Silk Roads of Tajikistan Land of Mountains

Color!

Yep.  I was able to secure a visa and go to the off the radar and relatively unknown (to the west) land of Tajikistan.  If you have the opportunity to go, you should too.  My trip was really a quick one, but what was expected to be a day trip to Khujand, what I expected to be an uneventful city near the border, was nothing like that.  WIkitravel even had a line that made it seem like a yawn.  Not so.  It was really cool, and well worth the excursion that we did on our trek across Central Asia.  Visiting Khujand was a relatively inexpensive and very easy day trip from Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

On this trip across Central Asia following old silk road trade routes we visited Merv, Turkmenistan, Mountains and Valleys of Kyrgyzstan, Mazar-e-Sharif Afghanistan.

In my quest to visit all the countries of the world, I was really pleasantly surprised by Tajik.  It was really cool, and the taxi guy we met at the border was very reasonable and treated us well.  Not only is Khujand not simply a border town, it is the second largest city in Tajikistan, a land with mostly mountains.  Khujand was formerly known as Khodjend or Khodzhent until 1936 and also named Leninabad until 1991.  Apparently there is a large lenin statue somewhere, but I didn’t find it. I’ve seen Lenin himself still resting in Moscow and his birthplace and statue in Slovenia, so I wasn’t disappointed.  On the contrary, it was a fanstastic visit.  It has over 150,000 people and has an amazing square, vibrant city center, and a lot of history that is visible.

Panchshanbe Bazaar and Fountain

Panchshanbe Bazaar and Fountain– This is the ornate old soviet era bazaar.  Filled with spices, meats, and hustle and bustle, but stop and watch a game of chess or a card game out by the fountain. 

Panchshanbe Bazaar

The faces of these Tajiks capture my experience… yes a diamond in the rough.  A peacock amongst guinea fowl.  This bright smile was one that asked me to take her picture.  When was the last time you had someone really stop you in a market and ask you to take a picture??? In my travels, that’s a very rare thing.  She wasn’t looking for money, she wanted to share her smile with the world, and I’m happy that I was able to bring this happy Tajik smile to you.

Khujand Tajikistan Market and Bazaar

Our visit to the central markets of Khujand was really an opportunity to be indudated with color.  The women wear fabulous colors while most wear colorful head scarves as well.  A day earlier I was in Afghanistan, a world where colors were much more muted with the burkas.  There was a positive vibe and the colors worn in this market really helped bring out that spirit.

Masjidi Jami mosque and medrese Tajik New Mosque

Masjidi Jami mosque and medrese These roses were growing near this mosque which is still under construction.

Tajikistan Lunch

You can eat well and for very cheap in Tajikistan.  The cup of fresh natural apricot nectar is about 40-50 cents (USD) each, and the meat skewers or Shishka or Kabob are only $1.

Tajikistan breads

This amazing looking bread was extremly cheap, but is the staple of life.  You get bread like this with every meal, but the designs do vary across the cultures.

Khujand Market

The Market and bazaar is filled with nuts, breads, spices, and bustling people selling and buying.

Khujand Market

Minaret outside the old mosque

Soviet memorial in Khujand Tajikistan

At a park across the street from the bazaar is this monument. There are a few reminders of the old soviet times.

Sughd Museum in the old citidel

The Old Citidel and fortress has been restored and turned into a museum and contains a historical museum of the Sughd region.  While there are very many forts in the area that are more impressive, the door itself up close is quite ornate and worth visiting for that alone.  The lions and stars are incredible.

Amazing Tajikistan door

Amazing door to the fortress and citadel.

Ismail Somoni monument

Ismail Somoni monument – Surrounded by Lions and the Tajik flag, this majestic king looks over the city and valley with the strength of the mountains to his back. Popular statue and fountain.  Amazing landscape view of the city & valley.

Tajikistan Lions

The power of the lion is a common symbol in Tajikistan.

I had an amazing time in Tajikistan.  After having such an amazing day, I’d love to come back to spend my time with my gracious hosts.  They friendly people who refilled my apricot juice about 6 times, and the ladies in the market selling us nuts and letting us try and sample as much as we wanted.  Thanks to the smiles and the nods and the long looks that made me feel like I was a stranger in an amazing strange, and mysterious land.

While I didn’t feel at Risk, and I made some great friends, I point at this travel forum on Tajikistan Lonely planet safety for anyone considering travel there.  I think Tajikistan was amazing.  In my mind it’s about being smart just as it is in most countries around the world.  Avoiding Police and Military makes sense and connecting with locals makes a lot of sense for Tajik travel…

There are other travel references on Tajik travel to Khujand including Virtual Tourist Khujand, and Khujand on Wikitravel.  The wikitravel page made me think it was worth skipping.  I totally disagree.  It was definitely worth the day trip from the Uzbek capital and the taxi on both sides really was a bargain.

Colosseum Ampitheatre of the Roman Empire – 7 New Wonders

Colloseum

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

Petra Jordan Prehistoric Nabataean Caravan-city and Wonder of the World (4 of 7)

Petra Jordan the Treasury

The Treasury at Petra in Jordan

The Treasury in Petra, Jordan

When I left Microsoft in 2008, I was planning a major trip.  It was my first trip to the middle east, I was to speak in Dubai and Istanbul.  I reached out to my technical blog audience at the time and asked the question… Where should I go… Petra, Jerusalem, or the Pyramids?  A Facebook friend of mine from Jordan named Mo, responded… come to Jordan and we’ll take you to Petra and setup a meeting with our user group… and more!  I was crazy excited such a simple question could be answered so well. As well a blogger in Israel offered up a visit to Jerusalem and opportunity to speak at the User group in Tel Aviv.  What a great opportunity to visit the middle east and really see it from a local perspective.

When I laid out my plans originally I would spend a week between Jordan and Israel.  The first plan involved me flying between Amman and Tel Aviv, but my time in Jordan wasn’t enough to spend the time I wanted to at Petra, so I changed my plans to meet my Israeli friend Avi, at the border.

Amman is a fascinating city.  It is a great modern city, but has a great mix of the old as well.  The shops alone you get a mix of modern and ancient.  There are places were you can easily find people doing trades such as selling clothes, handicrafts, but my favorite is the food.  In Amman there is great humus, meats, and breads.  Some say a lot of the food has it’s roots in Lebanese food.  It’s common to start with finger foods and then work to the beef, and lamb.  You can also find great chicken and turkey.  No pork!

Very common to have big platters of food where you can decide what you want.

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

There are remnants of Rome, and old ruins throughout the city as well.  This Roman Amphitheatre dates back to the before the time of Christ and has some amazing acoustics.  I’m pictured here with my friend Mohammed Zayed from Microsoft, who helped setup a lot of my appointments in Amman, he kept me very busy, and personally made sure I was well taken care of and safe.

As well, there are lots of flavored smoke, Houka, hubbly bubbly, smoke shops for just hanging out and chatting.

For tourists I recommend the King’s car collection.  One of the best exotic car collections around. Bugatti’s, Ferraris, Rolls Royce, and more…

Well, after spending a couple of days with the technical community with a little tour here and there, and some great food.  I was ready to go see Petra.  I couldn’t wait!  My Jordanian friends suggested that I would really like to see the Dead Sea after all our meetings to relax… So I took their advice, and we headed for the Dead Sea.  Once we got there I covered myself head to toe… literally in Dead Sea Mud.

Dead Sea Mud
Dead Sea Mud

It was all the rage.  I did get some footage of a family getting all muddied up.

Having Fun with Dead Sea Mud

Being so close to the holy land it was fascinating to imagine that Moses, Jesus, Elijah, and so many of the ancient prophets use to walk these lands. My Muslim friends were so kind as to take me to the River Jordan where Christ was baptized, and the same river where Naaman was told to dip in the River Jordan 7 times in (2nd Kings) to be healed of Leaprosy.  You can see the milky muddy river wouldn’t be that appealing.  This little river is the border… right next to this platform is an armed guard, and right on the other side of those reeds is an Israeli fort with its flag waving.  I’m sure both sides were watching my move.  A catholic priest who was part of our tour group offered to baptize my Muslim friends.  Poor timing?

Waters of the River Jordan

After the Dead Sea, and Jordan River, we headed out toward the desert to go track down Petra.  We wanted to get into Petra the city and spend the night there to see it at first light.  That was a great recommendation… although the route was a bit challenging.  On the road, my friend got a flat tire.  We had a rough time getting the tire off, and while all of us, and the military that happened by couldn’t get it off, a couple of friendly neighborhood chicken farmers figured it out.  This one guy got under the car, and was kicking it so hard I was sure we was going to knock the jack out.  I thought he was going to get crushed.  I tried to stop him, and warn him, but he didn’t understand me.  It was through his efforts we got back on the road with a donut for a tire.

After a number of check stops it didn’t seem like we were getting any closer.  Hours passed, and we started getting to know each other better.  In this chatting, something came up about Palestinians.  What?  After being with these guys for the past few days I thought for sure they were Jordanians.  They were, but their Parents were displaced.  Their parents were refugees from Palestine and had built homes, and families and lives in Jordan.  Wow.  Amazing.  At first I was a little shocked, and scared, but that was simply a media response.  It wasn’t a year earlier I had been watching footage and hearing about what Palestinians teach their children about life.  It was my first experience with Palestinians and since I felt like I knew these guys I really wanted to know what their perspectives were.  It was extremely enlightening to hear how they both knew where their families homes were in Jerusalem.  They both were from the same neighborhood even.  They had different perspectives on the war and the post war effort of how things were dealt with.  I think that’s something that is often overlooked is the literally dozens of collective perspectives of how things are currently being dealt with and how best to end the occupation (as it is explained by most in the West Bank and Gaza), and how to arrive at peace.  While I didn’t have much of an opinion on this, I was eager to understand as much as I could.  I was after peace, and felt like the better educated I was, I could share what I had learned.  A few days later, I’d find out the perspective of my Jewish/Israeli friends, and again in Dubai with even more Jordanian and Palestinian friends, and a year or so later with friends in Egypt, and then even more in a visit to Ramallah.

There is still a lot of animosity.  Most wars end with clear lines and boundaries, and some kind of plan to work toward.  Instead there’s a lot of confusion, and neither side has found an arrangement that works for the other.  It’s a bad situation and the leadership on both sides of the last few decades hasn’t allowed it to work out for either side.  Those in the West Bank have tried very hard to make a better life for their families.  More on that in my blog on Palestine… to be written.

I’ve made a lot of Palestinian friends… My second trip to Jordan I had a whole crew that made a special trip to see me.  I was so touched by their sacrifice, I made a special effort to visit them.  There are some very special people and when you get to know them individually, you start putting stories to faces, and see different perspectives… it’s all eye opening and touching.

Evil Camel in Petra Jordan
Evil Camel in Petra Jordan

After driving into the desert and realizing this wasn’t the best idea with a donut on, we drove back to Amman and found another more direct route and arrived in Petra at around 5am.  We crashed on a couch at the Marriott, which was also the resort we used when we were putting on the mud.  It was great to see Marriott was doing so well. (I collect Marriott points.)  We washed up, and after some breakfast, we got entrance tickets and started down the canyon.  The sun was coming up, and we were alone as we arrived at the Treasury.  WOW!!! It was so amazing.  What an incredible building carved right into the stone, a building cut out of a cliff.

The Monastery at Petra Jordan
The Monastery at Petra Jordan

Petra was as amazing as it looks and as Indiana Jones makes it look.  It’s awesome.  Totally worth the trip.  Wish I could have spent more time exploring.

Walking up through the high walled canyon to Petra… as it is revealed

After seeing the Treasury, I really wanted to see the Monastery, but I knew it was a lot of hiking with steps involved.  I had very little time, since I was going to need to rush off to the border.  I was way behind, and I was fascinated by the Donkey ride idea so I talked my friends, one of them at least into riding Donkeys.  To this day, he won’t ride the donkeys to Petra.  It was a very scary dangerous ride up steps, on cliffs, with a saddle that looks like it could choke the poor little donkey.

Jordan Travel Tips:

1. You MUST see the Treasury.  That one is required.  The second best is the Monastery.  Once you arrive at the Monastery you should go and look at it from various points of view.  There are some great places to view it on the hills.

2. Early is best.  6am is the preferred time.  Ideally you want the experience of walking through the canyons and it seems dark because of the canyon walls, and as you walk out the sun is shining brightly on the Treasury.  Early light is best.  The crowds will come as the tour buses arrive and people start coming in on carriages and the routes fill up fast.  We didn’t see anyone when we first headed out, but on our way back the Treasury was packed with people and they had a hard time getting pictures without people in their pictures.

3. The Dead sea is worth it.  The MUD is amazing!  You should definitely try it.  The Sea doesn’t stink.  It is very relaxing and yes, you can float!  Very cool feeling.  Keep the water out of your ears and out of your eyes.  It burns like crazy.

4. The Jordan River did feel more authentic in the Jordanian natural setting than the one on the Israeli side.  In Israel they have a place where people line up to do baptisms, and groups gather to collect vials of water, and have spiritual experiences.  The Jordan side was not crowded.  There was an orthodox church, and you can ride in the back of a truck to see the ancient steps that show ancient proof that this could be where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

While this footage doesn’t look that bad.  You can tell by my expressions that the cliffs and the steps are crazy on the back of a little donkey.

Insane Donkey Ride in Petra

If you’ve got the time, you don’t need to ride the Donkeys.  There were also camels… but it wasn’t my day for camels.  After my amazing tour of Petra, I flew in a taxi to the King Husain Bridge crossing where I’d find that I was crossing not directly into Israel, but into the West Bank…

Read more about my adventures in the Palestinian Territories & West Bank…

10 Tips to Preparing for Traveling Epic

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Chichen Itza - Traveling with my baby Dean
Chichen Itza – Traveling with my baby Dean

It’s important to listen to your readers as a blogger.  I was asked a direct question over Facebook and felt it was worth explaining and would make a good blog.  Here’s the question…

I was wondering if you could do a post where you share tips on how you prepare before you travel to a location. For example, I’ll be travelling to Toronto in a few weeks. Do you have a method you use before each trip to find out the “must see” locations and events going on at each location? Any details you could share in a post would be awesome. I really like your “immersion” approach to travelling.

1. Minimalist packing – I think think this is a key strategy.  Some people spend weeks to planning what’s in their bags, and end up worrying about all the junk they brought with them.  I literally don’t bring anything that I couldn’t spare to lose.  My phone is the likely exception to that, cause the cheap netbook I often carry with me for presentations is cheaper than my phone… by a long shot.  It’s also very light.  My goal is to fit everything in a Ogio backpack with a laptop slot.  I’ve done 2 weeks in a backpack.  I often bring another bag on the way home with stuff I bring home, but even that has gotten smaller and smaller.  I collect masks, and often bring so unless it’s a really good mask.  One of the tricks that not everyone could use… I’ve used that works for nearly all airlines is to bring a bag that looks like a bag that was stuff you purchased at the airport.  So every checkpoint it doesn’t really count as a bag.  Worst case I attach it to my backpack by tying it on, or rolling it up and stuffing it in. There’s always more room.

2. Twitter & Facebook – Research comes from friends on social networks, not just people I’ve met. I do enjoy posting where I’m planning on going on twitter.  It’s amazing the responses I’ll get from people who are passionate about the area.  My trip to Cappadocia Turkey to the underground city of Derinkuyu would have been very different had I not had a few conversations on twitter that encouraged me to go it alone.  I felt very comfortable understanding what I was getting into.  Knowing a local also made me feel comfortable bouncing ideas that I was planning. Thanks @captcappadocia

3. Lonely Planet – Some of the best destinations on the planet are featured and covered in the Lonely Planet guides.  I’ve personally bought a couple of them when I’m crazy committed to a place.  When I visited India, I really wanted to research the culture, the cities, the palaces, and I really didn’t want to miss anything!  One of the worst things ever is knowing I went to a place and I missed the most important thing.  There are iphone/ipad apps for lonely planet that you can download and take offline.  You can also buy books for your kindle and read them along the way.  Research on the culture. the festivals, and local research about a place is helpful, but you don’t need a book for every place you’re going.  I didn’t tell you this, but copying the pages of the city or region you’re going to is a lot more light weight.  Those books have a lot of research for places you won’t see.  I learned this from a traveller who was carrying the lonely planet guide pages for Cappadocia region of turkey.  Nice!  The online site has great research, communities and helpful forums.  I personally will copy paste things I like, and put them on a word or notepad page, I include pictures as I mention in more detail in #7 below.

4. VirtualTourist.com – Speaking of most important – I use the virtual tourist top “Things to Do” as a checklist.  I read through the descriptions on 10-20 of them and find what people are saying about a place and then decide what are the things I would like most.  Often I’ll add 5 or so of the top 10.  Many of them are the things you MUST do at a place, but I’ll also include the day trip type content, and often use the map to see what cities or towns are nearby and plug those into Virtualtourist.com.  What it does not do well is tell you what is nearby.  Those day trips some times reveal what’s good nearby, but often it will only tell you boring things if you pick a boring town.  Research does not conclude from virtual tourist, it is early research to help me know where to start.  Virtual Tourist in Albania taught me that Tirana is an under the radar tourist destination, and a lot of people didn’t like it, but I also found Durres, an ancient roman port town was only 45 minutes away.  Looking up that town, I found all sorts of things I wanted to see, but I also found key historical things I shouldn’t miss in Tirana.

Continue reading “10 Tips to Preparing for Traveling Epic”

Rock the Kasbah, Marrakesh Morocco

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Let’s go back in time… to a more simple time, with rich flavor, and a close knit community.  Imagine the farmers near your home growing your food, you go to the market and find things that are both grown locally, but with no chemicals, and any meat you eat you can first look it in the eyes.  Go back in time with me to Morocco, I’m you’re guide Joel of Arabia.

I also wrote up about travel in Fez another look at time travel back 2000 years.

Ait Ben Haddou - Donkey Ride

We rode donkeys across the river and helped a Berber trader write a post card to his friend.  He’d been traveling across the Sahara for the last few weeks.

 

One of the most fascinating things about Morocco is the fact that at times you definitely feel like you’re in another world completely.  There are time warps you jump through as you see different parts of Morocco.

One place you must visit is the Atlas mountains.  The people of the mountains live like they do in Tibet.  They live off the land.  They eat their animals.  Life off the land despite the harsh conditions.  They walk up crazy steep slopes along goat and sheep trails.  This is the kind of place where if you visit a family, they may take a goat out and slaughter it for the meal in honor of your visit.  The culture is rich, the people are fascinating, and their lives reflect our heritage and history of 1000s of years ago.  What you expect to find in Jerusalem of the old way of doing things is in Morocco.  Part of that reason is literally hundreds of Christian films use this area for their life of Christ movies including, Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Kasbah

 

An incredible day trip you MUST do is to visit the UNESCO world heritage site of kasbah-town of Aït Benhaddou. The city looks like it’s 2000 years old, and many of these buildings feel that old, and are built like they were.  It was used as a backdrop for more than 20 films including Films such as The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and the recent Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011).

One of the most important fortress strongholds on the old Salt Road where camel caravan traders brought slaves, gold, ivory and salt from Saharan Africa to Marrakech and beyond.  You gotta get out of the city and you can really see amazing things on the trip over the mountain to Ouarzazate.  Pronounced War-za-zot. These include trips to Zagora, an oasis town surrounded by palm tree plantations and a departure point for camel trains to Timbuktu, a journey that would take about 52 days. (Not yet recommended)  Careful on multi country treks as the Algerian border is some times closed.  Most would consider the 1 day, 3 day and 7 day caravan trips.

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The Berber people are from the desert.  They are nomads.  They trade and barter.  Every Berber has things he wants to show you, and you are his guest.  He’ll invite you in for some amazing and sweet mint tea.  As his guest he will roll out his dozens of carpets, and show you his finest jewelry.  It’s customary for him to show you everything, and you pick out various things you like, and then the bartering begins.  It’s natural for it to start out high, and then as you negotiate, you can take things out and barter for the things you really really want.  It seems like with me, I always win and they always tell me I’m a shrewd trader.  After that, they make me feel at home and we exchange gifts.  It’s good to bring something small from home that you can give to his wife, like makeup or perfume, or something for his kids.  It’s a bit embarrassing when he gives you a gift and wonders if you have something for his wife.   Be more prepared than I was.  One strategy I’ve learned from berbers and taxi drivers around the world is they like to be right, but they want to make sure you’re happy.  Learn that you don’t have to have the last say, and you’ll make your host a lot happier and you’ll get much better service even if you are a very shrewd trader.  In Morocco it’s not unusual to get 70-80% off.  I got some incredible massive fossils for about $20 and less.  The prices often start in the 100-200 range.  Something in the states that would cost me closer to $100.  One thing you do learn is you don’t ask the price unless you really want the item.  That often means, don’t ask unless you want to spent the next 10 minutes bartering.  It’s not customary to just make one offer and walk away.  They like the sit down and relax… you are my guest kind of bartering, not I’ll make you an offer and then walk away.

 

You feel like you must be Lawrence of Arabia, or the Prince of Persia a couple more of the many films that was filmed here. Be sure to wanted around Ouarzazate an important trading city on the edge of the Sahara desert. Get lost in the old Kasbah.

222596_4954813782_1933_nI encourage you to get a variety.  Across everywhere you’ll visit there are few shops with set prices, and even more rare in the villages.  For food you don’t have to do  bartering.  If you’ve ever had Moroccan food in your life you’ve likely either eaten dates and finger food on large platters sitting on big cushions and relaxing to music.  When the main dish comes out it’s smothered in amazing stewed carrots, zucchini, or egg plant including lamb, beef or chicken with the tender meat cooked in large clay pots over coos coos.  This earthen method makes it all very tender.  Incredible food.  As we ate we watched to storks making a lot of noise in a massive nest.  The city is made of the soil as well baked mud bricks… the pottery is everywhere.  Pride in every bite.

You can eat at a fine restaurant and spend $50 for amazing Moroccan food or spend $2 and pick the meat in skewers and sit under a tent near the square.  As well, stop at a café for a an amazing meal.  The salads are fantastic with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, black and green olives and of course Oranges!  An incredible Mediterranean meal.  I hear you can even get camel meat.  Andrew Zimmern style meals are within reach, but even without stretching your pallete, you can have some of the freshest, best food you’ve ever tasted.  I seriously think we have a LOT to learn from the simple ways.  Our food has been messed up, and Marrakech and surrounding area and likely much of Morroco has got it right.  Western Europe and the US is missing out.  There are now restaurants who try to mimic this, that try to get back to eating local, but they may be missing elements.  The owners would do well to spend some time in Morocco to learn what it is that makes the difference.  There is something to be said of organic, locally grown, no chemicals, and that connection with the earth that’s in the oven, in the pots, and the open flame.  Turkey, Bulgaria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel… there are others that have this figured out as well.

 

Djemma El Fna – Currently my favorite market in the world! I LOVE the town square of Marrakech. Before there was TV, Radios, Phones, and iPads.  A thousand years ago, on the edge of civilization there was a mystical place.  A place with story tellers, snake charmers, acrobats, fresh fruit juices made by hand with fruit from the trees in the town you were in.  This place still exists!  Every day after my trips around the city, I would end my day in this place.  It was packed with locals.  The best nuts and juice in the world is available for the taking.  One amazing thing about Marrakech is the fresh smell of Orange.  The trees that line the streets are Orange trees.  I don’t know a city anywhere else where Orange trees are scattered throughout the city.  It’s like Johnny Appleseed had a counterpart in Marrakech and all he did his whole life was plant Orange trees in this one city.  While I’m sure it could make a mess in some cities here they gather them up and there is fresh orange juice anywhere you want.  We paid 35 cents (.35 USD) for our glass of orange Juice.  It continues to be the best glass of orange juice I’ve had in my life!

 

The square is filled with locals listening to these stories and watching what’s going on.  I wish I could be invisible and watch the goings on of that square.  Instead, I walk up to see the crazy acrobat, similar to those “artists” who do tricks or play music in most large cities around the world and collect money, but I barely get a chance to see what the tricks are, and they are up in my face asking me for some money.  Despite the fact that I’m happy to contribute a coin.  I just visited an ATM and I have no change.  No money no show, but wait I haven’t seen anything yet.  Tip: bring small change, and expect for them to seem a little insulted, but really that’s just the whole bartering pattern.  I’m sure if you gave them a dollar or more they’d be much happier, but maybe it doesn’t matter.  The first answer is always to ask for more in that culture.  Either way, I come back later with change, and I am fascinated by the diversity of what comes.

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It’s cool to see the cobras being charmed and then a harmless water snake strung around my neck without asking for it… Yes, I’ve seen a snake before, but I’m happy just watching you charm the Cobras.  Really it is an amazing place, but there are surprises.  You’ll see things here you won’t see anywhere else.  Just like mimes that want money from you if you take there picture, there’s these very colorful characters I call the Water guys, who want the equivalent of a dollar/euro/pound for a picture.  If you sneak a picture be really careful they don’t notice.  I didn’t pay.

One guy on the square is “the dentist.”  He has his crude tools to pull out your tooth.  Of course you go back a hundred years and a guy like this could come in handy.  He’ll really take care of that aching tooth.  He has a few hundred teeth to prove he really will do it.  If you look at his collection of teeth pulling equipment and hear his story, you should contribute to the cause.

Clips from our family trip…

Not far from the square is the souks and the medina.  The Old city.  I love telling people that if you went back in time, it would be no different than walking through these old streets.  The souks are walking only winding alleyways of a sort where you can go to amazing shops, and markets and see how the people lived 1000 years ago.  There are a lot of locals who are happy to be you’re guide for a small fee.  If someone wants to show you around, you can tell them, I don’t need a guide… but expect to be asked 5-10 more times.  I found I would get someone who spoke good enough english and negotiate some time.  It was worth it.  We visited a bakery, where the there is a community adobe oven where people who need a stove do their cooking old school.  There’s the chicken place where you can pick out your live chicken.  Simply tell them which one you want and how much preparation you want.  One word.  FRESH.  Just like the high end stores where you can pick out your fish.  Here you can get a chicken to take home with you…

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As well, we came by the baths and water place.  People come from all over to collect water to bring home.  It reminds me of the lady by the well, in Christ’s time.  People come water their animals, but also collect water for drinking.  The homes really are for sleeping.  The entertainment is in the streets, why do you need a kitchen when you can get it all fresh and local?  The people are simple, but it’s amazing to me the principles of life they live.  They eat better than we do, they eat local, they eat food that has been gathered or grown within less than 20 miles of the city.

As you wander the city don’t be afraid to slow down, and talk with the people.  They want to talk to you.  They are very interested in where you come from and how you are enjoying yourself.  Slow down and enjoy the mint tea.  There’s a fast pace of the city and there’s the slow pace of the desert.  Both of these cultures clash to make Marrakech as rich as the dyes in the colors of the carpets.  If you feel so inclined you can visit the place where they mix the dyes.  Again a place that will take you back thousands of years.

 

Marrakech MosqueLose yourself.  That’s the goal.  Go back in time.  There are so many adventures to be had here.  This is a place with a different pace, but also various modes of transportation.  Getting off the plane at the Marrakech airport, we were rushed off in a taxi that seemed put together with bailing twine.  You don’t just have to take taxis, in contrast to the western world where a carriage brings up memories of being a Prince and Princess.  Here a carriage is a good alternative transport.  There is no difference in price.  They both can be negotiated with.  When you slow your pace, you’ll definitely have to give it a shot.  It’s an oldie, but goodie.

The’s one story of Marrakech, that blows my mind, and my eyes.  The Saadian tombs were build in the 16th century, and lost to the world.  They were rediscovered in 1917 with a fly over.  Can you believe that?  A 15 minute walk from the town square and these tombs were simply walled off.  The colored tiles are beautiful and intricate designs.

Call to prayer echoing over the city, some westerners may be intimidated in this Arabian city.  Personally I think the singing brings an element that helps remind me I’m not at home anymore.  That’s a very good thing.  Jews live side by side with Muslims.  The locals tattoo themselves with their faith.  The door handles and markings on the hundreds of year old doors in the old city.  You can tell a lot about the people.  Marrakech is an old capital city and center of a major trade route a very old trade route that would bring in goods from Africa and goods from across the desert.  If you feel so inclined you can spend a week on a real desert excursion into the Sahara.  Live with the Berbers, live like the Bedouin people.image

Camels are majestic animal.  They meant the difference between death and survival in the desert.  An animal that was built for the conditions.

 

If you see a large group of camels.  The people with them will give you a small ride for a price.  There is actually very little difference in price for an hour ride and getting on for a picture.  They’ll get you loaded up and walking and tell you the price doesn’t matter.  It’s a good price for you.  Travel Tip: Always always negotiate before you get on the camel’s back.  It’s in their interest to have you think price doesn’t matter.  Negotiating Similar to the carriage ride.  They don’t know that you know that they are willing to take a local price.  Sometimes it even helps to say… I don’t want tourist prices, I want local prices.  The price will drop in half or more.  For camels you can end up paying easily $50 USD if they get their first price.  Instead be willing to walk away and you can get a good ride for $5.  They’ve been standing out in the heat, they want something fair, and depending on the time of day and how business has been really impacts their willingness to accept various prices.

Morocco, is one of the richest accessible and inaccessible place in the world.  It’s a world of extremes.  It’s the place of adventure.  Just the name sparks imagination of a country of Muslims poorly portrayed in Babel.  While I loved the scenes of Morocco in Babel, I fear the stereotypes create walls and prevent people from experiencing the richness that is so accessible.  Morocco is a bridge to our brothers in the Middle East.  If the western world is to ever understand the Arabic world, it begins by understanding, and the spice of Morocco is an incredibly colorful place to start.  As France struggles with it’s imperial past, and seeks to understand what it’s future is Christian, Jew, and Muslim have much to learn from the gateway to the Sahara.

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Pictured Above: My boys are getting a personal tour of the mosque from one of the boys of the souks.  They didn’t speak the same language, but they did communicate… volumes.

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

pyramids of chichen itza

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.

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