Russia Travel Rocks – St Petersburg to Majestic Moscow

Russia Travel Rocks – St Petersburg to Majestic Moscow

Russia is just the most amazing place.  Part of this for me is just the pure history of the last century, but also it’s just so prominent on the globe.  Russia has been so imperial.  So majestic.  So mysterious. There’s the crazy cold war, and my favorite the space race.  Forget about the arms race, although I really do need to visit Chernobyl.  I did fly over it on a jet on my way out of Moldova. Can you believe it? The US is now hitching rides with the Russians into space to the international space station.  Amazing how the dynamics themselves have definitely changed.  At least the space people are collaborating.

Red Square - State Historical Museum

When I was growing up I remember looking for places to hide just in case the Russians came.  There was the attic, and the potato cellar.  Either way Russians were always the enemy, but in church we would talk about when Russia would be open for the preaching of the gospel.  The end of the world would come shortly after missionaries entered Russia, or so it would seem. Ronald Regan had that big arms race thing.  The “Wall” comes down and shortly Russia would be open for preaching of the gospel.  I’d hear of friends who would go there on their missions.  There was stories that reached all the way to Idaho about the first McDonalds in Russia and how lines wrapped around the block or worse.  Fast forward a few years, and I’m a minority on a Russia majority software company up in Seattle.  I find these “refugees” are amazing, and I’m fascinated with their culture.  I never hated Russians, just fascinated by their culture and the communist machine.  So many stories about how we should be extremely worried about anything that had anything to do with it.  Living in Seattle, I’d find a HUGE Leningrad Lenin at a coffee shop.  There was even communist magazines and articles in Fremont area in Washington, that made it seem almost cool to be communist, because it was racy.  Why do I give you this terse background story?  Because going to Russia is a HUGE rush.  Most American’s have some weird ideas of what it would be like to go to Russia.  How dangerous it might be, what might happen.  The crazy Russian Mafia stories.

First thing I had to do as an American was getting the Russian Visa.  It was the longest visa form I’ve ever filled out.  I started having doubts that they might not admit me.  It’s not just asking about my passport details and where I’m going… It gets into my parents and grandparents on both sides.  It asks about every country I’ve visited plus dates, that’s a pretty good list that ends up being pretty complex.  Despite the complexity and the couple of weeks it took.  I get the visa!!  I’m on my way to Russia.  What’s better I’ve got colleagues in St. Petersburg and I’ve got a SharePoint user group meeting setup in Moscow.  So work is paying for hotels, and all I’ve got to do is cover a train ticket from St. Petersburg to Moscow.  The Nevsky express!  Strangely about a week after that train ride that same train would get blown up and derailed by Chechen Rebels. Crazy.

St Petersburg Church of Spilled Blood

Pictured Above:  One of my favorite buildings in St Petersburg is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This Church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and was dedicated in his memory.

Continue reading “Russia Travel Rocks – St Petersburg to Majestic Moscow”

Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

The largest religious complex in the world.  Angkor Wat is one of the most amazing structures in the world.

Sure, Karnak in Luxor, Egypt is the largest religious structure, but Angkor Wat stretches over miles and miles including many many buildings.  I’d like to see a comparison of Tikal to Angkor Wat.  It’s a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason.  The complex itself was built 1110-1150.  It’s estimated it would take 300 years to do today, but took 40 years back then with thousands of workers brining in stones from all over.  Ok, read more on Wikipedia article on Angkor Wat beyond my research… If this was the only building that was constructed it would still be one of the most amazing in the world, but it is among 74 others in the complex of buildings many many miles apart.

This is definitely a bucket list item.  A New Seven Wonders runner up.  One of the most amazing places in the world!

Continue reading “Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields”

Chichen Itza Mayan Masterpiece Pyramid Perfection and Wonder of the World (6 of 7)

Chichen Itza Mayan Masterpiece Pyramid Perfection and Wonder of the World (6 of 7)

Visit of Christ to the Americas

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

 

When I was planning our Cancun vacation, my wife was thinking… we’ll chill on the beach at an all inclusive resort, and I was thinking… we’ll grab a rental car and pick up as many of the Mayan temples as possible within a 2 week period.  Finally I can see one of the 7 finalists of the new 7 Wonders of the World – Chichen Itza.  As a traveller I was anxious to see real wonders of the ancient world. I love temples, I love archeology, and I love the mystery that surrounds these massive new world temples. I also was incredibly interested in Tulum on the coast, and my ultimate Tikal the Mayan Capital.  We know so little about the Mayans, but I was surprised to find out they weren’t totally wiped out.  There is a group of Mayans that give the tours in Tulum, and they speak the ancient Mayan language.  It’s so, so sad that the culture has so much of who they were.  They lost everything.  A few documents recently were rediscovered in Germany referred to as the Mayan Dresden Codex.  Mayan Temple of Chichen ItzaWhich some point to as the source of the 12, 21, 2012 apocalyptic date or the beginning of 1000 years of peace, but “A German expert who says his decoding of a Mayan tablet with a reference to a 2012 date denotes a transition to a new era and not a possible end of the world as others have read it…The interpretation of the hieroglyphs by Sven Gronemeyer…He said the inscription describes the return of mysterious Mayan god. Continue reading on Examiner.com German Mayan researcher’s 2012 conclusions.  Cool.  Beginning of the end of the world or return of a Mayan god… Bearded white god?  (By the way, ask to see the rock carving of the bearded god at Chichen Itza.  It’s pretty cool.  If it’s Lief Erickson or Jesus or insane stone carver it’s mind numbing given the carvings all around it.  Seriously fun stuff.  You gotta enjoy the speculation and not get too caught up either way, since we can’t know.

While I don’t think the end will happen in December 2012 (No one is suppose to know the day or hour when Jesus is coming back Matthew 24:36), I have used it as an opportunity to be prepared for disaster.  In my church, we have been asked to have a year supply of food on hand in case of disaster.  It has paid off with members all over the world.  As recent as the tsunami in Japan and earthquake in Hati, the members who obeyed have been blessed. As a member of the LDS Church there is a fascinating Book of Mormon back story of Christ in the Americas and Artists often paint pictures of Christ appearing to the righteous people in 3 Nephi 11 with the back drop of Tulum.  There are Mormon tours all over this region.  In fact we discovered that more Mayan Temple of Tulumthan 30% of the guides in Tulum were Mayan members of the LDS Church.  It’s understood that there really hasn’t been any LDS revelations on the locations, and anything discovered is purely speculation.  Our guide at Tulum was actually a Mormon Bishop named Mosiah.  It was a quick tour, which really didn’t add any info on what we had already got from our tour in Chichen Itza.  He shared pictures of Tulum where light shines through specific building on April 6th, and sold us a tree of life medallion.  Great stories.  Amazing place.  While I didn’t necessarily subscribe to all he shared, I was fascinated with the history of the Mayans, he being one himself.  The PC accepted story is that Mayan calendar simply points toward a new era.  Great.  Others are looking for the Age of Aquarius.

Dean%2520taking%2520it%2520inThese grandios temples are mucho bueno.  Very incredible.  Left: My trooper, Dean at Chichen Itza.  This is 3 of 7 New Wonders for him.  He’s been to Machu Picchu and the Great Pyramids in Egypt.

Travel Tip: I do recommend highly recommend seeing Chichen Itza.  I do recommend getting a negotiated tour there.  There are some inscriptions and history that you’d miss otherwise.  There are a lot of things to point out in the area.  There are half a dozen buildings and a great ball court area, and you need to know more about the rules of that game and what happens to the winners and losers.  Those stories you must hear.  There’s a lot of inscriptions and interpretations and stories you need to hear.  We got the 2 hour guided tour, that we negotiated on the spot after we arrived.  It wasn’t too outrageous.  There are a lot of people that can give tours, so shop around and negotiate.  Don’t take the first rate you hear.  Many hotels in Cancun can arrange transport and tour as well.  Just don’t over pay.  There is a lot of cushion.  In relation to Cancun both Tulum and Chichen Itza are both day trips. There is a toll road all the way to Chichen Itza from Cancun. You’ll pay 20-30 USD for that trip one way! We decided we’d take the scenic route on the way there, and hurry back. It is a difference of about an hour. You can get to other ruins as well including Coba. I didn’t make it to Coba, we were with my wife’s family and Jeff got sick, so we missed out on that one, but that’s ok because my eye was on the ultimate prize of Tikal, Jaguar temple the largest temples in the new world.  In contrast to Chichen Itza, I do not recommend the tour in Tulum.  The buildings are a lot smaller, things are close and if you did this one after doing Chichen Itza there’s a lot of overlap.  Our tour may have ultimately been 15 minutes of explanation and he didn’t even walk the whole thing with us.  Don’t miss the views from either side of the temple near the water.  There are some great photo shots by of Tulum by the water.  Another reason to do your research of Tulum ahead of time and get the guided tour at Chichen Itza.

Continue reading “Chichen Itza Mayan Masterpiece Pyramid Perfection and Wonder of the World (6 of 7)”

Rediscovered Europe: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Rediscovered Europe: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina

I had seen most of Western Europe when I visited the Balkans, but I wasn’t prepared for the beauty and raw elements of war I would see.  Mountain views, lakes and valleys that would rival the best of Switzerland, rivers that rival the beauty of Idaho’s and untouched wilderness, the bridge in Mostar rival the arches of the canals of Venice, but evoke an emotional response.  The worst of the war torn parts remind me of some parts of Beirut.  Even the West Bank has been more cleaned up than some of the pits out of the buildings in Sarajevo.  The stories of the rebuilding of the Synagogue in Sarajevo… How many times can a building be rebuilt?

Night in Zagreb, Croatia

In contrast, Roman emperors vacationed in Croatia. croatia_bosnia Dubrovnik and Split are incredibly scenic and would rival that of any ports in Italy or France, and a fresh seafood or fish dinner would cost you much less.  I guess what I’m saying is, I loved it.  Belgrade and Sarajevo are the hidden gems of Europe, the passion and life, and recent history to blow your mind.  The travelers looking for secrets in Europe.  Here’s a great place to start.  It’s the Balkans.  Some of my best friends in Europe.  There’s something that goes deeper here.  Relationships are stronger, and go deeper, you can feel it.

My trip started in Zagreb the capital of Croatia with a night tour. We met up for a great dinner and ended up walking around parliament, and old town Zagreb. Zagreb itself did avoid much of the conflict in the Balkan conficts/wars that happened back in 92-93.

Remnants of the war are still visible.  There are more reasons to come and visit than the incredible night life.  There are fresh memories that will teach the world a lesson… this lesson is war is not kind to anyone.  War should be avoided at all costs, and the horrors and nightmares of war are real.  Those who only vacation at Disneyland or Disneyworld and spend their vacations with the Grand Canyon as the ultimate bucketlist need to come for a visit.  This land has a lot of lessons to teach. 

image

When we got close to the Republik of Srpska we came across these signs.  After spending time at the Cambodia land museum, I have been convinced that land mines do more danger to the citizens that have to live with these than any good they do for the military.  There are some crazy stats on how much the people are impacted by these.

 

Now before you think it’s all doom and gloom, that’s totally not the key take away.  It’s the opposite.  In fact my friend Michael, who I was traveling with, recently wrote about his experience on this same trip.  I highly encourage reading about his writeup on the former Hapsburg empire – Serbia, Romania, Bosnia & Herz, Montenegro, and Croatia. This trip started with a fellow colleague who lived in Croatia, Toni Frankola, a speaking team of Michael Noel, and Paul Swider.

This place is amazing, but as an American tourist, that gets a rise out of seeing something unlike anything I can find within the US or Western Europe.  I get excited. This was one of the best Europe vacations I’ve ever done.  I’ve seen Dubrovnik and Mostar on the front page of Bing on multiple occasions.  They really are spectacular.  The castle in Belgrade was an awesome place to walk around.  The cultural music and dancing we got at night was spectacular.  Very fun environment.  I think it was a good thing for Toni as well, as he recognized some of the tunes, and was surprised to see the similarities between Croatia and Serbia.  Good stuff.

25708_381158112913_2547739_n

Continue reading “Rediscovered Europe: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina”

Post Revolution Egypt – Am I Safe?

Post Revolution Egypt – Am I Safe?

It seems like Egypt has for the most part fallen out of the news.  Is it safe?

tanks in egypt

A couple of quotes from an article on Egypt welcomes tourists and affirms safety.

Travel warning lifted

“Ambassador Scobey met with the heads of U.S.-based travel associations NTA, USTOA, ATTA and ASTA, along with tour operators and journalists, at the American embassy in Cairo.

The group was on a six-day, fact-finding trip to investigate travel safety in Egypt and Jordan. I traveled with the delegation as they met Egyptian officials and toured Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum and other cultural attractions.

“Our recent visit to Cairo confirmed that Egypt is safe and ready for tourists,” said Lisa Simon, president of the NTA, in an email. “The Egyptian people welcomed us with a renewed spirit and pride resulting from the revolution – they’re ready and anxious to show off the ‘new Egypt.’”

British tourists “never stopped” coming to the resort areas and were motivated by great deals, according to Egyptian tour guide Mina Mamdouh Edwar.

Before the revolution about 270,000 Americans visited Egypt each year, compared to nearly 3 million Russian and 1.5 million British visitors, said the Egypt Tourism Authority’s Samy Mahmoud.

“Foreigners have been coming back steadily [and] there have been very few problems,” noted Ambassador Scobey.”

While the elections press on, Egypt itself is definitely on sale.  Tourism is such a huge part of Egypt’s GDP.  Egypt has had to borrow money to sustain the governing that is going on.

I personally toured Tahrir square, Egyptian Museum, about a dozen Pyriamids, Kahili Market from the north into Alexandria to the far south in Abu Simbel.  The people are very welcoming, and they want to share their “New Egypt!”

I was there over a year ago, so it’s only gotten better in the last year. This picture was a rare one of a couple of tanks.  Life is back to normal.

As a traveller looking for the place without the crowds I think you’d find there are tons of reasons why you’d want to go while it’s still fresh in others minds, and would consider somewhere else.

If I told you there were no police or the police was the army, but you are in one of the safest places… you might not believe me.  I visited Egypt following the Jan 24 Arab spring.  In fact I visited in Spring 2011, in April.  The taxi driver we were working with was picking up people at the Libyan border and providing transport.  Now you’ve got resolution in Libya and Tunisia.  Syria is having issues, but that’s north of Israel.  Look at a map, it’s not that close.

If you are considering a trip, I’ve got a few twitter friends who live in Cairo that could give us the on the streets update.  You can ping me on twitter @joeloleson or just add it to the comments.

My kids got into the spirit of it.  In fact, Jared pictured on the right is wearing the shirt of the revolution.

Happy New Egypt

In Arabic #Jan24 and New Egypt.  You can see the guard here is pretty excited about his choice of clothes.  Another worker same day asked if it was ok to take a picture and post it to facebook!

Continue reading “Post Revolution Egypt – Am I Safe?”

Cappadocia Turkey: Underground Cities and Cave Churches

Cappadocia Turkey: Underground Cities and Cave Churches

Cave Houses and Ferry Chimneys
Cave Houses and Ferry Chimneys

When I first learned about Cappadocia, I was up late watching a late night Sci Fi show on Ancient Alien God theory.  The spokey of underground cities where 20,000 people could live in caves.  The spoke cave cities of 13 levels deep and how for thousands of years these caves had lasted time.  No one really knows how old these caves are… you can’t carbon date a cave.  They think they are at least 1700-2000 years old.  These caves helped save Christianity at a time where it was illegal and the Romans were looking to wipe it out!  How do we know?  There are hundreds of early 3rd and 4th century cathedrals built by these Christians.  IMG_6663They went on to say there are 36 such cities that could support a hundreds of thousands of people…. underground!  Some cities are connected by 9 KM tunnels.  Only 10% of the caves had even been excavated.  What!!?  Seems to me like we’d learn more about ourselves and where we came from if we knew more about these caves.  Why have I not heard of such an incredible place before?  I immediately added it to my list.  About 6 months later, when I was planning a trip to Sofia, Bulgaria I remembered these incredible stories and decided… I must go.  I priced it out and for less than $200 I could visit this place.  You can fly to within an hour of the place.  I decided I needed to see how much of this was real.  Much to my surprise, these crazy facts were real!  I read as much as I could and gasped at the amazing pictures on any image search.  I dare you to look.  If you’re a world traveller, you’ll immediately add this to your list, and if not it will be a bucket list item.  Don’t wait till you’re too old for this one.  Remember there’s hiking and walking in caves.  You don’t want to hurt your back.

How this destination of underground city supports a population larger than most civilizations at the time still boggles my mind.  No way.  Too incredible.  Who wiped out these ancient people?  Who were they, what did they believe?  Was it an attempt to escape an alien overlord?  Doesn’t matter.  Despite whether you believe aliens built the multiple thousand year old tunnels or believe it was the Hittites an ancient civilization that’s no longer around, the mystery of these crazy tunnels and underground cities are no less of a wonder.  There’s a lot you can read about Derinkuyu, the largest underground city in the world, less than 30 minute drive from Goreme.  562343_10150787036148783_613898782_11776192_940521962_n[1]It’s only been available for tours since 1969.  There are plenty of tours that take you on organized tours or you can rent a car and take it at your pace.  The tunnels are excavated.  I went 8 levels deep on my tour and there were at least 4 or 5 tunnels that went off into the dark, one such tunnel my guide explained went to the next city.  In the underground city you’ll find a winery, church, animal stalls, wells, ancient phone system, ventilation shafts,  and a morgue.  I visited all of these places on my tour.

Continue reading “Cappadocia Turkey: Underground Cities and Cave Churches”