slamming tiles.  Even though they spoke little english and we spoke little to no Kurdish or Arabic we were able to build trust enough after playing a couple of games and getting tips from our new friends.  In travel I have found there are moments to really dive in.  It’s not all about going to tourist destinations.  It’s about learning to understand people and visit new people and cultures.

Playing Dominoes game in Iraq

Most people if you told them you were going to Iraq to visit.  They would say avoid crowds.  Well, in a local market in Erbil we seem to have met the real masses.

Iraq Crowd in the market

The faces on the people do seem to be hard, but I can attest that the Kurds are some of the kindest people you will meet.  They have sacrificed much.  It has not been an easy life.

Cotton Candy Kids

Life goes on… Kids on their way to school

Chaldean Christian Church in Iraq

Our last night in Erbil we went to the Christian part of town.  This Chaldean church was in service.  My friend Michael and I enjoy visiting cathedrals, mosques, temples, and find that you can learn more about it’s people by understanding their passions, their worries and their faith in God.  We stayed for the entire service.  The prayer for the Filipinos was so strong it brought tears to my eyes.  The group of minority Christians in this vast land of Muslims with their faith prayed for those suffering in the Philippines.  It was so touching to see them turn their thoughts.  They have not had an easy life here in Iraq, but many came here to provide a better life for their families back home.  They saw this as a land of opportunity.  One of the people at the church had lost 30 members of their family in the Philippines.  It made the disaster personal talking with this group and hearing them pour out their hearts.

(This picture above and a couple of the others were taken by Michael Noel travel blogger at http://travelingtheglobe.com, my good friend and my traveling companion on this and may of my trips.)

Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi-Kurdistan

When we first planned to come to Iraqi-Kurdistan we tried to find connections in our technology.  You can read more about the visit to the University and our technology sessions with the Computer Science students and faculty of University of Human Development (UHD) in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan.  Those who wonder how I travel the world best understand it is my passion to visit the world and connect with people of all cultures and people.  How I do it is through my connections and relationships. I sacrifice my time and money as well to visit places around the world like this, and not only are the people changed through our encounters but I am changed.  Hearing stories from the students blows my mind making Iraq real and the horror stories of Saddam’s rule.  One of the assistant professors told me about his 3 brothers being killed and how he barely escaped and just recently came back from spending many years in the UK. Amazing personal stories.  I feel for these people.  Over night I became friends on Facebook and LinkedIn with over 15-20 of the students in the room.  I hope I can help them in the future in their pursuits.

Iraq University Students

So after a couple of nights in Erbil, the next morning we left for Sulaymaniyah by cab.  We arranged for a driver to take us on the road through the hills through the Kurdistan region.  On the way back we were feeling more confident and drove back through the highway faster route through Kirkuk.

When we first arrived I did a quick search and came across the Amna Suraka Museum known as red prison or Red Intelligence Museum. This prison was the former Ba’ath intelligence headquarters and prison.  Just as some death camps and concentration camps have been preserved, this captures the essence of torture and death in the treatment of Kurds.  In my travels I have found it fascintating to visit places in the world where minorities have been treated poorly.  I see a lot of parallels in how the Armenians were treated by the Ottomans as the Kurds were by Saddam’s regime.

Amna Suraka torture

Turned into a museum at the behest of First Lady of Iraq, Hero Talabani, in 2000, the façade still bears the bullet holes evidencing the scars of its past.

Iraqi sorrow

Our cab driver shared his person experience having been there only 11 years prior.  His wife and 3 of his family were killed.

women and children suffering

You really could feel the emotion of the place. The prison was haunting with

hall of mirrors iraq

Hall of mirrors… represent those that were killed in the mass genocide

Unmarked graves

There are other reminders of mass death in this region.  So many unmarked graves, and these that are marked with simple rocks that dot the hillside.

sheep balls menu

Interesting food choices!

tower

Hope is strong in this region.  They are ready to bring in the New…  The tower in the background which looks like it’s from Dubai is made by the same architect.

iraqi gondola and ferris wheel

It still isn’t Disneyland, but would you believe that there is an amusement park and gondola?  The construction going on is also quite impressive.  There is a lot going on here.  Change is coming.  The people are ready to see change.

gold mosque

Their faith will carry them.

cable tower

On our final departure we saw this wild tower piece of metal near the airport.  It took at least 4 scans to work our way from the street to the gate at the airport.  They are very serious about security.  I felt safe while in Kurdistan.  Speaking of God, I felt like he was watching out for me on this trip.  The faith of so many in this region is very strong, and the people of this land itself has had a strong connection Abraham’s God for thousands of years.

One of my most fascinating trips.  I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.  It isn’t for everyone, but I do see reason for investment.  I see passion and interest in the people.  People are ready for change.  As well, the Kurds are great people, a great heritage that has suffered greatly, and will rise from the dust.  I made some great friendships that will last though the years.

Colosseum Ampitheatre of the Roman Empire – 7 New Wonders


The Colosseum or Coliseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre is an elliptical amphitheatre in the centre of the city of Rome, Italy.  Definitely growing up you hear all about the colleseum.  You hear about the stories of the gladiators the Ben Hur, the Christians and lions.  Colosseum could hold, it is estimated, between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, and was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas.  It is a UNESCO heritage site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

The Colosseum

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

  • Great Wall of China – Sacrifice of a Nation
  • Christ the Redeemer Statue – Religious Icon of Rio Brazil
  • Taj Mahal – Sacred Mausoleum of Agra India
  • Petra Jordan – Nabataean Cave City of the Desert
  • Machu Picchu – Lost Sacred City of the Incas
  • Chichen Itza – Ancient Mayan Temple Pyramid
  • Colosseum Amphitheatre of the Ancient Roman Empire
  • colloseumEmperor Vespasian had it built in around 70–72 AD, funded by the spoils taken from the Jewish Temple after the Siege of Jerusalem, but since then it has been robbed itself of blocks to build other things.

    You do have to pay to go into the colloseum.  Despite the fact that huge parts of it are now decrepid and missing, it’s handled time quite well.  It really is huge and impressive… Definitely worth seeing.  People dress up in Roman costumes.  There’s a lot to see nearby as well with the arch, great restaurants, and museums… it really does feel like the center of town and hey, there are more things close to this tube station than most others.  Getting around this was one of the easiest ancient things to find.

    Italian in Italy with a view of the coloseum

    Great Italian food nearby!!

    When in Rome!

    As they say… When in Rome!

    I’ve been to Rome a few times and it’s a city that’s a great city filled with tons of things to see and do.  Very easy to spend a week in.  In fact we did that a few years ago as a family.  While driving was a challenge, after a couple of days I was getting around pretty well.  Driving in Rome has gotten a lot easier than it was a few years ago with tons more scooters.  I do have to warn you that if you have your own rental car make sure you understand there are areas you can’t park without a permit.  As well, certain lanes you can’t drive in (bus/taxi lanes).  I’ve gotten towed in Rome once, and a ticket in the mail once.  So let’s just say, I’ve had some experience in this area.

    Rome is filled with tons to do.  There have to be more nuns and priests in Rome/ Vatican city than anywhere else in the world!

    Here are a few ideas…

    5 Additional Places to go when visiting Rome (or Italy) when visiting the Coliseum

    Happy Nuns

    1) St Peters Basilica, PLUS Vatican Musuem, and the MUST SEE! Sisteen Chapel… Shhhh! No Photos!

    Spanish Steps

    2. The Spanish Steps…

    Great social place to meet the locals and throngs of tourists as well

    Trevi Fountain Rome Italy

    2. Trevi Fountain

    Florence

    4. Day trip to Florence to see Michelangelo’s David

    Track down the Catacombs.  There are a few different ones.  We absolutely loved them as well.  Depends on your interests…

    5. Day trip to Pompeii and YOU MUST GO TO POMPEII! It’s one of the most amazing places on the planet.  There is another amphitheatre there, but you’ll see ruins like no other on the planet… KM or miles of them.

    There really area ton of things to see in Rome, pace yourself so you don’t get “ruin”-ed out or museum’ed out.  The Blocks and Columns start looking the same and religious paintings as well start blending together.

    Coliseum

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

Sidi Bou Said, Blue and White houses in Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

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

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

hijab with headphones

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

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

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

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

1. Tunis Bardo Museum

Bardo Museum

Old Door in the Bardo Museum

Tunisian Muslim Girls

Beautiful Ancient Doorway Nailwork

Stones found with religious art…

Adam and Eve Ancient stoneDaniel and the Lions Den Ancient

L: Adam and Eve  R: Daniel and the Lions

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

Sidi Bou Said

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

Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said

3. Carthage Cathedral

St Louis Cathedral in Carthage

St Louis Cathedral in Carthage

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

St Louis Statue in Carthage

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

Acropolium

Acropolium

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

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

Carthage Museum Statues

Carthage MuseumCarthage Museum

5. Medina in Tunis

La MedinaLa Medina Markets

Narrow walkways of the old Medina in Tunis

Doors of Tunis Doors of Tunis

Old doorways that tell the story of time…

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

6. National Cathedral in Tunis

National Cathedral

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

7. Tunis Fresh Food Market      

Fresh Market

Open Air Fresh Foods Market in downtown Tunis

Tunis Theatre

Tunis Theatre

Tunis Theatre – Very Ornate Theatre

Bermuda So much more! 5 Amazing things to do in Bermuda

Bermuda Coast

When you think of Bermuda do you think of shorts, surfing, sun, and island living?  Having recently got back from Bermuda I now have a great appreciation for this amazing island.  One of the amazing things about the islands of the Caribbean and really the islands everywhere is that for the most part, each island is different.  A few years ago before I started really exploring the islands I thought once you’d been to one you’d seen them all.  This is far from the case.  Each island nation has a different story.  Many have different geographic features, and the histories and imperial powers languages and resources of each island make up a vast variety of experiences.  Even the foreign money that may be invested in the nation play into the development of an island and how long it’s been independent or not!

Bermuda Business Shorts

Business wear in Bermuda really stands out as unique.  It’s quite normal to see a business man in a suit coat, shorts, dress shoes, and long black socks.

In my trip there, I found it to be a bit of paradise.  Amazing beaches, relaxing surf, some of the best ship wreck diving in the world, and if you love exploring by scooter, there isn’t a better island.  Only the locals can have cars, and even they are limited to how many cars they can have per household. As a visitor or tourist you can rent a 150cc scooter.  Even my friends who were from overseas working there drove a scooter to work.  This keeps the traffic, noise and pollution and congestion down on the three main roads through the island.  Top speed limits on the roads are easily achievable by scooter as well, so that’s not a problem.  During my visit I ended up driving on each of the main roads and went from tip to tip in a day tour across the island with my scooting friends.

If you love island food you’ll love the Jerk, Cajun and Creole and amazing seafood with fresh fish sandwiches everywhere.  Little island, great night life!  I had an amazing time mixing it up with locals in one of a few clubs, and then headed out for a midnight dip.

Many people get Bermuda mixed up with the Bahamas or think that it’s in the Caribbean, in reality it’s closer to North Carolina than it is to the Virgin Islands or the Bahamas.

While tourism is one of the top two forms of income for the island, insurance comes in second.

Saint George Bermuda from the air

Bermuda

Discovery: 1505 by Bermudez although he never even landed there!

Geographic features: Bermuda is the shape of a fish hook.  At it’s widest point is 1.5 miles wide, and and just over 15 miles from eastern most point to western most point.

Indigenous population: Said to have had no natives, but someone apparently dropped off some pigs which later helped to establish a permanent settlement community there.

Unique Features: St. Georges was established in 1612 and is the oldest continuously inhabited British town in the New World.  It is now also the oldest British overseas territory.

 

My Favorite 5 things to do in Bermuda

1. Dive the Bermuda Triangle – Right off the coast of Bermuda are tons of sunken ships and great reefs.  There appear to be higher density of sunken ships around Bermuda than anywhere!  If you don’t dive there are great snorkeling spots as well, or go for a glass bottomed boat, but you really should consider getting wet in the amazing water.  There are advanced diving places with tunnels, caves, and canyons, and easy diving spots with tons of colorful fish.  I saw a massive grouper.

reef wreck diving the bermuda triangle

2. Soak up some sun on the amazing beaches like Horseshoe Bay in the most amazing azure colored water you’ll ever see– The sand doesn’t get hot and it barely sticks to you. 

Horse shoe bay beach

3. Walk around St George 1612, the oldest continuously inhabited town in the new world. Old ships, old churches, old graveyards, great colorful little shops, and tons of museums. You can feel the history.

Old Historical St George

4. Life is an adventure – Rent a scooter, the best way to get around the island!  Want to take it slower? Take a segway tour, or really step it up and put on a water propelled jet pack.  I rented a scooter in the middle of the island and rode from tip to tip and then back.  Amazing how much ground I could cover in an afternoon.

Scootin Bermuda

5. Go golfing?!! Highest golfing density in the world.  18 courses on some of the most pristine views and unique environments.

Vista Views

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

Taj Mahal Mausoleum in India

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

Incredible India

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

Bikaner Holy Rats

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

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The Gates of Jodhpur, the Pink City

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

Amazing old city of Varansi

The Gattes… steps to the Holy Ganges river

The Gattes of the Ganges

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

Floating in the Ganges

Dipping in the Silty powerful Holy Ganges River

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

mehrangarh fort in jodhpur

Mehrangarh Fort high on the high on the hill in Jodhpur

Jodhpur Blue City

Above Jodhpur the Blue City!

Jaipur Floating Palace

Floating Palace near Jaipur

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

Taj Mahal

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

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

From Taj Mahal, side buildings at Sundown

Watching sundown from the Taj Mahal

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

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

Cappadocia Turkey Underground Cave Cities


It was while watching a SCI FI Ancient Aliens show I first heard about the underground cities of Derinkuyu, Kaymakli and Ozkonak.  These and the other 200+ Underground Cities are a huge mystery that may never come to full light.  Everything we know is just from what has been found in excavating what remained.  This could be remnants from those who were last there, as these caves could be much much older. There really are so many cave systems and underground tunnels and essentially full cities underground that it may never be fully excavated.  These cities contained wineries, stables, churches, school, cellars, storage rooms.  The largest of the underground city of the in the Derinkuyu district in Nevşehir Province, Turkey.  It’s only been open to visitors since 1969 and less than half of what has been excavated is accessible to tourists.  At peak this city could have supported 20,000 residents and was up to 85 Meters deep!!!  According to the Turkish department of culture the cave is 8th to 7th century possibly built by the Phrygians either for religious purposes or refuge. 

Derinkuyu Yeralti Sehri

 

Now if you’re looking to visit this region, Goreme, Turkey is a great central location and really setup well for tourists where you can sleep in your own cave, but not part of any major tunnel system.  Goreme has shuttles to and from the airport.  Warning: If you are planning on not renting a car (which you shouldn’t need to do), you need to make sure you arrange ahead of time with one of the shuttle companies, the small airport in Kayceri has no ticket desk for shuttles and the taxi ride is pretty steep comparatively.  I was denied entry into a shuttle bus even after offering to pay him his price.  The driver won’t take money, it has to be pre-arranged.  I ended up catching a ride with an older couple that was headed into the city.  Really I got lucky, I didn’t want to pay the high price of the taxi, and there were no bus options that were convenient.  It was going to be a long walk and an inconvenient trek to the bus station, and who knows how long I may have had to wait.  WIth as many tourist shops and vehicles as there are in Goreme it was amazing to me how there was really NOTHING at the airport.

 

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On the surface you really wouldn’t even know it was down there, save the entrance sign and a few air vents that look like wells.

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Based on the size of the 500KG door that’s only able to be opened from the inside, I can definitely imagine it being used for refuge and for hiding from someone or something.

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There are some spaces that are very wide open such is just outside the church which makes the shape of a cross, underground, or the very tight spaces that is speculated as being a doorway that forces the person to be penitent.  They must go onto their knees to enter.  The self inflicted punishment is they would go around and around through the small tunnel to learn humility, kind of like the hail Mary or doing rosary beads.

When inside unless you’re claustrophobic, you feel very safe.  The walls seem very solid and there isn’t any crumbling rock.  There are some areas where you need to bend over to avoid hitting your head, but the hall near the church has a lot of room, and supports really large gathering of people.

You can take a virtual tour of the caves at http://www.muze.gov.tr/derinkuyu

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Look closely at these boards and you have one of the primary tools used to carve the stone with much sharper stones.  The would drag the board across the softer stone and it would essentially carve away the stone.  In this way they could remove the stone in large swaths.  For smaller areas, they would use smaller tools.

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Those who speculate that it was designed to be very temporary need to explain the graves in the area called the Morgue.  Here the rooms in this section of the cave are designed to handle the dead… Is it possible these graves were temporary holding places for the dead until they could find peace long enough to bury their dead.

 

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Yes, it was very dark 7-8 stories down.  The little lights are wired up and brought in through wires attached to the wall.

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Nevşehir Province has several other underground cities and Derinkuyu itself connects to Kaymakli via an 8 km tunnel. The deepest cave city is Derinkuyu and the widest is Kaymakli.  You can’t travel the tunnel between them.  Derinkuyu is about 30 minute drive from Goreme, which is the city where most of the hotel and tourist support is.  Access to these cities is no longer open to local residents without going through the main entrance. They remain generally unoccupied. In excess of 200 underground cities containing a minimum of two levels have been discovered in the area between Kayseri and Nevsehir.  Some 40 of those contain a minimum of three levels or more. The troglodyte (underground) cities at Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu are two of the best examples of habitable underground structures.  Reaching Derinkuyu or Goreme and the underground cities and cave churches, one can purchase a domestic ticket on Turish Airlines to Keyseri or Nevsehir. There are overland bus routes as well from across the country with flying being the shortest and not a bad way to reach the city.  Turkey is a big country so plan accordingly.

 

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Why you need to visit Cappadocia the Underground Cities and Cave Churches

There are so many incredible things to see in Cappadocia that you could spend a weeks here and still discover new places. The main ‘must-see’ attractions are the open-air museums which are essentially groupings of caves, cathedrals and homes and the two best underground cities. At the same time it wouldn’t make sense to go this whole way and not see the incredible Rose Valley, the Ihlara valley which has many of its own small cave churches, but even just outside the Goreme Open Air museum is one of my favorite cave churches.  What you’ll find when you arrive is there are many tourist companies that have organized the tours into the blue route, and red route, and so on, to group the various activities for those with limited time.  As well, don’t forget to get up as high as you can to check out the valley, this may be in a hot air balloon or on a hike to the top of the canyons.  One thing you must do is explore.  There’s so much to see and not everything is behind closed doors.  Even just hiking the valleys, you’ll be amazed to find abandoned caves.

  • Goreme Open Air Museum: cave churches with frescoes
  • Zelve Open Air Museum: an empty cave town with churches
  • Kaymakli Underground City: the largest underground city
  • Derinkuyu Underground City: the deepest underground city
  • Ihlara Valley: the deepest gorge of Anatolia
  • Uchisar: Roman rock-cut castle. You’ll see it driving back and forth.  Very cool looking. 
  • Ortahisar: Roman rock-cut castle.
  • Pasabag: mushroom-shaped fairy chimneys, monks valley
  • Devrent: animal-shaped fairy chimneys, imagination valley
  • Hacibektas: center of Bektasi sect of Islam
  • Gulsehir: first settlements in Cappadocia

I shared some of my stories on the Open Air Musuem, the Ihlara Valley and Monestary in “Early Cave Churches of Cappadocia Turkey” and more on the “Underground Cities

Christian Cave Churches and Monasteries in Cappadocia Turkey


Iconic Early 5th Century Christian Cross

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

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

Cave homeMary the mother of Jesus

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

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

Goreme Open Air Museum Entrance

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

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

high cave churchThe Snake Church

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

Christian Column Inside the cave church

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

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

Pagans

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

Greek Influece on Caves in Turkey The Hive of Caves

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

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

Ihlara Valley Map

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

Ihlara valley cave churchesPainted Cave

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

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

The Three Magi

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

Mary on a donkey

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

The dome in pigeon poo

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

Open Air churchesGoreme

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

Goreme from above

View of Goreme from the top of the hills.

Abandoned fairy homes

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

The Messiah scratched out

The Messiah, with a scratched out face…

Selime Cathedral

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

Selime Cathedral

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

Selime Cathedral

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

Cappadocia Central Turkey Valleys and the all seeing eye

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

Traveling Ireland’s Ancient and Natural Wonders

Cross in Ireland

Ireland has been inhabited for thousands and thousands of years.  For Eons and Ages, Ireland has constantly been inhabited and has a rich culture of folklore, myths, and a myriad of megalithic structures scattered across the country marking structures from these older ages.  Early man left evidence from the mesolithic, neolithic, stone, bronze, and iron ages. I love traveling to Medieval and Neolithic sites.  The ancient world history is fascinating to me.  From the pyramids and temples of Egypt to Avebury & Stone Henge and on to the Nazca lines and the underground cities of Goreme and Cappadocia.  I’m absolutely fascinated with it.  So much of what we know is so little.  We talk about these places like we know all about them, but honestly it’s pre-historic and we know very little and are still learning.

History in Ireland started in 400 AD with the spread of Christianity.  It’s amazing to think of it spreading so far and wide.  There are some amazing structures to see in Ireland.  Within a short drive from the beautiful city of Dublin, you can be at amazing places.  I recommend Wicklow for an afternoon at Glendalough.  Glendalough is a glacial valley in County Wicklow, Ireland. It is known for its early Medieval monastic settlement founded in the 6th century by St Kevin, a hermit priest.  It’s a beautiful drive and history itself unfolds as you walk amongst the graves, churches, and stone archways.

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Like these ancient sites.  Very easy to connect with nature and get a feel for what it was like in a village.  This tower entry reminds me of Rapunzel.  The entry to get in the tower is twenty feet off the ground.  Apparently the monks would climb up a latter and then pull it up.  They could drop rocks or oil and fire on the invaders.

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These ancient rock churches are beautiful, but not an uncommon site in Ireland.  They have lasted well through the ages.  You can see how important faith was through the ages.

Glendalough is home to one of the most important monastic sites in Ireland. This early Christian monastic settlement was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century and from this developed the “Monastic City”. Most of the buildings on the site today date from the 10th through 12th centuries. Despite attacks by Vikings over the years, Glendalough thrived as one of Ireland’s great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning until the Normans destroyed the monastery in 1214 A.D.

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Amazing structures, history from an ancient time… you can feel it in your bones.

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Walking through the graves and the amazing Celtic crosses makes you feel an appreciation for the deep faith of the people.

Older than the Pyramids or Stone henge, Newgrange was an amazing find.  I was amazed to find such an ancient megalithic structure that I hadn’t heard of with such importance.  Driving north from Dublin straight north in the small town County Meath, Ireland on our way to Belfast and Northern Ireland, we saw a sign for this ancient site.  I was intrigued.  What is this Neolithic site I’ve never heard of?  Newgrange is a large mound in a circular shape with a stone passageway and decent sized chamber inside (no pictures inside).  On the tour they told us that during the 70’s some hippies were inside when it lit up during the winter solstice.  Apparently they really didn’t know what it was used for prior.  There’s still some confusion, but essentially this mount is not isolated.  There are a lot of them in a small area.

New Grange

This stone mound is surrounded by large stones with Neolithic carvings that still show up reasonably well.  I absolutely love the swirls.  It reminds me of the tail of the monkey in the Nazca lines.  What you don’t realize is just how old they estimate this place.

These megalithic structures are called portal tombs (a chamber consisting of upright stones with one or more large flat capstones forming a roof) or passage graves or dolmen often there is often no human remains. There are 40 of these passage graves near Newgrange.  The carvings on the rock are one of the largest collection of megalithic art.

megalithic artNewgrance megolithic

Incredible examples of one of the largest natural collection of Megalithic art… Newgrange is part of the Brú na Bóinne UNESCO World Heritage Site.

solstice lottery

On the tour, they simulate the light, but there is actually a lottery to be able to be one of the lucky handful who can be in the chamber when the light enters.

In Northern Ireland is one of the great natural wonders of Ireland.  The Giants Causeway.  This basalt has dried in amazing formations on the sea side.  It’s like Black Chrystal formations.

Giants Causeway beach, Northern Ireland

Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland

In the Giants Causeway with my sons.  I’m lucky to be able to travel with my family on occasion.  Ireland is a good family destination.  Very family friendly destinations, and accommodations. They really enjoyed Ireland as well, and to think I was afraid there wasn’t that much to see.  Incredible structures, incredible history, and very fun people.  I’d be happy to go back to Ireland… anytime.  So much more to see.

Travel Back in Time – Smell the Mint Tea of Morocco


I am entranced with Morocco.  There are few places in the world that do such an amazing job of preserving life as it was hundreds even thousands of years ago.

Fez Medina Donkey Travel

Fez, has truly captured life as it was 1000 years ago.  The Medina or urban center is the gated old city in Fez.  The only transportation in the Medina is by foot, or by donkey. No cars.  I have seen a scooter or two, but the preference is no motorized vehicles.  The narrow old streets couldn’t support a car anyway.  It is amazing how well preserved the the traditions, culture, and structures are in Fez.

Narrow Alleyways Vegetable alleyway Morocco Metalwork

You see water being hauled in for drinking, common community ovens for cooking bread, hammam or bath houses, and common tanneries and more.  The beauty of this gem of the desert is most precious.

 

Riad Fez .

I stayed for a couple of nights in Riad Fez – very beautiful feel to it.  The wood is so intricate, and the tile beautiful with color.

Fez Metal Work

This chandelier the size of a VW bug is hand made stamped metal.  Morocco is known for the lamps and chandeliers.

Moroccan Coke Donkey

In Fez, this Coca Cola delivery donkey is the same as a Coke Truck.  Fez, now preserved as a UNESCO heritage site.

The Medina of Fez was founded in the 9th century and is home to the oldest university in the world. Fez reached its height in the 13th–14th centuries when it replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the kingdom. Much of the infrastructure in the city dates from this period.

Mosque in Fez Water Delivery by Donkey

The Medina of Fez is considered as one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world. The unpaved urban space conserves the majority of its original functions and attribute. It not only represents an outstanding architectural, archaeological and urban heritage, but also transmits a life style, skills and a culture that persist and are renewed despite the diverse effects of the evolving modern societies.

Moroccan Tannery

15th Century Tanneries of Fez from a neighbor balcony

You just have to imagine the sounds and smells of the tanneries.  Here they start with sheep, camel, goat and various animal skins.  Here they soak them to remove the wool with lyes, and then move to drying and dying.  You can then purchase a huge assortment of hand made leather goods.

Much of Morocco is still very local.  I worried I would see tons of tourists in the cultural capital of Morocco.  I didn’t see a single tourist until I reached the square.  Going through the narrow labyrinth of the Medina was awesome.  While I would have preferred to simply get lost in the streets, the locals all really want to help.  At some point it is easier to allow someone to be a guide than continue to be bothered.  There are official guides and hotels can arrange them, but the students love to help as well even if they may be restricted to their routes.  Don’t let someone tell you they can’t take you somewhere.  There is much to see and experience.

acrobat gathering in fez

Instead the squares are full of locals who browse the flea market style spreads of clothes and shoes.  One doesn’t have to feel like a tourist.  You can try to blend in.

the square in Fez

Unfortunately, in a crowd watching an acrobat it’s still tough to blend in.  Reality sets in.  Of course, they need to see a tip.  Make sure you have lots of small bills and coins on hand to keep the entertainment going.  Asking for change with this crowd doesn’t work.

Jewish Cemetery in Fez Morocco  Jewish Cemetery in Fez Morocco

This Jewish cemetery in Fez reminds me of the scattering of Israel and gathering of Israel.  Amazing how far the Israelites were spread across the world.  Ethiopia, Georgia, and across Europe and even Argentina and Mexico city.  Amazing stories abound of how the King would keep the Jews as advisors, ambassadors, and tax collectors.  Apparently 15% of the current state of Israel or 1,000,000 Israeli Jews are of Moroccan descent, while only 35,000 Jews remain in Morocco.  Jews have 2000 years of history in Fez.

There isn’t just one amazing city in Morocco.  There are many.  I love Marrakech and Meknes as well.  Do not judge Morocco based on a brief visit to Tangier.  I highly recommend you spend time in the Atlas mountains.  They are magical.  They themselves contain the history of the world.  Incredible fossils have made their ways across the globe.  Rock hounds will find heaven.  Those wanting to see a simplier life will see the mountain people with their goats and sheep walking on trails thousands of years old.  If you can… escape to Ait Ben Haddou.  As a child when I imagined visiting Jerusalem, a visit to Ait Ben Haddou is closer than the real thing.  It’s in many of the biblical stories.

Ait Ben Haddou - Kasbah

From Ait Ben Haddo, Oaurzazate is a quick trip and the great Sahara is nearby.  The gateway to the Sahara with a variety of multi day excursions with Berbers into the sand and mystery of the desert.  I found this the beginning of another world.

Simple and pure I found many people who willed life itself to slow.  While many vendors simply want to show you their wares, and the children want to put you on the backs of their donkeys and horses, the simple life is pure.  Tourism has left some scars, but there are ways of finding the past and connecting with time gone by.  Slow down, sip the mint tea and relax and listen to the stories of the desert.