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2018
Mandalay, Myanmar - March
Bagan, Myanmar - March
Northwest Argentina - January

2017
Northern Territory, Australia - October/November
Pacific Ocean Cruise - September/October
Chongqing, China - June
Thailand - June
Pacific Northwest - April/May
China: Yunnan & Guangxi Provinces - March

2016
Mediterranean Cruise - October/November
Greek Isles - October
Taiwan - August
China: Xinjiang Province Part 1 - July

China: Xinjiang Province Part 2 - July
Pacific Northwest - May
Thailand - April

2015
China: Yangtze River Tour - October
China: Chongqing - October

China: Guizhou & Yunnan Provinces - August
Taiwan - July
Seattle - May
China - April
India - January

2014
South America - December
Australia - October
Abu Dhabi, UAE - September

China - August
China - April
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India - January

2013
Batam, Indonesia - October
Cambodia - October

Dubai - September
Datong, China - August

Alaska - May
Dazu County, China - April
Vietnam - March
India - January/February

2012
Nepal & Thailand - November
China - August
San Francisco - July

Turkey - June
Orcas Island - May
Java - April
Malta - February
India - January

2011
Nepal - November
Australia (HMB Endeavour) - August
Thailand - June
Sri Lanka/Thailand - March/April
Sofia, Bulgaria - February
India/Thailand - January

2010
Thailand - October
Egypt - September
Australia - July
Maui - May
South America (Europa) - March-April
Bucharest - February
India - January

2009
Laos/Thailand - November
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Boston to Halifax (Europa) - July
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India - April
Portugal - March
Budapest - February
Thailand - January

2008
South America (Europa) - October
London - May
Thailand - April
Turkey - March
Berlin - February
Bali - January

2007
Thailand - October
Around the World in 98 Days - February-May  

2006
Thailand - November
Australia/Thailand/Singapore - July  

2005
Antarctica - December
Thailand - October
Thailand - April  

2004
Thailand - February  

2003
India/Thailand - October

 
 
   
  March 2018
Mandalay, Myanmar

Travel Notes

 

Although I had been traveling to Southeast Asia for more than twenty years, I had never visited Myanmar (Burma) because obtaining a tourist visa for Myanmar was difficult. In December, I found a website that advertised the possibility of obtaining a Myanmar Visa Approval Letter from the Myanmar Government. I decided to try to obtain the e-visa approval letter. I filled out the online application form and attached a photo to the application. The application requested a travel date to Myanmar, the departure airport to Myanmar as well as the arrival airport in Myanmar, and the hotel that I would be staying at upon my arrival into Myanmar. I decided to fly from Bangkok, Thailand, to Mandalay, Myanmar, on a date during February 2018 and specified the Mandalay Hilton hotel. After completing the application and providing my credit card information, I received an email with my Myanmar Visa Approval Letter from the Myanmar Government.

Now that I had my visa approval letter, I needed to decide where in Myanmar I wanted to visit. I prepared an itinerary that consisted of three nights at Mandalay, four nights at Bagan, and an additional two nights at Mandalay. I booked roundtrip flights from Bangkok to Mandalay, and booked online hotel reservations within Myanmar. The final step was to book travel to Bangkok from Los Angeles to be in place for my trip to Mandalay.

I flew from Bangkok to Mandalay on 2 March 2018. After exchanging money into Myanmar Kyats at the Mandalay airport, I booked a taxi to the Mandalay Hilton hotel. Much to my surprise, the preferred currency was USA Dollars but only pristine perfect USA Dollar denominated bills – no creases, no nicks, no small tears, no pencil or ink marks. I had some USA Dollars but none would meet the pristine perfect condition so I used some of my newly acquired Myanmar Kyats for the taxi fare.

While I was checking into the hotel, I asked a lady at the front desk about booking a day trip local tour for the following day. She said that the hotel could arrange for a private car, driver, and English speaking guide for local sightseeing day trip tours of Mandalay. I immediately reserved the car and guide for two day so of local sightseeing. When I asked about traveling to Bagan, she offered several options of local bus, private car, or by boat on the Irrawaddy River which is also referred to as the Ayeyarwaddy River. I told her that I would like to take the bus and she made the bus reservation for me for Monday, 5 March, to Bagan.

In a matter of less than fifteen minutes after I arrived at the hotel, I had firmed up my next three days in Myanmar. The hotel had been completely refurbished by Hilton and had opened only several weeks before my arrival. My room was very nice and overlooked the Mandalay Fort and Royal Palace complex.

After a very nice buffet breakfast on Saturday, 3 March, my guide with car and driver picked me up at the hotel to begin the first sightseeing day in Mandalay. I soon discovered that everyone visiting temples and monasteries in Myanmar is required to remove shoes and socks and to walk barefoot. Myanmar also has very strict dress codes for visiting temples and monasteries.

Our first stop was at the Gold Leaf Buddha Factory where people were making gold leaf. The next stop was at the Mahamuni Buddha Temple which was very large and picturesque with many young children wearing traditional celebration clothing. As I walked around the Mahamuni Image statue, one man gave me some gold leaf to place on the statue which is 12 feet 7 inches high. The surface of the statue was somewhat sticky so that the gold leaf would adhere. Mahamuni was a very large complex and took about one hour to visit.

After visiting a stone carving factory in the Stone Carving Quarter of Mandalay, we visited the Shwe In Pain Monastery. Upon entering the gate to the large monastery complex, visitors are required to remove shoes and socks with a long walk to the old wooden monastery building that we came to see. It was another picturesque setting with some exquisite wood carvings.

We continued on past the Mandalay Clock Tower to see some of the Mandalay markets before continuing on to the Mandalay Fort and Royal Palace. Mandalay was founded in 1857 by King Mindon, and a majority of the monuments—including the palace, city walls, pagodas, and monasteries—were built during 1857 or soon after. The fortified city is in the form of a square with each side being 10 furlongs long. The battlemented wall of brick and mud mortar is 25 feet high and backed by an earthen rampart. There are 12 gates on each side equal distances from one another. The moat that surrounds the city averages 225 feet wide and 11 feet deep. Royal Palace occupied the central part of the fortified city. It was removed from Amarapura and reconstructed at Mandalay. It consisted of numerous wooden buildings on a large platform enclosed by a brick wall. All of these original palace buildings were destroyed by fire during the last war.

There is one entrance to the fort that is open for tourists to visit the area occupied by the original royal palace. There are many structures and several mausoleums including King Mindon’s. 600 inscription stones are contained within these structures. The Mya Nan San Kyaw Golden Palace Cultural Museum is also situated here. I was told that the other buildings throughout the walled fort are occupied by family members of the Myanmar military.

After lunch, we visited the the Kuthodaw pagoda which was built by King Mindon in 1859 AD. In addition to the pagoda, this site is described as the world’s biggest book and houses 729 marble slabs of the Buddhist Cannon. We also visited Shwe Nandaw Kyaung (Golden Palace Monastery) and the Kyuak Taw Gui Pagoda before traveling to the top of Mandalay Hill where we visited the Su Taung Pyai Pagoda. We returned to the Mandalay Fort to view a gorgeous sunset over a portion of the moat and fort.

On Sunday morning, 4 March, we drove to Amarapura which was the capital city before King Mindon moved the capital to Mandalay. We visited the Pahtodawgyi Pagoda which was built in 1820, and then drove past Taungthaman Lake en route to the Mahagandayon Monastery which was founded in 1914. It is one of the largest teaching monasteries in Myanmar, and home to up to 2000 monks at any given time. We came here to watch the resident monks line up silently and systematically for their lunch – their last meal of the day. This monastery is considered to be a must-see tourist attraction and is on most tourism itineraries. As I was leaving the monastery, I noticed a beautiful clock tower which I have called the Amarapura Clock Tower, although it might be part of the Mahagandayon Monastery complex.

Our next destination was the Shwe Sin Tai Silk Weaving showroom and silk weaving factory en route to Sagaing Hill. As we crossed the Irrawaddy River via the Yadanabon Bridge built in 2008, Sagaing Hill became visible. The Yadanabon Bridge is adjacent to the 16 span cantilever Ava Bridge between Ava and Sagaing. Sagaing is one of Myanmar’s most picturesque sites with numerous pagodas crowning the hills. While in Sagaing, we visited the Thidagu Buddha University, the U-min Thonze Pagoda, the Soon Oo Pone Nya Shin Pagoda, and the Kaung Mutaw Pagoda.

We drove from Sagaing to a jetty to board a boat to cross the Dokhtawadi River (also referred to as the Myitnge River) to go to Innwa (also referred to as Ava). Innwa is situated at the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Myitnge Rivers and was founded in 1364. It was the capital of a kingdom for nearly 500 years. After nearly being destroyed by an earthquake in 1838, Innwa was abandoned in favor of Amarapura in 1841.

After crossing the river, we hired a horse drawn cart to take us to several different sites at Innwa. We visited the Bagaya Monastery which was constructed of 267 teak wood posts and most of the exterior adornments had been lost due to exposure to the weather. Our next stop was at the Yandana Simme Pagoda en route to the ancient Innwa Watch Tower which was situated near a water pool. Before returning to the boat dock, we visited the Maha Aung Mye Bozan Monastery.

After returning to the car, we drove to the Taungthaman Lake where we parked and walked nearly half way across the U Bein Bridge. It is 1.2 kilometers long and was built from teak planks. It is said to be the longest bridge of its type in the world. In 1857, when the capital moved from nearby Amarapura to Mandalay, the local mayor (named U Bein) salvaged wood from pieces of the dismantled teak palace and reconstructed it into this magnificent bridge. We were there during the dry season when the water level was very low and polluted. During the rainy season, the water level reportedly rises to just below the planks of the bridge. Since I decided not to travel by small boat out on the lake to take a sunset photo of the bridge due to the excessive pollution of the water, we returned to the hotel.

After returning to the hotel, I reserved the same car and driver for one more day of sightseeing on Saturday, 10 March, when I would be back from my excursion to Bagan. I also received my local bus ticket from the front desk clerk for my trip to Bagan.

My visit to Bagan from 5 March to 9 March is documented in my separate Bagan, Myanmar Travel Notes.

On Friday, 9 March, I checked out of the hotel in Bagan at 5:00 AM and picked up my breakfast-to-go from the hotel before being picked up by a taxi to go to the jetty to board the boat to Mandalay. It was still dark when I arrived at the jetty parking area where I was immediately met by several people who checked my ticket and carried my luggage to the boat. The gangplank was a board that I had to walk across from the river bank to the boat – glad that my balance was good enough to not fall off of the board.

I took a seat near the front and waited for the journey to begin. The passengers on the boat were mainly tourists, and there were plenty of empty seats for the non-stop trip upstream on the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay. Sunrise over the Irrawaddy River was spectacular as we approached the Pakokku Bridge with the sun in the background.

The Pakokku Bridge was built between 2009 and 31 December 2011. It is both a rail and highway bridge. It is part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and is the longest bridge in Myanmar. It opened on 1 January 2012.

Even though the Irrawaddy River level was low and the river had receded from the high water marks on portions with high banks, it was quite wide and would flood wide swaths of the adjacent lowlands during the wet season. The trip upstream was interesting with many photo opportunities of different sizes and types of ships, boats, barges, and gigantic bamboo rafts.

As the boat approached Sagaing, it passed under both the Ava Bridge and the Yadanabon Bridge. Sigaing Hill was illuminated by sunshine and provided very good photo opportunities. Upon departing the river boat, I took a taxi to the Mandalay Hilton and was charged an excessive amount because I was obviously a foreign tourist. It was the only time that I was overcharged during my time in Myanmar.

On Saturday morning, 10 March, I was greeted by my previous guide and driver for my last local tour at Mandalay. We decided to visit Mingun and stopped en route at Sagaing to visit the Ook Kyaung Temple and the small pool adjacent to the temple. We continued along the Irrawaddy River to Mingun where we parked to visit the Mya Thein Dan Pagoda. After removing my shoes and socks, my guide and I climbed to the upper level of the pagoda and enjoyed several marvelous panoramic views. Next we visited the enormous Mingun Bell before going to the ancient Pahto Daw Gyi Pagoda which has sustained earthquake damage and a portion of the stairway to the upper level was closed to the public. Another site called The Lions was situated along the bank of the Irrawaddy River opposite from the bell and pagodas. These “lions” were two huge monuments which I believe resembled two elephants. The head portion had separated from the main portion of one of the two monuments.

We passed the Kyat Daijng Lake while driving to a restaurant for lunch. It was more like a pool constructed with stone stepped sides and worthy of a photo. After lunch, we returned to the hotel where I said goodbye to my guide and driver.

I checked out of the Hilton Mandalay on Sunday, 11 March, to go to the Mandalay International Airport for my flight back to Bangkok. While on the flight, I realized that I had just completed a fantastic trip to Myanmar.

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  March 2018
Bagan, Myanmar

Travel Notes

 

After visiting Mandalay, Myanmar, from 2 March to 4 March, 2018, I obtained my local bus ticket from the hotel front desk clerk for my trip from Mandalay to Bagan. On Monday morning, 5 March, I was picked up at the hotel in Mandalay by the local bus company and taken to the Hello Express local bus where they had reserved a front row seat for me – I believe that only a limited number of seats were reserved. Throughout the trip to Bagan, the bus driver and his assistant would stop whenever someone wished to board or to disembark from the bus. Although it was a long bus ride, it was also a very interesting and inexpensive way to travel. Of particular interest to me was the use of manual labor for road construction including melting the tar in barrels for the road construction. Upon arrival at Bagan, I was taken directly to my hotel by the bus company.

While on the bus, I called the Areindmar Hotel, where I had made advance reservations, to reconfirm my arrival and request them to arrange for a private car and driver for the following day for local sightseeing. Upon arrival at the hotel, I was able to arrange for a hotel car with an English speaking guide for three days that included a day trip to Mount Popa. I was also able to have the hotel book a reservation on the boat from Bagan to Mandalay for Friday, 9 March. I paid for the boat ticket in USA Dollars as required by the hotel. I picked up my boat ticket from the front desk the following morning before eating a very nice buffet breakfast.

The ruins of Bagan extend over a tract of land measuring about 16 square miles along the east bank of the Irrawaddy River. The monuments, which are in all stages of decay, were erected mostly from the 11th to 13th centuries A.D. when Bagan was the seat of the Myanmar Dynasty. My guide said that currently there are more than 3,200 monuments in Bagan.

On the morning of 6 March, my guide with the car and driver met me at the hotel for a full day of local Bagan sightseeing. During the day we saw and visited many monuments and our day trip culminated in watching the sunset from a temple adjacent to the Dhammayazaka Pagoda. Our first stop was at the Nagayon Temple which contains a large standing Buddha with two smaller Buddhas, niches with statues, and wonderful wall paintings.

Next we visited Manuha Temple which was built in 1059 AD. Manuha contains images of three seated Buddhas and a gigantic recumbent image of Buddha. We walked from Manuha to visit Nanpaya Temple with a magnificent stone relief figure of Brahma. While walking, we also saw remnants of the Old Bagan City Wall, Thatbyinnyu Temple, Ngakywenadaung Pagoda, and Patothamya Temple. Our next stop was at a popular Bagan overlook with panoramic views over parts of Bagan. Since the daytime haze tended to obscure the distant views from the overlook, we drove to another overlook with somewhat better visibility.

We went from the second overlook to the Sulamani Temple which was built in 1188 AD. This temple features a large seated Buddha in a deep recess in a wall on the east side. It also has vaulted corridors with remnants of wonderful ancient wall and ceiling paintings. We continued on to visit the Dhamayangyi Temple which was never completed because the king building the temple was assassinated during the construction. We took photos as we drove past the Thabeikhmauk Temple Complex en route to the Ananda Temple.

Our last stop before lunch was at the Ananda Temple built in 1091 AD. It is one of the finest temples at Bagan and has recently been refurbished. It is beautiful, and I spent a lot of time visiting Ananda. It also contains magnificent stone sculptures. We also stopped to take photos of temples and pagodas near the Min O Chanta Phaya on our way to a restaurant for lunch. While driving around Bagan we saw and photographed many unidentified temples, pagodas, and other structures.

After lunch, we visited the Sarabua Gateway and took photos of the Shwe San Dav Pagoda as we returned to the hotel for an afternoon break. My guide met me late in the afternoon to go to Pwasaw to visit both the Dhammyazika Pagoda, built in 1196 AD and the adjacent Pwasaw Temple Complex to be in position to view the sunset over a portion of Bagan. I viewed the sunset from an upper level of one of the adjacent temples.

The following day, my guide met me at the hotel and we embarked on a road trip to visit the monastery at Taung Kalat commonly referred to as Mount Popa. Mount Popa is a volcano 1518 metres (4981 feet) above sea level, and about 50 km southeast of Bagan. Southwest of Mount Popa is Taung Kalat (pedestal hill), a sheer-sided volcanic plug, which rises 657 metres (2,156 ft) above sea level. Since Mount Popa is the name of the actual volcano that caused the creation of the Tuang Kalat volcanic plug, to avoid confusion, the volcano (with its crater blown open on one side) is generally called Taung Ma-gyi (mother hill). A Buddhist monastery is located at the summit of Taung Kalat. The Taung Kalat pedestal hill is frequently called Mount Popa. I will refer to Taung Kalat in my photos as Mount Popa. At one time, the Buddhist hermit U Khandi maintained the stairway of 777 steps to the summit of Taung Kalat.

Our first stop en route to Taung Kalat was at the Palm Toddy Workshop adjacent to the highway. Here I was shown how people use the toddy palm trees for a livelihood. The sap is used to produce wine and stronger alcohol. While the toddy fruits are used to make jelly and other edible foods, the leaves are used to make craft articles for tourists. It was very interesting watching the processes.

We also visited the Shwe Si Tiaung Village to see how the local villagers live. We walked through the village and the villagers were very friendly. Tamarind, peanuts, and lentils are among the food items harvested here. They also still use oxen carts for transporting goods.

Before arriving at Taung Kalat, we visited the Shwe Bone Taco Win Monastery where I was able to photograph the Taung Kalat and the monastery on top. Since we were not able to drive all the way to the base of Taung Kalat, my driver let me and my guide off in a village on top of an adjacent hill from where we had to walk to Taung Kalat before climbing to the monastery.

The monastery at Taung Kalat is famed for being home to 37 nats (Burmese spirits), which are represented by statues at the base of the volcanic outcrop. From here, we climbed up the 777 steps to the monastery at the top, had a 360 degree panorama view and a labyrinth of shrines to explore. Before climbing the steps to the monastery, we had to remove our shoes and socks. We also had to be careful when passing by numerous monkeys along the stairway. To complicate matters, tourists purchased small cardboard tubes full of dry lentils to feed the monkeys and the monkeys spilled many of the lentils on the steps which were difficult to avoid while barefoot.

The monastery was very interesting and the view was spectacular. The climb down was still complicated by the monkeys and lentils on the steps. After returning to the car, we stopped for lunch and then returned to Bagan. I took photos of several more temples en route to Bagan. The trip was wonderful and I was able to return to the hotel with many very nice photos.

My guide picked me up at my hotel at 5:00 AM on Thursday morning, 8 March, to see the sunrise over an area of Bagan. We parked at a location near the Tamani Pagoda and hiked to a temple where we climbed up a set of narrow stairs to an upper lever to await the sunrise. I took several photos of temples illuminated by electric lights in the darkness and many photos as the sun gradually illuminated the area. We descended from the temple and found several other areas to continue photographing the sunrise and the hot air balloons floating across Bagan with the rising sun in the background.

We returned to the hotel where I ate breakfast and met my guide later in the morning to go to the Bagan Archaeological Museum. The relatively new museum was large and replaced a much smaller adjacent building. Although cameras were not allowed in the museum, visitors were allowed to take photos with mobile phones. The exhibits were well worth the visit.

After the museum, we visited the West Pwa Saw Village in Bagan. The village was also very interesting even though it was somewhat similar to the village that we visited the day before. From the village we continued along the Myat Lay Road to visit the Lemyethna Group and Temple, Thamanpaya Temple, Narathihapatae Temple, Payathonzu Temple, and Thambula Temple. These temples completed my local tours of Bagan, and I said goodbye to my guide and driver upon returning to the hotel.

I checked out of the hotel at 5:00 AM on Friday, 9 March, and picked up my breakfast-to-go from the hotel before being picked up by a taxi to go to the jetty to board the boat to Mandalay. The boat trip to Mandalay is documented in my separate Mandalay, Myanmar Travel Notes.

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  January 2018
Northwest Argentina

Travel Notes

 

Prior to booking a trip to Tibet and Everest Base Camp, I wanted to determine if I would be physically able to acclimate to high elevation altitude. Since Lhasa is approximately 12,000 feet above sea level and Everest Base Camp is approximately 18,000 feet above sea level, I decided to go to Salta and Jujuy Provinces of Argentina during the southern hemisphere summer month of January where I could experience elevations up to and over 14,000 feet.

I flew from Buenos Aires to Salta, Argentina, on Thursday, 4 January. Salta is the Provincial Capital of Salta Province and is 3,780 feet above sea level. After checking into my hotel, I decided to explore the neighborhood near the hotel. Although it was the rainy season in Salta and Jujuy provinces, the afternoon was clear and I decided to walk to the San Bernardo Cable Car, Teleferico San Bernardo, by following the overhead cables in the distance. I eventually arrived at Parque San Martin where the downhill station was situated. It was already too late in the day to ride the cable car, I decided that I would return the following day.

I continued walking until I arrived at Plaza 9 de Julio, the main plaza in Salta. It was dark by the time I finished eating dinner near the plaza. I continued walking around the plaza and admired the area as it was illuminated after dark.

Friday morning, 5 January, was beautiful with bright sunshine, which was a perfect time to return to the cable car. The cable car construction began during 1987 and it began operation in 1998. The panoramic views of Salta from the cable car as it ascends 285 meters to the Cerro San Bernardo viewpoint are stunning. In addition, there is an artistic water project at the summit which has many interesting features as people walk around and over it. Since Cerro San Bernardo is the highest point within the city, there are panoramic views in all directions.

I walked to the Plaza 9 de Julio where I visited the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana (MAAM), the high altitude archaeological museum of the north. It features the discovery of the three incas “Liullailaco Children” found frozen at the peak of Mount Liullailaco. They are some of the best preserved mummies in the world. The museum displays one of them at any one time and cycles the mummy on display every several months. No photographs are allowed within the museum.

After booking the Train to the Clouds Tour for Saturday and a tour to Cafayete for Sunday, I continued exploring the Plaza 9 de Julio area of Salta. In addition to the interesting structures within the plaza, the architecture of the surrounding buildings was also very nice. Most noteworthy were the Salta Cathedral, Cathedral Basilica, and the San Francisco Church, Basilica Menor y Convento San Francisco. These two churches were very beautiful both during the day and at night. The Old Town Hall, Cabildo Historica, is another prominent structure adjacent to the plaza. At night the plaza was full of people.

I was picked up at my hotel at 6:15 AM on Saturday morning and driven to the Salta Train station where I received my ticket and seat assignment for the Train to the Clouds, Tren a las Nubes, and the bus that would take me to the train station at San Antonio de los Cobres where I would board the train. The bus trip would include the very scenic Route 51 through the magnificent Quebrada del Toro. This gorge follows the Rio Toro and has constantly changing dramatic scenery and multicolored rocks. The first stop of the bus was at Campo Quijano to see an old steam locomotive that was on display. An additional stop was at the Viaducto El Toro for photos.

The bus continued northwest on Route 51 to El Alfarcito where the tour served coffee and a light breakfast snack. El Alfarcito is at an elevation of 2,800 meters (9,187 feet). In addition to a school, it has the San Cayetano Church, Capilla San Cayetano. The bus continued the assent to the Abra Blanco with an elevation of 4,080 meters (13,385 feet) before descending to a plateau and continuing to San Antonio de los Cobres with an elevation of 3,774 meters (12,382 feet). Spectacular views of Nevado de Acay with an elevation of 5,950 meters (19,521 feet) could be seen from Route 51 on both sides of the Abra Blanca.

We boarded the Tren a las Nubes at San Antonio de los Cobres and rode for 21 kilometers past the old Concordia Mine, Minos Concordia, to the famous bridge, La Polvorilla Viaduct. The bridge is 223.5 meters long with a maximum height of 63 meters above the ground and at an elevation of 4,220 meters (13,845 feet). It was constructed in 1932 and inaugurated on November 5, 1939. After a brief stop at La Polvorilla, the passengers on the train switched sides in the cars so they would have a different view as the train returned to San Antonio de los Cobres.

After disembarking from the train, the bus stopped in San Antonio de los Cobres for us to purchase lunch from any place of our choosing. During lunch, intermittent light rain showers began with snow accumulating on Nevado de Acay. The bus returned to Salta via Route 51 with a short stop at Santa Rosa de Tastil. This stop was to allow the passengers to walk to a viewpoint overlooking the archaeological ruins site at Tastil. Since it was raining and the visibility was very limited, I decided to remain on the bus. I returned to my hotel at approximately 8:30 PM after the long day trip.

On Sunday morning, the tour to Cafayete did not come to pick me up at my hotel at the appointed time. After waiting for more than 30 minutes, the hotel receptionist called the tour company which said that the tour bus was en route to the hotel. After another 30 minutes the tour company told the hotel receptionist that maybe the bus was stuck in traffic. Finally after another long delay, the tour company acknowledged that they had booked the tour for the prior day, the same day as my Tren a las Nubes tour. They refunded the cost of the tour to me after they opened later in the day.

Since I was not able to take the Cafayete tour, I decided to walk to the Salta Anthropological Museum, Museo de Antropologia. The museum was situated behind a small park with the Monumento al Gral. Martin Miguel de Guemes. Although the museum was small and was very much a work-in-progress, it was well worth a visit. After visiting the museum, I walked around several different areas of Salta.

On Monday, 8 January, I boarded a long distance bus to Humahuaca in Jujuy Province where I boarded another bus to Iruya. The bus trip from Salta to Humahuaca was 245 kilometers north on Route 9. The bus stopped at the new bus station at Jujuy city and at several other places including Purmamarca and Tilcara. Route 9 between Purmamarca and Humahuaca ascends through the Quebrada de Humahuaca with gorgeous colorful mountain scenery. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. After arriving at the Humahuaca bus station, I found the ticket sales for the bus to Iruya and purchased my ticket. The elevation at Humahuaca is 2,936 meters (9,633 feet). The road from Humahuacqa to Iruya was a narrow, winding, and mostly unpaved mountain road that is not for the faint of heart.

Iruya is a small town nestled against the mountainside at an elevation of 2,780 meters (9,120 feet) along the Iruya River. Although it is located in Salta Province, there is no road connecting it with the rest of the Salta province. Access to Iruya is through a road to the adjacent Jujuy province. The church in Iruya was built in 1690. The bus stop for Iruya is along the road to the town. The portion of the road and the streets within Iruya are paved with large uneven cobblestones which made rolling my carryon luggage nearly impossible. Fortunately, a local man took pity on me and offered to help me with my luggage to my hotel which ended up being nearly one kilometer away from the bus stop and mostly uphill. I was moving slowly in Iruya due to the high elevation and was happy that I had been acclimating for several days. I rested at my hotel for a couple of hours before looking to find somewhere nearby for dinner.

On Tuesday, 9 January, I went for a hike up the slope to the Iruya Hotel. It is the finest hotel in Iruya and is also the hotel farthest up the mountain. I walked from the hotel to the colorful Iruya Cemetery and then hiked to the viewpoint above the town with panoramic views of the town, the Iruya River and the portion of Iruya across the river accessible via a footbridge. I also booked an afternoon 4x4 tour to several smaller nearby pueblos. The only other attraction in Iruya was the museum located at the church – it was tiny but interesting. Since I was still getting acclimated to the altitude, I continued to walk slowly on the steep rough cobblestone streets.

The afternoon 4x4 tour was very good with a wonderful driver who would stop for photos anytime I asked. We traveled on one lane dirt roads up and down the mountains and visited several small pueblos including Campo Carpipas and Pueblo Viejo. The tour lasted nearly four hours and was a very good way to see the surrounding area.

After breakfast on Wednesday, 10 January, I decided to hike across the footbridge to the part of Iruya situated across the Iruya River. I was told that there was a trail up the mountain above this part of Iruya that led to a viewpoint to watch condors. The trail was a long steep climb up the side of the mountain with continuous switchbacks. In some places it was partly washed away and somewhat dangerous and of course, there were no handrails for support. I had been able to see several condors as I began the trail but the clouds began to obscure the view. I walked slowly with many rest stops due to the high elevation. After hiking nearly 80% of the trail elevation, it began to rain with thunder and lightning off in the distance. Since I did not want to be on the mountain during a potential thunderstorm, I decided to return to Iruya. In spite of stopping my hike, I was delighted that weather permitting, I would have been able to hike the top of the mountain.

On Thursday, 11 January, I hired a man to drive me and my luggage down to the bus stop to catch the bus back to Humahuaca. The bus ride to Humahuaca was a bit tricky as the rivers that we needed to drive across had increased water levels due to an overnight rain. En route to Humahuaca, the bus stopped for a few minutes at the picturesque village of Iturbe. It was misting rain when I arrived at Humahuaca, and I took a taxi to my hotel. Since I would have two days here, I went to find a travel desk to try to book a tour to Serrania de Hornocal and a tour to Tilcara. There were no pre-arranged tours available to Hornocal for Friday but I was able to book a 4x4 tour to Tilcara and Purmamarca for Saturday, 13 January. I was instructed to walk to the bridge on Friday and negotiate a 4x4 tour with one of the many trucks at the bridge.

On Friday morning, I walked to Gomez Plaza where I saw the Cabildo, the Inglesia de la Candelaria, and the small plaza in front of the steps leading up to the Heroes of the Independence Monument. It was a beautiful clear morning, and the views of the colorful mountains from the monument were stunning. The Santa Barbara Tower is situated near the monument, while the Humahuaca Cemetery is situated about 200 meters behind the heroes monument.

After walking to the cemetery, I returned to the monument and walked back down the stairs. To my surprise, what appeared to be a beauty contest was now in progress in the small plaza in front of the monument. I continued to explore portions of Humahuaca and eventually arrived at the bridge where several drivers with trucks were looking for people to go on tours. I found a man with a red truck who would take me to Hornocal as soon as he could find two more people for the trip. After several minutes, I told him that I would pay the additional amount and go with him as a private tour.

Serrania de Hornocal is a beautiful mountain range with multicolored triangular formations. The literature states that Hornocal has fourteen different colors and is best seen during the late afternoon on a clear day. Unfortunately, the clouds were rapidly moving in and the weather was deteriorating. The road to Hornocal was a winding ascent through the mountains to reach the viewpoint at an elevation of 4,350 meters (14,272 feet). By the time we arrived at the viewpoint area, the clouds had moved in with visible heavy rain in the distance. The good news was that I was at the highest elevation of my trip, but the bad news was that the vibrant colors of the rocks were diminished by clouds and fog. During the drive to Hornocal we saw several herds of wild Vicugna near the road. By the time we returned to Humahuaca, it was raining and I spent the remainder of the afternoon at my hotel.

I met my 4x4 tour on Saturday morning to go to Tilcara and Pumamarca. It was another beautiful clear morning as we drove southbound along Route 9 through the Quebrada de Humahuaca to Tilcara. We stopped for a few minutes at the picturesque village of Uquia en route to Tilcara. After arriving at Tilcara, with an elevation of 2,400 meters (7,874 feet), we stopped for photos in the town center and then continued on to the Pucara de Tilcara and the Jardin Botanico de Alturam. Jardin Botanico, which is located next to the pucara, is a botanical garden with cactus species native to the area. It is well worth a visit.

The Pucara de Ticara is a pre-Inca fortification or pucara located on a hill just outside of Tilcara. The pucara was originally built by the Omaguaca tribe around the 12th century. At its peak, the pucara covered up to 15 acres and housed over 2,000 inhabitants that lived in small square buildings with low doorways and no windows. The pucara also contained corrals for animals, sites to perform ceremonies, and burial sites. The Inca conquered the site during the late 15th century. The Spanish arrived in 1536, conquered the Incas, and founded the town of Tilcara. After excavation of the site during the early 20th century, the site was opened as an archaeological museum in 1966.

Our tour continued southbound on Route 9 through the Quebrada de Humahuaca to Purmamarca. Purmamarca, with an elevation of 2,200 meters (7,218 feet), is a small town situated at the base of many colorful mountains. The most famous of these is the Hill of Seven Colors, Cerro de los Siete Colores. After stopping for photos along the main road, where most tourists take photos of Cerro de los Colores, the driver took us back through a valley and over a pass with multi colored landscape on all sides. As the road ascended, the driver asked me if I was able to walk downhill at this altitude. I answered that I was. Later near the top of a pass overlooking a beautiful valley, the driver stopped for photographs and then drove off to the valley floor to wait for us. I didn’t realize that he was going to drive off and left my hat on the front seat of the truck. It was a long beautiful hike to the valley floor to retrieve my hat and my face received a severe sun burn during the hike. After a visit to downtown Purmamaca for lunch, we returned to Humahuaca.

On Sunday, 14 January, I took the long distance bus back to Salta. After checking into my hotel, I went to book small group tours to Cachi, Cafayete, and Salinas Grandes for the following three days that I would be in Salta.

I met my small group tour to Cachi early Monday morning. After a brief stop at Parador El Maray, the bus continued on Route 33 through the Cuesta del Obispo, which is a zigzag and steep section of road between Parador El Maray and the summit of Piedra del Molino at an elevation of 3,450 meters (11,319 feet). Route 33 continues on crossing the Los Cardones National Park. We stopped at a visitor area in the park with signs describing the park and a pathway to walk among several of the many Candelabro Cactus nearby. The cactus reaches 4 meters (13 feet) in height. Its solid branches and trunk are used to craft furniture, beams, and handcrafts. The elevation of the visitor area was 2,871 meters (9,419 feet).

The tour continued to a location where local people operated a roadside spice market adjacent to a popular tourist viewpoint. The market had a wide selection of spices and people from our bus purchased many different spices. The snow covered Nevado de Cachi, with an elevation of 6,380 meters (20,932 feet) and nine summits, was visible in the distance.

The tour continued to Cachi, where I purchased lunch at a restaurant across from the main plaza and the Church of San Jose. The small town of Cachi has an elevation of 2,200 meters (7,218 feet) and is surrounded by majestic mountains. Downtown Cachi was very picturesque and maintains a big tourism business.

On the return across the Parque National Los Cardones, heavy clouds began moving in. By the time we were near the summit at Piedra del Molino, the road was barely visible to the bus driver as we continued on at a snail’s pace. As we descended, we finally got below the clouds and continued back to Salta.

On Tuesday morning, 16 January, I met my small group tour to Cafayete. The tour headed southbound on Route 68 and, during our first stop, vehicles participating in the Dakar Rally 2018 (Peru to Bolivia to Argentina) began passing where we were stopped. This provided a great opportunity to see and to photograph some of the unique vehicles in the rally as they drove along Route 68. After we resumed our tour toward Cafayete, vehicles in the rally continued to pass us.

We stopped at several viewpoints with spectacular scenery as we drove along Route 68 and through the Quebrada se las Conchas. These included Mirsador Tres Cruces, Garganta del Diablo, El Amfitheatro, Valles Calchaquies, and Los Castillos. As we entered Cafayete, the tour stopped to tour a winery. The tour was short and superficial. Although Cafayete is known for some very good wines, I believe that the wine being tasted and sold to the tour visitors was of somewhat poor quality. I ate lunch at Cafayete and, except for the plaza and church, Cafayete was not a picturesque town. After the lunch stop, the tour returned to Salta.

On Wednesday morning, 17 January, I met my tour to Salenas Grandes. This tour would take us northbound on Route 51 through the magnificent Quebrada del Toro to San Antonio de las Cobres for lunch and then to Salenas Grandes before descending to Purmamarca and returning to Salta.

The bus driver was nearly thirty-five minutes late picking us up. He stopped at a convenience store before departing Salta. At the first tourist police checkpoint, one of the policemen requested our driver to blow into a breath tester. To everyone’s surprise our driver did not pass the breath test and was instructed to park the bus off of the road. The police escorted the driver inside a facility and we were informed that we were to get a new driver. Our new driver arrived wearing an olive colored tee shirt with a skull on the front with the captions “BAD DECISIONS” above the skull and “GOOD STORIES” under the skull. The police informed him that our bus would not be going anywhere and we would all need to wait for the company to provide another bus.

The replacement bus finally arrived and, after a brief stop at Campo Quijano to use public toilets, we continued our journey with our new driver ascending Route 51 to San Antonio de los Cobres for lunch. Once again, we were treated to beautiful views of the snow covered Nevado de Acay from Route 51. When our driver stopped at a turnout north of Abra Blanco overlooking the plateau, he pointed out the conical shaped Tuzgle Volcano behind a mountain range across the plateau. It has an elevation of 5,500 meters (18,044 freet).

The tour company bought lunch for the group as compensation for the arrest of our first driver. The road from San Antonio de los Cobres to Salinas Grandes was an unimproved dirt road across the plateau and provided views of the snow covered Nevado de Chani with an elevation of 5,893 meters (19,334 feet).

Salinas Grandes is a spectacular salt plain at an average altitude of 3,450 meters (11,319 feet). According to the literature, it is the largest salt flat in Argentina and the second largest in the world after Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. It covers an area of approximately 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 square miles). There is a road that cuts across the salt plain where a visitor center is located.

After visiting Salinas Grandes, we continued northbound on the unimproved dirt road to the intersection of Route 52. We continued eastbound on Route 52 to the top of the Lipon Slope where the elevation is 4,140 meters (13,583 feet). We continued the long zigzaging nearly 1,940 meter descent of the Route 52 Lipon Slope into Purmamarca. After a brief stop at Purmamarca, we drove back to Salta.

I flew back to Buenos Aires on Thursday, 18 January, with the satisfaction of not only experiencing beautiful locations in both Salta and Jujuy Provinces, but also knowing that I will be able to acclimate to the high altitude of Tibet.

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  Oct/Nov 2017
Northern Territory, Australia

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I decided to visit or friend, Lily, in Sydney, Australia, and then rent an all-wheel drive SUV to explore the Litchfield, Nimiluk, and Kakadu Australian National Parks in the Australian Northern Territory after completing our Pacific Ocean crossing aboard the Holland America ship, MAASDAM.

We arrived at Sydney during the early morning hours of Saturday, 21 October. After disembarking from the MAASDAM, we took a taxi to our Sydney hotel. We walked from the hotel through the Darling Harbour area to the Australian Maritime Museum so Jan could tour the replica of Captain Cook’s ship, HMB ENDEAVOUR. I had sailed on this ship from Darwin to Broome in 2011 as part of the Circumnavigation of Australia by the ENDEAVOUR. I had purchased one of four Supernumerary sailing openings for the voyage to Broome and was given the cabin of the botanist, Joseph Banks, who had accompanied Captain Cook. After visiting the maritime museum, we returned to the hotel and called Lily. We arranged to meet up with her the following morning to go hiking at the Blue Mountains.

On Sunday morning, we took the train to Paramatta, Greater Western Sydney, to meet up with Lily. She drove us to the Blue Mountains where we hiked through the Minnehaha Falls Reserve to view the Minnehaha Falls. We ate lunch at a small family operated restaurant at the town of Blackheath. After lunch, we visited Govett’s Leap and then hiked to the Pulpit Rock Lookout – the landscape views at both of these locations were magnificent. Our final stop at the Blue Mountains was to at the famous Three Sisters viewpoint. Lily drove us back to see her new home on the Paramatta River where she cooked dinner for us. After dinner, we returned to the hotel, sorted our luggage, and packed up for an early morning flight to Darwin. Although I had visited Darwin before boarding the ENDEAVOUR in 2011, I did not have enough time to visit any of the national parks in the Northern Territory (NT).

On Monday morning, 23 October, we placed one piece of our luggage in storage at the hotel and took a taxi to the train station and boarded the train to the Sydney Domestic Airport. Our flight to Darwin, NT, arrived early afternoon, and we drove our rental SUV to our hotel. That afternoon, we walked along the Esplanade to the tourist information office to obtain information on the national parks that we would be exploring. The outside temperature was very hot and was an introduction to the many very hot days ahead of us. That evening, the sunset viewpoint at the Esplanade provided us with an exquisite Darwin sunset.

There are only a few good highways in the Northern Territory and there are many “truck Trains” on these highways. Lily advised that we should give plenty of space when near a truck train. She also said that we should always slow down when we see birds gathered on the highway as they often will fly toward an approaching vehicle. The Stuart Highway between Darwin and Alice Springs is a very good road with many strategically spaced protected passing areas.

We departed Darwin early Tuesday morning and drove the Stuart Highway southbound to Batchelor, NT, near the entrance to Litchfield National Park. We visited the Batchelor Museum which was very interesting. It had a large collection of World War II exhibits including a Bombing of Darwin DVD on the Japanese sneak attack on Darwin a couple of months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Australian war efforts. The attack was carried out by the same carrier group that attacked Pearl Harbor. It devastated Darwin and was only one of many Japanese attacks on the Northern Territory. It resulted in the building of the Stuart Highway and the installation of many Allied airbases spread out in the Northern Territory. The museum also had exhibits on the aboriginal tribes that lived in the area, other settlements in the area, and the local Rum Jungle Uranium mining operations during the 1950s.

After checking into the Batchelor Butterfly Hotel, we drove into Litchfield and visited the Magnetic Termite Mounds which had both magnetic termite mounds and cathedral termite mounds. Although the cathedral termite mounds were found throughout the park, the magnetic termite mounds were concentrated in this area. We continued on to the Buley Rockhole turnout where we hiked to the Buley Rockhole portion of the Florence River and found people swimming in several of the rockholes as the river cascaded down the hillside. We continued on to the parking area for the Florence Falls Lookout and hiked to the lookout, which provided a spectacular view of the Florence Falls. We then descended 135 stairs down the Florence Creek and hiked to the Florence Falls Rockhhole at the base of the falls where people were swimming. Jan didn’t have her swimsuit but soaked her feet on the water at the rockhole. We climbed back up to the lookout and hiked back to the car. Since it was already late afternoon, we returned to the hotel and visited the butterfly enclosure and other animals at the butterfly farm.

On Wednesday morning, 25 October, we returned to Litchfield and began sightseeing the relics of the abandoned Bamboo Creek Tin Mine situated at the opposite end of the park. While hiking to the tin mine, we stopped for photos at a very large cathedral termite mound. The vegetation was interesting as were the remains of the tin mine which had been closed after miners began contracting silicosis. Our next stop was at the Cascades Creek parking area. We opted to hike along the Lower Cascades Creek, which was posted with warning signs regarding the presence of saltwater crocodiles. The hike was spectacular with crystal clear water and wonderful landscape scenery.

Our next stop was at Wangi Falls, the most popular location at Litchfield. We hiked to the falls and the rockhole at the base. This is also a popular location for people to swim in the rockhole with the freshwater crocodiles that inhabit this location. There were two separate waterfalls and, although some people were swimming, Jan opted to wait for us to return to the Buley Rockhole to go swimming.

After Wangi Falls, we drove to the Tolmer Falls parking area. We hiked to the Tolmer Falls Lookout which provided a superb view of the very high Tolmer Falls. Tolmer Creek flows across a plateau and then cascades down two escarpments into a distant deep plunge pool below and across the lowland plains.

We returned to the beautiful Buley Rockhole for Jan to go for a swim. Although the underwater rocks at the cascading creek and at the rockhole plunge pools were very slippery, the water was cool, clear, and refreshing after hiking in the hot weather. Jan’s swim concluded our visit to Litchfield, and we returned to the Batchelor Butterfly Hotel.

We departed Batchelor on the morning of 26 October and continued southbound on the Stuart Highway to Katherine, NT. Our first stop was to take a photo of the fire station at Adelaide River. Our next stop was at the Katherine Tourist Information Center where we purchased our permit to visit Kakadu National Park and gathered information on recommended sites to visit at Kakadu. We also obtained detailed information about Nimiluk National Park, which would be our next stop. After visiting a Woolworth store in Katherine, we drove along the Katherine River to Niniluk National Park. After stopping at the Nimiluk Visitors Center, where we obtained the key to our chalet at the Nimiluk Chalets, we ordered dinner to be delivered to our chalet and signed up for two tours the following day.

Once we moved into the chalet, we returned to the visitor center to view a video about Nimiluk and then walked down to the boat dock area on the Katherine River to make sure we knew where to go for our dawn cruise in the morning. We were impressed by the very large numbers of flying foxes (bats) in the trees beside the river. As we walked back to our chalet, we saw several wallabies in an open area near the chalets. The chalet was very nice with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living, and dining area with separate air conditioning in the bedroom and the other portion of the chalet.

On Friday, 27 October, we took a dawn cruise to Katherine Gorge No. 1 and Gorge No. 2. Since gorge 1 is separated from gorge 2 by an area with many large rocks, we disembarked at the upstream end of gorge 1, admired some aboriginal rock art, and hiked along a path to the downstream end of gorge 2, where we boarded a second boat. The second boat took us to the upstream end of gorge 2. The early morning sun shining on the beautiful tall escarpment cliffs made for wonderful photo opportunities. We were there during the dry season, but these areas of Katherine Gorge are flooded during the wet season as the river water level rises.

Since the outside temperature was over 100 degrees F, we ate lunch at the visitor center, ordered dinner to be delivered to the chalet, and spent the afternoon at the chalet until time to hike back to the boat dock for our afternoon cultural safari.

We met the Ancient Garlarr Safari at the boat dock and, since we were the only people who had signed up, instead of canceling the trip they gave us a private tour. The safari was hosted by several aboriginal people who demonstrated how the aboriginal people have lived in the area for thousands of years. En route to the upstream end of gorge 1, a woman demonstrated how they obtained vegetation to weave and dye various articles including baskets, mats, and hunting pouches.

We disembarked at the end of gorge 1, where the men showed us how they make spears, spear throwers, fishing spears, boomerangs, and clubs. They also provided information on aboriginal history and customs including the skin system used for marriage. In addition, they described in detail the different ancient rock art images on the escarpment cliffs. When we returned to the boat dock, once again, we were in awe at the large numbers of flying foxes in the trees. We were extremely impressed with this safari and would recommend it to any visitors to Nimiluk National Park.

We departed Nimiluk on Saturday, 28 October, for the very long drive to Kakadu National Park. We drove northbound on the Stuart Highway to Pine Creek where we visited the Pine Creek Railway Museum. We turned onto the Kakadu Highway at Pine Creek and continued northeast to Kakadu. We stopped at a ranger station inside the park which had an open door with some tourist information brochures and some exhibits on the aboriginal history, wildlife, vegetation, and geology of the park. We continued on to a parking area with hiking trails to the South Alligator River and the Gungurul Lookout.

The trail to the river had a warning sign for the presence of saltwater crocodiles. After I hiked to the river, which was completely dry, Jan and I began hiking to the lookout which turned out to be a very steep climb on a very hot afternoon. About half way up to lookout, Jan returned to the car while I continued to the top. The views from the lookout showed a vast area of lowland plain with several ranges and some tall escarpments toward the east. In addition, a large billabong was visible in the distance toward the west.

We continued on to the Kakadu Visitor Center, where a park ranger provided us with additional tourist brochures and marked up a park map of places that we should visit based on our expressed desire to visit rock art sites and take a couple of river cruises. The visitor center also had extensive exhibits on the cultural history, wildlife, and geology.

We continued driving to Jabiru, near the eastern side of the park, where we checked into the very upscale Mercure Crocodile Hotel. We booked a South Alligator River sunset cruise for the following afternoon and a mid-morning cultural cruise on the East Alligator River for the second day. We enjoyed a wonderful buffet dinner at the hotel that evening.

On Sunday, 29 October, we drove to the Anbangbang Billabong where we saw an enormous quantity of birdlife that included black cockatoos, white cockatoos, and magpie geese. Of course, all along the pedestrian trail near the billabong were the crocodile warning signs. We continued on to the Anbangbang Rock Art Gallery where we hiked along an escarpment with areas of ancient aboriginal rock art. This art was not only extensive but was very impressive. From here we took a trail to the Gunwarrdehwarrdeh Lookout to see the surrounding area with spectacular landscape views. As we left this area, we noticed a sign for the Nawurlandja Lookout and decided to stop.

We hiked up across a large escarpment to the lookout which provided an outstanding view that is reported to be spectacular at sunset. The view included the Anbangbang Billabong off in the distance from the side opposite to where we visited earlier.

En route to Cooinda, we stopped at the Warradjan Cultural Centre which housed wonderful exhibits of the aboriginal culture in the area. The museum did not allow any form of photography, but it is a must-see when visiting Kakadu. We ate a late lunch at the Cooinda Lodge where we met the courtesy bus to take us to our sunset Yellow Water River Cruise on the South Alligator River.

The river cruise departed from a dock in a billabong where we could see saltwater crocodiles swimming in the distance. After cruising through the billabong, where we saw numerous crocodiles on the shore, the cruise entered the South Alligator River where we saw water buffalo, crocodiles, wild horses, and many species of birds. The guide on the boat was very good and stopped the boat for people to observe different birds that most of us would otherwise probably not have noticed. As dusk set in, the guide pointed out the many thousand magpie geese flying overhead to their nighttime roosting place. Storm clouds began forming, with lightning off in the distance, as we ended the cruise.

It was after dark when we drove back to Jabiru and it was raining by the time we arrived at the hotel. We were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm with driving rain during the night. By morning, however, the storm had passed and we had another sunny day.

On Monday, 30 October, we drove to the East Alligator River Upstream Boat Ramp near Cahill’s Crossing for our cultural river cruise. The ubiquitous crocodile warning signs were also present here. The cruise took us downstream to Cahill’s Crossing and then upstream. The boat driver and guide was a local aboriginal person who was exceptionally good. There were countless saltwater crocodiles along both sides of the river. The guide showed us how they have fished, hunted, and lived off the land for thousands of years. He also showed us how the three-prong spear, used for fishing, pops back up in the water after he throws it. He also provided aboriginal cultural history and pointed out some ancient aboriginal rock art. After a stop for people to climb up to a lookout spot, we returned to the boat dock. It was another wonderful river cruise at Kakadu.

We visited the Border Store to get a snack and then drove to Ubirr to visit the Ubirr Rock Art Galleries. There were several galleries with exceptional ancient rock art that included the rainbow serpent, a Tasmanian tiger, barramundi, turtles, hands, wallabies, and Mountford Figures. As we drove back to Jabiru, we passed the remains of an abandoned car with extensive fire damage – it appeared to have been beside the road for a very long time.

We checked out of the hotel on 31 October and began driving along the Anthem Highway toward Darwin. We stopped to visit the Mamukala Wetlands, which is part of the South Alligator River Floodplain. This area was declared a Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. It is also visited by more than 60 species of birds. It is most spectacular during September and October when thousands of magpie geese visit to feed. Fortunately the magpie geese were present during our visit. As we continued along the Anthem Highway, we came upon another large billabong on the north side of the highway. I stopped to photograph two Jabirus - black-necked storks - standing in the water relatively close to the highway. I had seen a Jabiru when we were driving to the East Alligator River cruise but was not able to get a photo.

As we continued on the Anthem Highway, approximately 30 kilometers before reaching the Stuart Highway, we noticed a sign for the Fogg Dam Conservation Project. Since we had no knowledge of the Fogg Dam Project, we decided to drive there. It is a wetland area within the Adelaide and Mary River Floodplains. It attracts a wide range of local and migratory water birds and other wildlife including one of the largest populations of snakes in Australia including the Water Python and Death Adder. As we slowly drove across the dam, we were lucky enough to see and photograph several Brologas - Australian Cranes - standing in the water. The weather closed in and, as we were driving back across the dam, a torrential rain ensued but subsided as we were exiting the dam.

We continued driving to Darwin during intermittent rain showers. We stopped at downtown Darwin to fill the SUV with gasoline before going to our Darwin airport hotel. After checking into the hotel, we returned the rental car and walked back to the hotel. We flew to Sydney on the morning of 1 November and checked into an airport hotel. The following day, we took the train into Sydney to retrieve our stored luggage from our first Sydney hotel. We repacked for our flight the following day and flew back home to Los Angeles on Friday, 3 November.

See pictures from Northern Territory, Australia

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  Sept/Oct 2017
Pacific Ocean Cruise

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I decided to take a Pacific Ocean repositioning cruise from San Diego, California, to Sydney, Australia, aboard the Holland America ship, MAASDAM. The cruise itinerary included en route ports of call in Hawaii, American Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. Our good friends, Tom and Leslie, from Orcas Island, Washington, USA, decided to sail to Australia on the same cruise, which was wonderful.

We departed San Diego on Wednesday, 27 September, and arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Tuesday, 3 October. After arriving at Honolulu, we took the Holland American “Monarchs & Missionaries: Hawaii’s Royal History” shore excursion. The first stop was at the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout which was the site of the Battle of Nu’uanu, one of the most important battles in Hawaiian history. The lookout provided magnificent views of Honolulu and the Pacific Ocean coastline.

The second stop was at the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site & Archives. We visited three restored mission houses, two of which are the oldest houses in Hawaii. Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, the Hawaiian Islands had no written language. The missionaries developed what is now the written Hawaiian language, and one of the buildings contained the print shop that houses both printing and book binding presses.

The Kawaiahaʻo Church, situated across the street from the mission houses, was designed by Rev. Hiram Bingham in the New England style of the Hawaiian missionaries. It was constructed between 1836 and 1842 of some 14,000 thousand-pound slabs of coral rock. The Kawaiahaʻo Church was once the national church of the Hawaiian Kingdom and chapel of the royal family; the church is popularly known as Hawaii's Westminster Abbey.

Kawaiahaʻo Church was frequented by the chiefs of the Hawaiian Islands as well as the members of the reigning Kamehameha Dynasty and Kalākaua Dynasty. The upper gallery of the sanctuary is adorned with 21 portraits of Hawaiian royalty. The mausoleum of King Lunalito is situated adjacent to the Kawaiahaʻo Church – he preferred burial in a church cemetery to burial in the Royal Mausoleum.

A statue of King Kamehameha is situated in front of the court house. King Kamehameha was the king who united the Hawaiian Islands after the famous Battle of Nu’uanu.

The Iolani Palace is located across the street from King Kamehameha’s statue. This is the only royal palace in the United States and was built by King Kalakaua in 1882. It was the official residence of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s last two monarchs – King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani. The Hawaiian Kingdom was a sovereign nation until Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown during a coup and imprisoned within the palace. After the palace tour, we walked to the Aloha Tower Pier area and then continued back to the MAASDAM.

Since we had two days in Honolulu, we took a second shore excursion to visit the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor on Wednesday, 4 October. After viewing a documentary film about the attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, we boarded a Navy launch to go to the USS Arizona Memorial. After a talk by one of the docents at the memorial, we returned by another Navy launch to the main area for some free time before being transported to Ford Island to visit the battleship, USS Missouri. The USS Missouri was the last battleship built by the United States and was the vessel where the surrender of Japan took place on September 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay ending World War II. After a guided tour of the decks of the ship, we were given free time to continue on a self-guided tour to explore other areas of the battleship. The tour then drove us to the Punch Bowl National Cemetery before returning to the pier.

After five days at sea, we arrived at Pago Pago, Tutuila, American Samoa, on the morning of 10 October. We decided to visit the Jean P. Haydon Museum and then explore the neighborhood in the vicinity of the port on foot. The museum is dedicated to the culture and history of American Samoa. It has extensive exhibits that include canoes, pigs’ tusk armlets, natural history, tapa making, tattooing, kava bowls, war clubs, and historical photographs.

We continued from the museum, along the picturesque waterfront, toward the McDonald’s restaurant where we purchased milkshakes and used their WiFi to check email. During our walk around the area, we passed the outdoor town market and many small businesses as well as the District Court, the High Court, and the Police Station. The Fagatogo Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa O LE KI LE MALO O LE LAGI (CCCAS) stood out as a landmark. The original church dates back to the 1830’s; however, the current building was reconstructed between 1933 and 1949. After damage from three cyclones, the church was closed for a two-year renovation and re-opened in 1994.

Although we intended to walk in the opposite direction from the port to see one of the local beaches, it began to rain as we were passing the port. As a result, we decided to skip the long walk to the beach and returned to the MAASDAM which departed Pago Pago later that evening.

After two more sea days, we arrived at Port Vila, Suva, Fiji, on the morning of 13 October. After disembarking from the ship, we walked through an immense municipal market before arriving at the downtown center of Suva. We visited the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart which was first used in 1902. As we continued walking, we admired many very nice colonial buildings in downtown Suva. We passed the Carnegie City Library, a large complex of Government buildings, and Albert Pavilion en route to Fiji National Museum. The museum is located in the large Thurston Gardens botanical garden. The museum is magnificent and contains a large array of diverse Fijian and Melanesian cultural exhibits. One unique exhibit is the rudder from the famous HMS BOUNTY, the ship the mutineers, led by master’s mate Fletcher Christian, took from Captain William Bligh on April 28, 1879.

After visiting the museum and Thurston Gardens, we walked along Suva Harbor past the Parliament of Fiji and the Police Academy before walking back along the harbor to the ship, passing the Grand Pacific Hotel and Umoria Park along the way.

We arrived at Dravuni Island, Fiji, on the morning of 14 October. This was a tender port with a small village at the small pier. The island had a very nice beach and a hiking trail to a couple of mountain viewpoints. Jan opted to spend time at the beach with our two new friends Bob and Bernie. I purchased a boat ride around the island to get an overall assessment of the island from the small boat and some photos in the morning light. The owner of the boat unsuccessfully tried to solicit additional passengers after I had climbed into the boat. Thus my own private boat ride around the island provided some very good photo opportunities. I joined Jan on the beach after the boat ride and then decided to hike the hill top trail to the two highest viewpoints. Both the beach and the hilltop viewpoints also provided some very good photo opportunities.

After another sea day, we arrived at Port Vila, Vanuatu, on the morning of 16 October. Since the cruise ship port was quite a distance from downtown, we took a water taxi from the ship to downtown Port Vila. The water taxi took us across Port Vila Harbor and provided close-up views of Iririki Island and several wrecked ships along one side of the harbor possibly awaiting a salvage operation. After arriving at the downtown mooring dock, we departed and walked around the downtown area before arriving at a small city overlook area with a bench under a very large tree. We continued on in the direction of the Venuatu National Museum when we came across a large open area where the Week of Pacific Agriculture Expo was being held. We walked through several of the expo exhibits that were open and continued walking until we came upon the new Vanuatu National Convention Center, which is near the museum. The National Convention Center project is being jointly funded by the Chinese Government.

The Vanuatu National Museum is a wonderful museum that depicts the Vanuatu and Melanese cultures. While we were there, a tour group arrived, and the museum put on a special cultural demonstration for them. After being fortunate to see the special event, we spent considerable time viewing the museum exhibits. We walked back to the downtown area and found a small restaurant where we could connect to WiFi. Since we were still quite a distance from the cruise port, we caught a local bus that took us back to the MAASDAM.

We arrived at Tadine, Île Maré, New Caledonia, during the morning of 17 October. This was another tender port in the Tadine Bay. Tadine village is small and the main attraction as a cruise ship destination is Yejele Beach. There was round-trip bus service from the dock to Yejele Beach. Jan, Bob, Bernie, and I all took the bus to the beach. After walking the beach from one end to the other to take some photos, I left Jan, Bob, and Bernie on the beach and took a bus back to the village. The coastline adjacent to Tadine Bay is described in the literature as being a natural aquarium. I decided to hike the coast beside the bay to view the exquisite rock forms and beautiful ocean scenery.

After walking to the area described as a natural aquarium, I returned to Tadine village where I spotted a shipwreck monument near the dock. The village had erected the MONIQUE Shipwreck Monument to remember tihe disappearance of the MONIQUE during the night of July 1, 1953, en route from Tadine to Nouméa with 126 passengers aboard.

On the morning of 18 October, we arrived at Nouméa, New Caledonia, where we were instructed to take a complimentary shuttle bus from the MAASDAM to the downtown ferry building. After exchanging money at the ferry building, Jan and I purchased tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus and went to visit the Nouméa Aquarium. We arrived about ten minutes before the museum opened and were among the first visitors of the day before the tour bus crowds arrived. The aquarium was exceptionally nice with both indoor exhibits and an outdoor turtle tank, as well as a viewpoint overlooking Lemon Beach. The indoor exhibits are very well presented and make this a world-class museum. We continued on to the Museum of New Caledonia which offered free admission on the day we were there. The museum closed for lunch about fifteen minutes after we arrive, and we were told to return after lunch.

We walked across the street to a small plaza area with two monuments. One monument honored the US Forces whose presence during World War II prevented the island from being overrun by Japanese soldiers. The second monument appeared to be associated with the Melanesian culture.

We returned to the Museum of New Caledonia and spent a couple of hours viewing the extensive cultural exhibits. The museum is very large and also has an outdoor area for special events. This museum should not be missed when visiting Nouméa. Instead of waiting for the hop-on-hop-off bus, we walked to the Nouméa Central Square where we were unsuccessful at connecting to public WiFi. We continued walking back to the ferry building where we caught the shuttle bus back to the MAASDAM.

We departed Nouméa during the evening en route to Sydney, Australia. After two more sea days, the MAASDAM arrived at Sydney during the early morning on 21 October. We said goodbye to our friends, disembarked, and took a taxi to our Sydney hotel where Jan and I would begin a new adventure to visit and explore three National Parks in the Northern Territory of Australia.

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  June 2017
Chongqing, China Weekend

Travel Notes

 

I took the high speed train from Chengdu, China, to Chongqing, China, on Friday, 16 June, to visit with friends in Chongqing over the weekend. After arriving in Chongqing, I took a local taxi from the high speed rail station to my hotel. I called my friend Summer, who currently works for China Express Airlines, to let her know that I had arrived. She had arranged for me to accompany her and several China Express flight attendants to go to the Sante Blueberry Camping Garden that evening to pick blueberries and have a multi-course dinner.

Later in the afternoon, Summer sent one of her friends to pick me up at my hotel and take me to meet up with her and three more of her China Express friends. As we all drove high up in the Gele Mountain International Citteslow mountains, we passed the No Feng Shui Treasure Land Park en route to the Sante Blueberry Camping Garden. The people at Sante also grow many different kinds of fresh vegetables in terraced plots. We proceeded to pick as many blueberries, fresh off the bushes, as we could eat.

After picking blueberries, we were served an eight course meal plus steamed rice. The people at Sante used their fresh picked vegetables in the food preparation, and the food was marvelous. During the dinner, I took my chopsticks and the piece of chicken that I extracted from the dish turned out to be the entire chicken head. I looked at the chicken head and said to Summer, “I don’t know how to handle this,” and she politely replied, “just give it to me.” We all ate as much as we could, and the folks at Sante packed up the remainder of the food for them to take home.

After dinner, we hiked around the camping area as the sun went down. A few goats were kept at one section, and, at another section, the China Express people enjoyed bouncing on two trampolines while I attempted to take some photos of them. I managed to capture one photo of Summer at the top of one of her high bounces. After the trampolines, we drove back to Chongqing and I was dropped off at my hotel. It was a wonderful evening with Summer and new friends.

On Saturday morning, 17 June, Thong and Peng, two of my friends from Chongqing, drove Summer and her daughter, Nancy, to pick me up at my hotel. They decided that our first stop would be to visit a portion of “Old Chongqing” in the Na’nan District of Chongqing. Thong parked near a tower that Peng referred to as the Tower of Scholars, and we walked down a stairway to “Old Chongqing.” We walked along the ancient pedestrian streets and admired the architecture and surroundings. Some buildings appeared empty while others were occupied by local residents whom I was told refused to leave their homes to allow demolition of the area by the Government for new development. A few of the buildings had small shops and small local restaurants open for tourists. At one street corner, several artists were busy painting images of the ancient buildings.

We ate lunch at a tiny Chongqing local noodle restaurant and then went to visit the Huguang Guild Complex. The complex consists of old buildings dating from 1759 that served as a cultural, business and social center for more than 200 years. It was built for people from Hubei, Guangdong, Guanxi, and Hunan. It opened for tourists in 2005 after a renovation. The complex was very interesting and provided many photo opportunities.

We ended our day with a visit to a shopping center on Nanbin Road east of the Sheraton Grand Hotel. It had a several art galleries and a large modern book store. The top floor was occupied by a very nice restaurant where we ate a classic Chongqing hot pot dinner while overlooking the Yangtze River. After dinner, we visited the bookstore where Nancy, after browsing through many books, purchased several. I had read recent newspaper articles discussing the increasing popularity of bookstores in China, and this bookstore was packed with young people and families with young children.

Thong then drove us back to my hotel where I thanked all of them for a wonderful day in Chongqing. Hopefully we can all get together for another visit either in Chongqing or in my hometown of Los Angeles, California.

On Sunday, 18 June, I took the high speed train to the Chengdu East Station. I transferred to the metro and rode it to the Dongman Bridge Station near my Chengdu hotel. The following morning, I boarded the first of my flights from Chengdu back home to Los Angeles.

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  June 2017
Thailand

Travel Notes

 

I flew from Chengdu, China, to Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday, 2 June, en route to Chiang Rai, Thailand. After overnighting in Bangkok, I flew to Chiang Rai and checked into my hotel on 3 June. The purpose of this trip was to rent a car and take a road trip in the far north of Thailand. Although I did not have a pre-planned itinerary, I wanted to either visit the mountains in far northwestern Thailand near Myanmar or visit the Nan and Phrae Provinces of central northern Thailand near Laos.

I rented a car on Sunday, 4 June, and drove to Doi Tung, north of Chiang Rai, to visit the beautiful Mae Fah Luang Gardens. I hadn’t visited the gardens in several years, and I wanted to see the most recent changes. I noticed a huge white Buddha statue on a distant hill north of Chiang Rai. Since I had never seen the statue before, I decided to take a detour to visit it first. The giant white Buddha statue is part of picturesque Wat Huai Pla Kung. The Buddha statue is still a work in progress and is twenty-six stories high with the middle interior portion still under construction. I took the interior elevator to the 25th floor, and the white interior sculptures were spectacular. The white Buddha statue is adjacent to a nine story high Thai-Chinese style pagoda which is also very nice. Of the numerous times that I have visited Chiang Rai, I was overjoyed to discover Wat Huai Pla Kung. I continued driving to Doi Tung and spent the remainder of the afternoon strolling around the Mae Fah Luang Gardens.

After deciding to visit the Phu Langka Forest Park en route to Nan, I began my road trip in earnest on Monday, 5 June. The fairly long drive to the park consisted of some narrow secondary roads with beautiful mountain scenery. After I booked a cabin at the Pulangka Resort on Thai Route 1148 for the night, I hired a driver and took an off-road trip to Phu Langka Forest Park. Since it was the rainy season, the off-road trip through the park was on a slippery dirt trail, with many deep ridges and gullies, ascending the mountains to a hiking trail-head that led to the two mountain peaks. My driver and I hiked to both the lower Doi Phunom peak and then to the higher Doi Phu Langka peak. The elevation at the Doi Phu Langka peak is 1,720 meters. The spectacular views from the peaks were somewhat obscured by distant high-humidity haze. During the downhill return, my driver nearly lost control of the vehicle in a deep rut and damaged his off-road vehicle. Fortunately for me, the vehicle was drivable back to the resort where several people began to assess the damage.

Although the cabin was very primitive, the double bed had very good mosquito netting. I placed all of my belongings on the bed within the mosquito netting to prevent them from becoming infested with ants and other insects within the cabin. The view from the cabin porch, overlooking a valley, was spectacular, and, off in the distance, I could see a portion of Route 1148, where I would be driving to Nan the following day. Since the nearby Magic Mountain Bar and Restaurant was closed, I ate dinner at the resort.

I woke up early the next morning to view the sunrise across the valley, and after breakfast at the resort, I began my drive to Nan via Route 1148 and Route 101. Although the drive to Nan was supposed to be relatively short, I missed a U-turn as I exited Route 1148 onto Highway 101 and drove in the wrong direction on Highway 101. I realized my mistake when I saw a sign for a Laos Immigration checkpoint. After making a U-turn, I backtracked along Highway 101, past Route 1148, and then continued on to Nan. Although the scenery was beautiful heading to Laos, I regretted the extra 90 to 100 kilometers of driving.

I checked into a very nice hotel in Nan and then went to a recommended local Nan restaurant for a late lunch. After lunch, I visited Wat Phrathat Chang Kam Wara Viharn, Wat Phrathat Chae Haeng, Wat Phrathat Khao Noi, Wat Phumin, and Wat Sripanton (Golden Temple). Beautiful murals decorated the walls of Wat Phumin. There were also some amorous murals on the temple walls including one famous mural of a man and woman referred to as “The Whisper.” In fact, ubiquitous images of the “The Whisper” mural were displayed throughout Nan City. The image was even displayed on the curtains in my hotel room.

On Wednesday, 7 June, I drove to the entrance of the Doi Phaphueng Waterfalls but was turned back because the waterfalls were closed due to the rainy season. My next stop was at the Sao Din Na Noi Landforms to walk among unique soil formations. I continued driving to Doi Samer Dao, a mountain in the Si Din National Park. Doi Samer Dao has a ridge with a view of a “lion head” rock formation and expansive landscape views. It is also referred to as the mountain to the stars. I also observed stunning views in the opposite direction from another ridge as I hiked back to my car.

After a long drive back to Nan City, I visited Wat Boon Yen, Wat Huay Kuang, the Nan National Museum, and then revisited Wat Phumin to take additional photos of the wall murals.

I drove to Phrae on Thursday, 8 June, and checked into another very nice hotel. I really appreciated the nice hotels after staying in the very primitive cabin at the Pulangka Resort. After attempting to visit another waterfall that was closed due to the rainy season, I visited Wat Doi Leng, Wat Phrathat Chohae, Wat Phrathat Chom Chaeng, Wat Phrathat Jom Jang, Wat Phrathat Suton Mong Kol Kee Ree, and Wat Phra Non.

The following day, I first drove north to visit the Pha Nang Khol Cave, which was interesting but not as spectacular as some of the karst caves of southern China. My next stop was at the Phae Mueang Phi Forest Park, another landform with unique soil formations. I then returned to Phrea City and visited Wat Phrathat Pu Jue, Wat Hua Kuang, Wat Si Chum, Wat Luang, and Wat Pong Sunan. Since I still had ample time, I drove a long distance along Route 1023 to visit Wat Phrathat Lam Lee and Wat Phrathat Hi Soy.

On Saturday, 10 June, I began the long drive back to Chiang Rai. Along the way, I visited Wat Phra Tet near Khaewn as well as Wat Phrathat Phra Lo near Song. I returned my rental car after I arrived in Chiang Rai and spent the next day editing photos.

On Monday, 12 June, I visited the relatively new Wat Rog Sell Ten, commonly referred to as the Blue Temple, which is beautiful and another work in progress. I also visited Wat Phra That Doi Kow situated above the Chiang Rai reservoir lake. My last stop was at the Chertawan International Meditation Center. This center is very large and was a very interesting place to visit.

I flew back to Bangkok on Monday, 12 June, en route to Chengdu, China. I was disappointed that I was unable to visit the two waterfalls, but I was very happy to have been able to visit so many beautiful temples and drive through the wonderful mountains of Nan and Phrae Provinces.

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  April/May 2017
Pacific Northwest

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I wanted to visit friends in the vicinity of Seattle, Washington, as well friends on Orcas Island, Washington, in the San Juan Islands. We booked a repositioning cruise from San Diego, California, to Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Canada, aboard the Holland America ship, ZAANDAM. Since the cruise itinerary included an en route stop at Victoria, BC, we requested and were granted permission to disembark at Victoria. This would be our third Holland American repositioning cruise from San Diego to British Columbia.

On Saturday, 22 April, we took the Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Diego, boarded the ZAANDAM, and settled into our cabin. The ship departed San Diego that evening and began the journey to Victoria.

After open-ocean sailing for the next three days, we arrived at Victoria, BC, during the late afternoon on Tuesday, 25 April. Since we had special permission to disembark at Victoria, we were required to wait on board until the Canadian Immigration Officials were ready to clear us into Canada upon disembarkation.

We took a local taxi from the port to our hotel near the inner harbor. After checking into the hotel, we met up with Tom and Leslie, our friends from Orcas Island, who had taken the ferry from Orcas Island to Victoria to meet us. This visit to Victoria was earlier in the year than our two prior visits, and the flowering trees and tulips were stunning. The weather was perfect as we walked around the inner harbor to go to a restaurant where Leslie had made dinner reservations.

Although Jan was recovering from a foot problem that impaired her ability to walk for any great distance, she felt that she could probably manage a morning walk with Tom and Leslie to find a restaurant for breakfast. After leaving the hotel on Wednesday morning, we walked past the inner harbor and along the scenic coastline past the road to the cruise ship port until we finally ended up at the entrance to Beacon Hill Park.

The flowers, flowering trees, and landscape scenery within Beacon Hill Park were magnificent. Since the flowers were so beautiful, I called the Butchart Gardens to made a reservation for lunch on the following day. By this time, Jan’s foot was beginning to give her trouble, and we still had not found a restaurant for breakfast. I was unable to find a local taxi as we continued walking back toward the inner harbor area. As we came upon the Royal BC Museum, we decided to stop and get some food at the museum restaurant.

We had previously admired the collection of totem poles on the grounds of the Royal BC Museum while on a walk during our May 2016 visit to Victoria. Since we were already at the museum, we decided to purchase tickets and tour at least part of the museum. We visited the temporary Terry Fox Exhibition which was scheduled to run from 12 April to 1 October. Terrance Stanley “Terry” Fox was a young Canadian athlete who inspired Canada and the world through his struggle against cancer and his determination to raise funds for cancer research. After losing his right leg to cancer, he decided to run across Canada to raise awareness and funds for cancer research. He ran 5,373 km in 143 days from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where he was forced to stop after cancer invaded his lungs. He died one month before his 23rd birthday. He received numerous awards, was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and became the youngest person to be made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Since the museum’s permanent collection was quite large and Jan’s foot was becoming increasingly painful, we only toured a portion of the Native American exhibits. The totem poles inside the museum were amazing, and this museum is a place that I look forward to revisiting during a future trip to Victoria.

As we were getting ready to leave the museum, Tom wanted to go to a special restaurant for lunch, which he said was nearby. I wanted to have the museum call a taxi to take us to the restaurant but Tom insisted that the restaurant was very close to the museum. Jan thought that she would be ok for a very short walk to the restaurant, which turned out to be more than a kilometer uphill from the museum.

Although we had planned to visit Craigdarroch Castle after lunch, Jan and I decided to forgo the castle and took a taxi back to our hotel. Jan and I took a taxi to meet up with Tom and Leslie for dinner that evening.

The extended walking had aggravated Jan’s foot problem to the point that she would not be able to walk more than a very short distance during the remainder of our time in Victoria. On Thursday morning, after canceling our lunch reservation at Butchart Gardens, Jan remained at the hotel resting her foot while I met up with Tom and Leslie. Jan and I continued to take taxis to the other wonderful restaurants at which we ate in Victoria.

On Friday, 28 April, Tom and Leslie drove us to the ferry terminal at Sydney, BC, where we cleared Canada Customs, and boarded the ferry to San Juan Island, where we then cleared US Customs. After disembarking from the ferry, we drove around the ferry parking lot and got into the queue to wait for the ferry to Orcas Island. It was a short ferry ride to Orcas Island, and we drove home with Tom and Leslie, where we visited until 3 May. I helped Tom with a couple of projects at their home during our stay on Orcas Island, and Leslie prepared some of her wonderful meals that we all thoroughly enjoyed.

On Tuesday, 3 May, Tom and Leslie drove us to the Orcas Island Ferry Terminal. En route to the terminal, we stopped at the two barns painted by the high school senior class with each class painting over the work of the prior years’ class – the old barn was last painted by the Class of 2014, and the new barn was painted by the Class of 2017. The old barn continues to be on the verge of collapse. We boarded the ferry to Anacortes, Washington, and then caught the BelAir Airporter Shuttle bus to SEA/TAC International Airport.

Our friends, John and Diane, from Federal Way, Washington, met us at the airport. We spent the next four days visiting with them as well as their son, David, and his wife, Doreen, who live in Tacoma, Washington. Since Diane was having problems with her hip, both she and Jan ended up on the disabled list. Consequently, we limited our sightseeing activities here as well.

David and Doreen drove all of us to revisit Fort Nisqually at Tacoma, Washington, on Saturday, 6 May. The fort was closed when we visited it during our 2015 trip. At that time, we were only able to take photos from the outside. The fort was established as a fur trading outpost in 1833 by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Hudson’s Bay Company sold its holdings to the United States Government in 1869, and Fort Nisqually became the homestead of the last manager, Edward Higgins. The fort is now a museum that portrays the British establishment during the year 1855.

The working blacksmith shop was one of the main attractions, where the blacksmith was making forged metal puzzles that ended up for sale in the fort’s gift shop. Other attractions at the fort included cabins with circa 1855 furnishings, a general store exhibit, and a meeting building that housed a selection of hats and early American clothing that tourists were welcome to try on. Of course, I had to try on several of the hats while John and Diane donned a complete pioneer couple’s wardrobe. We all had a wonderful time at the fort, which is currently also used for additional public educational functions.

On Sunday, 7 May, David and Doreen drove us to visit the award winning Chase Garden near Orting, Washington. It is a 4.5 acre naturalistic retreat created by Emmott and Ione Chase. It reflects Japanese and modern design influences of the 1950’s and 1960’s in a native woodland carpeted with wildflowers and a sunny meadow. The garden also provides a spectacular panoramic view of Mt. Rainier and the Cascade foothills. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the garden before returning to Federal Way for dinner.

We flew home to Los Angeles on Monday, 8 May, and are looking forward to future trips to the Pacific Northwest.

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  March 2017
Yunnan & Guangxi Provinces, China

Travel Notes

 

I decided to return to Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, in March 2017 to revisit the Yunnan Nationalities Village and then visit some places in the Guangxi Zuhang Autonomous Region. When I visited Kunming in August 2015, my trip was hampered by rain and I was unable to see the entire Kunming Nationalities Village site. Kunming seemed the perfect place for me to resume my visits to the far south of China.

I arrived at Kunming early afternoon on Sunday, 5 March. After checking into my hotel, I walked to the nearest Bank of China ATM to obtain additional China Yuan for my journey. While returning to the hotel, I passed a huge construction site for a very tall commercial building surrounded by a picturesque fence. A small white building was situated on the side of the street and inset into the fenced off construction area. There was a banner on the fence adjacent to the small white building announcing the public opening of a new Kunming Flying Tigers Museum. I entered the building and toured the museum, which occupied both floors of the building. The museum exhibits were very nice, and it was a lucky find for me. This is a second Flying Tigers Museum Exhibit – the Kunming Museum also has a Flying Tigers Exhibit Hall.

I visited the Kunming Museum on the following day. It opened to the public in 1997 and contains more than 20,000 items. The museum has six basic exhibition halls: “Dinosaurs in the Kunming Area,” “Dianchi Lake Area Bronze Ware,” “Sutra Pillar of Dizang Temple,” “Tigers in the Sky – Flying Tigers Museum,” “Fan Paintings,” and “Blue and White Porcelain Hall.” The museum also has five temporary exhibition halls. The Dianchi Lake Area Bronze Ware exhibition was closed when I was there but the other exhibits were very well organized and many of the exhibits had English captions. In addition, a temporary exhibition of paper cutting art was fantastic.

Tuesday, 7 March, was a partly cloudy day with intermittent sunshine and proved to be the perfect day for a return visit to the Kunming Nationalities Village. This lakeside village is situated on the shore of several islands formed by channels of Dian Lake. It shows the ethnic residential houses, customs, music, dance, and religious culture of the twenty-six ethnic groups of Yunnan Province: Dai, Lahu, Yi, Bai, Miao, Wa, Hani, Zhuang, Hui, Naxi, Lisu, Yao, Jingpo, Tinetan, Bulang, Buyi, A’chang, Pumi, Mongol, Nu, Jinuo, Deáng, Shui, Man, Dulong, and Han nationalities. This is one of the most interesting tourism sites in the Kunming area. I managed to spend the entire day at the village and recommend it as a site not to be missed.

I took the high speed train to Nanning in the Guangxi Zuhang Autonomous Region (commonly referred to as Guangxi) on Wednesday, 8 March, and then took a bus to Chongzuo, China. The following day, I hired a taxi for the day to visit the Huashan Mountain Mural Paintings, which are located on a rock mountain by the bank of the Mingjiang River. The mural paintings, located on a huge and steep precipice, contain more than 1,800 images of primitive people with the largest measuring more than three meters tall and the smallest measuring about 0.3 meter. The tourism literature states that these mural paintings are more than 2,000 years old and date back to the period before the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-200 AD). It also states that among all of the ancient mural paintings in the area, the Huashan Mountain Mural Paintings are the largest scale with the highest concentrations. A very scenic boat trip on the Mingjiang River is required to reach Huashan Mountain, and the murals are best viewed from the boat.

On Friday, 10 March, I hired a taxi for the day to visit the Detian Sino-Vietnamese Cross-national Waterfalls. They consist of the Ban Gioc Waterfalls of Vietnam and the Detian Waterfalls of China and span the Guichun Boundary River, which forms the China-Vietnamese border in this region of Guangxi. It is the largest cross-national waterfalls in Asia – the waterfalls are more than 200 meters wide and 60 meters deep with a drop of 70 meters. The viewing area for the Detian Waterfalls on the China side of the river begins with a walkway from near the top of a mountain gorge down to the side of the Guichun River downstream of the falls and along the river bank up to the bottom of the waterfalls. There are spectacular views of the falls from the riverbank. A stairway near the base of the falls ascends to the top of the waterfalls with several viewing platforms along the ascent. Once at the top of the falls, a walkway along the edge of the gorge back to the entrance provides additional spectacular views of the Ban Gioc Waterfalls as well as a temple situated high on a mountain in Vietnam. I also consider the Detian Sino-Vietnamese Cross-national Waterfalls to be another site not to be missed when visiting Guangxi.

On Saturday, 11 March, I took the train from Chongzuo to Nanning. After checking into my hotel, I went to the Museum of the Guangxi Zuhang Autonomous Region (commonly referred to as the Guangxi Museum) and the adjacent Minority Cultural Relics Garden. The museum houses more than 50,000 cultural relics. The Guangxi Baiyue Cultural Relics Exhibition is a magnificent collection that includes hand axes dating from 800,000 years ago and big stone spades from the Neolithic age. The Bronze Drum Hall has the world’s biggest bronze drum and boasts having the most drums collected as well as a comparatively complete collection of the different types of bronze drums. The Hall of Ethnic Folk Customs displays the customs of eleven ethnic minorities in Guangxi. The Museum also had a wonderful porcelain collection exhibition.

The Guangxi Minority Cultural Relics Garden, located next to the Guangxi Museum, is a nice outdoor garden that contains a restaurant where I relaxed and enjoyed a pot of tea. The garden is situated around a pond that is spanned by the famous wind-and-rain bridge, Guangxi Chuan Tong Gong Yi Zhan Shi Guan. The garden is a nice place to walk around and enjoy the architecture and scenery.

On Sunday, 12 March, I visited the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities and the Guangxi Ethnic Village located behind the museum. The Nationalities Museum had extensive exhibitions including Zhuang Culture, bronze drum, Guangxi ethnic costumes and customs, occupational tools, ethnic architecture, ethnic religious beliefs, world nationalities, and cliff painting exhibitions. The exhibits are magnificent, and this museum is now one of the most popular attractions in Nanning.

The Guangxi Ethnic Village was still a work-in-progress when I visited it. There will be many ethnic houses when the village is completed. The Auki Town Water-sprinkling Festival was being filmed while I was there. The people were splashing and throwing water on each other. It reminded me of the Songkran Festival in Thailand and would have appeared to be more spontaneous if it was not being scripted and paused by the filming crew.

On the morning of 13 March, I took the high speed train to Guilin which is also in Guangxi. The city of Guilin is noted for having four interconnected lakes - Song Lake, Rong Lake, Gui Lake, and Mulong Lake - which are connected by locks to two rivers (Peach Blossom River and Lijiang River). The section of the Lijiang River between Guilin and Yangshuo is designated as a AAAAA national scenic zone. When I checked into the Guilin Park hotel, I was given a room overlooking Gui Lake. I decided to explore the local neighborhood and walked along the shore of Gui Lake before going into the nearby downtown area.

While walking along Gui Lake, I observed many tourist river boats navigating the lake in both directions. After returning to the hotel, I asked the lady at the hotel tour desk where to go to board one of the tourist boats. She asked me if I wanted a daytime boat trip or a night trip. Since the night boat was nearly three times more expensive than the day boat, I figured there must be something special about the night trip and booked a 7:00 PM trip for that evening. She gave me the address of the wharf in Chinese for the boat departure.

I took a taxi to the wharf and boarded my Guilin Two Rivers and Four Lakes Boat trip which is designated as a AAAA national tourist attraction. There are nineteen bridges on the four lakes and when night falls, the scenic zone of bridges, trees, numerous towers, pagodas, and pavilions is brilliantly illuminated. The scenery was spectacular, and even my hotel was outlined in vivid red lighting. What a beautiful way to see the lakes and rivers in this scenic zone.

It was misting light rain on Tuesday, 14 March. I decided to have the hotel book a flight for me to go to Chengdu on 17 March. After arranging for my flight, I went on the Ctrip English web site and booked a private Lijiang River Scenic Zone cruise with an English speaking guide for Wednesday, 15 March.

After booking my flight and river cruise, I took a taxi to visit the Reed Flute Cave, another AAAA national scenic zone. The entire cave is illuminated like a magnificent underground palace made of corals, jade, and other precious stones with many different fascinating scenes. The rain had subsided by the time I exited the cave, so my next stop was at the Guilin Classic Lin Sanjie Grand View Garden. This is another ethnic minority folk park and might also be classified as another work-in-progress. Shan Lake was my last stop for the day. I walked around the lake, which features twin towers, the Sun Tower and the Moon Tower. Both towers were beautifully illuminated when I saw them during my night boat trip.

Early the next morning, Jack, my private English-speaking guide, met me at my hotel with a driver and private mini bus for a 40 minute drive to the Zhujiang Wharf to board the ship for my river cruise to Yangshou. After the cruise, our driver would meet us in Yangshou to drive us back to Guilin. There were literally more than fifty ships docked at the wharf, and I sure was glad to have Jack get us on the correct ship and to our preassigned seats. The river travels 83 kilometers as it winds its way from Guilin to Yangshou through thousands of spectacular grotesque peaks. Jack was very familiar with the entire river and was able to point out not only the section of the river that was the most scenic where I should be on the open deck on top of the ship but also individual special scenic spots along the way. Jack was wonderful, spoke nearly fluent English, and stayed with me during the entire voyage. The weather was cloudy with occasional light rain showers. The clouds, which shrouded some of the mountains, added to the mystic of the spectacular scenery. One section of the river is featured on the back of the 20 Yuan banknote, which Jack pointed out to me during the cruise.

Thursday, 16 March, was my last day at Guilin. I took a taxi to the Guilin Museum only to find that it had been moved and the building was being demolished. Since nobody seemed to know the new location of the museum, I continued on to the Elephant Hill Scenic Zone, which is designated as a AAAA national scenic zone. It is designated as Elephant Hill because it is in the shape of an elephant drinking water from the river. It is a pure limestone Karst landform situated beside the Lijiang River. The scenic area includes a park upstream on the Lijiang River from Elephant Hill and an island called “Love Island.” Both the park and Elephant Hill provided wonderful photo opportunities.

After visiting Elephant Hill, I walked along Rong Lake and Gui Lake back to my hotel. During my walk, I photographed many of the beautiful nineteen bridges on the lakes to complete my visit to Guilin and Guanxi.

On Friday, 17 March, I flew from Guilin to Chengdu where I edited photos and wrote my travel notes in preparation for my upcoming flights back to Los Angeles.

See pictures from Yunnan & Guangxi, China

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  October-November 2016
Mediterranean Cruise

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I decided to take a Mediterranean cruise during October and November 2016. I booked a 30-day Mediterranean cruise from Athens, Greece, that ended up at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The cruise itinerary included ports of call in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Malta, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Since the voyage would begin at Athens, Greece, we decided to spend five days visiting Athens and Delphi prior to boarding the ship. Our visit to Greece and some Greek Isles is documented in a separate narrative.

We boarded the Holland America PRINSENDAM on 20 October and arrived at Larnaca, Cyprus, on Saturday, 22 October. Since we had booked a Holland America shore excursion, we were transported by bus to the Choirokoitia Neolithic Settlement which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. This site is located on the slopes of a hill partially enclosed by a portion of the Maroni River. The literature states that the site at Choirokoitia reached apogee during the second half of the 7th millennium BC. The basic architectural unit was a circular structure with a flat roof. Several modern reconstructions located near the site were constructed for the benefit of visiting tourists.

After visiting Choirokoitia, we traveled to the picturesque village of Lefkara, which is noted for handmade embroidery products on linen imported from Ireland. We walked through the narrow streets of the village and visited the Holy Cross Church of Pano Lefkarah. We continued on to visit what is referred to as the most interesting church in Cyprus, the Byzantine Church of Pnagia Aggeloktisti (meaning Angel-Built) before returning to the ship.

We arrived at the port of Ashdod, Israel, early morning on Sunday, 23 October, and took a taxi to the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem to meet Vivian, our private tour guide booked through Zion Tours, for a full-day tour of Jerusalem. After meeting up with Vivian, we began our walking tour of the walled Jerusalem Old City. Vivian was wonderful and took us past the Tower of David Museum to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (Wailing Wall). Since it was the last day of the Sukkot holidays, the Plaza of the Western Wall was crowded with worshipers visiting the Western Wall. To place our handwritten prayers in the wall, I visited the men’s side of the wall and Jan and Vivian visited the women’s side.

We went from the Plaza of the Western Wall to the Temple Mount where we observed the Alaksa Mosque and the other structures on top of Temple Mount. We were able to walk around the Dome of the Rock Temple of the Mount but were not allowed to enter the temple. We continued on to view nearby architecture from the time of the Knights Templars that currently houses some Muslim schools. We exited the old city through the Lions’ Gate to view both the outer portion of the old city wall as well as the Mount of Olives. Some notable sights on the Mount of Olives included the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations (also referred to as the Basilica of the Agony), the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, and the Old Jewish Cemetery on the hillside.

We re-entered the old city through the Lions’ Gate and walked to the beginning of the Via Dolarosa and the Basilica of St. Anne, a site that Christian tradition identifies as the home of Anne (Hanna) and Joachim, the parents of Mary, mother of Jesus. The remains of ancient pools, a Roman temple, and churches are situated behind the Basilica of St. Anne – these pools have been identified with the Pool of Bethesda mentioned in the New Testament.

As we walked along the Via Dolarosa from the Sanctuary of the Flagellation and the Chapel of the Condemnation to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Vivian pointed out various Stations of the Cross to us. Although the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was packed with people, Vivian was able to bypass the crowded lines to show us the must-see portions of the church.

We also visited the Cardo, which was Jerusalem’s main street 1500 years ago. It was originally paved in the 2nd century when Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman polis called Anelia Capitolina. The Cardo was extended south to the area of the Jewish Quarter during the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. In its day, the Cardo was an exceptionally wide colonnaded street running through the heart of the city on a north-south axis.

In addition, we walked past the Synagogue Haraban before we exited the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. Here, we temporarily left Vivian to visit with Jan’s cousin, Beverly, and her husband, Yusef, who live near the old city. We enjoyed a very nice lunch prepared by Beverly during our visit. Later in the afternoon, Vivian met us with her car at Beverly’s home, and we continued our tour to visit a newer portion of Jerusalem. After visiting the Knesset, we walked to the Benno Elkan sculpture “The Menora” and to the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. We also visited the Wohl Rose Park of Jerusalem and the Garden of the Nations. We concluded our tour as Vivian took us through some older residential neighborhoods and a local market that was in the process of closing for the holiday. After saying goodbye to Vivian, we took a taxi back to the ship. It was a wonderful day of sightseeing.

We arrived at the port of Haifa, Israel, on Monday, 24 October. Since that day was an important Jewish holiday and many places were closed, we booked a Holland America excursion to visit the Baha’i Gardens and the Caesarea Maritima.

The Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, also known as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa, form a staircase of nineteen terraces that extend all the way up the northern slope of Mount Carmel. They were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in July 2008. Our tour bus stopped at the bottom of Mount Carmel to view the gardens from below and then took us to a viewpoint at the top of the Baha’i Gardens to see a wonderful view of the gardens, the bay, and the Galilee Hills.

Our next stop was at Caesarea Maritima, an Israeli National Park in the Sharon Plain that includes the ancient remains of the coastal city of Caesarea. According to the literature, the city and harbor were built under Herod the Great between 22 and 10 BC near the site of a former Phoenician naval station. It later became the provincial capital of Roman Judea, Roman Syria Palestina, and Byzantine Palestina Prima provinces. The city was populated throughout the 1st to 6th centuries AD and became an important early center of Christianity during the Byzantine period.

The ruins of Caesarea were excavated during the 1950s and 1960s before being incorporated into a new national park in 2011. Major sights at the ruins included a Roman theater, the Coral Palace, the Hippodrome, two Crusader Gates, Caesarea Ancient Vaults, and the Sebastos Harbor. The Sebastos Harbor was built during the 1st century BC and was the largest artificial harbor built in the open sea. King Herod built the two jetties of the Harbor between 22 and 15 BC, and Herod subsequently dedicated the city and harbor to Augustus Caesar. After driving past the remains of an ancient Roman aqueduct located north of the ancient harbor ruins, we returned to the ship.

We arrived at Valletto, Malta, on 30 October, and took a taxi to visit the Tarxien Temples, the Blue Grotto, the Minajdra Temples, and the Hagar Qim Temple. I had visited and documented all of these sites in February 2012, but Jan had never seen them. I was surprised that Malta had added additional pedestrian walkways to improve viewing of the Tarxien Temple site and to provide much better photo opportunities. We continued on to visit the city of Mdina, Malta, so that Jan could witness the marvelous architecture built by the Crusaders. Our last stop was at the Archaeological Museum of Malta, which houses some priceless artifacts.

Since our scheduled port visit to Gozo, Malta, on 31 October was cancelled due to poor sea conditions, the ship continued on to Messina, Italy. We arrived at Messina on Tuesday, 1 November, and walked to the Plaza Duomo where we took a sightseeing tram around the city. Some of the sights that we observed during the tram ride were the Santuario Santa Maria di Montalto, the Monte di Piet’a, the Sacario Cristo Re, the TeatroV. Emanuel, and the Duomo e Campanile. The highlight was our noon visit to the Duomo e Campanile Bell Tower, which houses the world’s largest astronomical clock with animated and mechanical statues that are only seen in movement at noon.

We arrived at Naples, Italy, on Wednesday, 2 November, where we had booked in advance a Mondo Private Day Tour to Pompeii and Herculaneum. This was our extravagant shore excursion, and we were not disappointed. After disembarking, we met Francesco Iaccarino, our Mondo guide, who escorted us to a new chauffeur-driven Mercedes to begin our all-day tour. Francesco’s English was impeccable, and he took us to visit what he considered to be the very best sites of Pompeii. In addition to visiting the normal tourist sites of Pompeii, he took us to one of the brothels with the menus painted on the walls. Before leaving Pompeii, we visited the building where the plaster casts of some of the victims of the Mount Vesuvius eruption are on display. We were treated to a nice restaurant for a multi-course lunch prior to visiting Herculaneum.

Herculaneum is a seaside resort city and an amazing place to visit. Some of the original charred timbers remain in several buildings. There were amazing murals remaining on the walls of several buildings including one mural depicting King Solomon arbitrating the dispute between the two women as to whom the baby belonged. A somber area of Herculaneum is the dock area where the skeletal remains of people waiting for ships to come take them away are located. We returned to the ship after our private tour and were amazed at how fortunate we had been to have had Francesco as our guide.

We arrived at Civitavecchia, Italy, on Thursday, 3 November. Although this is the port city for Rome, Italy, it is quite a long distance from the city of Rome. We decided that we would take the shuttle bus to downtown Civitavecchia and then walk around the downtown area. Fort Michelangelo, situated beside the harbor, was interesting but was closed to the public when we walked past it. In addition to colorful markets and some picturesque buildings, the Museo Archeologico, the Cathedral, and the recently restored Teatro Comunale Traiano were interesting to visit.

We arrived at Barcelona, Spain, on Saturday, 5 November, and took a walking tour through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. The tour began at Place de Saint Jaume where the Palau de la Generalitat and City Hall are located, and continued past the Claustre de la Catedral, Placa de Sant Felip Neri, Casa de I’Ardiaca, Roman Walls, Casa de la Pia Almonia, the Cathedral, the Medieval Jewish Quarter, and the Museu D’Histora de Barcelona. The tour provided personal audio headphones and was extremely interesting. We then went to see Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Church. It was surrounded by throngs of people and the wait to enter the building was several hours. After admiring the architecture of the Gothic Quarter, we were disappointed by just how gaudy the building appeared. We took a couple of photos and then returned to the ship.

We arrived at Cartagena, Spain, on Sunday, 6 November. After visiting the Teatro Romano and Museum, we walked to the Molinete Archaeological Park – both were very interesting. We walked through the Plaza San Francisco en route to Concepcion Castle. The views from the castle were impressive, but the castle tour was very short. We were running short of time and briefly visited the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia Subacuatica as we returned to the ship. I believe that the two sculptured Bronze Sabazius Hands representing Sabazius, a god of eastern origin, were among the most interesting exhibits at the museum.

We arrived at Malaga, Spain, on Monday, 7 November. We took a taxi to visit the Castle of Gibralfaro, which is situated on a hill overlooking the city and dates back to the Phoenician period. Views from the castle were spectacular, and the Malaga bullring, Plaza de Tores, could be seen from the Castle. After touring the castle and a small museum within the castle, we took a taxi to the Alcazaba, which is described as the most well-preserved citadel in Spain and houses the Archaeological Museum. After visiting the Alcazaba, we decided to visit the Fundacion Picasso, the birthplace house of Pablo Ruiz Picasso. Since we had booked a wine and tapas tasting walking tour, we walked through the picturesque streets of downtown Malaga past the Cathedral of Malaga with one of its towers uncompleted. We met our tour guide at the Plaza de la Constitucion where we admired the prominent Source of Genoa statue. We visited three separate tapas restaurants as part of our wine and tapas tour before walking back to the ship.

We arrived at Huelva, Spain on Tuesday, 8 November. We had originally booked a Holland America shore excursion to the Riotinto Mines. Prior to arriving at Huelva, however, we were informed that the Riotinto tour had been cancelled because too few people had signed up for it. Since we did not want to book an all-day long-distance tour to Seville, we walked through Huelva and saw the City Hall of Huelva, the Church of La Concepcion, and the Church of San Pedro.

We arrived at Lisbon, Portugal, on a rainy Wednesday, 9 November. We had originally booked a wine and food tasting tour for our visit to Lisbon. However, when we arrived at Lisbon, the ship re-scheduled our departure for an earlier time, and this forced us to cancel our tasting tour. Since we had both spent a lot of time visiting Lisbon in March 2009, we went shoe shopping for Jan in downtown Lisbon and then enjoyed a wonderful cappuccino. We walked through the Rue Augusta Arch to the Plaza do Comercio and past the statue of King Jose I before returning to the ship.

Our last European port of call was at Maderia, Portugal, on Friday, 11 November. We had booked an inexpensive local four-wheel drive sightseeing tour in advance and had a marvelous tour both through tiny narrow mountain streets and off-road as well. At one point, while we were on an off-road mountain trail, we were passed by people running on the same trail. The views were stunning en route to the Miradouro do Cabo Girao and the Caba Girao Cliff. The Cabo Girao Cliff Skywalk is the highest cliff skywalk in Europe. The views over the edge of the cliff, along the coastline, and of nearby landscapes were spectacular. We stopped at Camara dos Lobos, a small picturesque beach town, where Jan had a Nikita cocktail at a small café. We loved our visit to Maderia and would not hesitate to return.

The remainder of the cruise was an Atlantic Ocean crossing that ended at Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Saturday, 19 November. After clearing US Immigration, we spent several days visiting with relatives in Fort Lauderdale before returning to Los Angeles on Thursday, 24 November.

See pictures from the Mediterranean Cruise

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  October 2016
Greece & Greek Isles

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I decided to take a Mediterranean cruise during October and November 2016. I booked a 30-day Mediterranean cruise from Athens, Greece, aboard the Holland America ship, PRISENDAM, to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The cruise itinerary included ports of call in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Spain, and Portugal before an Atlantic crossing to Ft. Lauderdale. Since the voyage would begin at Athens, Greece, we decided to spend five days visiting Athens and Delphi prior to boarding the ship. These travel notes will only cover our Greek Isle ports of call visits.

We arrived at Athens during the evening of Friday, 14 October, and checked into our hotel. The following day we visited the National Archaeological Museum of Greece. It is the largest museum in Greece and provides extensive insight into the history of the Greek civilization from prehistoric times to late antiquity. The exhibits include treasures from the royal tombs of Mycenoe, the famed Antikythera mechanism, and a large sculpture and pottery collection.

We took a day trip from Athens to the archaeological site of Delphi on Sunday,16 October. Delphi is famous for being the home to the Oracle of Delphi with whom many leaders of the ancient world consulted for advice. The trip consisted of a bus ride to Delphi and time to visit the extensive ruins of the upper portion of Delphi, including the Sanctuary of Apollo. The highlights included the Temple of Apollo, the ancient theater, the ancient stadium, and the Athenian treasury. Unfortunately the tour did not allow us time to visit the lower portion of the ruins at Delphi that included the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, but they were visible from the upper portion. We also had some time to visit the Delphi Archaeology Museum. In lieu of time to visit the lower ruins, the tour opted to stop at the picturesque resort town of Arachova to provide some time for local shopping.

Prior to visiting the Acropolis, we decided to visit the Acropolis Museum in Athens on Monday, 17 October. This museum was founded to exhibit all significant finds from the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis and its foothills. It was inaugurated during the summer of 2009. The museum is situated 300 meters south of the Acropolis and is supported by more than 100 concrete pillars that provide a shelter above the site’s archaeological excavation which extends beneath the museum. The upper level of the museum contains the Parthenon Gallery, which houses a rectangular concrete core that was built to the same dimensions and orientation as the Parthenon. It was built to receive and display the entire temple frieze. The museum utilizes transparent outer glass walls to maintain a direct visual link between the museum and the Parthenon on the Acropolis. This museum houses many artifacts from the Acropolis and provides valuable insight into the history and different stages of the Acropolis as it was occupied by different rulers.

We visited the Acropolis on Tuesday, 18 October. The Acropolis is very impressive and many of the hillside structures of the Acropolis are as impressive as the structures at the top of the Acropolis. For example, the Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus, which dominates the South Slope of the Acropolis, was once a wooden theater used for the cult dance in honor of Dionysus. It was rebuilt as a more permanent theater utilizing rock, gradually leading to the birth of ancient drama, and has been restored. Famous tragedies and comedies such as Antigone, Medea, the Birds, and Peace were first presented here. The very impressive “Herodium” Odeum of Herodes Atticus is a theater that is also situated on the South Slope of the Acropolis west of the Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus.

The Areopagus hill is situated beneath the west end of the Acropolis, is connected with mythical and historical trails, and is the world’s oldest court of law. The seat of the first aristocratic senate of ancient Athens was here. It is the place where the Assembly of Athenian citizens gathered and is essentially the birthplace of democracy. Important ancient orators and politicians, including Demosthenes, Pericles, Themistocles, and St. Paul spoke from the site’s bema, the speaker’s platform.

According to the literature, cults devoted to fertility and vegetation performed in open-air sanctuaries and cavernous openings in the rock on the North Slope of the Acropolis. Among the site’s most important monuments are the Klepsydra and the three caves dedicated to the cults of Pan, Zeus, and Apollo. In addition, a large cave dedicated to the nymph Aglauros dominates the East Slope.

The top of the sacred rock of the Acropolis was for many centuries a place of worship of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Due to the ambitious artistic program of Pericles during the 5th century BC, the monumental Propylaia, the Erechtheion, and the Parthenon were constructed. The Parthenon is the eternal symbol of Greek and European civilization.

After visiting the Acropolis, we walked through Hadrian’s Gate en route to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Hadrian’s Gate was built by the Athenians in honor of the Roman emperor who completed the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. This temple was one of the largest temples in the ancient world measuring 110 meters in length with more than 104 columns. Sixteen of the columns have been preserved. Construction of the temple required six centuries to complete.

Our final stop of the day was at the Panathenaic Stadium which according to the literature dates from the 4th century BC. The stadium was used for the first time during the celebration of the Great Panathenaia in 330/329 BC to host gymnikoi which had, since early times, been held in a space south of Athens. During the reign of Emperor Hadrian, significant works were carried out in the stadium between 139 AD and 144 AD due to the generosity of the orator and magnate Herodes, son of Atticus. These included changing the rectangular shape of the stadium to a horseshoe shape, the installation of white Pentelic marble seats for spectators, and a vaulted passage under the east retaining wall that terminated at the back of the stadium and the Temple of Tyche/Fortuna. The first modern Olympic Games were held here in 1896. This Panathenaic Stadium was also used to host some of the events during the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

On Wednesday, 19 October, we visited the Kerameikos, the oldest and largest Attic cemetery that extends outside the ancient city walls on the northern outskirts of Athens. The site is dominated by stately tombs with sculptural masterpieces. Many of the on-site sculptures are replicas with the original sculptures on display in the Kerameikos Museum. The Demosion Sema (public cemetery), a site for the burial of war casualties, is also located here.

We walked from the Kerameikos to the Ancient Agora. It was the center for Athenian democracy where the city’s most important political functions were exercised and where both Pericles and Socrates once walked. The exceptionally well preserved Temple of Hephaistos is situated within this archaeological site. We walked from the Ancient Agora to the Roman Agora which was built during the 1st century BC with gifts from Julius Caesar and Augustus to house Athens’ commercial activities. It is bordered by the Gate of Athena Archegetis, while the Clock of Kyrrestos, where relief figures of the eight winds and the Fethiye Mosque, stands at the corner.

Our last stop of the day was at the Library of Hadrian, which was built during AD 132-134 as a donation from the Roman Emperor Hadrian to the city of Athens. It is a large rectangular peristyle structure with an interior courtyard and only one entrance. The main areas of the Library were on the monument’s eastern side. The papyrus scrolls were kept in a large central two-story building. The Library suffered severe damage during the Herulian invasion of AD 267 and was later repaired by Herculius, the Prefect of Illyricum, during AD 407-412.

We boarded the Holland America PRISENDAM on 20 October and, after stopping at Cypress and Israel, arrived at Rhodes, Greece, on Wednesday, 26 October. After disembarking, we began our own walking tour and entered the walled Medieval City portion of Rhodes Town through the Virgin Mary’s Gate. Our first stop was at the ruins of the Church of the Virgin of the Burgh built in 1300 and used by the Knights of St. John Hospitaller. Until its partial destruction, it was the largest church in the city and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We continued walking to the Square of the Jewish Martyrs, which is also called Seahorse Square. The square’s Holocaust Memorial pays tribute to the 1,604 Jews of Rhodes that were sent to die at Auschwitz. Only 151 Jews survived the Holocaust. The literature says that today there are only about 35 Jews living in Rhodes.

We walked through Ippokratous Square en route to visit the Hamman Baths (also called the Turkish Baths) which are housed in a 17th century Byzantine building. The baths were closed and we continued walking past the Sulleimaniye Mosque and the ruins of a Muslim school en route to visit the Palace of the Grand Master of Rhodes.

The Palace of the Grand Master of Rhodes was built during the 14th century by the Knights of Rhodes who occupied Rhodes from 1309 to 1522. After the island was captured by the Ottoman Empire, the palace was used as a fortress. The original palace was mostly destroyed by an ammunition explosion in 1856. In 1912, the palace was rebuilt by the Kingdom of Italy in a grandiose pseudo-medieval style as a holiday residence for Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and later for Benito Mussolini. In 1948, Rhodes was transferred from Italy to Greece, and the Greeks converted the palace into a very nice museum.

We exited the Medieval City through St. Antonio’s Gate and Gate D’Amboise to walk to the Ancient Acropolis hill of Rhodes. Here we visited the ancient theater, the ancient stadium, and the remains of the Temple of Apollo. The views from the Acropolis of Rhodes were stunning.

After walking back to the Medieval City, we re-entered the old city via the same gates that we used earlier to go to the Acropolis site. Back in the old city, we walked the 600 meter length of the Street of the Knights, where knights once lived and worked. It was restored by the Italian Government between 1913 and 1916. Before returning to the ship, we visited the 15th century hospital that has been converted into the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes.

The walled Old City is spectacular, and I wish we’d had more time to explore the perimeter of the fortification walls. The Medieval Old City was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1988. When I return to Rhodes, I will rent a car and spend several days leisurely exploring its many interesting sites.

We arrived at Santorini, Greece, on Thursday, 27 October. The island of Santorini was originally known as Thera. It was re-named as Santorini by the Latin Empire during the 13th century and was a reference to St. Irene. The name Thera (officially Thira, Greece) was revived during the 19th century as the official name of the island but the name Santorini remains in popular usage.

Since we had booked a Holland American tour to visit the archaeological site of Akrotiri, we were transported by a Santorini tender boat to a docking area to meet up with our tour bus. Akrotiri was a flourishing prehistoric city prior to the final quarter of the 17th century BC when its inhabitants abandoned it due to powerful earthquakes and the enormous volcanic eruption that followed. The volcanic material that covered the city and the entire island has provided excellent protection for the buildings and their contents up to the present time. The city covered an area of approximately 20 hectares and its multi-story buildings - adorned by superb frescoes, rich furnishings, and household effects - signify the high level of development at that time.

After a very nice tour of Akrotiri, we were taken by bus to the town of Fira, the main town on the island, where our tour guide took us to the Santozeum Museum. The Santozeum Website states: “The Santozeum is an interdisciplinary creative platform that fosters dialogues between the arts, humanities and sciences in its local and international communities. The Santozeum environment connects a global network of art professionals and academics with the island of Santorini.” The museum was currently exhibiting a collection of Akrotiri Wall Paintings on loan from the Thera Foundation, developed in collaboration with the Getty and Kodak Pathe. These paintings were superb copies of paintings that had been removed from the Akrotiri Archaeological Site – the original paintings currently reside in the National Museum at Athens and at the Museum of Prehistoric Thera.

We were then free to visit other places of interest in Fira on our own before making our way back to the ship. We decided to first visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, which displays exhibits from the excavations of ancient Akrotiri as well as from some other sites around the island. This museum opened in 2000 and features exhibits from the 18th and 17th centuries BC which include fresco compositions, plaster casts of furniture, the unique gold wild goat figurine, and impressive collections of pottery and bronze working.

We walked to the splendid Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist which was built during the 17th century AD, en route to visiting the Archaeological Museum of Thera. The Archaeological Museum featured sculptures and inscriptions from the Archaic to the Roman periods. It also has a collection of vases and clay figurines from the Geometric to the Hellenistic periods.

We took the cable car down from the top of the hillside near the archaeology museum to the old port area where we were transferred by tender back to our cruise ship.

We arrived at Crete, Greece, on Friday, 28 October, and decided to walk around Heraklion City on our own. After disembarking from the ship we walked along the port to view the Venetian Koules Fortress which is situated at the entrance of the Venetian Harbour. We then walked to Dematas Gate and up the street to the Morosini Fountain which was inaugurated in 1628. We continued on to visit the Heraklion Archaeological Museum which had an amazing collection of exhibits. It is known worldwide as the most important museum of the Minoan Civilization. This museum should not be missed by anyone visiting Crete. After spending several hours at the archaeology museum, we walked along many picturesque streets en route to the port.

Crete was the last Greek Isle port of call portion of our cruise. The remaining ports of call on our Mediterranean cruise to the countries of Cyprus, Israel, Malta, Italy, Spain, and Portugal are covered in the separate “Mediterranean Cruise” set of travel notes.

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  August 2016
Taiwan

Travel Notes

 

I decided to return to Taiwan to meet up again with Sunny to hike some more trails in Taiwan and visit southern Taiwan. I had visited northern Taiwan in July 2015 but was unable to hike the more difficult trails due to problems with my right hip. After my total hip replacement in November 2015 and clearance from my doctor, I wanted to try to hike the Zhuilu Old Trail in the Taroko National Park.

I originally met Sunny while traveling in southern Turkey in June 2012. Our paths crossed again in Juaiquan, Gansu Province, China in April 2014, and she and her family showed me much of northern Taiwan in July 2015.

I arrived at Taipei, Taiwan, on Saturday, 13 August 2016 at about 6:40 PM. After clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and located the hotel car that Sunny had arranged for me. After checking into my hotel, I met Sunny in the lobby and we met up with her friend Jessie to go to dinner. It was like old times because Jessie was with Sunny in Juaiquan, China and again when we all met up for dinner at the DinTaiFung restaurant the previous year in Taipei. Since the DinTaiFung was totally booked, we went to another restaurant for a wonderful dinner.

Sunny met me at my hotel the following morning and we took the train and a bus to Yangmingshan National Park to hike to the main peak of Qixing Mountain, the highest mountain in the national park. We hiked the 2.0-kilometer Xiaoyukeng Trail from the bus stop to the Qixing Mountain Main Peak. The mountain was originally formed by a volcano. The trail passed steam vents and the Xiaoyukeng Fumaroles – both continued to emit steam and sulfur fumes. The weather was picture perfect and the scenery was impressive. The main peak has an elevation of 1,120 meters. The view from the main peak summit provides a 360-degree view of the entire Yangmingshan National Park. After spending some time at the main peak, we hiked down the 2.4-kilometer Maiopu Trail to a bus stop in the park and then returned to Taipei City. My pedometer logged more than 14,000 steps over the uneven large rock stepping stones and cobble stone paths during the hike.

Sunny met me at my hotel at 6:00 AM on Monday morning to take the train to Hualien. We met up with Sunny’s friend Joyce at the train station and continued to Hualien. Joyce is a middle school teacher in Taiwan. Sunny and Joyce rented motorbikes at Hualien, and I rode behind Sunny on the motorbike to the Taroko National Park to hike the Zhuilu Old Trail, which is one of the most spectacular hiking trails in Taiwan. The trail is naturally formed from marble above the Taroko Gorge and is the last remaining section of the old Cross-HeHuan Mountain Road. It was the trail to connect different aboriginal Taiwanese tribes 100 years ago. Some sections of the trail follow the Zhuilu Cliff where the trail is extremely narrow with the Liwu River 500 meters below. Sections of the trail are very challenging to hike and a hiking permit is required in advance. Only 95 people are allowed per day due to the fragile landscape. Although the trail is 10.3 kilometers long, the western portion was closed due to typhoon damage the previous year and only the last three kilometers of the eastern end of the trail from Cliff Outpost to Swallow Grotto was open for hiking. Fortunately for me, the most famous Zhuilu Cliff portion of the trail was open for our hike.

Sunny had obtained the necessary permits in advance for the three of us to hike the trail. We parked the motorbikes at the western end of Swallow Grotto and walked to the suspension bridge near the eastern end of Swallow Grotto to check in for our hike. The weather was beautiful and, after signing in at the entrance, we began the hike by crossing the suspension bridge over the Taroko Gorge. The next 2.5 kilometers would be a very challenging uphill climb to reach the Zhuilu Cliff for the 500-meter hike along the cliff face. Although I had been going on daily hikes of 7 to 10 kilometers in Los Angeles for several months, the altitude coupled with the rough terrain made the Zhuilu Old Trail hike very challenging for me; the residual fatigue from the hike to the Qixing Main Peak the day before probably contributed to my difficulties with this 6 kilometer hike.

I was extremely fortunate to be with Sunny who had hiked the trail several times before and provided additional incentive for me to complete the hike. After the grueling climb up to the Zhuilu Cliff, the scenery was magnificent and I felt so much exhilaration – truly a Eureka moment! Upon completion of the round trip one-kilometer hike of the narrow trail along the side of the magnificent Zhuilu Cliff, I needed to muster up enough energy to complete the long 2.5-kilometer hike down the mountain to exit the trail. Although uphill was grueling, I also found the downhill hike to be very challenging. What a relief it was to finally cross the suspension bridge and be able to say “mission accomplished.” My pedometer logged more than 19,000 steps during the hike.

After a brief rest at a 7 Eleven store outside the park entrance, we ate dinner at a wonderful hot pot restaurant in Hualien before returning the motorbikes and taking the train back to Taipei. We reached the Taipei train station at 10:32 PM and I arrived at my hotel around 11:00 PM – a wonderful fifteen-hour day.

I slept in on Tuesday, 16 August, and Sunny met me at 3:15 PM to go to the Mid-Summer Ghost Festival 2016 at Keelung City. We took the train to Keelung and ate dinner before going to the festival. The Ghost Festival is an annual event with both Taoist and Buddhist traditions. The Keelung Ghost Festival begins on the first day of the seventh lunar month when the tower Gate of the Old Venerable Temple is opened to let the wandering, hungry, and lonely ghosts in Hell return to the world of the living to seek food for one month. On the 12th day, lamps on the altar are lighted. On the 13th day, the procession of the dipper lantern is held. On the 14th day, a parade is held for releasing the water lanterns. On the 15th day, water lanterns are officially released and sacrificial rites for delivering the ghosts are performed both in public and in private. The purpose for releasing the water lanterns is to illuminate the waterways for lonely souls on the water and to bring them to land so the ghosts on both land and water can co-exist in peace. On the first day of the eighth lunar month the tower gates are closed for sending the ghosts back to the nether world. The first Keelung City Ghost Festival was held in 1856. For additional information, visit the website link to the Keelung Ghost Festival. Since there is a mismatch between the solar Gregorian calendar and the lunar calendar, the 7th month of the lunar calendar began on 2 August 2016, which meant Sunny and I arrived at Keelung City on the 14th day of the seventh month to see the Parade for Releasing the Water Lantern. The parade lasted for nearly three hours. We then took a taxi to the seaside to also see the releasing of the water lanterns into the sea at the beginning of the 15th day. After the ceremony for releasing the water lanterns was completed, we took a bus back to Taipei. It was nearly 2:00 AM when I finally arrived back at my hotel.

I decided to take a day off from sightseeing to edit photos and to begin writing my travel notes on Wednesday.

On Thursday, 18 August, I met Sunny at the Songshan Train station to take the train to Ruifang County on the north coast of Taiwan. After arriving at Ruifang, we took a local northbound bus to the Bitou Fishing Port where we hiked the Bitou Cape Trail. After our hike, we took the southbound bus back to the Shuijinjiu Area, which includes not only the three towns of Shuianandong, Jinguashi, and Jiufen, but also the hillside architecture. We got off of the bus at the Golden Waterfalls in Jinguashi. The waterfalls are yellow in color from the mineral deposits in the water and the yellow color continues as the water cascades down the river to the sea at a point called Yin-Yang Sea. It is called Yin-Yang Sea because the yellow river water colors the ocean water in a crescent-like area at the mouth of the river. As we walked along the river to the Yin-Yang Sea, we passed the enormous abandoned Shuianandong Smelter also known as part of the Kinkaseki Copper Mine. Form our vantage points, we were barely able to view portions of the three cement flues that extend up the mountain from the smelter which carried the smoke and toxic fumes up the mountain and away from the populated area – they are possibly the world’s longest smokestacks.

This area is very picturesque and has become a popular tourist area after the movie “A City of Sadness” was filmed at Jiufen. We took the bus from Yin-Yang Sea to Jiufen and walked along the now famous Jiufen Old Street also called Jioufen Old Street. We ate lunch at a restaurant with a magnificent view of the mountains, coastline to Keelung, Keelung Island, and the sea. After relaxing and indulging ourselves with the view from the restaurant, we took the bus back to the train station and then a very crowded train back to Taipei.

Friday, 19 August, was a travel day and we took the high-speed train from Taipei to Kaohsiung. It was raining when we arrived at Kaohsiung, and I spent the remainder of the afternoon at my hotel. The rain subsided during the early evening and Sunny met me to go to the Sabben Beef Noodle restaurant for dinner. This restaurant has become very popular for both local people and tourists.

On Saturday, 20 August, I met Sunny at the high speed train station where we took a local bus to go to the Fo Guang Shan Monastery and the Fo Guang ShanBuddha Memorial Center located in the Dashu District of Kaohsiung. The Fo Guang Shan Monastery is the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. It was founded by Hsing Yun who purchased more than 30 hectares as the site for the construction of the monastery. The groundbreaking ceremony was held on 16 May 1967. The monastery embarked on many construction projects including university buildings, shrines, and a cemetery. In 1975, Fo Guang Shan’s 36-meter tall statue of Amitaba Buddha was consecrated and in 1981, the Great Hall was built. During May 1997, Hsing Yun announced that he would close Fo Guang Shan to the general public to give the monastics the cloistered atmosphere they needed for their Buddhist practice. After a visit in 2000 by the president of Taiwan and officials from Kaohsiung, Fo Guang Shan decided to reopen the monastery to some extent to the general public.

In 1998, Hsing Yun traveled to Bodh Gaya, India, to confer the precepts for full ordination. Kunga Dorje Rinpoche entrusted Hsing Yun with a Buddha Tooth Relic that he had safeguarded for nearly thirty years. With the tooth relic in his possession, Hsing Yun looked for a suitable piece of land to build the Buddha Memorial Center, which, by luck, just happened to be behind the Fo Guang Shan Monastery. After acquiring more than 100 hectares, construction of the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial Center as a Mahayana Buddhist cultural, religious, and educational museum began in 2008. The museum was opened to the public in December 2011 and construction has continued ever since. Since its opening, the Buddha Memorial Center has been featured as one of the top ten landmarks in Taiwan.

The Buddha Memorial Center guide brochure states that there are ten must see splendors at the Buddha Memorial Center, including the Fo Guang Big Buddha, the largest drum, the Main Hall Museum of Underground Palaces, the Buddha Tooth Relic in the Jade Buddha Shrine, the Golden Buddha Shrine, and the Maitreya Buddha in the Museum of Buddhist Festivals. The Jade Buddha Shrine is magnificent and features a Reclining Buddha statue sculpted out of Burmese white jade, a reliquary above the statue containing the Buddha tooth, jade reliefs on the walls on both sides of the Buddha statue, and sandalwood reliefs of stupas and pagodas on the side walls. The Fo Guang Big Buddha, which was completed during 2011, took more than a year to cast and required a total of 1,800 tons of metal. The statue itself measures 40 meters high, while the seat is 10 meters high and the total height is 108 meters.

Sunny met me at my hotel on Sunday morning, 21 August, to go for a walk around the Southern end of the Kaohsiung Lotus Pond. The Lotus Pond is a large lake in Kaohsiung that is home to several beautiful temples and pavilions as well as the Lotus Wakepark. We visited the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, Spring and Summer Pavilion, Wuli Pavilion, and Beiji Pavilion. After walking around part of the Lotus Pond, we took a train to Tainan and then a local bus to visit the Amping Old Street area and the Amping Fort.

We ate lunch at a restaurant in the Amping Old Street area and then walked to the fort. The Amping Fort dates from 1624 when the Dutch military-business alliance troops conquered the current-day Amping and built Fort Zeelandia as a defense base at the Bay of Taijiang in 1634. In 1662, the 16th year of the Emperor Yongli’s reign during the Ming Dynasty, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) seized Fort Zeelandia and renamed it as Amping Township. During the Qing Dynasty, the Bay of Taijiang was becoming silted and the Qing army demolished Fort Zeelandia to build the Eternal Golden Castle which was gradually abandoned. Fort Zeelandia was rebuilt after the Japanese Occupation and renamed as Amping Fort after Taiwan’s Retrocession. Today, the only remains from the Dutch period are the southern brick walls of the fort. The fort and museum are very picturesque and definitely well worth a sightseeing visit.

After visiting the Amping Fort, we took a taxi to downtown Tainan to visit the Tainan Confucius Temple, also called the Scholarly Temple (to be called “Wen Miao” hereinafter). It was built in 1665 when Cheng Ching, son of Koxinga, approved the proposal for the construction. It holds the distinction of being the First Academy of Taiwan. It has been renovated many times over the years and the last major renovation was in 1917. After visiting the Confucius temple, we walked past the Pangong Stone Archway and visited the site of Fort Provintia. The fort was originally built in 1653 during the Dutch colonization of Taiwan. During the siege of Fort Zeelandia, the fort was surrendered to Koxinga but was later destroyed by an earthquake in the 19th century. It was later rebuilt as Chihkan Tower. We also visited the Sacrificial Rites Martial Temple en route to the train station to return to Kaohsiung.

On Monday, 22 August, I got up early and walked to the Old Fongshan City East Gate, which is now a Taiwan National Historic Site. I walked along a section of the old city wall that extends from the ancient city East Gate a short distance to the north and south to the Old Fongshan City South Gate. The South Gate currently sits in the center of a traffic circle. Both gates and the old city wall are very picturesque. I checked out of my hotel after my walk, and met Sunny at the high-speed train station to return to Taipei City. Back at Taipei, I met up with Sunny in the late afternoon to go see the Taiwan President’s Building and Jieshu Park before meeting up with her friend Joyce at the DinTaiFung restaurant at the Taipei 101 Mall for dinner. I had originally met Joyce last year at the Wisteria Teahouse and it was a nice reunion. After a wonderful dinner, I took a taxi to my hotel and packed up for my flights home early the next morning.

Since Sunny wanted to visit a tea store in the international airport terminal, on Tuesday morning, 23 August, she picked me up at my hotel with a car to drive me to the airport for my flights home. After thanking her for her fabulous hospitality, we said goodbye at the tea store, and I continued on to catch my flights home. It was a wonderful trip to Taiwan to visit with Sunny and her friends and embark on more superb sightseeing trips with Sunny.

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  July 2016
Xinjiang Province, China: Hami and Turpan

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel to Xinjiang Province, China during July 2016 to continue my travels west along the Silk Road and southwest to Kuqa before heading northeast finally ending up at Urumqi, China.

I arrived at Chengdu, China, on Saturday, 9 July, at about 6:40 PM. After clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and took a local taxi to my hotel. I took an early morning flight on 10 July from Chengdu to Dunhuang, Ganzu Province, China. Upon arrival at Dunhuang, I took a three hour taxi ride to the Liuyuannan Railway Station where I boarded the high speed train to Hami, Xinjiang Province, China.

I arrived at Hami late afternoon on 10 July and took a taxi to my hotel. The following morning, I managed to find a taxi driver who agreed to take me to the Buddhist Temple Ruins at Baiyang (White Poplar) River near Baiyanggou Village. It was a very long drive over some unimproved Gobi Desert roads with detours around washed out bridges from earlier heavy rains. The driver asked directions many times when as we approached Baiyanggou Village until we finally arrived at the entrance to the location of the temple ruins. We parked the taxi near the entrance and hiked approximately half a kilometer along the river gully to reach the temple ruins.

The grand temple was in existence from the Thang Dynasty (618-907) to the period of the Gaochang Uyghur Kingdom. The main part of the ruins is found on the western side of the Baiyang River. Remnants of the main hall, side halls, a pagoda, and Buddha niches are visible on the site. The temple ruins were very picturesque with ancient grottoes on both faces of the river gully. Although the literature said that there were also some Buddhist rock carvings nearby, I apparently did not hike far enough along the river gully to find the location of the carvings. There were no other tourists at the site and very few tourists actually visit the site.

On the morning of 12 July, I visited the Komul Mukham Heritage Center, which includes two museums, the Hami Folk Museum, and the Hami Museum. The Hami Museum was closed due to power outages and the Folk Museum was open but, also due to power outages on the upper floors, only access to the first floor was available. The museum first floor was very interesting with exhibits of Uyghur ethnic clothing and musical instruments. I walked across the road from the heritage center to the Hami Moslem King palace which was very interesting and well worth a visit. The Islamic King Tombs are located adjacent to the Moslem King Palace. The tombs are officially named The Mausoleums of Hami Royal Uyghur Family. The mausoleums site also included a mosque and a very interesting exhibition building.

Shortly after returning to my hotel during mid-afternoon, a sand/dust storm rapidly swept across the city and lasted for nearly two hours. Being back at my hotel was definitely the best place for me to be during the storm. The storm subsided as quickly as it came and the view of the horizon once again became clear.

On Wednesday morning, 13 July, I took a taxi back to the Hami Museum only to find that it was once again closed due to the ongoing power outage. Since the museum was closed, I continued in the taxi to an interesting sculpture in the center of the intersection of two major streets where I exited the taxi. After photographing the sculpture, I walked back to my hotel. Later in the afternoon, I walked to the train station and took the high speed train to Turpan. I took a taxi from the Turpan high speed train station to my hotel in Turpan.

Upon arrival at my hotel, I negotiated hiring a taxi driver for the next three days of sightseeing in the Turpan area. During the three days, I visited the ruins of Jiaohe Ancient City, the Bizaklik Thousand-Buddha Grottoes, the ruins of Gaochang Ancient City, the Ancient Tombs of Astana, the Turpan Museum, Grape Valley, and Tuyu Gully. Tuyu Gully is the picturesque location of the Mazar Village, Mazar Mosque, and the Tuyugou Thousand-Buddha Grottoes.

The ruins of the ancient city of Jiaohe, which was originally named Yar City, are situated about 13 kilometers from downtown Turpan. Yar City was in existence from the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE) to the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368). It stood on an oblong tableland 30 meters above the riverbed with three gates in the southern, eastern, and western sides. Vestiges of 85 Buddhist temples, prayer halls, pagodas, and altars remain at the site; the Grand Buddhist Temple and the Grand Pagoda are two of the most impressive ruins. The city covers 37.6 hectares and is both the largest and best-preserved earthen architectural site still in existence in China. Yar City was a central town in the Turpan Basin laying along the Silk Road dating back from the 2nd century BCE to the 14th century AD.

The ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang, which is commonly referred to as Qocho City, are situated in Astana Village about 40 kilometers from Turpan city. It is comprised of three parts: outer city, inner city, and core city surrounded by rammed earth walls. The outer city is in an irregular rectangular shape. The inner city is inside the outer city and the core city is inside the inner city. Remnants of the Grand Buddha Temple are probably the highlight of the city ruins. During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602-664) lectured in the Grand Temple when he stopped by on his western pilgrimage journey.

The Ancient Tombs of Astana were a communal cemetery when the Gaochang Kingdom was in existence. Many artifacts have been unearthed from the tombs including up to 1,000 official documents, clay and wood figurines, pottery, and silk fabrics of various kinds of brocades such as kesi, thin silk, laced silk, gauze, and double-sided embroidery. Three of the tombs are accessible by the public with two mummies in one of these three tombs. Many of the artifacts from these tombs have been transferred to the Turpan Museum and to the Museum of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Urumqi.

The Turpan Museum is the second largest museum in Xiajiang Province and is housed in a modern building in Turpan city. It has magnificent exhibits of early inhabitants of the area including their customs and many of their artifacts. The exhibit about burial customs was superb including several mummies from different ethnic people of varying status. The museum has no admission charges and is definitely worth a visit.

Flaming Mountain is about 98 kilometers long and 9 kilometers wide. The Uyghurs call it Kezletag, which means Red Mountain. In high summer the red rocks give off strong and shimmering light like bulging flames toward the sky. The Flaming Mountain Scenic Area is a small park-like area with various sculptures and amusements and is situated adjacent to the major highway approximately 30 kilometers to the east of Turpan city. Some people, including me, stop on the highway to photograph the mountain and the various sculptures from a distance.

The Tuyu Gully is a sanctuary for both Buddhists and Muslims and is situated approximately 40 kilometers to the east of Turpan city. The Mazhar Village is a picturesque ethnic Uyghur village currently occupied by approximately 65 families. The village contains some ancient houses and the famous Mazhar Mosque. The Mazhar Mosque is described in the literature as a holy land for Muslims in China. It is worshipped as “Mecca in China.” Tuyugou Thousand-Buddha Grottoes are located on both sides of the Tuyu River approximately one kilometer upstream of the village. The grottoes were first discovered in 1905 and contained many beautiful frescos. They were known in ancient times as “Dinggu Temple” and were built at an early date in the Turpan area. The literature states that many of the frescos were damaged or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

During my visit to the grottoes, the original wooden stairs and scaffolding had been damaged and/or destroyed all together. A photo in the Turpan Museum showed how the stairs and scaffolding once existed for tourists to visit the caves. Since some local village people had climbed up to some of the caves, I made the very challenging assent up the cliff-side of the mountain to visit the major area of the accessible caves. The fact that the caves had not yet been converted into a new tourism destination with the mountain cliff-side face being covered with concrete and doors in front of the caves made this visit very worthwhile for me.

The Bizaklik Thousand-Buddha Grottoes are situated in the Mutougou River Valley less than 20 kilometers from the Tuyu Gully. It is the site of a Buddhist temple that was in existence from the 5th century to the 13th century when Turpan was under the rule of the Gaochang Kingdom and the Gaochang Uyghur Kingdom. There are 83 intact caves in a sheer cliff over a distance of one kilometer along the western bank of the river. I was really looking forward to visiting these grottoes.

When I arrived, I found that the Government had resurfaced the face of the mountain containing the grottoes with concrete and concrete walkways. All of the caves had locked doors at the cave entrances and only six caves were open for display to the public. In addition, only one small section of the walkways in front of the caves was accessible. The normal exit route down into the valley beside the river was locked, which only added to my frustrations. The mountain scenery was spectacular and a very large beautiful sand mountain, which tourists could visit by camel ride, motorized vehicle, or hiking, was adjacent to the parking area for the grottoes. In addition, a large Earth Art area was located on both sides of the road nearby the Bizaklik grottoes. I took several photos of the Earth Art area en route back to Turpan city.

The Islamic tower, called the “Emin Pagoda,” built during 1777 is 44 meters high and has a base 11 meters in diameter. The brick-wood tower tapers upward tier by tier to resemble a vase. It has a spiral stairway of 72 steps inside the tower. It is situated adjacent to a mosque and there was no access to the inside of the pagoda. It is said to be the largest pagoda from ancient times in Xinjiang Province.

On Sunday, 17 July, I departed Turpan via a local train to Kuqa to continue my visit in Xinjiang Province, China.

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  July 2016
Xinjiang Province, China: Kuqa and Urumqi

Travel Notes

 

On Sunday, 17 July, I continued my visit to Xinjiang Province, China by taking a local train from Turpan to Kuqa, and checking into my Kuqa hotel. To begin my sightseeing in Kuqa on Monday, 18 July, I hired a car and driver for a full day trip to take me to the Kezil Grottoes, the Kumtula Grottoes, the Kezilgaha Beacon Tower, and the Kezilgaha Grottoes.

My first stop was at the Kezil Grottoes. Although these grottoes are highly rated, the Government has preserved the site with concrete covering the cliff-side of the mountain containing the grottoes. The Government also installed concrete walkways with stairs and doors at the entrance to each grotto. Guides are required to escort small groups of tourists to the grottoes and only a few are accessible to tourists. The rest of the concrete walkways are blocked off. Of the small portion of the grotto site that was accessible to visitors, the guides only opened six caves during my visit and no photos were allowed within the caves. There are much better Buddhist grottoes in other areas of China and, unless a person has a VIP Status, these grottoes should probably be avoided.

There was a group of resident tourist guides at the Kezil Grottoes and they insisted that tickets for all of the accessible grotto sites in the Kuqa area must be purchased at the Kezil Grotto ticket counter. Furthermore, an additional charge was required to have one of these guides accompany tourists to each of the other grotto sites. The only other tickets available for purchase were the Kezilgaha Grottoes at a cost of 55 CYN with an additional charge of 300 CYN for one of the guides was required – the guide said that six caves at Kezilgaha would be shown to tourists. No tickets were available for the Kumtula Grottoes or the Sensaim Grottoes. I decided not to pay for a ticket and guide for me to visit the Kezilgaha Grottoes.

My second stop was at the Kezilgaha Beacon Tower which is prominently situated above the Yansnui Valley. It is described as one of the grandest beacon towers in Xinjiang Province. In the Uyghur language “Kezilgaha” means “Red Headed Crow” or “Red Sentry Post.” The remaining portion of the tower is approximately 16 meters high. While at the beacon tower, a very good view of the Kezilgaha Grottos could be seen. After taking some photos of the grottoes, we drove to the grotto entrance, which was closed to the public.

We continued on to the Kumtula Grottoes. The police had blocked the roadway near the entrance to the site of the Kumtula Grottoes. Since I was not allowed to visit the grottoes, the police finally allowed my driver to walk down to the Kumtula Grotto sign near the actual entrance at the grottoes where he took a photo of the sign – none of the actual grottoes were visible from the sign. On the way back to the hotel, we visited the Kuqa Folk Museum, the King Palace in Kuqa, and the Kuqa Mosque.

On Tuesday morning, 19 July, I visited three remote sites not typically frequented by tourists. They were the Kerxishu Fort, the Mazabaiha Grottoes, and the Sensaim Grottoes. My driver needed to stop many times to ask the local people for directions to these sites. Of these three sites, the Sensaim Grottoes is one of the more notable grotto sites in Kuqa. The grottoes were built during the Jin and Tang Dynasties (265-907) and make up the largest grotto group in the eastern part of the Qiuci area. There are 52 stone caves and some of the caves are said to have many murals. Driving to the grottoes was difficult and included driving through a dry river bed. Although the grottoes were closed to the public, the grotto caretakers allowed me to see and photograph many of the grottoes from the perimeter fence.

After lunch at a local village restaurant, I visited the Subash Buddhist Ruins which is also called the Zhaoguli Grand Temple. The temple complex was built during the Wei and Jin Dynasties (230-420). The temple was divided by the Tongchang River into the Eastern Temple and the Western Temple. All of the structures were built with adobe bricks. I was able to visit the Western Temple Ruins. The two best preserved portions of the Western Temple were the Hall of the Western Temple and the Pagoda on the Center of the Western Temple. I was able to photograph the Eastern Temple Ruins on the opposite side of the river. The Eastern Temple Ruins were closed to the public during my visit.

I spent the remainder of my time sightseeing the local Kuqa city, visiting the Ruins of the Qiuci Capital City, and taking another day trip to the Kuqa Grand Canyon National Geopark.

Resitan Road runs through the Unity Bridge which spans the Kuqu River. There are markets along Resitan Road on both sides of the Unity Bridge. The market on the east side of the bridge was in a somewhat run-down condition whereas the larger street market on the west side of the bridge was much more prosperous. I have designated Resitan Road on my photos as ‘Resitan Road – East’ and ‘Resitan Road – West’ to differentiate between east and west of the Unity Bridge. I walked along Resitan Road west of the bridge for approximately 1 kilometer and admired the colorful picturesque buildings on both sides of the street. There were lights hanging from the trees on both sides of the street which gave the appearance that this street would be beautifully illuminated at night. A lady in a red dress ran up to me from across Resitan Road and wanted a photo with me, I handed my camera to one of two men who came with her and he photographed us with the other man standing next to me. After two photos were taken, he told me that the lady in red was his mother.

The Qiuci Capital City ruins occupy the largest area of all ruins of ancient cities in Xinjiang, but only the foundations of rammed earth for six large scale buildings are still in existence. The city was named Yangcheng in the Han Dynasty and Yiluolu in the Tang Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty, the Governor of the Western Region set his headquarters in this Yiluolu. I visited the portion of the Qiuci Capital City foundation of the city that is situated in Kuqa city.

During my final day at Kuqa, I took a day trip north to the Kuqa Grand Canyon National Geopark, which includes many different sites with unique names. For example, the southern portion is called the Salt Water Valley Scenic Spot and it contains an area that is called Buddhala Landscape. Continuing northbound is an area called the Red Mountain Stone Forest that is followed by the Kizilya Scenic Spot. At the northern end of the Geopark is the famous Tianshan Mysterious Grand Canyon. I hiked the length of the Tianshan Mysterious Grand Canyon. The area is very beautiful. I also hiked down into the Buddhala Landscape. Some of the areas resemble colorful rock formations found in Southern Utah, USA.

I took a local night train from Kuqa to Urumqi, which is also called Wulumuqi, and arrived at Urumqi early morning on 22 July. After checking into my hotel and eating breakfast, I went to visit the Museum of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Exhibition Hall of Geology and Minerals. Although both museums had spectacular exhibits, the cultural museum was amazing. Among the permanent exhibits are exhibits related to ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang, the history of Xinjiang, artifacts unearthed in Xinjiang, and ancient mummies found in Xinjiang.

Saturday, 23 July, was an interesting sightseeing day in Urumqi. I started out in the morning to go to the Silk Road Museum, which is said to be situated on Shengli Lu but, once I arrived there, I was not able to find the museum. I believe that I may have been in or nearby the old Uyghur Muslim part of the city. The area was very interesting with a small park with some interesting sculptures and an interesting mosque. Nearby I found the International Grand Bazaar Xinjiang where there were throngs of people and many colorful shops of all kinds. After I photographed a man with a huge falcon or eagle, he approached me and offered the glove with his bird to me. The glove fit and suddenly I was holding the bird on my right arm. I gave my camera to another man who began photographing me. The man then coaxed his bird to spread its wings to show how large and powerful it was. A huge crowd gathered around and many many people were taking photos of me with the bird. When the man then touched the bird, it brought it's wings back close to its body and he then had me put my left hand on the bird. A very exhilarating experience for me and probably also for the large crowd of people photographing me with the bird. After the man retrieved his bird from me, I gave him a nice tip and continued exploring the bazaar.

As I continued exploring the area, I visited the Erdaoqiad Grand Bazaar which was situated nearby. After I explored the area and the bazaars, I walked along a street adjacent to the International Grand Bazaar Xinjiang to try to find a taxi to return to my hotel. One side of the street was lined with small shops and many restaurants charcoal grilling lamb kebabs in front of the restaurants. I went into one of the restaurants that was packed with locals and had wonderful noodles with lamb and several of the kebabs for lunch – very spicy and very good.

On Sunday, 24 July, I visited the Shuimo Gully Scenic Zone, Hongshan Park, and the Shaanxi Grand Mosque. The Shuimo Gully Scenic Zone is a narrow mountain valley about one kilometer long with a mountain stream flowing through it. There are many interesting sites to visit while hiking along mountain-side trails and along the stream with exquisite footbridges. The Qingquan Great Buddha Temple was very large, and the Lovers’ Trees site was also very interesting.

After the Shuimo Gully Scenic Zone, I went to Hongshan Park, which is also called Red Mountain Park. It is 1,500 meters long and 1,000 meters wide. A nine-storied tower of gray bricks stands on top of the mountain. A beautiful Buddhist temple is also near the top, and a red rock pagoda is prominently situated at a point high above one end of the mountain. The park also features amusement areas for children and families to enjoy.

I continued on to visit the Shaanxi Grand Mosque. The literature states that the Shaanxi Grand Mosque is the oldest and largest mosque in Urumqi. The main hall within the square compound of the mosque is a palace-like wood-brick structure of the traditional Chinese architectural style. The front part of the main hall has a hipped single roof while the rear part is an octagonal tower with multiple eaves.

On Monday, 25 July, I visited People’s Park, which is more popularly known as West Park. It was first built in 1883, the 9th year of the reign of Emperor Gaungxu of the Qing Dynasty. Features of the park include several beautiful temples and pavilions, beautiful flower gardens, the Pavilion of Mirror Lake, a Jade-Belt Arched Bridge, and an outdoor amusement park. I walked round trip from one end of the park to the other. After my visit, I returned to my hotel and packed up for my upcoming flight to Chengdu.

I flew from Urumqi to Chengdu on Tuesday, 26 July, to be in position well in advance for my flights home from Chengdu on Friday, 29 July. While in Chengdu, I spent most of my time drafting my travel notes and editing photos for the trip. During my brief stay in Chengdu, I reflected on how much I enjoyed traveling in Xinjiang Province. The people were friendly and I thought that the food was exceptionally delicious. I am looking forward to a return trip in the future to explore more areas of Xinjiang Province.

See pictures from Kuqa and Urumqi

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  May 2016
Pacific Northwest

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I wanted to visit friends on Orcas Island, Washington, in the San Juan Islands and in the vicinity of Seattle, Washington. In addition, we wanted to visit Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia (BC), Canada. We booked a repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver aboard the Holland America ship, MAASDAM. The cruise itinerary included a stop at Victoria, BC. This would be a repeat of the same repositioning cruise that we took in May 2015.

We took the Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Diego and boarded the MAASDAM on Wednesday, 18 May, and settled into our cabin. The ship departed San Diego that evening and began the journey to Vancouver.

After open-ocean sailing for the next three days, we arrived at Victoria, BC, during late afternoon on Saturday, 21 May. The ship arrived at Victoria several hours late due to some time lost when we encountered rough seas west of San Francisco. Since the weather at Victoria was overcast with misting rain showers when we arrived, we opted to take a short walk along the Unity Wall and Breakwater adjacent to the cruise ship port.

We set sail at midnight for the short voyage from Victoria to Vancouver and disembarked at Canada Place pier on Sunday, 22 May at about 9:30 AM. After checking into our hotel, we took a taxi to visit the University of British Columbia (UBC) Botanical Garden and the UBC Museum of Anthropology. The UBC Botanical Garden is situated in one of Vancouver’s Coastal Rainforests. In addition to viewing the beautiful flower gardens, we also took the Greenheart Canopy Walkway within a portion of the forest. The canopy walkway is a series of suspended walkways and tree platforms high above the forest floor.

We took a UBC campus bus from the main botanical garden area to the Nitobe Memorial Garden, which is also part of the UBC Botanical Garden. It is a Traditional Japanese Tea and Stroll Garden that is ranked in the top five Japanese Gardens in North America. It was small and very beautiful, with another party taking wedding photos. We walked from the Nitobe Memorial Garden to the UBC Museum of Anthropology. This museum was magnificent and should not be missed when visiting Vancouver. In addition, this museum had a special exhibition of the Contemporary Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea.

We visited the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park located in North Vancouver on Monday, 23 May. I had purchased tickets in advance on the Internet, and we were able to catch a special Capilano Bus near our hotel that took us directly to the park. The park is named after a suspension footbridge 450 feet long and 230 feet high across the Capilano River Canyon. The park has been attracting tourists since 1889. In addition to the suspension bridge, the park has a rainforest with paths and boardwalks, a Cliffwalk, and a Treetops Adventure. The Cliffwalk is a structure attached to the face of the cliff on one side of the canyon for visitors to walk along the face of the cliff, examine the geology of the cliff, and enjoy exhilarating views of the canyon below. Raptors Ridge is a path and boardwalk through the rainforest. The Treetops Adventure is a system of tree-friendly platforms and suspension bridges that allow pedestrians to walk the treetop canopy.

After we returned to our hotel, we decided to use the Downtown Vancouver Official Walking Map to walk to the Chinatown district and visit the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden. The map was a godsend and easy to follow, but the museum was closed when we arrived. We continued walking to the Gastown district on our way back to the hotel.

The following day, we continued walking in Vancouver. During our walk we visited the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, a private museum displaying many of the works of Bill Reid. It was a very impressive museum and we were glad we stopped to have a look inside. We also visited the Christ Church Cathedral, Harbour Green Park, the Digital Orca sculpture, the Vancouver Convention Centre, the Steam Clock, the Gassy Jack Statue, the Chinatown Milenniun Gate, and finally the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden.

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden is the first of its kind built outside of China. Fifty-three master craftsmen came from China with 950 crates of material and constructed the Garden using traditional methods – no glue, screws, or power tools were used. It is modeled after the highest standards of private classical gardens in the city of Suzhou during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Construction began in March 1985 and cost 5.3 million dollars. It was officially opened in 1986. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park is a public park adjacent to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden.

On Wednesday, 25 May, we took the BC Ferries Connector service from Vancouver to Victoria, which is located on Vancouver Island. I had advance purchased tickets and we were picked up at our hotel by a shuttle bus that transferred us to a large bus that drove us to the ferry. The bus boarded the ferry and then delivered us to downtown Victoria. It was the perfect way to travel from Vancouver to Victoria and exceeded all of our expectations.

Upon arrival at Victoria, we walked to our hotel and waited to meet up with Tom and Leslie, our friends from Orcas Island. They had taken the ferry from Orcas Island to Victoria to meet up with us. That evening, we ate dinner at the Fish Hook Restaurant where Leslie had made reservations weeks in advance. Leslie said that it was rated the best restaurant in Victoria. It was casual, very small, the food was superb, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. After dinner, we all walked around old town Victoria and along the Inner Harbour. The Legislature Building was illuminated with lights very similar to the way the Palace at Mysore, India, is illuminated after dark – very beautiful indeed!

The following morning, Tom and Leslie drove us to the world-famous Butchart Gardens. It was a beautiful sunny day with perfect weather to stroll leisurely through the magnificent gardens. There were so many beautiful landscapes that included the Sunken Garden, Rose Garden, Japanese Garden, Star Pond, Italian Garden, Piazza, and Mediterranean Garden. Butchart Gardens covers more than 55 acres of a 130 acre estate and has attracted visitors since the 1920s. We were in awe and amazement throughout our visit.

We also visited the Victoria Butterfly Gardens, which is located near the Butchart Gardens. It was also an amazing place to visit with at least twenty-five different species of butterflies, many rainforest plants, parrots, flamingos, turtles, and a large Iguana lizard. The butterflies would land on the visitors and people needed to check to make sure that they weren’t wearing any butterflies when they exited the enclosure.

We returned to downtown Victoria and ate a late afternoon lunch at a classic pub before continuing to walk around the old town area and inner harbor that afternoon. During our walks, we stopped to admire the collection of totem poles on the grounds of the Royal BC Museum.

On Friday, 27 May, we drove to the ferry terminal at Sydney, BC, where we cleared US Customs and boarded the ferry to San Juan Island. After disembarking the ferry, we drove to the San Juan Island Sculpture Park where we strolled among acres of interesting sculptures, all of which were for sale. We returned to the ferry queue and ate lunch at a quaint local pub while waiting for the time to board the ferry to Orcas Island. It was a short ferry ride to Orcas Island and we drove home with Tom and Leslie where we visited until Tuesday, 31 May. I continued daily hikes during our stay on Orcas Island and Leslie prepared some wonderful meals that we thoroughly enjoyed.

On Tuesday, 31 May, Tom and Leslie drove us to the Orcas Island Ferry Terminal. En route to the terminal, we stopped at the two barns painted by the high school senior class with each painting over the work of the prior years’ class. The old barn was last painted by the Class of 2014, and the new barn was painted by the Class of 2016. The old barn continues to be on the verge of collapse. We boarded the ferry to Anacortes, Washington, and then caught the BelAir Airporter Shuttle bus to the SEA/TAC International Airport. Our friends, John and Diane, from Federal Way, Washington, met us at the airport. We spent the next five days visiting with them and their son, David, and his wife, Doreen, who live in Tacoma, Washington.

On Wednesday, 1 June, John and Diane drove us to the Flying Heritage Collection at Paine Field near Everett, WA. This is the collection established by Paul Allen in the 1990s and houses a unique assemblage of rare aircraft and vehicles from the World War II era. Not only does each artifact appear exactly as it did in combat, most are fully functional. These vintage planes also take to the skies on scheduled Fly Days.

On Thursday, we visited the Soos Creek Botanical Garden in Auburn, WA. It occupies 22 acres of beautifully designed gardens and woodland. We strolled through the gardens and woodland admiring the landscaping and blooming flowers that were in season. There is no charge to visit the garden and different plants bloom at different months during the year. John and Diane plan to return during different times of the year.

David and Doreen drove all of us to Mt. Rainier National Park on Friday, 3 June. We drove southbound on Route 410 to the park and entered at the White River Entrance en route to the Sunrise Visitor Center at 6,400 feet elevation. Since it was still early in the season for visiting the park, the road was only open to the White River Campground at an elevation of 4,400 ft. We backtracked and continued on Route 410 where we transitioned to Route 123 and entered the park at the Stevens Canyon Entrance. We continued on the Stevens Canyon Road to Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at an elevation of 5,400 feet. We continued on along the Nisqually River until we exited the park at the Nisqually Entrance where the road continued westward as Route 706. We stopped in Elbe, WA, at the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad Depot where we ate dinner before returning to Federal Way. It was another beautiful sunny day and we saw some spectacular views of Mt. Rainier, which, at an elevation of 14,410 feet, dominates the surrounding landscapes.

On Saturday, 4 June, we went to the 10th Annual Pacific Northwest Evergreen Eggfest. It is an event sponsored by the manufacturers and distributors of the Big Green Egg barbeques. People make advance reservations to attend and are able to sample different barbeque recipes cooked on many Big Green Egg demonstration barbeques. Beverages are provided as part of the admission and people also sign up in advance to purchase the demonstration Big Green Eggs. There were literally more than 100 different barbeque foods being offered for people to sample. In addition, there was a live band as well as recorded music. Everyone in attendance appeared to have a good time and nobody left hungry.

On Sunday, David and Doreen drove us all to Olympia, WA, where we took a guided tour of the Washington State Capital. It was completed in 1928 and has one of the tallest masonry domes in the world, rising 287 feet high. It also has one of the world’s largest collections of chandeliers and decorative lighting fixtures made by the famous Tiffany Studios of New York. We walked past the Executive Mansion, which is the official home of the Governor, en route to the Olympia Visitor Information Center where we obtained a walking map of Olympia.

We decided to continue walking in Olympia and visited the Old Capital Building that was built in 1862 and now houses some Government offices. It is across the street from Sylvester Park, which was the location where the Oregon Trail ended. Our next stop was at Percival Landing, where we toured the classic tugboat SAND MAN. It was commissioned in 1908 and built by the Crawford & Reid shipyard in Old Town Tacoma. We continued walking northbound on the Boardwalk along the Deschutes Waterway toward the Port of Olympia. We observed some interesting sculptures as we walked along the boardwalk. About halfway to the port, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the waterway.

We flew home to Los Angeles on Monday, 6 June, and are looking forward to returning to the Pacific Northwest on future trips.

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  April 2016
Thailand

Travel Notes

 

I flew from Chengdu, China, to Bangkok, Thailand, on Tuesday, 5 April 5 en route to Chiang Rai, Thailand. After overnighting in Bangkok, I flew to Chiang Rai and checked into my hotel on Wednesday, 6 April. The purpose of this trip was to attend the annual Songkran Festival celebration the Thailand Traditional New Year and to update my Thai mobile phone, which had become outdated. This was my first trip following my total hip replacement surgery in November 2015, and I wanted to continue taking daily hikes to keep improving my physical endurance capabilities.

I did not have a pre-planned itinerary for this trip and after I arrived at Chiang Rai, I learned that the father of Praima, a good friend of mine in Chiang Rai, had fallen the day before I arrived and broken is right leg. He was 88 years old and was hospitalized. Because Praima and her brother were the only family members there to care for her father, I decided to remain in Chiang Rai to provide some emotional support for them.

I had visited Chiang Rai on numerous occasions but most of the visits were to relax after visiting some other part of Asia and to work on my travel notes and photos. Although the air quality in the Chiang Rai area was impaired due to burning in the mountains of Myanmar and Northern Thailand, I decided to spend time taking a daily hike in Chiang Rai city. I also decided that I would try to take my hikes during the morning in advance of the afternoon high temperatures. My hikes ranged from 6 km to 12 km. I also took a couple of short day trips outside of the city while I was there.

During my first morning hike on Friday, 8 April, from my hotel to the new bridge over the Mae Kok River, I passed a place that had a museum learning center and a large garage for some spectacular Royal Carriages. This was quite a find for me because I had never read or heard about these carriages in Chiang Rai. Since I only had my mobile phone with me for photos, I decided that I would return the following day with my camera. Back at my hotel, I searched the Internet but was unable to find any information about these carriages. They are one of Chiang Rai’s best kept secrets. I later learned from a Tourism Authority of Thailand Bicycle Map of Chiang Rai that this place is called the “Hall of Royal Carriage.”

I returned to the Hall of Royal Carriage the following day and took photos of the carriages and the descriptive signs for each of the Royal Carriages which are also referred to as Royal Chariots. There is a sign on the wall behind the carriages captioned “The History and Construction of the Nine Royal Chariots” with the following description:

Chiang Rai is the historical land of the ancient Lanna civilization. Chiang Rai Municipality intends to maintain its cultural heritage and the various Buddhist images that people worship.

The mayor of Chiang Rai, Mr. Wanchai Chongsutthanamanee, had a vision to make merit. He and the citizens of Chiang Rai built Nine Royal Chariots to display the precious Buddha images. The images are paraded throughout the city every New Year in hopes of bringing prosperity to all.

Chiang Rai Municipality
6 February 2005

Each of the carriages is fashioned after one of the following locations:

  • Phrae Style Carriage built in 2001

  • Chiang Mai Style Carriage built in 2002

  • Chiang Rai Style Carriage built in 2003

  • Lampoon Style Carriage built in 2003

  • Nan Style Carriage built in 2003

  • Mae Hong Son Style carriage built in 2006

  • Lampang Style Carriage built in 2012

  • Phayaeo Style Carriage built in 2013

  • Chiang Sean Style Carriage built in 2015

The Hall of Royal Carriages is open Tuesday through Sunday 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM and is closed on Mondays and holidays.

Chiang Rai has several main landmarks and tourist attractions. Perhaps two of the most famous landmarks are the Golden Clock Tower and the King Mengrai the Great Memorial. The clock tower puts on a ten-minute light show performance every night at19:00, 20:00 and 21:00 hours. Of course there are also many Buddhist temples Wats located throughout the area. In addition, the White Temple and the Baan Dam Museum (also known as the Black House and the Black Temple) were built by two of Thailand’s National Artists. The Oub Kham Museum is a private museum that includes objects from the ancient Lanna Kingdom – it should not be missed when visiting Chiang Rai.

I had an appointment at the mobile phone store to upgrade and re-register my Thai mobile phone with the Thai Government on Sunday, 10 April 10. Praima said that she would take me to the mobile phone store. In the morning, before the phone store opened, she took me to the Baan Dam Museum. The Baan Dam Museum consists of a group of more than 40 houses and buildings built by Thai national artist Dr. Thawan Datchancee. All of the houses of many styles are painted black and contain many things such as household furnishings, ancient utensils, horns, and bones of animals for his painting inspirations. There is also a gift shop complex that offers some of his renditions for sale. After visiting Baan Dam Museum, Praima took me to the phone store and helped me get the necessary paperwork completed for the new sim card, which the phone company would activate after re-registering it with the Government. Due to the Songkran holidays, this process would take about one week.

On Monday, 11 April, I obtained a tourist map from my hotel and located the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) office. I decided to walk to the TAT office to try to find out more information on the royal carriages. Although I was unable to find any additional information, they gave me a Chiang Rai Bicycle Map that identified the location of the carriages as the “Hall of Royal Carriage.” This map was my second best find in Chiang Rai because it had different bicycle routes for sightseeing as well as the locations for many places of interest for tourists. It also had a descriptive paragraph both in Thai and in English for each of the places of interest. Armed with my new map, I began hiking individual bicycle routes and stopping at various places of interest. Since I had been to many of these places during my January 2011 initial visit to Chiang Rai, I did not take interior photos of the temples that I had previously visited as they are already documented on my travel website.

I visited more than twelve Buddhist temples during my daily walks. Although each temple has its own story to tell, there were two temples that I found especially noteworthy. The first was Wat Phra Kaew, which was originally founded as Wat Pa Yia or Temple of the Bamboo Grove. In 1434, the Emerald Buddha was revealed to be enshrined in the temple pagoda. This event caused Chiang Rai to rename the temple “Wat Phra Kaew” or Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The original Emerald Buddha is currently enshrined at the Royal Chapel in the Grand Palace, Bangkok. Wat Phra Kaew also houses a very nice small museum in the Lanna style and the entire building is decorated in teak.

The second temple that I found very interesting was Wat Ming Muang due to its elephant sculptures. It is a seven hundred year old Tai Yai temple. A historical record illustrates that King Mengrai generally visited the temple to make merit at least twice a year: one was on the full moon night of Visaka, the sixth month of the lunar calendar. Another was on Loy Krathong (Ye Peng Festival), in the twelfth month. The original name of this temple was “Wat Chiang Moob,” meaning “The Temple of Crouching Elephants.” In 1970, the temple received the royal appointment for becoming a formal Buddhist temple of Thailand and was given the name “Wat Ming Muang, the Auspicious temple of the city.”

The first day of the Songkran Festival celebration in Chiang Rai began on Wednesday, 13 April. Many people reveled in the traditional water fights in the streets and along the sidewalks that have become part of the celebration. While the water fights began during late morning, they grew in intensity during the afternoon and lasted into the evening. Since it is difficult to capture the essence of the water fights in still photos, I took a couple of short video clips that depicted the action. The celebration lasted for three days and became less intense on the second and third day.

During my early morning hike on Friday, 15 April, I visited the Orb Kham Museum that I had also visited in January 2011. The exhibits at the museum from the Lanna Kingdom are superb. My main reason for visiting the museum was to purchase some more of the “Emperor Tea” that is for sale at the museum. Of course, the lady at the museum poured several complimentary cups of tea for me after my purchase.

As I was walking back toward my hotel after visiting the Orb Kham Museum, I felt a huge thud on my back as a truck filled with Songkran celebration people passed me. After the initial shock, I realized that I had just been drenched by a bucket of water tossed from the truck that hit me behind my right shoulder. I had also just joined in on the fun!

Other places of interest that I visited included the City Market, Thung Park, the Brahman Shrine, Nung Pung Reservoir, a Chinese temple, the City Naval Pillar, Darunaman Mosque, the Old Moat location of the old city wall, the Night Bazaar and Food Court, and the two weekly one night bazaars (the Saturday Walking Street and the Sunday Happy Street). In addition, I happened upon many interesting sights that are normally only seen while walking the streets and sidewalks of Chiang Rai. One was the Golden Triangle Palace hotel, which was designed and built by the owner who invited me onto the property and described his creations.

Praima and I ate dinner together on several occasions, and she drove me to several nice restaurants for dinner. These included a Vietnamese restaurant, Sa-Tha-Nee-Nam-Nuen; a restaurant beside the Nong Pung Reservoir, Soom-Kung-Ten; and a restaurant beside the river, Lu-Lumm.

On Saturday, 16 April, Praima needed to drive to Mae Sai to pick up a physician to visit her father. She invited me to ride along and we visited the Choui Fong Tea Plantation and Doi Mae Salon en route to Mae Sai. Both of these are located in the mountains to the north of Chiang Rai. In spite of the fact that there was much burning occurring in the mountains and the air was filled with smoke, the visit to the tea plantation was very nice. As we continued on to Doi Mae Salong, the burning intensified and obscured all of the normally beautiful views from the mountains. We ate lunch in Doi Mae Salong, and I took some photos of a hillside landscaped with beautiful flowers.

Since several other locations that I wanted to visit were closed due to the holidays or closed on Monday, I planned to visit Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple), Chiang Rai Historical Hall and the Mengrai Plant Nursery on Tuesday, 18 April. However, the smoke was so bad in Chiang Rai on this day that I opted to remain inside the hotel most of the day. Since the White Temple is such a famous Chiang Rai landmark, I have included several photos from my January 2011 visit to the White Temple.

I departed Chiang Rai on Wednesday, 19 April, and flew to Bangkok. The following day, I flew to Chengdu, China, in anticipation of my flight back home.

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  October 2015
China - Yangtze River Tour

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I booked an October 2016 Roof of the World China Tour by Viking River Cruises which included visiting Shanghai, a Yangtze River cruise from Wuhan to Chongqing, visiting Tibet, visiting the Terra Cotta Soldiers at Xi’an, and visiting Beijing. During July, Jan’s doctor told her that she could not go to Tibet due to the high altitude. Instead of canceling the tour, we decided to visit with my friends in Chongqing and then re-join the tour at Xi’an.

We arrived at Shanghai during the evening of 21 October 2016 and checked into Hotel Indigo on the Bund. The Bund is the famous waterfront and has been regarded as the symbol of Shanghai for hundreds of years. Our last visit to Shanghai was approximately 25 years ago. At that time, the Pudong district, across the Huangpu River from the Bund, was mostly an undeveloped area. Since then, it has been developed as the Pudong New Area and is home to many of Shanghai’s best-known buildings, such as the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and the Shanghai Tower. The Shanghai Tower is currently the tallest building in China and the second-tallest in the world. We went to the lounge at the top of the hotel to get an aerial view of the Bund and the Pudong New Area.

The following morning we walked along the Bund. During the afternoon, we transferred to the Fairmont Peace Hotel to meet up with Leo, our Roof of the World tour guide. Later that evening, I took a leisurely walk along the Bund to view the spectacular lighting of both the Bund and the Pudong New Area at night.

Our tour began on the morning of 23 October with a visit to the Yuyan Garden in Shanghai’s Old City. It was the private garden of the Pan Family and was first conceived in 1559. It has a total area of five acres with an exquisite layout and beautiful scenery that have made the garden one of the highlights of Shanghai.

After lunch, we visited the Shanghai Museum, which is considered to be one of China’s first world-class museums. It has a collection of over 120,000 pieces, including bronzes, ceramics, calligraphy, furniture, jades, ancient coins, paintings, seals, sculptures, minority art, and foreign art. I was particularly impressed by the ancient Chinese bronzes including the Bianzhong of Marquis Su of Jin from Western Zhou. This set of ancient bronze bells is 3,000 years old, and they are now listed by the Chinese Government as one of the first 64 national treasures forbidden to be exhibited abroad. The arts and crafts exhibits by Chinese Minorities and the ancient Chinese sculptures were also very interesting. After dinner, we went to a wonderful performance of the Chinese Acrobats.

On Saturday morning, 24 October, we flew to Wuhan, the port city for our Yangtze River cruise. After lunch in Wuhan, we visited the Hubei Provincial Museum featuring the Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng, a complete ceremonial set of 65 zhong bells dated 433 BC. A replica set of the ancient bells is located in an adjacent building called the Music Hall – musicians played the replica bells for us before we entered the main Exhibition Hall. The museum has a collection of more than 200,000 artifacts including extensive artifacts from the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng and the tombs at Baoshan. Due to limited time, we were unable to thoroughly explore this superb museum.

After departing the museum, we were taken to the Wuhan Passenger Port to board our cruise ship, Viking Emerald. After settling into our cabin, we explored the ship and prepared for our cruise up the Yangtze to Chongqing. The ship departed Wuhan in the evening and we sailed through the night to Yueyang.

We arrived at Yueyang on Sunday morning, 25 October 25. While at Yueyang, we visited the Yueyang Bazimen Primary School, which was renovated and sponsored by Viking River Cruises. The children greeted us with musical and dance performances before inviting us to visit their classroom. Jan and I sat at a desk occupied by two young girls who showed us their workbooks and we practiced English with them. One girl tried to put a bracelet on my wrist but since my wrist was too large, she gave it to Jan and put it on her wrist. The school visit was a delightful way to spend time in Yueuang and gain some insight into education in China’s rural areas.

After sailing for approximately five hours west of Yueyang, we passed the salvage operation for the Eastern Star cruise ship. The ship capsized on 01 June 2015 during severe weather resulting in the loss of 442 people with only 12 survivors. We continued sailing through the night toward Yichang.

During Monday afternoon, 26 October, we arrived at Yichang and sailed into the lock at the Gezhou Dam, China’s largest dam before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. As we exited the lock, we entered the Xiling Gorge, the largest of the three Yangtze River Gorges. We encountered rain and fog during the afternoon, which diminished the views of the gorge. Later, some passengers disembarked early in the evening to be bussed to view the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric power station in the world that became operational in 2011. Due to the inclement weather and approaching darkness, Jan and I opted to remain on the ship. Later that night, we entered the first of five locks of the dam and continued sailing through the night.

Tuesday morning, 27 October, we sailed through Wu Xia (Witches Gorge) to Wushan and docked near the entrance of the Daning River for a lesser Three Gorges excursion. We disembarked from the Viking Emerald and boarded sampans for a cruise on the Daning River through the Lesser Three Gorges. The weather was bright sunshine with clear skies, which made the scenery spectacular. Without a doubt, this was the highlight of our Yangtze River cruise and I purchased a photo book from our local guide. Upon returning to the Viking Emerald, we sailed through the Qutang Gorge which is the shortest and narrowest of the three gorges. The sunshine continued, and we exited Qutang Gorge during the late afternoon.

We arrived at Shibaozhai on Wednesday morning, 28 October. The original village of Shibaozhai was submerged with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and a new Shibaozhai has been constructed for tourist ships to dock. A dam has been constructed around the base of the Shibaozhai Pavilion to prevent the higher river water level from submerging the base of the pavilion – leaving a mountain with the pavilion as an island in the river. We docked at the new Shibaozhai village and walked through the village and across a bridge to the island with the pavilion. We walked along the top of the dam to stairs leading down to the base of the pavilion that is at least eleven stories high. We then climbed up through each story of the pavilion to the top and visited the temples on the top of the hill before descending down steps on the opposite side of the island.

We continued sailing toward Chongqing and arrived at Chongqing early Thursday morning on 29 October. That afternoon, we took a tour of the bridge of the Emerald Viking. We said good-bye to our friends on the tour before they disembarked to continue on to Tibet. After visiting with my friends at Chongqing, we would re-join the tour at Xi’an. Our Chongqing visit with friends is detailed as a separate side trip on my travel website.

After our Chongqing visit, we flew to Xi’an on Monday, 1 November, to re-join our tour group. We arrived at our hotel just in time to join the tour for a wonderful buffet dinner. The following morning we visited the Terra Cotta Army UNESCO World Heritage Site where thousands of statues of soldiers, archers, horses, and chariots were buried with the Emperor Qin Shi Huang more than 2,000 years ago. When Jan and I were there twenty-five years earlier, access was limited to one end of the single building containing the warriors, and photography was forbidden. This time, ample access around all three buildings was provided and photography was allowed. This visit was another highlight of our tour.

After lunch, we visited the Xi’an Wild Goose Pagoda. It was an interesting seven story square tower and Buddhist temple complex. A disappointment for me was that our tour did not visit downtown Xi’an with the city wall, city gates, drum tower, and bell tower which are very beautiful. Downtown Xi’an is detailed during my ­­­August 2012 trip to China.

We flew to Beijing on Wednesday morning, 3 November. After arriving at Beijing, we visited the Beijing Bell Tower, Beijing Drum Tower, and the Zhonglouwan Hutong. The Bell Tower and Drum Tower were built in 1272 and rebuilt twice after two fires. They were the time-telling center of the capital city during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties (1271-1911 CE). The towers are approximately 100 meters apart and are separated by a plaza. We visited a tea market that occupies the first floor of the Bell Tower where we tasted several varieties of tea. We walked the length of the plaza past the Drum Tower, which was closed, and continued on to visit the Zhonglouwan Hutong.

Beijing Hutongs are residential neighborhoods which still form the heart of Old Beijing. The hutongs which survive today offer a glimpse of life in the capital city as it has remained for generations. We toured the Zhonglouwan Hutong by rickshaw and stopped at one home where the family artists painted the insides of small glass bottles. Following our hutong tour, we checked into our hotel.

The weather on Thursday morning was cloudy, foggy, and cold. Despite the weather, we visited the Badaling Great Wall. We took the cable car from the parking area to the station adjacent to the Great Wall. The Great Wall at Badaling is considered to be the best-preserved and most completed section of all of the Beiging Great Wall sections. In addition to being among throngs of tourists, the inclement weather persisted with very slippery footpath portions of the wall and very limited visibility, which made for a disappointing visit.

Jan and I had visited and hiked the Beijing Great Wall section at Simatai about twenty five years earlier on a clear day. At that time Simatai was the most unrestored portion of the Great Wall and very few tourists visited this area. According to the Internet, the wall and first ten beacon towers east of the lake have now been restored and a cable car has been installed since our visit to Simatai. We were glad to have visited Badaling, but it was not one of the highlights of our tour. Additional Great Wall sections much farther West along the Old Silk Road near Dunhuang and Jiayuguan are detailed during my April 2014 trip to China. The Outer Great Wall north of Datong is detailed during my August 2013 trip to China.

The weather improved after lunch and we visited the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs. We walked along the Sacred Way from one end to the other. There is a grand marble gateway more than 400 years old at one end of a long avenue lined with eighteen pairs of massive stone sculptures of elephants, lions, camels, and mythical beasts.

The weather was overcast with occasional light rain and fog on Friday morning, 5 November, the last sightseeing day of the tour. Our first stop was to visit Tiananmen Square, which is the world’s largest public square and is situated directly in front of the Forbidden City. We continued on to visit the Forbidden City, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Forbidden City was completed in 1420 and is the world’s largest palace complex with many buildings and 9,999 rooms. It was the palace during the Ming and Qing Dynasties where outside visitors were forbidden for five centuries. Our guide informed us that portions of the Forbidden City had been restored prior to China’s Olympic Games. The tour was very structured, proceeding from the main entrance straight through to the back exit.

After lunch, we visited the Summer Palace which was once the summer retreat and playground for the imperial family during the late Qing Dynasty. It is considered to be one of the finest Chinese architectural gardens and spans over 700 acres. The entire Summer Palace complex is centered around Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. Kunming Lake covers three quarters of the area and both the lake and Longevity Hill were man made. The dirt removed from the lake was used to build Longevity Hill. In November 1998, the Summer Palace was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In spite of misting rain, we rode a dragon boat across the lake to a dock nearby the white marble Stone Boat. The Stone Boat is 98 meters long. The original boat was burned in 1860 and was restored in 1893 on the order of Empress Dowager Cixi, with a copy painted to look like white marble with western style paddle wheels. After visiting the Stone Boat, we walked under the Long Corridor from the boat dock to a point opposite the Tower of Buddhist Incense and then returned to the boat dock. The entire corridor is 728 meters long and contains artistic decorations, including paintings of famous places in China and scenes from Chinese mythology and folktales, The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, and the Four Great Classical Novels. The rain continued and, after a return dragon boat ride to the entrance, we returned to our hotel.

It was snowing in Beijing on Saturday, 6 November. After breakfast at the hotel, we went to the airport and checked in for our flights back home to Los Angeles.

See pictures from China: Yangtze River Tour

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  October 2015
China - Chongqing with Friends

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I booked an October 2016 Roof of the World China Tour by Viking River Cruises which included visiting Shanghai, a Yangtze River cruise from Wuhan to Chongqing, visiting Tibet, visiting the Terra Cotta Soldiers at Xi’an, and visiting Beijing. During July, Jan’s doctor told her that she could not go to Tibet due to the high altitude. Instead of cancelling the tour, we decided that we would visit with my friends in Chongqing while the tour visited Tibet and then re-join the tour at Xi’an.

We arrived at Chongqing early Thursday morning on 29 October. After saying good-bye to our friends on the Viking River tour, we disembarked from the Emerald Viking cruise ship and took a taxi to the Chongqing Crown Plaza Hotel. Later my friends – Summer, Peng, and Peng’s husband, Thong – picked us up at the hotel. Summer and Peng are Air China flight attendants, and Thong is an Air China mechanic. They took us to visit the Three Gorges Museum and the People’s Auditorium, which are both situated on the People’s Square. I had visited both in 2013, but I wanted Jan to see them. Unfortunately, the Three Gorges exhibit hall was closed, but the remainder of the museum had wonderful exhibits. The People’s Auditorium is directly across the square from the Three Gorges Museum. Both the museum and auditorium are detailed during my April 2013 trip to China.

Our next stop was at the Hongya Cave Folk-Custom Scene Area where we ate lunch and walked through multiple floors of small shops and a rooftop patio. Our last stop of the day was Ciqikou (Porcelain Village), an ancient village situated on the bank of the Jailing River where we ate dinner and explored the village. The history of Ciqikou can be traced back more than 1,700 years and provides some insight into what Chongqing looked like in the distant past.

On Friday, 30 October, Jan and I took a tour with a private English-speaking guide to the Dazu Rock Carvings that Peng had arranged for us in advance. The tour included a stop at the Dazu Haitangxiangguo Style Historical and Cultural Center and lunch at the China Dazu Best Kitchen Culture Museum before actually visiting the rock carvings. Haitangxiangguo is best described as a modern-day replica of an ancient town, and the Kitchen Culture Museum was a knife store with some statues on the lawn in front of the store.

Dazu is famous for the Dazu Rock Carvings that were carved in the late Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and early Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) and were included on the World Cultural Heritage List in 1999. I had visited multiple sites of Dazu Rock Carvings in April 2013 by private car and driver, but the Goddess of Mercy statue at Baoding Mountain was closed at that time.

The Baoding Mountain Cliff Carving is located in a U-shaped valley surrounded by cliffs on three sides with a 500-meter long religious art gallery carved on the cliffs. Marvelous statues are carved along the mountain with one giant niche beside another. Our English-speaking guide provided comprehensive explanations of the different statues to Jan as we strolled among the several thousand different carvings. The statue of the Goddess of Mercy with 1,000 hands and 1,000 eyes is vividly and delicately carved. Her 1,007 hands fan out on an 88 square-meter cliff just like the tail of a peacock. She is truly a breathtakingly beautiful sight to see, and I was very happy to see her this trip.

On the way back to Chongqing, the traffic was so bad that our guide suggested that we get off of the bus and walk to the nearest train station. We rode the train to a station near our hotel and took a taxi from there to our hotel. Anyone who wants to visit the Dazu Rock Carvings should consider hiring an English speaking guide who can also arrange for a private car or taxi instead of booking the group bus tour.

Peng and Summer picked us up early Saturday morning, 31 October, to go to the Chongqing Zoo to see the Red and Giant Pandas. Summer continued on to a family gathering while we walked around the zoo admiring the pandas and other animals. Peng had never been to the zoo, and she decided that she will bring her baby boy there as soon as he is a little bit older.

Since 31 October was also Buddha’s birthday, we went to the Huayan Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Chongqing. We ate lunch at a local noodle restaurant across the road from the temple. There were throngs of people visiting the temple with offerings, and it was an amazing sight to experience. We explored the temple grounds and later Summer joined us. That evening, Summer and Peng took us to the Dezhuang Meimeimei Hot Pot restaurant for traditional Chongqing hot pot. The hot pot dinner was superb and, after dinner, we all said good-bye at our hotel. Our visit with my friends in Chongqing was wonderful, and we hope that they can come to Los Angeles to visit with us in the near future.

We flew to Xi’an on Monday, 1 November, to re-join our Viking River tour group.

See pictures from China: Chongqing

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  August 2015
China - Guizhou & Yunnan Provinces

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel to Asia during August 2015 and booked flights to Chengdu, China. I had not decided whether to continue on to Thailand and Cambodia or to continue on to Guizhou Province and possibly also visit places further south in China.

I arrived at Chengdu, China, on Saturday, 15 August, at about 6:40 PM. After clearing immigration, I exited the terminal and took a local taxi to my hotel. I spent the following day deciding on my final destination for the trip and booked a flight from Chengdu to Guizhou Province. I spent the remainder of the day resting up from the long flights from Los Angeles, California.

Monday, 17 August, was a travel day when I flew from Chengdu to Guiyang, China, and settled into my hotel. I decided to spend two days exploring Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou Province, before continuing on to Anshun, China.

On Tuesday, 18 August, I was greeted by intermittent rain showers. I took a taxi to visit the Jaixiu Tower and the adjacent Cuiwei Garden. The Jaixiu Tower (or Scholar’s Tower) sits on the huge Turtle Rock in the middle of the Nanming River and is a landmark of Guiyang. The beautiful Fuyu (Floating Jade) Bridge which looks like a jade belt floating on the river, is connected to the tower. I walked across the bridge to the tower. After visiting Jaixiu Tower, I continued walking on the bridge to visit the Cuiwei Garden.

In the distance, I was able to see part of one of the buildings of the People’s Square from the Jiaxiu Tower as I looked upstream along the Nanming River. Since the rain had subsided, I decided to walk along the river to People’s Square. My stroll along the sidewalk adjacent to the river was very picturesque and the rain returned as I arrived at People’s Square. People’s Square is large with a major public street bisecting it. A large building with a large statue of Chairman Mao is on one side of the street and a very unique structure stands at the far end of the square on the opposite side of the street. Although I was told that the square was recently completed, I could not find any definitive description of the square. Heavy intermittent rain returned while I was visiting the square, and I returned to my hotel.

On Wednesday, 19 August, I took a day trip to the Qingyan Ancient Town which was originally the Qingyan Fort built during the Hongwu regin of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1398). The walls around the ancient town were impressive and appeared to have been recently reconstructed. The town has four main streets, several temples, churches, restaurants, and shops. I ate lunch at an ethnic noodle shop during intermittent rain showers.

After returning to Quiyang, I visited the Wenchang Pavillion which is situated on top of the Quiyang Eastern City Gate. It is a three-story building with triple-eaves, nine irregular angles, and a pointed roof. It was first constructed in 1596, or the 24th year of the reign of the Ming Dynasty.

On Thursday, 20 August, I traveled by train to Anshun City. After checking into my hotel near the city center, I found a restaurant that specialized in grilling and serving lamb at tables with a small charcoal pit in the middle of the table. I couldn’t resist the temptation, and dinner there was wonderful.

Friday, 21 August, was a sunny picture-perfect day, and I took a day trip to the Huangguoshu Waterfall National Park situated 45 km from Anshun. It is a national AAAAA scenic zone known for hanging waterfalls, karst caves, natural miniature landscapes, stone forests on waters, running waters in the mountains, and deep and serene valleys. The park provides special buses to take visitors to scheduled stops and hike to various sights of interest near each stop.

There are eighteen waterfalls in the area around the Huangguoshu Waterfall. My first bus stop was near the Doupothang Waterfall, which is upstream from the Huangguoshu Waterfall on the Baishui River. Doupothang is the widest waterfall in the area, measuring 105 meters in width and 21 meters high. Although the trail upstream toward the waterfall was packed with tourists, the walk was beautiful with nice occasional views of the waterfall. There were also viewing platforms adjacent to the river near the waterfall that provided spectacular photos opportunities.

After visiting the Doupothang Waterfall, I hiked downstream along the Baishui River and crossed a footbridge at one of many cascades in the river before arriving at a second Doupothang area tourist bus stop. I boarded another bus that took me to the Tianxingqiao Scenic Area. This area has karst caves, small waterfalls, and a small stream running through it between ponds of various sizes. I hiked along the trail, which was also packed with tourists, through some magnificent scenery that included walking on stepping stones through the stream and ponds. After eating lunch at a small noodle shop, I walked along a road back to the Tianxingqiao bus stop.

My next stop was at the Huangguoshu Waterfall bus stop. There is a mini-scape garden with more than 3,000 bonsais of various kinds en route to the trailhead of the waterfall. Huangguoshu Waterfall is listed in tourist literature as the most famous waterfall in China and the largest waterfall in Asia. It is 101 meters wide, 78 meters high, and surrounded by 18 smaller waterfalls in nine layers.

I enjoyed a nice hike through the wonderful mini-scape sculpture and bonsai garden en route to the trailhead to the Huangguoshu Waterfall (also referred to as the Grand Waterfall). During the long hike down into a valley to arrive at the bottom of the Huangguoshu Waterfall, there were several viewing platforms amid the mist from the waterfall. Visitors can opt to continue an ascending trail to view the waterfall from a higher elevation or take another trail to the Water Curtain Cave that is situated behind the waterfall.

Since it was already late afternoon, I opted to skip the ascending trail and the Water Curtain Cave. Instead, I walked downstream to the Grand Escalator that people can ride back up to the mini-scape garden at the top of the valley. After riding the escalator, I took one of the tourist buses back to the public parking lot to meet up with my driver. The Huangguoshu Scenic Zone is a must-see when visiting Guizhou Province.

Saturday, 22 August, was another sunny picture-perfect day. I visited the Loong Palace (Dragon Palace), which is also a national AAAAA scenic and historic interest zone. The central scenic zone consists of a cluster of water karst caves. The Loong Palace Scenic Zone boasts the longest water karst cavern, the largest waterfall in a karst cavern, the lowest natural radicalization in China, and is known for oddly-shaped pools, many short rivers, and large Buddhist prayer rooms. It covers an area of more than 20,000 square meters and houses the longest underground river in China, some 5,000 meters long, that flows beneath more than 30 hills and connects over 90 limestone caves within the scenic zone.

I began my visit to Loong Palace at the public parking lot above the valley floor where there is a meadow that has the Chinese character for a dragon planted in contrasting vegetation. After purchasing my admission ticket, I hiked down into the valley and visited a waterfall upstream from the boat dock for boats traveling to the Xuantang Pond. I took a boat downstream to Xuantang Pond. The Xuantang Pond is also called the Whirling Pond because it has a whirlpool exit to an underground river beneath the pond. Due to the high water and surface currents, the slight whirling action on the surface was not visible while I was there. I hiked from Xuantang Pond to Kwan-yin Cave which contains chambers named Mahavira Hall, Guan Yin Hall, Huahu Hall, Reclining Buddha Hall, and Ksitigarbha Hall.

Continuing onward, I came to the Jiujiutun Bell tower where I joined other tourists in ringing the bell. Jiujiutun is the highest point on the footpath in the Loong Palace Scenic Area. It is also adjacent to one station of the Long Gong inertia ropeway (zipline). I rode the zipline across the valley to the opposing station. After walking to another ropeway station nearby, I rode the zipline back across the valley to Jiujiutun.

I then hiked from Jiujiutun, across the valley floor and past the entrance to Jade Long Cave, which was closed due to high water levels from large amounts of recent rainfall. After finally climbing out of the valley adjacent to the ropeway station, where I had just taken the ropeway to Jiujiutun, I continued hiking to Yulong Pass. Beyond Yulong Pass, I entered Tiger Cave which is a 400 meter long dry karst cave. Tiger cave is beautifully illuminated inside.

After exiting Tiger Cave, I hiked to the entrances of the Second Loong Cave and the First Loong Cave. A river flows through both of these caves. Although the Second Loong Cave was also closed due to recent heavy rainfall, the First Loong Cave was open. I hiked along the river in the First Loong Cave and then along a floating pathway on the surface of the river to a boat dock. I boarded a boat that sailed through the beautifully illuminated cave to Tianchi Lake where it docked near the viewing platform at the top of Longmen Waterfall.

Tianchi Lake, which is at an elevation of 1,170 meters and has an average depth of 28 meters, was formed when the ceiling of the karst cave collapsed and the water began to spread out. The water from Tianchi Lake flows into the Longmen Waterfall, which is 25 meters wide, 38 meters high, and thunders down through a karst cave to the lower mouth of the cave; it is the largest in-cave waterfall in China. A beautiful dragon bridge crosses the river below the waterfall. The river continues with cascades beyond the waterfall into Menghu Lake.

After viewing the waterfall from the top, I took an elevator down to the bottom of the waterfall and walked across the dragon bridge through the mist. I continued walking downstream along the river and past the Longevity Wall until I reached a tourist shuttle bus stop, where I took a shuttle back to the public parking area. The Loong Palace Scenic Area is another must-see location when visiting Guizhou Province.

On Sunday, 23 August, I traveled by train from Anshun to Kunming. It was raining when I arrived at my hotel late at night. I took a day trip to the Stone Forest of Yunnan the following day. The Stone Forest of Yunnan was designated as a UNESCO Geopark in 2004 and is listed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As my driver approached the stone forest zone, intermittent rain began and continued throughout the day. Tourist shuttle buses are used here between the parking lots and entrance, as well as on a circular route around the site that contains several stone forest groups. Visitors can either walk throughout the area or take one of the tourist shuttles around the area.

After purchasing my admission ticket, I walked around the lake near the entrance and through the Major Stone Forest area in the rain before boarding one of the inner circle shuttles to ride through the park. The area was very beautiful and offered many good photo opportunities. This site is very good but would best be visited on a day without rain as the wet pathways were very slippery.

Upon returning to my hotel, I met with personnel at the front desk to map out locations of various local sites that I wanted to visit. Since I would have two more days in Kunming, I planned visits for both days. After dinner I walked from the hotel to the Dongsi Pagoda, the Xisi Pagoda, and the Jinma (Golden Horse) and Biji (Green Rooster) Memorial Archways.

On Tuesday, 25 August, I went to Gandu Ancient Town and visited the Gandu landmark Jingang Tower, the Shaolin Temple, the Fading Temple, and the Tuzhu Temple. My next stop was at the new Yunnan Provincial Museum, which has more than 156,000 relics. It had some of the finest relics from the Bronze Age that I have seen, including a bronze coffin. It also had some magnificent fossils from the Middle-Triassic Era and an exhibition on the evolution of human beings. This museum should not be overlooked when visiting Kunming.

My next stop was at the 100,000 square meter Yunnan Nationalities Village. It borders Dianchi Lake to the south, Kunming City to the north, and the Xishan Scenic Area to the west. It features the ethnic residential houses, customs, music, dance, and religious culture of the 25 ethnic groups of Yunnan Province. Unfortunately, I encountered more intermittent rain and thunderstorms while I was there. I was, however, able to visit villages of the Dai, Buyi, Bulang, Jinuo, Yao, Hui, Manchu, Lisu, Hani, and Tibetan ethnic minorities. This is another must-see location when visiting Kunming. I hope to return sometime when the weather is much more favorable and spend an entire day there. My last stop was to be Daghan Park but, due to the rain, I cancelled that stop and returned to my hotel.

On Wednesday, 26 August, my first stop was to visit the Yuantong Temple. It is the largest and one of the earliest Guanyin temples in China, built during the Nanzhao period (624-902) of the Tang Dynasty. Han Buddhism, Nan Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism all coexist in this temple. This is the most picturesque temple that I encountered while in Kunming. I continued on to Chihu (Green Lake) Park where I strolled around the lake and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. My next stop was at the Fine Arts Museum, but I found that it was closed and the collection had recently been relocated to the new provincial museum.

I walked from the old fine arts museum to the Zhong’ai Memorial Archway and observed some interesting street art painted on the sidewalk en route to the archway. I continued walking through a park-like area to the Biji (Green Rooster) and Jinma (Golden Horse) Archways that I had visited a couple of nights earlier so that I could see them in the daylight. As I walked back to my hotel, I passed an old Christian church and a clothing store with a school bus storefront and Disney characters on the sidewalk.

Thursday, 27 August, was a travel day back to Chengdu. I went to the Chengdu Global Center on Friday. The Chengdu Global Center just recently opened and is now the largest building in the world under one roof. In addition to two five star hotels, office space, a huge Lotte department store, a huge shopping mall, an ice skating rink, an arcade area, and an enormous food and beverage area, it features an enormous indoor water park that includes an indoor beach with wave pool and a giant LED screen behind the water with appropriate outdoor scenes playing. There is also a water amusement park and a 500-meter long “Lazy River” where people float on boats or other floatation devices. It was a very interesting way to spend my last full day in China.

I flew back home to Los Angeles on Saturday, 29 August.

See pictures from China: Guizhou & Yunnan Provinces

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  July 2015
Taiwan

Travel Notes

 

I met Sunny at Sanliurfa, Turkey, in June 2012. She was from Taiwan and was traveling by herself in Turkey. We took several day trips together with Mustafa from Sanliurfa before she went to Van, Turkey, and I returned home. We kept in touch via email and were able to meet up again for one day of sightseeing at Jiayuguan, China, in April 2014. I sent an email to her with a photo of my recent trip to Mount Huangshan, China, and she said that we should try to meet up again somewhere later this year. I replied that I could probably arrange to travel to Taiwan sometime in July, and she said that she would love to show me some of Taiwan. She also said that I should plan to spend at least ten days, and then she planned a complete Taiwan travel itinerary that included traveling with her family and friends.

I arrived at Taipei, Taiwan, on Friday, 10 July 2015 at about 6:30 PM. After clearing immigration, I located the car that my hotel had arranged in advance. I called Sunny to let her know that I was en route to my hotel and she was waiting in the hotel lobby when I arrived. Sunny assisted me with checking into the hotel. After I deposited my luggage in my room, we took a taxi to the Taipei 101 Mall where we met up with Jessie, a co-worker of Sunny’s, for dinner. The Taipei 101 Building was the tallest building in the world from 2004 until 2010 when it was eclipsed by the Burj Khalifa in the UAE. In 2011, Taipei 101 was awarded the LEED platinum certification and became the tallest and largest green building in the world.

Dinner was at DinTaiFung, one of Taipei’s most popular restaurants, and it was wonderful. I had previously met Jessie when she and Sunny met up with me for one day of sightseeing at Jiayuguan, China, in April 2014. It is always nice to have dinner with friends when I am traveling. After dinner, I took a taxi back to my hotel and arranged to meet Sunny at my hotel the following morning.

I met Sunny in the hotel lobby on Saturday morning, 11 July, for some local Taiwan sightseeing. Sunny gave me a prepaid metro card and we took the metro to visit old town Taipei. We walked from the Daqiaotou Metro Station to the Taipei Bridge to view the Tamsui River and then walked through the old town area of Taipei. In addition to enjoying the architecture and small business shops, we visited the Cisheng Temple, the former building of the Ren-an Hospital, and the Xiahai City God Temple. The Ren-an Hospital was a modern westernized hospital set up by the Taiwanese during an era when Taiwan was still ruled by Japan. The Xiahai City God Temple is a century-old temple that has statues of the City God, his wife, the Chinese Cupid (Matchmaker God), and 200 other deities. Tradition has it that if the statue of the Chinese Cupid is standing, he is eager to find a good marriage for people.

We ate a wonderful lunch at a small restaurant that had a long queue of people eager to eat lunch. After lunch, we continued walking and went to a shop that served shaved ice desserts which were very refreshing on this hot Taipei day.

After exploring old town Taipei, we took the metro to the Guting Metro Station and walked to the Wisteria Tea House which occupies a central position in the political culture of Taipei. During the 1950s, Professor Chou Te-wei and a group of leading academics met here regularly to discuss, study, and promote western liberalism in Taiwan. The building was first turned into a tea house in 1981and named Wisteria Tea House after the old wisteria vines growing along the eaves of the building. The tea house was designated as a city historic site in 1997. Joyce, another of Sunny’s co-workers, met us at the tea house to enjoy a genuine Taipei tea house experience. It was my first real tea house experience.

After departing the tea house, we took the metro to the Longshan Temple Metro Station to visit the Longshan Temple. The temple has been declared a Secondary National Heritage Site and houses hundreds of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian deities. It was very beautiful as we arrived at sunset. In front of the temple, there was a very beautiful dragon fountain on one side and a large waterfall fountain on the opposite side.

Our next stop was the Hua Xi Night Market where we ate dinner and then strolled through the market area. We agreed to meet up in the morning at the high speed train station to go to Hsinchu. Since it was getting late, I said goodbye to Sunny and took a taxi back to my hotel. It was a wonderful day of local sightseeing.

I took a taxi from my hotel to the high speed train station early Sunday morning, 12 July, and met up with Sunny to travel to Hsinchu. The train to Hsinchu took about thirty minutes. We met up with Sunny’s mother, Sunny’s cousin, Alice, and Alice’s boyfriend, Alex, at the Hsinchu station where Sunny rented a car for us to visit the aboriginal villages of Smangus and Cinsbu in the mountains. We stopped at the Yu lao Viewpoint en route to Smangus for a photo opportunity. The roads became increasingly narrower as we continued driving deeper into the mountains. Sunny had pre-arranged our permits to enter the area and, after obtaining the permit at the checkpoint, we continued on to Smangus. The road to Smangus was quite narrow with many switchbacks, and we stopped at the Sima Kushi Bridge over the Taigang Stream for another photo opportunity.

Smangus is one of Taiwan’s most remote villages; it only received electricity in 1979, and the road to Smangus was not completed until 1995. Atayal is the local language spoken in Smangus. Smangus was completely cut off from civilization prior to the discovery of the giant Chamaecyparis trees about 5.2 kilometers from the village. The biggest tree is 20.5 meters in circumference and the giant trees became a large tourist draw which prompted the building of the road to Smangus.

After parking at Smangus village, we set off to hike the Smangus Big Tree Trail. It began to rain shortly after we started our hike and intermittent rain continued for the duration of the hike. We all hiked through bamboo and deciduous forests, across streams with waterfalls, along mountainside paths with spectacular landscape views, and past some very large trees before reaching the Tayux Raga trail marker. Since it was already late afternoon and I was the slowest hiker, I decided to return to the village and let the others continue on. The rain continued intermittently with heavy rain at times while I returned to the general store at the village to dry out and wait for the others to return. Since Taiwan is on the extreme eastern edge of the time zone for China, sunset occurs very early in the evening. After circling the famous grove of giant Cypress trees, the others returned to the village well after dark.

We drove from Smangus to the village of Cinsbu where Sunny had made reservations for all of us to spend the night. Sunny had stayed there on prior occasions and the proprietors cooked a big dinner for us. The hostel was relatively new, and my room was very nice.

After breakfast the following morning, we went to the peach orchard owned by the hostel proprietors. The family was busy sorting and packing freshly picked peaches to deliver to their private market customers. The peaches from this region of Taiwan are highly valued and the rejected ones that we ate were delicious. The children showed us around the mountainside orchard, and we bought several boxes of peaches before leaving.

We drove back to Hsinchu with a short stopover at the Yu lan Viewpoint for lunch. We also stopped at the Beijiao suspension bridge en route to a tea manufacturing plant where the Oriental Beauty tea is produced. After we sampled some tea, Sunny purchased a couple of packages of tea and we continued on to Hsinchu.

We visited the Hsinchu Chenghuang Temple (Chenghuang means City God) during sunset and ate dinner at a restaurant near the temple. After dinner, we visited the Hsinchu Falian temple and then had dessert at a shaved ice desserts establishment. Our last stop at Hsinchu was at the train station where Sunny returned the rental car. We said goodbye to her mom, Alice, and Alex before catching our train back to Taiwan. I took a taxi from the train station back to my hotel to complete another long, action-packed travel day and a wonderful two-day excursion to Hsinchu, Smangus, and Cinsbu.

On Tuesday morning, 14 July, I took a taxi from my hotel to go to the National Palace Museum which contains more than 696,000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks. The collection encompasses more than 10.000 years of Chinese history. The collection was originally housed in the Forbidden City at Beijing until it was crated up during the Second Sino-Japanese War with Japan which merged into World War 2. The crates were moved from place to place until they ended up at a Nanjing warehouse. During the Chinese Civil War, after the surrender of Japan, General Chiang Kai-skek ultimately decided to evacuate the crated arts from the Forbidden City to Taiwan. The Communist Army seized control of the Palace Museum collection before all of the crates could be shipped to Taiwan. In the end, a total of 2,972 crates of the Forbidden City artifacts moved to Taiwan, which accounted for approximately 22% of the original crates stored at Nanjing. These artifacts are considered to be some of the very best of the collection.

I spent a total of six hours at the museum, which included an English speaking tour that Sunny had reserved for me in advance. The museum has amazing collections of ancient artifacts that include wonderful jade and bronze exhibits. I arrived at the museum at about 10:30 in the morning to be on site during the lunch hour when the crowds would be smaller. Three of the most important pieces in the museum are the Jadeite Cabbage, the bronze Zong Zhou Zong (Bell of Zhong), and the bronze Mao Gong Ding (C of Duke of Mao). The Palace Museum should not be missed when visiting Taipei.

After I returned to my hotel, I called Sunny who gave the hotel front desk directions to give to a taxi to take me to a restaurant to meet her and Joyce for dinner. I took my Taiwan guidebook with me, and Sunny pointed out some places for me to visit the following day.

The morning of 15 July, I took a taxi to the Maokong Gondola (cableway system) where I rode the gondola from the Taipei Zoo Station up to the Maokong Station. The gondola system began operation during 2007 and serves four passenger stations. It also has two angle stations where the gondola changes direction. There are many tea plantations and hiking trails near the Maokong Station. After a short visit at Maokong, I rode back down to the Zhinan Temple Station. There is a very picturesque small temple located at this station, and there is a trail to walk to the Zhinan Temple.

After purchasing a cold drink at a small shop, I rode back down to the Taipei Zoo Station where I took a taxi to the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. The memorial hall was established in memory of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Republic of China. The hall has extensive exhibits about the life of Sun Yat-sen and is surrounded by a large park with some very interesting sculptures. My next stop was at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This memorial hall was built in memory of Chiang Kai-shek, the first president of the Republic of China. The hall has extensive exhibits about the life of Chiang Kai-shek.

My last stop was at the National Museum of History which is located within the Taipei Botanical Garden. The museum has grown over the last 50 years to include works donated by more than 400 private collectors, including rope-pattern pottery, Han ceramics, painted dancer and musician figurines from the Six Kingdoms period, Tang-era tri-color glazed ceramics, oracle bones, bronze vessels, porcelain, historic documents, and other precious works. The museum also had a special textile exhibit on display while I was there.

After returning to my hotel, I called Sunny who again gave the hotel front desk directions to give to a taxi to take me to meet her for dinner. This time we met up at a noodle shop. After dinner, Sunny took me for a hike up Elephant Mountain to several places overlooking Taipei for gorgeous views of the city after dark. During the hike, we encountered some enormous snails in the pathway. After the Elephant Mountain hike, I returned to my hotel and packed my daypack for a three day excursion to Hualien on the eastern coast of Taiwan the following day.

On Thursday morning, 16 July, I met Sunny at the train station to take a regular train to Hualien. The train ride was several hours, and we met up with Alice and Alex at the Hualien train station where Sunny rented a car. We ate lunch at a hot pot restaurant in Hualien and then had dessert at a popular shaved ice dessert shop before checking into a hostel that Sunny had reserved in advance for two nights.

Sunny had pre-arranged for our permit to visit Muku Mugi Valley on the Internet, and we drove from Hualien to Muku Mugi Valley after checking into the hostel. We passed a Duck Festival on the way to Muku Mugi. When we reached the police checkpoint, we were given our permit but were not allowed to drive any further and were told that we needed to be back before 6:00 PM. We hiked as far as we could go before having to turn back to exit by the 6:00 PM deadline. The river gorge was beautiful, and the hike was refreshing.

Before returning to Hualien, we visited Qixingtan Beach at sundown. The beach was rocky and there were many people fishing in the surf. We continued on to the Zigiang Night Market where we purchased food to take back to the hostel for dinner. We also stopped at a local bakery to purchase some food to have for breakfast in the morning.

On Friday morning, we got an early start and drove to Taroko National Park. We decided that Alice and Alex would hike the Jhuilu Old Road Trail and Sunny and I would hike the Eternal Spring Trail. We would meet up later at the Swallow Grotto Trail. We drove along the spectacular Liwu River Gorge to the trailhead for the Jhuilu Old Road where we dropped off Alice and Alex.

Sunny and I went back along the gorge to the trailhead for the Eternal Spring Trail (also referred to as the Changchun Temple Trail). We found a parking place near a small restaurant/gift shop and began hiking toward the temple where the eternal spring gushes from the mountain down to the river. We then began climbing the mountain cliff-side trail toward the Changchun Temple. The scenery was spectacular and the rock cut trail was often narrow. We hiked to the Bell Tower high above the Changchun Temple and then returned to a small restaurant beside the river where we ate lunch.

We then drove to the trailhead for the Swallow Grotto Trail and hiked along the trail admiring the Liwu River Gorge far below. The scenery from the Swallow Grotto Trail was beyond spectacular. After we hiked the Swallow Grotto Trail, Sunny and I went farther along the river to a campsite area with an observation deck not far from a suspension foot-bridge over the river. Although the bridge had a sign limiting the number of people on the bridge to eight people, many of the visitors paid no attention to the limitation. The trail at the opposite end of the bridge was closed when we were there.

When Alice called Sunny to tell her that they had completed their Jhuilu Old Road hike, we drove back to pick them up, exited the park, and went to dinner at the Yan-Liao Seafood restaurant. In the meantime, Sunny also learned that the HaHo Yang 2015 Festival was scheduled to begin that evening. After our wonderful seafood dinner, we went to the festival. It was a dance festival for all of the aboriginal tribes and was held in a stadium. There were many dance performances that culminated with nearly all the tribes joining into a group dance. At this point, Sunny and Alice took me down with them to join in with the local people celebrating. After leaving the festival, we returned to the hostel.

On Saturday morning, 18 July, we drove along the east coast of Taiwan to the Baqi Observation Platform that is situated halfway between Jiqi Beach and Niushan Beach to admire the view of the Pacific Ocean coastline. On the way back to Hualien, we stopped at Niushan Beach and made several roadside stops for photos. We returned to the Hualien hot pot restaurant for lunch before returning the rental car. Sunny and I said goodbye to Alice and Alex at the Hualien train station before returning to Taipei. I met up with Sunny and Jessie for dinner at a very nice restaurant in a Taipei mall.

Sunny met me at my hotel on Sunday morning, 19 July, for my last day of Taiwan sightseeing. We took the Metro to Beitou which is famous for hot spring spas. We visited the Ketagalan Culture Center which had wonderful displays of Taiwan aboriginal culture, including art and native dress. We walked from the cultural center through Bietou Hot Spring Park to the Beitou Hot Spring Museum which is located in a Japanese occupation era building formerly used as a Japanese officer’s club during World War 2. It is designated as a Taipei historic site. We continued walking through the park to visit Thermal Valley which is one of the sources supplying the area’s hot springs.

After visiting Beitou, we took a taxi to Tamsui to visit some of the old colonial buildings in Taiwan. Our first stop was a hike up a tall hill to the old former British Consulate building museum located adjacent to Fort Santo Domingo. After visiting the consulate building museum, we walked to the Aletheia University, which was originally founded as Oxford College in 1882, and continued on to visit the Little White House which once was Tamsui’s Custom Inspector General’s residence in the Qing Dynasty. There are impressive views of the Tamsui River to the Guanyin Mountain. We walked in light rain from the Little White House down the hill to the Tamsui Church which was established by Reverend Mackay who arrived in Taiwan in 1872.

We continued walking to the Tamsiui metro station where we took the metro to a stop near my hotel and had one last dinner at a small noodle shop. After dinner, we walked to my hotel where I said goodbye to Sunny and thanked her profusely for sharing my visit with her family and friends and making my trip to Taiwan very extra-special indeed.

I flew home from Taiwan on Monday, 20 July, and pondered just how lucky I was to have Sunny as a good friend who went out of her way to show me some of Taiwan. We will continue to keep in touch and will try to meet up somewhere in the world hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

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  May 2015
Seattle

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I wanted to visit friends on Orcas Island, Washington, in the San Juan Islands and in the vicinity of Seattle, Washington. I booked a repositioning cruise from San Diego, California, to Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Canada aboard the Holland America ship, ZAANDAM. This cruise itinerary included a stop at Victoria, BC.

We took the Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Diego and boarded the ZAANDAM on Wednesday, 13 May, and settled into our cabin. The ship departed San Diego that evening and began the journey to Vancouver.

After open-ocean sailing for the next three days, we arrived at Victoria, BC, during the late afternoon on 16 May. We ate dinner aboard the ship and then took a taxi to explore a portion of downtown Victoria. Here we visited the historic Empress Hotel and saw the British Columbia Legislative Buildings and Royal British Columbia Museum. The Empress Hotel was where Jan’s mother and father spent their honeymoon many years ago. The waterfront area across from the Empress Hotel was bustling with activity which included numerous street performers.

After strolling along some of the streets in the downtown district, we hailed a taxi to go back to the ship. The taxi driver offered to show us some more of Victoria on the way back to the ship for a flat rate which we accepted. He drove us past some lovely older homes and then drove us through Beacon Hill Park. The park is beautiful and retail sales within the park are forbidden. The driver pointed to several peacocks all of which he had named “Dave” and he normally feeds them water crackers. He stopped and called to one peacock which walked over to the taxi and ate a water cracker out of my hand. He very nearly also took one from Jan but reneged at the last moment. He then drove us back to the cruise ship terminal.

We set sail at midnight for the short voyage to Vancouver, BC, and disembarked at Canada Place pier, Vancouver at about 8:30 AM. While waiting for our bus from Canada Place to Bellingham, Washington, our friends, Tom and Leslie, on Orcas Island called to inform us that due to a ferry problem earlier in the morning, they would not be able to meet us at the Bellingham Airport as planned. I immediately called San Juan Airline and was able to book a flight from Bellingham Airport to Orcas Island to be available shortly after our scheduled bus arrival.

The Quick Shuttle bus from Vancouver to Bellingham was on schedule and received priority passage through the United States Border Immigration checkpoint. After arriving at the Bellingham Airport, we made our way to the San Juan Airline hangar where we paid for our tickets and took the short fifteen-minute flight to the airport at Eastsound, Orcas Island. The visibility of the San Juan Islands during the flight to Orcas Island was spectacular, and Leslie and Tom were waiting for us at the airport. We spent the next three days relaxing at their wonderful secluded home in the forest, visiting with them, and enjoying Leslie’s wonderful cooking.

On Thursday, 21 May, Tom and Leslie drove us to the Orcas Island Ferry Terminal. En route to the terminal we stopped at the two barns painted by the high school senior class – the old barn was painted by the Class of 2014 and the new barn was painted by the Class of 2015. Since the old barn is on the verge of collapsing, the new barn will be used for all future barn paintings by the high school senior classes. We also stopped to photograph a longhorn bull before we arrived at ferry terminal. We boarded the ferry to Anacortes, Washington, and then caught the BelAir Airporter Shuttle bus to the Seattle International Airport. Our friends, John and Diane, from Federal Way, Washington met us at the airport. We spent the next six days visiting with them as well as their son, David, and his wife, Doreen, who live in Tacoma, Washington.

On Friday, 22 May, David and Doreen drove us all to Seattle where we rode the Ducks of Seattle Tour. The “Ducks” are vehicles that are both a land vehicle and an amphibious vehicle. The driver for our Ducks of Seattle Tour was wonderful – wearing different hats, singing along with the pre-recorded music on the “Duck”, and interacting with the passengers in addition to pointing out and describing different sights from the “Duck.” The tour route included sailing on Lake Union and driving past many of the popular attractions in the downtown Seattle area. We all had a marvelous time on the Ducks of Seattle Tour and agree with the literature describing it as the number one attraction in Seattle.

After disembarking from the “Duck,” we walked to the famous Pike Place Markets where we explored many of the shops. Our next stop was at the downtown central waterfront area near Waterfront Park and the Ferris wheel known as Seattle Great Wheel. Normally this area is very popular with many shops in the warehouses at the piers. Due to ongoing construction, however, most of the warehouses were inaccessible which forced many shops to close. We were allowed access to the Pier 57 where the Ferris wheel and some shops are situated – a couple of restaurants and an ice cream shop happened to be open. After eating some ice cream, we drove back to Federal Way via surface streets close to Puget Sound.

We spent the next two days visiting and enjoying meals cooked by both David and Doreen. On Monday, 25 May, David and Doreen drove us to visit Mount St. Helens, the volcano that erupted in 1980 with enormous devastation to the surrounding area. The18 May 1980 eruption caused the largest landslide in recorded history and removed the upper 1,313 feet of the volcano. The most popular route to Mount St. Helens is along State Route 504, the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, from Interstate 5 eastbound to the Johnson Ridge Observatory at an elevation of 4,200 feet near Mount St. Helens, which has an elevation of 8,365 feet. Although the weather was partly cloudy, we were hopeful that the mountain would not be obscured by the clouds.

As we traveled eastbound on SR 504, we passed Silver Lake and stopped at Kid Valley to visit the North Fork Survivors Gift Shop where a partially buried A Frame House, a partially buried refrigera,tor and a 28 foot high “Bigfoot” sculpture are situated. The A Frame House was nearly completed when the volcano eruption left it partially buried by mud, ash, and debris called lahars. While in the gift shop, we viewed a wonderful video documenting the eruption and destruction in the aftermath of the eruption.

Our next stop was at a public viewing area where we hiked along a short trail through the forest to a viewpoint of the area where a dam had been constructed after the eruption to help contain further flooding damage along the North Fork of the Toulte River.

We continued on to the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center at an elevation of 1,400 feet, which offers the first panoramic view of the Toutle River and the valley that leads to Mount St. Helens. We also saw the KOMO 4 News Car that was in the blast zone and was later donated to the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center. Shortly after leaving the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, we arrived at the Hoffstadt Creek Bridge which is the largest of the fourteen new bridges constructed for SR 504. The bridge is 2,340 feet (713 meters) long and 370 feet (113 meters) high. The western end of the bridge marked the edge of the blast zone of the eruption. From here to the Johnson Ridge Observatory we would be traveling through the blast zone.

Our next stop was at The Forest Learning Center at an elevation of 2,600 feet. Herds of elk are frequently observed in the Toutle River valley below but none were visible today. The panoramic views of the valley were spectacular and, although we could see the base of Mount St. Helens, clouds obscured the summit. We walked through the visitor center and viewed another short video documenting the eruption.

We stopped at a roadside viewpoint before arriving at turnoffs for both the Science Learning Center and Coldwater Lake. The panoramic views from the roadside stop allowed us to view Castle Lake and see intermittent views of the summit of Mount St. Helens. Since it was already mid-afternoon, we decided to continue on to the Johnston Ridge Observatory as our next stop.

After we arrived at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, we were able to view portions of the summit of Mount St. Helens as the clouds were passing by. Inside the visitor center we watched the video of the eruption and the continuing reforestation of the area. Normally after the video, they open the curtains behind the projection screen to expose a dazzling view of Mount St. Helens, but the clouds obscured our view of the mountain. The view below the clouds gave us a view of Spirit Lake in the distance. The clouds rapidly moved in and completely enveloped the visitor center as we were leaving. We were grateful that we had been able to see portions of Mount St. Helens on our drive from the Forest Learning Center to Johnson Ridge.

During our return drive on SR 504 we finally descended below the clouds and visited Coldwater Lake which was formed after the eruption. We attempted to also visit the Science Learning Center but it was in the process of closing for the day just as we arrived. We continued westbound on SR 504 to northbound SR 505 as a shortcut to Interstate 5 and our return to Federal Way, Washington.

On Tuesday, 26 May, David and Doreen drove us to visit the Bass Pro Shop, which is a very large sporting goods store, in Tacoma. The store included a restaurant and the Fish Bowl, a bowling alley decorated in an underwater theme. Our next stop in Tacoma was to visit Wright Park, which had beautiful flowers and gardens. We continued north adjacent to Puget Sound from Wright Park to Point Defiance Park via Ruston Way and the five-mile drive through the park. Point Defiance Park is very beautiful and we passed raccoons at three different locations beside the road. At one viewpoint we were able to see the Tacoma Narrows Bridge before arriving at Fort Nisaqually. Two of the fort’s original structures were relocated to the present site during the 1930s. The remainder of the fort has been reconstructed to reflect how Fort Nisqually appeared during the 1850s. The fort is now a living history museum and was in the process of closing when we arrived. Our next stop was at the Pagoda, a 1914 streetcar station, across from an Asian garden in Point Defiance Park. We returned to downtown Tacoma for dinner before returning to Federal Way.

On Wednesday, 27 May, John and Diane drove us to the Emerald Queen Hotel & Casino in Fife, Washington, where we enjoyed a buffet brunch before going to the hotel lobby to review tourism brochures. Although we found many attractions to be considered for a return trip, we were intrigued by the brochures for the Pacific Rim Bonsai Museum and the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden which are located in Federal Way. Since both of them were on our way, we decided to stop for a visit. They are both situated next to each other; there is an admission fee for the Botanical Garden while the Bonsai Museum is free.

We visited the Bonsai Museum first and were amazed at the very extensive collection of beautiful bonsai creations. Some bonsai pieces were constructed entirely out of metal wires. The collection of traditional living bonsai trees and shrubs was absolutely amazing. We also visited the Botanical Garden, which encompasses 22 acres of woodland gardens, features over 600 rhododendron species, and is advertised as the largest collection of its kind in the world. The gardens were magnificent and the Himalayan Blue Poppy Meadow was in full bloom. Many of the rhododendrons had already bloomed but there were ample varieties of other flowering plants to make these gardens picture perfect. Anyone visiting the Seattle area who enjoys beautiful gardens should definitely visit the Bonsai Museum and the Botanical Garden in Federal Way.

We flew home to Los Angeles on Thursday, 28 May, and are already looking forward to returning to the Pacific Northwest on some future trips.

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  April 2015
China

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel to China to visit Hangzhou City and to hike on Mount Huangshan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the five sacred Taoist mountains in China. I arrived at Chengdu, China, on Sunday, 26 April 2015 at about 6:40 PM. After clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and took a local taxi to my hotel. I spent the following day resting up from the long flights from Los Angeles to Chengdu.

Tuesday, 28 April, was a travel day where I flew from Chengdu to Hangzhou and settled into my hotel. I went to visit West Lake National Park in Hangzhou on Wednesday, 29 April. West Lake National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and receives mixed reviews from tourists. The landscaping adjacent to the lake was very beautiful with flowers in full bloom. I arrived at the northeast corner of the lake and took a small boat rowed by one man for a one-hour tour of the north end of the lake over to the famous bridge at the north end of the Bai Causeway. After disembarking from the small boat, I purchased a ticket on one of the local ferryboats to go to Xiaoyingzhou Isle, a small island in the center of the lake. The island contains an architectural complex dating from 1723-1735 and consisting of the Nanshu Pavilion, Yingcui Veranda, and Huaniao Hall. I disembarked at the island and admired the beautiful architecture and scenery.

I boarded another local ferry that took me from the island to Zhongshan Park at the southern end of the Bai Causeway. The remains of the Temporary Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty are situated at Zhongshan Park. It was a very nice place to explore with lush vegetation amid the ruins of the palace. After visiting the palace, I took an electric shuttle bus to the north end of the Bai Causeway and walked along the north end of the lake. After visiting West Lake, I walked from the northeast corner of the lake into Hangzhou City and found a small restaurant where I purchased beef and noodles for lunch. With the help of my map and several local pedestrians, I was able to walk back to my hotel in about forty minutes.

On Thursday, 30 April, I took a bus from Hangzhou City to Huangshan City and checked into the Crowne Plaza hotel for three nights. After checking into the hotel, I was able to arrange for a hotel car to take me to Mount Huangshan early the following morning.

On Friday, the hotel car drove me to the Huangshan Tourist Center at the southern entrance to Mount Huangshan where I purchased my ticket for the tourist bus up to the Yungu Cableway Station. Since May 1 is the first day a of major three day national holiday in China when many Chinese people travel for sightseeing, the crowds at Huangshan were massive and I was glad that I had already booked a room at the Beijai Hotel for the night on top of the mountain. There are two cableways from the Huangshan southern entrance to the top of the mountain but the Yuping Cableway was closed for repairs which effectively doubled the number of people wanting to take the Yungu Cableway.

After arriving at the Yungu Cableway station, I purchased my admission ticket to Huangshan and my ticket for the cableway. I then joined in one of the largest queues I have ever seen to wait to board the cableway. The wait to board the cable car was in excess of 90 minutes even though each cableway car could carry eight persons. After boarding a cableway car, the views during the journey to the top were spectacular.

Once I exited the cableway station, I took some very scenic photos and began hiking mostly downhill for about one kilometer until I reached the Beiloit Hotel where I checked into my room for the night and purchased lunch at the hotel restaurant. After lunch, I began hiking both up and downhill to visit the “Flying Over Rock” which is probably one of the most spectacular sights associated with Huangshan Mountain and was one of the main reasons that I wanted to visit Huangshan. The scenery en route to “Flying Over Rock” was spectacular and the seven-kilometer roundtrip hike from the Beiloit Hotel was strenuous. It began to mist light rain during the last kilometer back to the hotel. The mist then developed into torrential rain and thunderstorms during the night. I was very happy that I decided to hike to “Flying Over Rock” during the prior afternoon in picture perfect weather.

After breakfast the next day, I purchased a lightweight plastic rain suit at a shop in the hotel and began the one-kilometer, mostly uphill, hike back to the Yungu Cableway in heavy rain. I was amazed at the constant flow of people who were just arriving to visit Huangshan and who were going the opposite direction from me. After reaching the lower cableway station, I purchased my ticket for the commuter bus back to the southern entrance tourist center and then took a local taxi back to my hotel in Huangshan City. It continued raining the remainder of the day at Huangshan City while I spent the remainder of the day drying out my wet clothes and shoes in my hotel room.

I took the bus back to Hangzhou on Sunday, 3 May. The weather was nice at Hangzhou City as I went to visit a portion of the Hangzhou section of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the longest canal of artificial river in the world. The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th Century BC. Today the Hangzhou portion of the canal is known as the Jiangnan Canal and is the southernmost section of the canal. There were some park-like areas adjacent to the section of the canal that I visited with many beautiful flowers blooming.

I went to visit the Grottoes at Feilai Peak and the Lingyin Temple on Monday, 4 May. These are situated to the west of West Lake. The Grottoes at Feilai Peak are one of the most representative historical sites of Buddhist culture of the West Lake landscape. They are located at the southern base of the northern peak of Feilai Mountain, opposite the Lingyin Temple and alongside Lengquan Brook. They are mainly situated on the 500 meter-long cliff along the brook and in natural caves such as Qinglin Cave and Longhong Cave. The statues were first carved in 951 CE and at the present time there are 390 statues in 115 niches carved into the limestone mountain. The statues integrate both Han Chinese and Tibetan styles of Buddhist statues and manifest the thriving Buddhist culture in Hangzhou from the 10th to the 13th centuries. During February 1982, the Chinese Government listed the Grottoes at Feilai Peak as a cultural relic.

The Lingyin Temple is one of the representative historic sites of Buddhist culture in the West Lake area. It is said that the temple was first built by an Indian monk, Huili, in 326 CE. As the earliest Buddhist building complex in the Hangzhou area, it enjoyed a remarkable status during the period of “Buddhist Realm in Southeastern China” during the 10th to 13th centuries. The temple is still considered to be one of the most important locations of Buddhist activities in the southeastern coastal regions of China. The temple is very large and extends upward along the northern side of the southern peak of Feilai Mountain. Both the Lingyin Temple and the Grottos at Feilai Peak are easy to get to and are well worth visiting when sightseeing at Hangzhou.

Tuesday, 5 May, was another travel day where I flew back to Chengdu. On Wednesday, May 6, I visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The research base is like a very large park with a museum, a lake, and a rose garden in addition to the research facilities for both Red Pandas and Giant Pandas. It is listed as a National AAAA Scenic Area and has received the “Global 500” Award from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). I spent nearly five hours at the research base and recommend it as a very good place to visit when in Chengdu.

On Wednesday, 7 May, I visited the Chengdu Zoo. Although the zoo has previously received many awards, I was disappointed that it seemed to be in a somewhat run-down condition. The clear partitions that separated the people from the animals and reptiles were very dirty and, in my opinion, it was not nearly as nice and well maintained as the Chongqing Zoo which I visited during April 2013.

I flew back home to Los Angeles on Thursday, 8 May. During the flights home, I reflected on my trip and was very happy that after visiting Mount Huangshan, I have had the satisfaction of hiking upon four of the five sacred mountains in China since August 2012.

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  January 2015
India

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel to southern India and, after looking at several possible travel itineraries, I worked with Hi-Life Tours (also known as Caper Travel) to construct a tour primarily in the state of Karnataka that would begin in Bangalore and end in Goa. The tour was designed to include temples and ruins of medieval South India.

I arrived at Mumbai, India, on Thursday, 15 January 2015 at about 10:00 PM. After clearing Immigration, I located a taxi kiosk and procured a prepaid local taxi to my hotel. The prepaid taxi was old, small, and in need of mechanical repairs but it survived the poor roads and dense traffic and delivered me to the Holiday Inn Mumbai Airport hotel safely. I spent the night and then flew to Bangalore, India the following afternoon.

I arrived at Bangalore, India, on Friday, 16 January, and was met at the airport by the representative of Hi-Life Tours. He introduced me to Mr. Shivu who would be my personal driver for the duration of my trip in India. After checking into my hotel, I met with the Hi-Life representative to receive my hotel vouchers and to review my complete travel itinerary.

The following morning, Mr. Shivu picked me up at 8:00 AM to begin visiting some local Bangalore attractions before continuing on to Mysore. Although we already had a very full schedule for the day, Mr. Shivu agreed to add two visits to my Bangalore itinerary – the Bangalore Palace and the ruins of the Bangalore Fort. Our first stop was at the Vidhana Soudha, the Bangalore Parliament Building. The inscription above the main entrance to the building reads: “Government Work is God’s Work.” It is a new building built adjacent to the previous parliament building that is now used as a government office building. We drove past the Central Library building en route to the palace and fort. A security guard informed us that access to the palace grounds was closed due to a special private function.

After being denied access to see the Bangalore Palace and Bangalore Fort, we continued on to Tipu Sultan Palace, which is now a museum. An interesting temple is situated adjacent to the Tipu Sultan Palace and, due to some miscommunication with my driver, I was only able to take some photos from outside of the temple. Bangalore has many parks and tree-lined streets.

Our next stop was at the Lai Bagh Garden where a flower show was to be held. The flower show was to be inside the main building and I arrived prior to the opening of the show. The park was very large and contained many interesting areas to explore. Being pressed for time, I decided not to wait for the flower show to open. We also drove past the local fast food canteen and visited the Bangalore Big Bull Temple and a cobra temple. After a brief visit to the Sri Radha Krishna Temple, we continued on to see the Shivanasamudra Falls en route to Mysore.

As a result of large speed bumps installed along the highway, the journey to Mysore was very slow moving. Shivanasamudra Falls was a side-trip en route to Mysore and is advertised as the second largest waterfalls in India and the 16th largest in the world. This claim may be true during the monsoon season, but there was very little water cascading down the falls. The barren rocky cliffs where the large falls occur provided an interesting landscape above the river below. The British built ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬the Shiva Hydro Electric Project, a hydro-electric plant, in 1902. It still operates and, according to my driver, was the first electrical power plant in India.

Before arriving at Mysore, we stopped at Somanathapura to visit the Keshava temple. It was built in 1268 CE when the Hoysalas were the major power in South India. The temple is in the care of the Archaeological Survey of India and is advertised as one of the finest and most complete examples of Hoysala architecture – the carvings at this temple are exquisite.

I checked into my hotel at Mysore at about 4:45 PM and Shivu suggested that we meet at 6:45 PM to go to see the light show at the Mysore Palace. The light show is only performed during weekends and special festivals. When we arrived at the Mysore Palace, we were once again turned away because a private function had reserved the palace for the evening. Since we would be in Mysore for two nights, we decided to try to return the following night to see the light show.

On Sunday morning, 18 January, our first stop was at the Clock Tower en route to the Mysore Palace. The palace is magnificent but photography within the palace is prohibited. I took the palace tour and purchased a palace CD which I hoped might have some images of the interior. There are also several ancient Sri Lankan temples within the palace complex and I visited two of them – photography was allowed in some parts of the Sri Lankan temples.

Our next stop was at Chamundi Hill which is topped by a 12th century temple of Durga. We parked in the lower parking lot adjacent to a small reservoir and then I climbed a stairway to the top of the hill. Since it was a weekend day, the temple complex was inundated by very large crowds of people and huge queues of people waiting to enter the main temples. I decided to photograph the temples from a distance. While descending from Chamundi Hill we stopped at the Large Bull Temple for a quick photo opportunity.

Our final stop of the morning was at the Mysore Sand Museum. It is advertised as the first sand museum in India. It was inexpensive and the sand sculptures within the museum were very well done. We decided to take a lunch break and then go to the Mysore City Market in the late afternoon before going to see the light show at the palace.

On the way to the city market, we stopped to take some photos of an abandoned ancient temple near the city market. The city market was very large and colorful. According to my driver, it is the main market for many products including fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The market was very colorful and crowded with shoppers.

The light show at the Mysore Palace was spectacular. It began at 7:00 PM with the main lighting turned on all at once as a band began to play. The lights illuminated not only the main palace building but also the walls, gates and adjacent temples. I believe that the palace at night during the light show is one of the most popular photos depicting tourism at Mysore.

We departed Mysore on the morning of 19 January to do some sightseeing en route to Hassan, India. Our first stop was at the town of Srirangapatna which was situated within a fort on an island formed by branches of the River Cauvery. We visited the Jamia Masjuid, Tipu Sultan’s death site, and the ruins of Lal Mahal Palace. Before leaving Srirangapatna, we visited the Darya Daulat, commonly known as the Summer Palace of Tipu Sultan. Although the interior walls and ceilings are exquisitely decorated, photography within the palace is not allowed. Many of the murals and ornate decorations are currently being restored.

We continued on to visit Shravanbelagola, a temple complex on top of a hill and known for a giant statue of Lord Gomateshwara. Upon arrival at the temple entrance I discovered that I would be required to leave my shoes at the entrance and then climb a rock-cut stairway of nearly 400 steps to reach the temple. I decided that my bare feet were not up to that sort of physical abuse and opted not to climb up to the temple.

We continued on to Hassan and, after I checked into my hotel, we visited ¬¬¬four different ancient temple sites: the Hoysaleshwara Temple at Halebidu, the Jain Basadi Complex at Halebidu, the Kedulshwara Temple at Halebidu, and the Lakshmi Devi Temple at Doddagaddavally. Halebidu was once the capital of the Hoysala Empire and was called Dwarasamudra (Entrance from Ocean) mainly because of the huge lake. When the rulers from Delhi sacked the city during the 14th century, it marked the end of the Hoysala Empire and Dwarasamudra became Halebidu (old village).

The Hoysaleshwara Temple was built in 1121 CE and is well known for its magnificent rock-carved wall sculptures including depictions from Hindu mythology. The Jain Basadis Temple Complex houses three Basadis built during the 12th century CE and is approximately one-half kilometer from the Hoysaleshwara Temple. It consists of the Parshavanatha Basadi, the Shantinatha Basadi, and the Adinatha Bisadi. The interiors of these three Jain temples were all very well preserved. The Kedareshwara Temple situated several hundred meters from the Jain Basadis Complex was built in 1219 CE and also has very nice stone carvings.

The Lakshmi Devi Temple is located at the village of Doddagaddavally. It was built in 1114 CE and is said to be one of the earliest known temples built in the Hoysala style. The temple does not stand on a platform which became a popular feature in later Hoysala temples. It has four shrines on the inside. One feature that makes this temple unique is a shrine to the mythological Kali which is guarded by two sculptures of large demonic living corpses called betala. This was one of the most interesting temples that I visited.

On Tuesday, 20 January, we traveled to Hospet, India. The drive from Hassan to Hospet is about 340 km and consists of some very good and many very bad roads. We stopped en route to visit the Chennakeshava Temple at Hullekere village. It was built in 1163 CE and is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. A caretaker was kind enough to open the temple for our visit. The remainder of the day was enduring the long drive to my hotel at Hospet.

We got an early start on Wednesday, 21 January, to go on a day trip to Hampi, the capital city of the Vijaynager Empire. Hampi is a magnificent World Heritage Zone and is spread out over a large area amid large hills and spectacular rock formations. During my visit to Hampi, I hiked several kilometers between temple sites and we drove to several other main temple complexes. I visited more than thirty individual temples with exquisite rock carvings. The highlight of my visit to Hampi was the rock-cut Stone Chariot located at the Vitthala Temple complex. I had admired it in photos for more than ten years and was delighted to actually visit it in person.

I was unable to properly see Hampi in one day and would have enjoyed hiking between and through more of the temple complexes. In retrospect, I should have booked two nights at Hospet and taken two days to visit and explore Hampi.

We drove to Badami via Aiole and Pattadakkal on Thursday, 22 January. Aihole is famous as the Cradle of Indian Architecture and is situated on the banks of the Malaprabha River. It was established in 450 CE as the first capital of the Early Western Chalukyas and has more than one hundred temples scattered around the village. Our first stop was at the Aihole Kontigudi complex which has many beautiful temples with spectacular rock carvings and the Aihole Museum. The Lad Khan Temple is the oldest temple at Aihole and was built in 450 CE. The Durga Temple is the best known temple with a curvilinear pillared corridor an is exceptionally beautiful. We also visited the Ambigera Gudi complex and the Jyotirilinga complex. I also observed the Aihole Fort on top of the hills adjacent to the village. Once again, I was time-limited and will return to spend more time here on a future trip.

We continued driving on the very bad road from Aihole to Pattadakkal. Pattadakkal is also located on the banks of the Malaprabha River and was the third Chalukyan capital. It has ten major temples built between the 7th and 9th centuries that represent the early Chalukya architecture. It is also a World Heritage site. We continued from Pattadakal to the Mahaakua temple complex en route to Badami. The Mahaakua temple complex was part of the ancient capital Badami with temples dated to the 6th or 7th century. It featured several temples and a large tank with a four human-faced Shivalinga where many people were bathing and swimming. After traveling on more small and very bad roads, we finally arrived at Badami.

Badami is picturesquely situated at the mouth of a river between two tall rocky hills. It was also a capital of the Early Chalukyas. Badami has forts on top of the two hills: the North Fort and the South Fort. There are four famous ancient rock-cut cave temples along the side of the South Fort Hill. Cave Number 4 is a Jain temple cave and has exquisite Jain rock carvings throughout. It is also the only Jain temple in Badami. The other three caves belong to the Vedic faith and have exquisite carvings. Cave Number 1 has a rock-carved eighteen-armed Nataaraja striking 81 dance poses. There is also a dam that forms a huge lake between the north and south hills.

We began touring Badami on Friday morning. After I visited the cave temples, Mr. Shivu and I climbed to the top of the hill to the North Fort. There were several ancient temples at various locations en route to the temple at the top. The remains of the fort include walls and a circular watchtower. Although the Badami Museum beside the lake was closed on Friday, I was able to visit the Bhutanatha Temple Groups around the lake. The famous Bhutanatha Temple at the end of the lake is very picturesque. In addition, there are rock-cut carvings along one side of another hill with a small temple on top.

On Saturday, 24 January, we drove to Hubli which was placed into my itinerary by Hi-Life Tours in order to provide my driver with a break instead of traveling directly to Goa. Since there are no tourist attractions at Hubli, this was a completely wasted day for me. Anyone traveling by car between Badami and Goa should avoid any suggestion to stop at Hubli. In fact, my driver was actually surprised that a stopover at Hubli had been added to my itinerary.

On Sunday, 25 January, we drove to Goa where Mr. Shivu was to drop me off at my hotel as his final portion of my trip. Hi-Life Tours was to provide me with another driver for my remaining time at Goa. The fact that both Mr. Shivu and I had spoken to the manager of Hi-Life Tours several times during the prior four days to make sure that the coordination with the Hi-Life Tours Goa office had taken place, Hi-Life Tours failed to coordinate properly and nothing had been arranged prior to our arrival at the hotel in Goa.

After a series of phone calls to Hi-Life Tours, Hi-Life Tours finally arranged for a Goa driver named Sam to pick me up at the hotel to visit the Aguada Fort in North Goa. The fort was built when Goa was under Portuguese rule and was very interesting. I discovered that Goa is very spread out with many small villages nestled among hills. When my new driver dropped me off at the hotel, he did not know if he would be my driver for the following day.

On Monday morning, 26 January, since I had heard nothing from Hi-Life Tours, I once again called the manager in Delhi to get a status update. He did not know anything but called back within ten minutes to tell me that a driver would arrive in about thirty minutes. The driver was another new driver named Raflik who took me on a local Goa sightseeing tour. The highlights of the Goa tour included the Shree Mangueshi Temple, the Shri Ganesh Temple, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, and the Se Cathedral complex. In addition, there was a site of ruins of another ancient church in the Old Goa church complex. We also drove along the southern bank of the river from old Goa to Miramar Beach. When we returned to the hotel, I requested Raflik to pick me up at 10:00 AM on following day to take me to the airport to catch my flight to Mumbai.

On Tuesday, 27 January, Rafik picked me up on time at 10:00 AM and drove me to the Goa Airport for my flight to Mumbai. When we arrived at the airport, we once again had to call the Hi-Life Tours manager in Delhi to obtain authorization for my already prepaid transfer to the airport to be paid to Rafik. Hi-Life Tours/Caper Travel certainly did not provide the proper services at Goa until I made several rather expensive phone calls on my mobile phone. My flight to Mumbai was uneventful and I continued my journey home on 28 January.

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  December 2014
South America

Travel Notes

 

After our Alaska cruise in 2013, I wanted to take Jan on a South America cruise around Cape Horn to hopefully see the magnificent Chilean Andes and glaciers along the Chilean Fjords. I booked the cruise aboard the Holland America ship, ZAANDAM. The cruise itinerary included Buenos Aires, Argentina; Montevideo, Uruguay; Port Stanley, Falkland Islands; the Strait of Magellan, Punta Arenus, Chile; Ushuaia, Argentina; Cape Horn; the Beagle Channel; the Chilean Fjords to Puerto Montt, Chile; and ending at Valparaiso, Chile.

I had previously sailed from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Ushuaia, Argentina, on the tall ship bark EUROPA in 2008. I had also sailed from Ushuaia around Cape Horn and through the Chilean Fjords to Valparaiso on the EUROPA as part of the “Tall Ships Sailing Around South America” in 2010. Both of these trips aboard the EUROPA are previously documented on my website (larryfoggtravels.com).

We arrived at Buenos Aires on 5 December 2014. After checking into our hotel in the Palermo Soho District, we explored the neighborhood street market area and admired some of the “local street art.” That evening we went to dinner at Efimero Festin Restaurant. It is operated by Carolina LaVecchia with whom I met in 2010 and have since kept in touch. Carolina is a marvelous cook and our dinner was superb. Carolina invited us to return for dinner on Sunday, 7 December. The restaurant is closed on Sundays but she cooked exclusively for us as the only guests in the restaurant and we all ate dinner together. It was a marvelous seven-course dinner and was by far the very best meal that we ate during our entire South America trip.

We boarded the ZAANDAM on Monday, 8 December 8, and settled into our cabin. While the ship remained docked at Buenos Aires, we enjoyed numerous shipboard activities and met two new friends, LaVonne and Bill. The ship arrived at Montevideo on Wednesday, 10 December, and we spent part of the day taking a self-guided walking tour of the city.

After open-ocean sailing for the next two days, we arrived at Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, early morning on 13 December. The Falkland Islands are also referred to as Isla Malvinas. Jan decided to take a four-hour ship’s shore excursion with LaVonne and Bill to visit a Rockhoppper Penguin colony. The weather cooperated and she had a very good time with the penguins.

I opted to take a bus and explore the Gypsy Cove area on my own. The landscape around the Gypsy Cove area was magnificent – it was a combination of beautiful beaches, Magellan penguins, scenic views from the hilltops, and interesting vegetation. One area called Ordnance Point had remains of an artillery outpost overlooking the harbor area of Port Stanley. Upon returning to Port Stanley, I walked along the waterfront from the dock to the Port Stanley Museum and enjoyed exploring part of this small but colorful city.

After another day at sea, we entered the Strait of Magellan and continued on to Punta Arenas, Chile. Upon arriving at Punta Arenas, Bill and LaVonne joined us to hire a taxi to go to the cemetery. Upon arrival at the cemetery, I instructed our taxi driver to wait for us near the entrance with the intention of paying him when our tour was completed. I had visited the cemetery in 2010 and wanted to return to the gravestone where the last Onas, the extinct Fireland Natives, are buried. In addition, the cemetery is beautifully landscaped with beautiful mausoleums. When we returned to the cemetery entrance, we could not find our taxi driver anywhere and I had memorized only the last three letters of his taxi license plate.

After searching in vain for our taxi driver, we decided to walk along the waterfront area back to downtown Punta Arenas. As we approached the waterfront road, we noticed the Cervecia Artesanal – Hernandes de Magallanes micro-brewery on the corner facing the Strait of Magellen. The brewery was open and we purchased two cold Hernandes de Magallanes Imperial Stout beers. The proprietor opened the bottles which we drank while sitting on a bench overlooking the Strait of Magellan. We later learned that this was the southern-most micro-brewery in Chile.

We passed several beautiful monuments as we continued walking to the downtown area. We ate lunch a Chinese buffet restaurant where I had eaten in 2010 and used the restaurant wifi to catch up with our emails. It began raining while we were eating lunch and then began to clear up as we started walking back to the dock area.

Upon entering the immigration area, we told the people about our taxi driver who did not wait for us and that we wanted to make sure that he received our money for the taxi fare. While we were telling them about our driver and the last three letters of the license plate, LaVonne spotted our driver and we were able to pay him directly – all is well that ends well.

After departing Punta Arenas, we sailed southbound through the Cockburn Channel and eastbound through the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia. Much to my surprise, as we disembarked at Ushuaia on the morning of 16 December, the tall ship bark EUROPA was docked immediately in front of the ZAANDAM. Since I had previously sailed a total of 127 days aboard the EUROPA, it was wonderful to see her again while she was there in between her annual Ushuaia to Antarctica voyages. We spent the day at Ushuaia before sailing during the night to Horn Island.

It was raining while we sailed around Horn Island and Cape Horn during the morning of 17 December. Then, due to unfavorable weather reports, the crew decided to return to the Beagle Channel. We continued sailing westbound back through the Beagle Channel, northbound through the Cockburn Channel, and then northbound through some of the Chilean Fjords to Puerto Montt. Although we were able to see several glaciers as we sailed along the Beagle Channel, inclement weather prevented us from sailing through portions of the Chilean Fjords and precluded us from visiting a couple of glaciers en route to Puerto Montt that were annotated on the cruise route map.

We arrived at Puerto Montt during the morning of 20 December. Prior to arriving at Puerto Montt, I was considering an excursion to the nearby lake and volcano. However, since the weather was partly cloudy with rain in the forecast, we began walking along the waterfront instead. We planned to walk toward the old downtown area and then backtrack to the fish market for lunch. Portions of Puerto Montt are colorful and the old church was very picturesque. As we were backtracking through the city, it began to rain. We tried to hail a taxi to go to the fish market but to no avail. Finally a local bus stopped and, as we got on, we asked the driver if it went near the fish market. He said yes and we continued on the bus until he stopped to let us off. The rain subsided to a light drizzle as we walked to the fish market.

We ate lunch at a small restaurant on the second floor balcony with a view over the small bay. Our fresh seafood meal – consisting of pisco sour, ceviche, salmon, and abalone – was very good. The rain subsided while we ate lunch, and we enjoyed a beautiful afternoon as we walked back past handcraft markets to the dock area.

After another ocean sailing day, we arrived at Valparaiso, Chile, and disembarked on Monday, 22 December. We spent two days in Valparaiso, which is a very colorful and picturesque town. We took a Wally Tour 4 Tips walking tour of Valparaiso where we learned that because portions of Valparaiso have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, virtually no upkeep is being done in those portions of the city. The old town portion of the city has become much more rundown that it was when I visited in 2010. Street art in Valparaiso is also very colorful.

On Wednesday, 24 December, we rode a bus from Valparaiso to Santiago and took a local taxi to our bed and breakfast, Casa Moro, where also I stayed in 2010. Casa Moro is operated by Walter and Marcelo and has been the number one rated B&B in Santiago by Trip Advisor for many years.

Since it was Christmas Eve, Walter recommended the Bella Vista Neighborhood area of Santiago as a place where we might be able to find a few open restaurants. We took the subway to Bella Vista and found many restaurants closed. We finally found one restaurant still open but getting ready to close. The waiter took pity on us and finally said that he would remain open for us. After taking our order, many more people converged on the restaurant and the waiter relented and remained open for business.

I had advanced booked the Christmas morning Santiago Wally Tour 4 Tips on the Internet. Although it was a somewhat abbreviated tour because many places were closed, it included Parque Forestal, the Central Fish Market, walking through various neighborhoods, and the General Cemetery. Most of the tour group ended up eating lunch at a local restaurant adjacent to the main central fish market building.

We also decided to take the afternoon Tours 4 Tips that included Barrio Lastarria, Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center, Paris-Londres Neighborhood, Palacio La Moneda, and Plaza De Armas. Since it was late afternoon, we continued walking to Bella Vista for a fresh fruit drink and dinner. It was a very long day and Jan’s phone computed that we walked nearly 18,000 steps during the day.

On 26 December, we began the day at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. We rented the museum headphones and spent nearly three hours viewing the exhibits. This is a very powerful exhibition that documents Pinochet’s seventeen-year rule from 1973 to 1990 which resulted in torture, murder, and disappearances of thousands of Chileans. The museum displays photographs of victims, video of protesters, legal documents, letters, and artifacts.

We walked from the human rights museum to Desde 1886 Boulevard Lavaud, a French restaurant that Walter recommended highly for lunch. It was a two story restaurant with a very unique and picturesque décor. Our waiter was very friendly and the food was also quite good. We continued on to visit the Pre-Columbian Museum. I had visited this museum in 2010, and it was well worth a return visit.

Walter had informed us when we arrived at Casa Moro that we would be the last guests at Casa Moro. He and Marcelo had purchased a farm to the south of Santiago. They plan to take a one-year sabbatical to pursue their other interests while looking for property to build a seaside resort in the future. We would be leaving on 27 December and they would move the following day. Walter and Marcelo cooked a wonderful Chilean dinner for us on our last night with them and they joined us for dinner.

Prior to departing Casa Moro on 27 December, we purchased one of the colorful dolls that Marcelo had made. After we said goodbye to Marcelo, Walter drove us to the Santiago airport where we said goodbye to him and caught a flight to Buenos Aires.

Back in Buenos Aires, we had one last meal at Efimero Festin cooked by Carolina. It was another wonderful meal, after which we bid goodbye to Carolina and took a taxi to our hotel.

We departed Buenos Aires on 28 December and returned home the following day. The highlights of our trip were time spent with Carolina, as well as the time spent with Walter and Marcelo.

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  October 2014
Australia

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel to Australia to attend an air safety conference in Adelaide during October 2014. In addition, I wanted to visit with friends who live in Sydney and nearby Melbourne.

I arrived at Sydney on Thursday, 9 October 2014, at about 7:15 AM. After clearing Australia Immigration, I asked for directions at a tourist information stand on taking the train to Sydney and then connecting to the light rail. I was told to purchase a combination train/light rail ticket at the ticket office located one level down in the train station.

I purchased my combination ticket and took the airport train to Central Station and then connected to the Sydney Light Rail to a hotel in a suburb nearby Burwood where my friend Lily resides. Lily is a lady who I first met in January 2013 at a hotel in Kajuraho, India, and, after keeping in touch, visited with us in Los Angeles when she traveled to the Southwest United States in September 2013.

Lily belongs to a couple of bushwalking groups in Sydney and wanted to take me on a couple of bushwalking hikes if I visited Sydney. I had previously sent a magazine article to her that listed the cliff walk at the Blue Mountains (New South Wales) as one of the top ten cliff walks in the world. She said that she had previously hiked that trail and would take me there the next time I came to Sydney. It is named the Blue Mountains National Pass Trail. The greater Blue Mountains area was unanimously listed as a World Heritage Area by UNESCO on 29 November 2000.

My hotel was a short walk from the Tavener’s light rail stop. I walked from the light rail to my hotel and then rested up from the very long flight from Los Angeles.

On Friday, 10 October, I took the light rail to downtown Sydney for some local sightseeing that included a visit to the Australian Maritime Museum to see the replica of Captain Cook’s tall ship, HMB ENDEAVOUR. In August 2011, I sailed on this ship from Darwin to Broome as part of the “HMB ENDEAVOUR Voyage Around Australia 2011-2012.”

Lily picked me up at the hotel on Friday evening and took me to a very nice Chinese restaurant in Burwood for dinner with two clients that had just purchased some property from her. After a marvelous dinner, Lily worked with the clients to complete the mortgage paperwork for the property sale and then dropped me off at my hotel before taking her clients home.

On Saturday morning, Lily arrived at my hotel with two of her bushwalking friends, Silena and Emma, to take me bushwalking in the Blue Mountains. Lily drove to the town of Wentworth Falls where we ate lunch and met up with some other members of her bushwalking group. After lunch, we drove to the Wentworth Falls parking area and began our National Pass bushwalk. The National Pass trail is approximately six kilometers long and has sections listed as a hard trek for bushwalking. The walk and the scenery are spectacular. We began our cliff walk at the Wentworth Falls Lookout and continued along the Queen’s Cascade, the Rock Galleries, and down the Grand Stairway to the Wet and Wild area below the Wentworth Falls. After crossing below the falls, we continued to the Wet Amphitheater and through the Under Den Fenella. We continued through the Dry West End and above the Valley of the Waters to the Empress Falls where we encountered climbers and swimmers in a pool below the falls. The climb out of the valley was quite strenuous to the Queen Victoria Lookout and then was moderate on up to the Conservation Hut.

The Australian Government has a magnificent website for the Blue Mountains National Pass bushwalk (http://www.nationalpass.com.au/index.php). If you choose to go to the website, I recommend clicking on the “walk the trail” tab and then clicking each of the sub-tabs to view the movies and experience each section of the trek that we walked.

Emma and I waited at the Conservation Hut while Lily and Silena walked to the parking lot and returned with the car to pick us up. We then drove further south to a scenic spot overlooking the Jamison Valley and the famous Three Sisters rock formation. We remained here while the setting sun illuminated the Three Sisters. We stopped for dinner at a local pizza and kabob restaurant en route to Sydney where Lily dropped me off at my hotel.

On Sunday morning, Lily returned to my hotel with Silena and Emma to take me for another bushwalk. We planned to go to the Australian Royal National Park which, designated as a national park in 1879, is the second oldest national park in the world.

We drove to Audley and met up with two other members of Lily’s bushwalking group. We then drove to the Wattamolla Picnic Area on the coast and parked in one of several parking areas. The picnic area is adjacent to the Coote Creek Waterfalls that plunge into a deep pool below. This is a popular place for people to jump from the top of the falls into the pool below. The pool is part of the Wattamolla Lagoon which is also fed by the Wattamolla Creek. Many people also swim in the lagoon, and there is a sandy beach area beyond the lagoon which goes directly into the Providential Cove and the Pacific Ocean.

We ate a picnic lunch and then began the Coast Walk to the north of the picnic area. The walk crossed the rocks above the Coote Creek Waterfalls and continued climbing north through the bush to a dam and small pool above the Wattamolla Creek Waterfalls. Some people also swim in this pool. After crossing the creek, we continued climbing through the bush, passing several large unique rock formations until we finally reached the top of the dramatic rocky sea cliffs.

These sea cliffs are spectacular. We continued hiking along the cliffs where the trail has colorful massive rock formations and uniquely erosion-shaped rocks. After walking for some distance, Lily, who had been here many times before, suggested that we might consider returning to the picnic area as the trail further north along the coast atop Marley Beach was very similar to the area we had just walked. We agreed and returned to the picnic area.

Lily decided to go for a swim in the Wattamolla Lagoon and the rest of us hiked the beach trail down to the beach at Providential Cove. After her swim, Lily drove us south through the park to the Otford Lookout for another view of the coastline and then on to Bald Hill. Bald Hill overlooks Stanwell Park and provides an excellent view of the famous Sea Cliff Bridge. The Sea Cliff Bridge was opened on 11 December 2005 and is one of only seven off-shore parallel to coast bridges in the world.

As it was already getting late, we began our drive back to Sydney. En route to Sydney, we stopped to see Lily’s new home overlooking the Paramatta River. It was in the early stages of construction and the construction was somewhat behind schedule. We stopped at Burwood for one last wonderful Chinese dinner together. Before saying good-bye, I thanked Lily, Silena, and Emma for making my visit to Sydney very special indeed.

On Monday, 13 October, I flew to Adelaide to attend the annual International Society of Air Safety Investigators (ISASI) conference. The four-day conference was held at the Stamford Grand Hotel located on the beach at Holdfast Bay. During the conference, I was able to renew some worldwide professional air safety relationships.

On Friday, 17 October, Greg Keays and his girlfriend, Allanah, came to Adelaide from Melbourne to visit with me before continuing on for a holiday at Noosa. Greg sailed with me on the HMB ENDEAVOUR in August 2011, and he and Allanah had previously lived in Adelaide. They picked me up at my hotel on Friday to do some local sightseeing. We also planned to go to the Adelaide wine country on Saturday.

We drove north along the ocean and stopped at Semaphore where we ate lunch. Semaphore is a picturesque spot where the restored Semaphore Time Ball still commands a prominent spot on a small hill overlooking the ocean. The time ball tower was originally built in 1875 and was adjacent to the official old Government signal station that was constructed in 1856. The time ball provided the means for the ships in the harbor to set their chronometers. A black ball was manually hoisted half-way up the mast on top of the tower at 5 minutes before 1 PM and then hoisted to the top of the mast at 3 minutes to 1 PM. The ball was then dropped at precisely 1 PM by an electric signal directly from the observatory located at West Parklands, Adelaide.

The Semaphore World War I Clock Tower Memorial is presently situated between the time ball tower and the ocean. We continued northbound along the ocean to the outer harbour area where Greg had sailed with his father many years ago. On our way back to downtown Adelaide, we stopped briefly at the Fort Glanville Conservation Park which was closed to the public. Later we visited the Art Gallery of Southern Australia in downtown Adelaide and then stopped for afternoon tea. After tea, I took the Gleneg Tram back to my hotel.

Since Allanah came down with an allergic reaction to some pollen in the air during the night and required medical attention, she was unable to go with us to the wine country the next day. Greg picked me up at my hotel in the early afternoon and drove to the wine country. We visited the Lane Vineyard where we tasted a large selection of fine wines. Greg purchased several bottles and we then drove to a nearby village where some of his grandparents had once lived. After returning to Adelaide, we checked on Allanah and then Greg took me back to my hotel. It was really wonderful to visit with Greg again and finally meet Allanah.

I flew to Sydney on Sunday to overnight at a hotel near the airport and returned home to Los Angeles on Monday, 20 October. The flight to Los Angeles took nearly fourteen hours which gave me plenty of time to reflect on what a good trip this had been.

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  September 2014
Abu Dhabi, UAE

Travel Notes

 

I wanted to return to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to visit Abu Dhabi and to hopefully visit with friends. Since Renuka, who is the daughter of Panchal, my driver in Nepal during 2012, and her husband were both working in Abu Dhabi, I wanted to try to visit with them. In addition, I wanted to try to visit with Mohammed Waqas from EMAL Magazine if he happened to be at Dubai while I was there.

I arrived at Dubai, UAE, on Wednesday, 10 September 2014, at about 4:45 PM. After clearing immigration, I located the nearest ATM to obtain some UAE Dirhams. When I arrived at the taxi stand, I was directed to the line of unmarked black luxury taxis. This was the same routine that was in place a year ago when I visited Dubai. After checking into my hotel, I rested up from the two very long flights from Los Angeles to Dubai.

The following morning, I asked the receptionist at the hotel front desk for information on how to take the bus from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. She told me to take a taxi to the bus station where buses departed for Abu Dhabi approximately every thirty minutes. While checking out of the hotel, I asked the hotel staff to summon a taxi for me to go to the nearby bus station. A member of the hotel staff directed me to a white unmarked luxury taxi. The taxi driver was from Pakistan and suggested that I let him drive me directly to my hotel in Abu Dhabi. He asked me which hotel I was staying at and I told him the Abu Dhabi Crowne Plaza hotel. He asked if it was the Crowne Plaza on Yas Island. I told him that there were two Crowne Plaza hotels in Abu Dhabi and that I was at the Crowne Plaza located at Abu Dhabi city center. He said the price would be 250 Dirhams to go to the Abu Dhabi city center hotel. Although this was an amount considerably higher than the cost to ride the bus, I opted for the convenience of the comfortable air conditioned luxury taxi.

I agreed to the 250 Dirham amount and we began the journey to Abu Dhabi. When we were approaching the Yas Island exit, he asked to see my hotel reservation. Since it was in my carry-on luggage in the trunk of the car, we pulled off of the main highway so that I could retrieve a copy of my reservation. He reviewed my reservation and then programmed the address into his GPS navigation device. He then said that my hotel was very much farther than he had originally believed it to be.

When we arrived at my hotel, he parked in a nearby parking space instead of stopping in front of the hotel. He then proceeded to tell me that although he knew about the Yas Island Crowne Plaza Hotel, he was not familiar with the location of the Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi City Hotel. He the then asked me to lean over the back of the front seat and to look at a portable taxi meter sitting beside him on the front seat. The meter display showed 379 Dirhams and he told me that I could pay what I wanted. Since we discussed the city center location before his original firm 250 Dirham price quote, I paid him 300 Dirhams.

The Crowne Plaza hotel at the Abu Dhabi city center was very nice, and the staff members were wonderful. In addition, IHG Rewards members receive a 50% discount on the lunch and dinner buffets offered at the Garden Restaurant – a very good deal indeed. After eating a superb buffet lunch at the Garden restaurant, I spent the remainder of the day catching up on emails and reviewing Abu Dhabi tourist attractions on the Internet. I made contact with Mohammed Waqas from EMAL Magazine, and we made plans to try to meet up after I returned to Dubai. I also contacted Renuka who said that she was working evenings. I made plans to meet her the following day for lunch at my hotel. She was also able to schedule her day off from work for Saturday, 13 September.

I met Renuka for lunch on Friday, 12 September, and we had a very nice lunch at my hotel. During lunch we decided that she and her husband, Babudin, would join me on a full day tour to Al Ain the following day. After lunch, I booked the Al Ain tour and Renuka left to go to work. Since Friday was the day of morning prayers and many of the tourist sightseeing attraction were closed, I spend the remainder of the day exploring the neighborhood near my hotel.

After dinner, I took a local taxi to visit with Renuka at Café Bateel where she worked. I ordered cappuccino, a wonderful pastry that Renuka selected for me, and some fresh dates. The café was very nice and Renuka introduced me to her friend Pratima who was also from Nepal. When I requested my bill, Renuka informed me that she was paying my bill since I was her guest. It was very nice – thank you again Renuka. After leaving Café Bateel, I walked to the main road and caught a local taxi back to my hotel.

On Saturday morning, Renuka and Babudin met me in the hotel lobby at 8:30 and our tour driver picked us up at 8:45 for our tour to Al Ain. Al Ain, also known as the Garden City of the Gulf due to its greenery and tree-lined streets provided by many oases. It is the second largest city in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the fourth largest city in the UAE. It is located on the inland border with Al-Buraimi, Oman, and is the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the first president of the UAE. Al-Buraimi and Al Ail shared an open border until 2006 when the border was closed and passport controls were imposed.

Although the tour was listed as requiring a minimum of four people, we were the only three people in the nearly new SUV with our driver who was from Jaipur, India. It was as if we had booked our own private tour to Al Ain. As we were departing Abu Dhabi, we drove past the very beautiful Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque and the two circular tower “green buildings.” The outside of the “green buildings” is covered by adjustable solar panels that close when exposed to direct sunlight and open when in the shade.

We visited the Al Wathba Camel Race Track en route to Al Ain. The race track is situated about 45 km east of Abu Dhabi. The facility consists of two separate race tracks, a practice track and the official competition race track. We first visited the practice track and then continued on to the competition track where I photographed the “Starting Gate” for the official races. Human jockeys have been replaced with robot jockeys for the races in response to criticism of using young boys to be camel racing jockeys.

We continued on to Al Ain where we stopped at the picnic grounds at the base of Jabel Hafeet (Hafeet Mountain) where fresh water from the mountain is channeled through the picnic area. This is a very popular place for people to enjoy family outings and for visitors on holiday. A large complex adjacent to the entrance to the picnic area is owned by the Royal Family.

Jabel Hafeet is considered to be one of monuments of Al Ain and it rises to 1,340 meters in elevation. We continued driving the winding road to the summit viewpoint of Jabel Hafeet. There is a dirt pathway from the viewpoint that was once used to continue over the crest into Oman, but is now closed to the public. Of course, the views from the summit are spectacular. In addition, there is a large complex near the summit that is also owned by the Royal Family.

We drove back down the mountain road and went to the very large Al Ain Livestock Market which our driver referred to as the “Camel Market.” It was very interesting with vendors for camel food and supplies as well as many individual pens with camels and goats for sale. Our driver explained that there were camels for sale from several countries including Saudi Arabia. We drove through the market and then continued on to the Hilton Hotel for a very nice buffet lunch.

After lunch we visited the Al Ain National Museum and the Al Ain Oasis. The national museum is located in the same compound as the Sultan Bin Zayed Fort which is also known as the Eastern Fort. The museum has sections for archaeologhy, ethnography, and gifts. Exhibits which are labeled both in English and Arabic, include collections of Bedouin jewelry, musical instruments, and weapons. The extensive archaeology displays date back to the first millennium BC. Finally, the gifts section houses some of the gifts that Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan received during his lifetime.

Al Ain oases are known for their underground “falaj” irrigation system that brings water from boreholes to water farms and palm trees. According to the literature, falaj irrigation is an ancient system dating back thousands of years and is used widely in Oman, the UAE, China, Iran, and other countries. Al Ain has seven oases and the largest is the Al Ain Oasis. We visited the Al Ain Oasis and observed an open portion the falaj and strolled among the date palm trees. Babudin was able to climb up a leaning date tree and picked some ripe fresh dates. The dates were delicious.

Our next stop was at the Skeikh Zayed Palace Museum. It is based in the palace of the former UAE President, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and his family. It was originally built in 1910 on the western side of the Al Ain Oasis, and Sheikh Zayed lived here until 1966. It was made into a museum in 1998.

Although the palace museum was designated as our final place to visit on the tour, our driver asked if there was anything else that I would like to see while in Al Ain. I told him that I would like to visit the Al Jahili Fort, if possible. He agreed and took us to visit the fort.

The Al Jahili Fort is one of the UAE’s most historic buildings as well as one of the largest forts in the UAE. It was built during the 1890s on orders of Zayed the First to defend and protect the precious palm groves. It was also his summer residence. The fort fell into disrepair by the early 1950s, when British forces came to Al Ain and requisitioned the fort as a base for their unit of the Trucial Oman Levies. Barracks and other buildings were added to the original fort and tower. The fort became the headquarters of Oman Trucial Scouts, the force that protected the mountain passes and kept inter-tribal peace. It also served as a residence for the local governor. The fort was restored between 2007 and 2008. The original part of the fort consists of two buildings, a square fort and a separate round tower. Today, the fort houses a permanent exhibition of the photographic work of the British Adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger and his 1940s crossings of the Rub Ali Khali (The Empty Quarter) desert. The Al Jahili Fort should not be missed while visiting Al Ain. Upon returning to Abu Dhabi, I bid a fond farewell to Renuka and Babudin. We all had enjoyed a wonderful day trip to Al Ain.

On Sunday morning, after arranging for a late check-out from my hotel, I called the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital and was able to book a reservation for the 10:00 AM tour. The Falcon Hospital is located nearby the Abu Dhabi International Airport and by advance reservation, offers tours to the public at 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM, Sunday through Thursday (except public holidays). It is the world’s largest and most advanced falcon hospital. The hospital employs about 52 people and treats more than 5,000 falcons each year. Falcons are now being registered and issued “Falcon Passports” to help reduce the illegal trade in falconry. All falcons treated by the hospital are registered captive falcons and any wild falcons that happen to arrive at the hospital are examined and then immediately returned to the wild.

I took a local taxi to the hospital for the 10:00 AM tour where I met some other people from Australia and England. After a comprehensive introductory briefing, we began our tour of the facility at the examination room where many falcons were perched on rails waiting to be examined. While we were in the examination room, our guide showed us the three species of falcons in the UAE – the peregrine falcon, the saker falcon, and the gyr falcon. The peregrine is the smallest and also the fastest falcon. The saker, the national bird of the UAE, is larger and slower than the peregrine falcon. The gyr is larger and slower than the saker falcon.

During the examination process, the falcons are first anesthetized and then in addition to a complete physical examination, they have their claws and beaks manicured. We watched as one falcon underwent the complete physical examination. We were then invited to hold one of the falcons. I was able to hold one of the saker falcons. We left the examination room and passed the surgery room and intensive care unit before going outside to a separate facility for rescued owls.

We continued on to one of the molting buildings designed to house falcons during their molting period. The building was large enough to allow for free flight of the falcons and had perching cave-like areas at each end above two small air conditioned enclosures for the falcons. Our final stop was at the museum and gift shop portion of the facility. When I first arrived by taxi, one staff member asked if I would need a taxi after the tour. I said yes, and a taxi was waiting for me when I was ready to leave the museum.

Upon returning to the hotel, I ate one last buffet lunch before checking out and taking a taxi to the Abu Dhabi bus station. Since the hotel staff members had all been so wonderful, leaving the hotel was like saying good-bye to people at a family reunion.

I took the bus to Dubai and followed other people who got off of the bus at the first stop we came to in Dubai city. Being able to get a taxi became somewhat of a challenge but finally managed to summon local taxi to go to my hotel. After checking into my hotel, I called Mohammed Waqas from EMAL Magazine and we arranged to meet later that evening. I have been a member of the EMAL Magazine team for nearly one year and the magazine features one of my world-wide trips every month. The link for EMAL is www.emalmag.com. Waqas met me at my hotel and took me to the Lal Qila Restaurant, a Mogul theme restaurant. The restaurant was very nice and the food buffet was both extensive and exquisite – thank you again Waqas. After a very nice evening together, Waqas and I bid each other fond farewells.

On Monday, 15 September, I spent time editing photos before checking out of my hotel and going to the airport for the first of my two very long flights back home to Los Angeles.

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  August 2014
China

Travel Notes

 

I arrived at Chengdu, China, on Sunday, 17 August 2014 at about 6:30 PM. After clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and located the taxi stand. I took a taxi from the airport to my hotel and settled into my room for the evening. I spent the next day exploring the neighborhood in the vicinity of the hotel and resting up from my journey to Chengdu. The main purpose of this trip was to continue my travels along the Silk Road eastbound to Luoyang since I ran out of time at Lanzhou during my April 2014 visit.

I flew from Chengdu to Lanzhou during the afternoon of 19 August and took a taxi to my hotel. Helen, my guide during my April trip, met me and would be my English speaking Chinese tour guide for this trip as well.

We hired a taxi for a day trip the following day to visit the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves, one of the prominent rock cut cave sites in China. I had planned to visit these grottoes in April but a huge dust/sandstorm had precluded my visit. The grottoes are located on Yongling County, southwest of Lanzhou city adjacent to the Liujiaxia Reservoir. After driving by taxi for approximately 1.5 hours, we arrived at the Liujiaxia Reservoir where we had a choice of traveling to the grottoes by either a small confined fast boat with limited visibility or a large slow boat which afforded very good sightseeing along the way to the grottoes. Travel time to the grottoes by fast boat was approximately one hour and by the slow boat approximately three hours.

We checked out the fast boat and were told that we would be required to wait for another seven people to fill the boat before we could depart. We then decided to purchase tickets for the slow boat and proceeded to our large slow boat. The boat had several interior seating areas and four open area seats at the bow – Helen and I decided to sit in the bow area. After a couple of hours, we began to encounter some light rain and our seating area was becoming wet. We moved to the interior seating areas but the cigarette smoke was increasingly becoming unbearable. Helen and I were then invited to travel in the wheelhouse with the Captain of the boat which was much better.

Upon arrival at the docking area, we disembarked from the boat and hiked to the Bingling Grottoes. The grottoes were situated on opposite sides of a small stream and had many small caves with many ornately carved Buddha statues, one very large Buddha statue, and a temple displaying some artifacts from the grottoes. The large Buddha stature has recently been restored and stands 27 meters high in Niche 171. We hiked through the grotto site in light drizzle and spent approximately one hour there. The wooden plank way to access higher grottoes was closed to the public during our visit. There was also a small museum near the grotto entrance that we did not have time to visit.

The return boat ride back to the dock where we first boarded the boat took nearly another three hours. Fortunately, we were once again invited to travel in the wheelhouse with the Captain. The taxi trip back to Lanzhou was uneventful and we arrived back at Lanzhou after dark. We passed the famous Zhongshan Bridge across the Yellow River on our way back to the hotel. The bridge is now for pedestrians only and was colorfully illuminated.

On 21 August, we went to the train station at Lanzhou to buy tickets for the train to Tianshui. The trains to Tianshui were booked very full and Helen was able to book two berths on a sleeper car which opened up as she was trying to purchase tickets. Our upper berths were at the top of three high berths and very close to the ceiling of the sleeper car. There were also small fold-down seats in the aisle adjacent to small tables attached to the wall.

The train trip to Tianshui took about five hours. I began the trip sitting on one of the fold-down seats and later climbed up the ladder and crawled into my berth. It was very close to the ceiling and the temperature was very hot. I soon returned to one of the fold-down seats where I remained for the duration of the journey to Tianshui.

After arriving at our hotel in Tianshui, I downloaded my Lanzhou photos while Helen left to find a suitable taxi for our journey to visit the Maji Mountain Grottoes the following day and to find a local restaurant for dinner. Helen found a popular local noodle restaurant nearby the hotel where we had dinner.

On the morning of 22 August, the taxi that Helen hired the night before arrived at the hotel on schedule. The drive to the Majishan Grottoes took about one hour. Since the parking lot was a considerable distance from the entrance to the grottoes, we took the battery powered shuttle bus from the parking lot to the shuttle bus stop. From there, we then rode two horses for the continuing uphill trek to the entrance of the grottoes. After riding the horses, we hiked to a scenic spot opposite Maji Mountain (Majishan) where we photographed the mountain, the grottoes, and the elaborate overhanging plank pedestrian walkways on the cliff side of the mountain.

According to the literature, construction of Majishan Grottoes began in 384 AD and gradually became one of the large-scale grotto groups in China through continuous chiseling and reconstruction during more than ten dynasties. The locations of most of the grottoes are chiseled into the eastern and western cliffs of the mountain from 30 meters to 80 meters above the ground. People can only access the grottoes via the overhanging plank walkways which extend for approximately 1,300 meters along the faces of the cliffs. There are 194 grottoes, including more than 7,200 clay and stone statues and frescoes dating from the 4th to the 19th centuries. The heights of the statues range from 20 centimeters to 15 meters.

We continued on to the entrance of the grottoes opposite a temple complex which was not open to the public. There was also a Majishan Botanical Garden which we did not visit. After paying the entrance fee, we hiked along the pedestrian walkway attached to the side of the mountain cliffs and viewed all of the grottoes that were accessible. The rock cut grottoes and statues were magnificent. Depending upon the literature, Majishan Grottoes are ranked among the top four grotto sites in China with the other three sites being Mogao Grottoes near Dunhuang, Yungang Grottoes near Datong, and the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang. I personally liked the Baodingshan Grottoes near Dazu much better than the Mogao Grottoes.

After visiting the Majishan grottoes, we ate lunch near the entrance and then returned to Tianshui. Since the train station was on the way back to Tianshui, we stopped to purchase train tickets for a train the following day from Tiuanshui to Luoyang. Once again the trains were nearly booked full and we had to settle for two hard seat tickets on the train for the nearly 12 hour trip to Luoyang. Helen was told by the agent that only hard seat tickets were available for sale at Tianshui but that we could have the conductor upgrade our tickets once we boarded the train.

Our next stop was at the Central Square in Tinshui to visit the Fu Xi Temple. The square was very large and totally pedestrian with many artisan shops. We walked around the square and visited the Fu Xi Temple. On the recommendation of our taxi driver, we went from the Central Square to the Tianshui Minsu Museum where we wandered among old city buildings, courtyards, and the museum cultural displays. This museum was very interesting and was not highlighted as a tourist attraction in Tianshui.

On Saturday morning, 23 August, we went to the train station for our hard seat train journey from Tianshui to Luoyang. Our tickets were for Coach No. 12 and there were no seat assignments. The Coach No. 12 was packed with people standing in the aisle with all of the storage space above the seats fully occupied. It appeared to me that it was going to be a very long 12 hour trip to Luoyang in Henan Province. After the train departed the station, Helen set off to find the conductor to see about upgrading our tickets as the ticket agent had suggested to her. While she was looking for the conductor, two men who wanted to go smoke in the smoking area offered their seats to me while they were away.

After what seemed to be a long time, Helen returned and told me to bring the luggage and go with her to the dining car. The dining car was Coach No. 11 and, although it was closed to the public, the conductor let us ride in the dining car in very nice seats with a dining table. The dining car was nearly empty with the exception of a couple of other passengers and several crewmembers of the train. I don’t know what Helen told the conductor but the conductor allowed us to ride all the way to Xian at no additional charge – what a lucky break for us! When the dining car opened for service near Xian, we ordered a very nice dinner. Beyond Xian, the train opened the dining car to passengers for an additional charge which we were happy to pay – we kept our dining car seats all the way to Luoyang. Since I had visited Xian on prior trips to China, we did not stop at Xian.

We arrived at Luoyang at midnight and immediately went to the ticket office at the train station to purchase tickets on the very high speed (bullet) train from Luoyang to Xian for 26 August 26. Since there was only one very high speed train from Luoyang to Xian daily, we wanted to make sure that we were able to advance purchase tickets for the train. Fortunately we were able to purchase two second class tickets for the train and were advised that the very high speed train operated out of a different special train station in Luoyang.

After checking into the Hua-Yang Plaza Hotel, I tried but was unable to book a non-stop Air China flight from Xian to Chengdu for 26 August on the Internet. Helen was able to hire a taxi for two day trips beginning in the morning. This hotel turned out to be one of the finest hotels that I have ever stayed at in China – they had a no tipping policy and the hotel service was just superb. After breakfast I arranged for one of the hotel employees to purchase the tickets for the non-stop Air China flight from Xian to Chengdu while we were on our daytrip – we picked up the tickets when we returned to the hotel. On the morning of 24 August, we began our day trip by driving to the Longmen Grottoes which were about an hour from Luoyang city. The Longmen Grottoes are magnificent rock cut caves that are situated for a linear distance of one kilometer along both the east and west side of the Yi River. The grottoes were carved into the cliffs of the Xiangshan and Longmen mountains. According to the literature, there are as many as 100,000 statues within the 1,400 caves ranging from 1 inch (25mm) to 57 feet (17 m) in height. The area also contains nearly 2,500 stelae and inscriptions as well as over sixty Buddhist pagodas. The grottoes date from 493 AD and in 2000 the site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Xiangshan Temple is on Xiangshan Mountain above the east side of the Yi River opposite the north end of the west side Longmen Grottoes and provides stunning views of the west side grottoes.

We hiked from the taxi parking area for nearly one kilometer to the entrance to the grottoes. After paying the entrance fee, we hiked along the river and explored the grottoes along the western side of the river before using the north footbridge to cross the river to explore the grottoes and the temple along the eastern side of the river.

On the way back to Luoyang, we visited the Museum of the Emperor’s Chariot Drawn by Six Horses. It is a museum with the royal tombs and utensils used by the royal family of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC). The main exhibition zone includes two large attendant pits on the original archaeological sites, of which the 42.6 meters long and 7.4 meters wide pit with the “Emperor’s Chariot Dawn by Six Horses” contains 26 chariots and the skeletons of 70 horses. The chariots were drawn by either two, four, or six horses which represented how the chariots were used during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.

Before returning to the hotel, we also visited the White Horse Temple. The temple complex was very beautiful and I wish that I had been able to spend more time there. Most notable were the two horse sculptures – although these frequently appear to be white in tourism photos, they were actually a natural stone color.

The following day, 25 August, we drove to the Songshan Mountain Scenic Area where we were able to visit the Shaolin Temple and the Pagada Forest, as well as hike along a portion of the cliff-side Sanhuang Plank Way of Mount Song (Songshan).

The Shaolin Temple was originally built in 495 AD and has a long history as a very important temple. It is also well known for Chen sect and martial arts. During the Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD), the Shaolin martial arts took shape and during the Yuan Dynasty (1227-1368 AD), the Shaolin Temple became a world-renowned temple. The Forest of Stupas, also referred to as the Pagoda Forest, is the graveyard of the Shaolin Temple with tombs of eminent monks. With a total of 232 ancient stupas, the Forest of Stupas is the largest of its kind in China.

Since the Shaolin Temple is several kilometers from the entrance to the scenic area, we rode the battery powered bus to the temple. After visiting the temple complex, we again took the bus to the stop for the Forest of Stupas and the cableway stations that serve two different areas of Mount Song. One cableway was a short trip to a scenic spot on Mount Song. The second cableway was a longer trip to a summit connecting to the trail leading to the 3,000 meter long cliff-side Sanhuang Plank Way. The hanging foot path around the cliffs of Songshan lead to a suspension bridge that connects to a mountain top temple. Songshan is the center-most of the five sacred Taoist mountains in China. The plank way foot path went both up and down as it traveled along the cliffs of Songshan. The views from the plank way were stunning, and we ran out of time before we were able to reach the suspension bridge and the temple. Our only regret was that we didn’t take the Songshan cableway and hike all the way to the suspension bridge and temple before visiting the Shaolin Temple. At least I have now hiked on three of the five sacred Taoist mountains during my travels to China. After a brief visit to the Forest of Stupas, we returned to our taxi and drove back to the hotel.

On the morning of Tuesday, 26 August, we took the very high speed train to Xian and a taxi to the Xian airport. The stations for the high speed trains are brand new and amazing. The train platforms all have escalators and lifts, and they match up with the train coaches so that passengers just walk on and off of the train coaches. The trains are also very nice and, given the opportunity in the future, I will always take a very high speed train for future rail travel if one is an available option for me. After a lengthy layover at the Xian airport, we boarded our delayed flight to Chengdu.

We decided to visit the Yongling Mausoleum Museum and the adjacent park/garden on Wednesday, 27 August. Although we found the mausoleum museum closed for renovation, the adjacent park and garden were very nice. In addition, we visited a very nice sculpture of the tomb with statues of musicians that was situated on a corner adjacent to the mausoleum museum and park. The following day, we visited the Sichuan Museum – Chengdu and a portion of Huanhua Park nearby the entrance to the Cottage of DuFu.

On the morning of 29 August, we took a taxi to the Chengdu airport where Helen departed for Dunhuang and I boarded my flight to San Francisco and then back home to Los Angeles. Between my April trip and this trip, I had finally completed traveling the Silk Road eastbound from Dunhuang to Luoyang.

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  April 2014
China

Travel Notes

 

I arrived at Xian, China, on Sunday, 13 April 2014 at about 9:30 PM. After clearing immigration, I exited the terminal and located the taxi stand. After waiting in the queue, I gave my hotel voucher to the person in charge and he in turn gave the voucher to the taxi driver. The driver nodded that he knew the hotel and we departed the taxi stand area. After driving a short distance, the driver asked for my voucher and then began calling the hotel on his mobile phone. Finally he returned to the taxi stand and the person in charge gave verbal directions to him. We set out a second time and, after a series of phone calls, we finally arrived at the hotel. The only problem was that the building was completely dark. The taxi driver called again and after a short conversation with someone, he drove around the building to another building which was the hotel and the lobby entrance. I paid the driver and entered the hotel lobby.

The lady receptionist did not speak any English and nobody else in the hotel could speak any English. I gave her my prepaid voucher and she located my reservation. She then began asking me several questions in Chinese and a crowd of curious Chinese people chimed in with hand signals to no avail. Finally the receptionist used some translator software on her desktop computer which worked well. She needed to know my flight number and departure time for the following day. I gave her my flight information and she arranged for my complimentary airport transfer for 10 AM. I was then taken to my room. The hotel was rated three stars, but I am sure that it was no better than a one star hotel.

Although I was up early Monday morning, I decided that I would wait to eat breakfast at the airport. The phone in my room rang at about 9:30 AM and the call was a recording in Chinese. I left the room and when I arrived in the lobby, I was directed to a shuttle van waiting outside. Through sign language, I ascertained that it was my airport transfer. The driver did not speak English and, after a series of several stops to pick up and drop off people, we finally arrived at the Xian Airport domestic terminal. I went to the China Eastern ticket counter and the agent located my electronic ticket order and directed me to the check-in counter where I received my boarding pass for my flight to Dunhuang.

After a wonderful breakfast of beef and noodles, pickled cucumbers, fruit and coffee, I went to the gate and boarded my flight. Upon landing at Dunhuang, I located an ATM machine to obtain additional Chinese Yuan and went to the taxi stand. Although the taxi driver did not speak any English, he looked at my hotel voucher and took me directly to my Dunhuang hotel. Before I got out of the taxi, he handed me his taxi card and called a lady who spoke very good English. She told me the amount of my fare and asked me if I wanted to do some sightseeing in the Dunhuang area. She became the interpreter between me and the driver. Her name was Helen and his name was Ten. They said that he would pick me up at the hotel the following morning at 8 AM, and she agreed to come along as well. I now felt very good that perhaps I ended up with a driver and an English speaking person as well – I would not know until Tuesday morning if they both would actually show up for sightseeing.

On Tuesday morning, 15 April, both Mr. Ten and Helen arrived at the hotel right on time. During the day, Helen told me that she was also a Chinese registered tour guide. After greeting them, we drove to Mogao Caves, also called Mogao Grottoes. The grottoes are located along the vertical face of a mountain. These caves are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and have had a great amount of reconstruction at the side of the mountain where entrances to the caves are located. No photography is allowed within a fence constructed along the side of the mountain where the gates for ticketed visitors are located. Locked doors have been installed at each cave entrance and everyone visiting the Mogao Grottoes must be accompanied by a guide. We had to wait for nearly 30 minutes for the required English speaking guide. Each guide takes a small group of visitors to view a few of the caves – the guide unlocks and opens the door to each cave visited. In addition, the statues within the caves are made from wood and straw then covered with clay and then painted – the caves in India and further east in China have statues carved from solid rock.

Although there are several hundred caves at Mogao, there are at least two caves that I believe all visitors are shown. One is Cave 17 which is the famous Library Cave where many ancient manuscripts were discovered. The second is Cave 96 which is the cave with the a very tall statue of Buddha and the one which is shown in all of the tourism photos of Mogao Grottoes. We were shown caves 29, 16, 17, 427, 428, 259, 237, 96, 172, and 148 which has a large reclining Buddha statue. Since the rock-cut caves in India and the grottoes at Dazu and Datong in China that I have visited were still open and the visitors could view and photograph the interior of nearly all of the caves, I was very disappointed with my visit to Mogao. I had traveled nearly half way around the world to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Mogao Caves only to be shown the interior of ten caves and denied any photographs. I purchased a book on Dunhuang tourist sites which has murals from many caves that I probably never entered.

Our second stop was at the Wesrn-Jin Dynasty Tombs which were nearby the Mogao Caves. There were two tombs in the area that had recently been excavated. They were accessed down a steep stairway deep underground and had chambers that included the main tomb, kitchen chamber, and toilet area chamber. The tombs had painted tiles within the brickwork walls of the tombs. The tombs were much more interesting than the Mogao Caves.

We drove back to Dunhuang city and past the Dunhuang Ancient City Ruins and then visited the White Horse Pagoda. Our next stop was at the new Dunhuang Museum which was excellent even though all of the planned exhibits were not yet completed.

Our last stop of the day was at Mingsha Mountain which is a huge mountain of sand formed by the Gobi Desert winds. Helen and I hired a yellow four wheel drive vehicle and were driven across the sand dunes to a place high on the mountain well above the entrance area. We then hiked up the side of the mountain on a lattice-work path of welded rebar to the crest of the mountain. This is the common meeting place for people who ride camels or small ATV type vehicles. Some people also hike up the mountain through the sand. After admiring the view from the crest, we rode back down to the entrance. We then visited Crescent Moon Spring which was another hike from the main entrance. Crescent Moon Spring, also referred to as Crescent Lake, was interesting and is considered a not-to-be-missed site when visiting Dunhuang.

On Wednesday, we drove west to the Dunhang Ancient City movie set just west of Dunhuang. The walled city was constructed to be like an ancient city where movies could be filmed. Several relatively famous films have been shot at this location including one Korean film. It was a very interesting place to see for a short visit.

Our next stop was at the West Ten Thousand Buddha Caves. The tourism map photos depict the caves before major reconstruction was completed to place the ubiquitous locked doors in front of each cave. Once again no photos were allowed within the caves and we were shown caves 3 through 7.

We then drove past the Sleeping Buddha Mountain en route to Yangguan Pass. The main attraction at Yangguan Pass is the surviving beacon tower. We walked through what appeared to be a reconstructed ancient city area and hired a small electric bus to take us up the mountain closer to the beacon tower. We continued on foot to visit the beacon tower and additional structures built primarily as viewpoints across the Gobi and for the beacon tower.

On Thursday morning, we drove northwest to the Helang City ancient city ruins which is also known as Big Fangpan Castle. A beacon tower could be seen on a hill near Helang City but the access road toward the tower was closed. We continued on to the site of Yumeng Pass where the remaining base of a beacon tower is situated adjacent to the Small Fangpan Castle structure that is shown in all of the tourist photos as Yumeng Pass.

Our next stop was at the ruins of the Han Dynasty Great Wall. Portions of the remaining wall extended for a great distance and a beacon tower still remained on a hilltop to the west. This was a very photogenic stop and was probably the highlight of my visit to the Dunhuang area.

Our final stop for the day was at the Yadan National Geological Landform Park. It has unique geological formations shaped primarily by the Gobi Desert winds. It is a large area and we were transported by bus to several stops where we could take short hikes among the landform structures. We were there mid-afternoon but Yadan should be visited at sunrise or sunset in order to see the colors of the landforms at their best.

On Friday, 18 April, we departed Dunhuang at 7:30 AM to drive to Jiayuguan. We took a 70 km detour to visit the Yulin Grottoes. The drive took us over a mountain range to a gorge area formed by a river with cliff-side caves. The geological landscape somewhat reminded me of the famous Ajanta rock-cut caves in India. There were cliff-side caves on both sides of the river and, true to form in this region of Gansu Province, the faces of the cliffs had been reconstructed with doors at the cave entrances providing access to the public. A few unrestored but inaccessible caves could also be seen in the distance. We were once again required to have a guide who showed caves 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, and 6. The statues in Cave 11 were unique to any that I had seen previously, but no matter how hard I pleaded with our guide, no photos were allowed. The saving grace of the visit to Yulin was the landscape and the statues in Cave 11.

The drive to Jiayuguan was very long and we arrived at my hotel in Jiayuguan at 5:00 PM. Fortunately for me, the people in the hotel lobby spoke passable English and I was able to arrange for a taxi for local sightseeing through the hotel. In addition, I received an email from my friend Sunny who I met while traveling in Sanliurfa, Turkey. She informed me that she would arrive from Taiwan the following day for work near Jiayguan. She and a colleague from her work planned to meet up with me on Sunday, 20 April, for a day trip to the Wenshu Mountain Grottoes.

On Saturday morning I had the hotel arrange for a taxi to take me to the Jaiyuguan Pass to visit the Jiayuguan Fort and the Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty extending one side of the fort to the First Beacon Tower and from the other side of the fort to the Cantliever Wall or Overhanging Wall on the north slope of Heishan Mountain. My taxi driver’s name was Pin Pin and, although she spoke no English, the hotel staff told her where I wanted to go and negotiated the price for my trip.

Pin Pin and I left the hotel at approximately 10:00 AM and arrived at the Overhanging Great Wall. This portion of the Great Wall falls steeply down from the mountain ridge and blocks the Shiguan Gorge. I hiked up the wall to the top and hiked down a pathway adjacent to the wall. The views of the Gobi Desert from the top were magnificent. A second portion of the wall extends from the south side of the Shiguan Gorge to the Jiayuguan Fort. A third portion of the wall intersects the second portion several hundred meters south of the gorge and ascends up the ridge of another mountain in similar fashion to the Overhanging Wall. A pagoda and temple complex with Tibetan prayer flags is located west of the Overhanging Great Wall part way up Heishan Mountain.

Our second stop was at the First Beacon Tower which formed the end of the Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty. It is situated on top of a cliff 87 meters high above the north bank of the Taolai River. In the interest of time, I decided not to cross the river via a suspension footbridge from an area north of the beacon tower. However, Pin Pin insisted that I visit the underground display area and viewpoint above the river. Once I arrived at the overhanging viewing platform, I understood her insistence. The platform afforded a wonderful photo opportunity of the cliff-side and the end of the First Beacon Tower. She even accompanied me to the viewpoint and through the exhibit areas.

Our last stop was at the Jiayuguan Fort. It is located at the western extremity of the Great Wall and dominated the plain that separated two mountain ranges. It was called the “Impregnable Defile Under Heaven.” It had enormous strategic importance as it controlled the only military and trade link between China and the deserts of Central Asia. It was a compound surrounded on three sides by the Great Wall. I climbed to the top of the Great Wall at the west end of the fort and also to the top of the accessible portions of the walls of the fort. The fort is a magnificent structure and the views from the top of the walls are superb.

On Sunday morning, 20 April, Sunny and her colleague, Jessie, met me at my hotel for our day trip to the Wenshu Mountain Temples and Grottoes. Sunny had already hired a taxi for the trip to the grottoes. Upon arriving at Wenshu, we discovered that there was a China military facility at the base of the mountain adjacent to the Wenshu Temple facilities. We had to wait for about thirty minutes for the military to complete some sort of exercises and open the road for us to drive to the temple and grottoes entrance. In addition, any photos depicting any portion of the military facility were prohibited and we were accompanied by a soldier who monitored the photographs taken by us.

There are many Tibetian Buddha temples and a pagoda situated at several mountain-side locations. The local occupants at the temples all welcomed us to visit and photograph the individual temples. The Wenshu Mountain Grottoes are carved within a cliff of Wenshu Mountain. The literature describes the grottoes as containing magnificent carved interiors and colorful murals on the ceilings of the caves. They remained unrestored and were closed to the public because workers are reconstructing the cliff of the mountain with concrete. I presume that the cliff-side reconstruction will be similar to the reconstructions at the Mogao, West Thousand Buddha, and Yulin Grottoes with doors covering the individual caves, public access limited to a handful of caves, and photography most likely prohibited.

We hiked up the mountains to the temples and to a mountain top viewing platform where we were able to photograph the un-restored grottoes in the distance. We also watched as construction workers mixed concrete that was being used in the on-going cliff side reconstruction.

After we returned to Jiayuguan, we ate lunch and then toured the Zixuan Vinyard. The vineyard is one of the largest in China and the building housing the kegs of wine is also one of the largest in China. The vineyard also has a section of VIP barrels owned by famous people.

Our next stop was a visit to Jiuquan, a small city nearby to Jiayuguan, where Sunny and Jessie were staying for their consulting job. Sunny wanted to visit the Jiuquan Bell Tower but it was closed. While waiting for the restaurant to open for dinner, we walked around the small downtown where Sunny and Jessie purchased some fruit at a fruit market.

We had a wonderful lamb dinner and then we all took the local bus to Jiayuguan. After arriving at Jiayuguan, we said good-bye. They took the bus back to Jiuquan and I took a taxi to my Jiayuguan hotel. It was a wonderful day with Sunny and Jessie and amazing that we could actually meet up for a visit in China.

I realized that I would need to revise my planned itinerary to delete some of the places that I had originally wanted to visit. I decided to eliminate Tianshul and the Maiji Mountain Grottoes and fly from Lanzhou to Chongqing on 26 April. In addition, given the difficulty of traveling in Gansu without being able to speak Chinese, I was able to hire Helen from Dunhuang to join me at Zhangye to be my guide for sightseeing at Zhangye and at Lanzhou.

On Monday, 21 April, I took the train from Jiayuguan to Zhangye. Helen joined me at Zhangye and she was able to arrange for an upscale taxi to take us on two separate day trips. The first day trip would be to visit the Zhangye Danxia Landform, also known as the “Rainbow Mountains,” and some local attractions. The second day trip would be to visit the Mati Temple Grottoes and the Zhangye Big Buddha.

On Tuesday morning, the taxi driver met us at about 5:00 AM for the drive to the Zhangye Danxia Landform. After waiting for the ticket office to open, we were directed to a tour bus that took us to a viewing point for the sunrise over the mountains. As the sun rose above the horizon, the colors of the mountains became vibrant. Several men from Italy were also on the bus with us. One man named Francesco hiked to an adjacent peak and began jumping up into the air as his friend took photos. One of my favorite photos is of Francesco being photographed while jumping.

The coloration reminded me of some areas of the southwestern United States, but the features of the mountains appeared to be unique. After several more stops, the bus returned us to the main entrance. On the way back to Zhangye, we drove through Zhangye New City being constructed adjacent to Zhangye as an ecologically friendly city by incorporating the Heihe River Wetland. We also visited the Zhangye Wetland Museum which just recently opened and was very interesting.

The following morning we visited the Mati Temple Grottoes. My Gansu tour book contained a very interesting photo from the grottoes but the taxi driver did not seem to recognize it. Just after we entered the main Mati Temple gate, Helen noticed the grottoes depicted in my photo were on the right side of the car. We stopped the car and I proceeded to explore the grottoes. They were unusual in that many appeared to be unique face-like sculptures carved into individual grottoes. The taxi driver told Helen that, although he had been to the Mati Temple Grottoes, he had never seen these grottoes before due to obstruction by trees in front of the grottoes. Although the taxi driver wanted to go to another temple area further up the mountain with the promise of returning here later, I decided to complete our visit here while we had good light for photos.

Our next stop was at a Tibetan temple complex located adjacent to the grottoes where we first stopped. It was very interesting with temples built both at ground level as well as on the mountain cliff side. The uppermost temple is accessed by a tunnel stairway carved within the mountain from an adjacent temple. The temples were very interesting and wonderful for photos. In order to keep track of these temples and grottoes, I decided to caption them as the Lower Mati Temple Grottoes.

We continued on to the main Mati Temple Grottoes which were at a higher altitude. There are many grottoes at the higher main temple site although many have not been reconstructed and are not accessible to the public. I decided to caption these temple grottoes as the Upper Mati Temple Grottoes.

En route to the upper temple grottoes, we stopped at a viewing point with three stupas and Tibetan prayer flags. The viewing point provided a spectacular view of the Upper Mati Grottoes. An even higher temple is situated some distance from the main temple area and I hiked to the higher temple. Several unrestored large caves had Buddha statues and murals. The large multi-storied temple that is featured in most tourist literature has internal carved stairways that provide access to most of the multi-level individual temples. Photography within selected niches of the multi-storied temple is prohibited.

After returning to Zhangye, we visited the Zhangye Buddha Temple. The temple building that houses the big Buddha is very photogenic. Photography within the temple and of the big Buddha is prohibited.

Since Helen needed to be back at work in Dunhuang on Saturday, 26 April, we decided take the overnight train to Lanzhou and try to take a day trip to the Bingling Grottoes nearby Lanzhou. During the night, a huge Gobi Desert dust and sand storm materialized. By the time we went to the train station, the visibility was very poor. Our train to Lanzhou was running nearly an hour late but at least it was not one of the cancelled trains.

We arrived at Lanzhou at about 9:00 AM and the dust and sand storm had also reached Lanzhou. In the interest of good common sense, I cancelled our plans for any sightseeing due to the weather. Instead of sightseeing, I worked on downloading some of my travel photos.

It rained and snowed during the night at Lanzhou and by the morning of 25 April, we woke up to accumulated snow on the ground. The precipitation stopped, the weather improved, and Helen traveled back to Dunhuang. I decided that I would go to see the Lanzhou Waterwheel Park. When I checked with the hotel concierge, I discovered that the waterwheel park was relatively close to the hotel. I walked across a bridge over the Yellow River to the Lanzhou Waterwheel Park. It may well be the most popular local attraction in Lanzhou. The waterwheels delivered water from the river to overhead wooden aqua ducts for operating industrial functions. The roundtrip walk took about two hours and completed my revised Silk Road sightseeing.

I flew from Lanzhou to Chongqing on Saturday, 26 April. I had visited Chongqing during April 2013, and I brought my local Chongqing city map along with me. I booked a room at the same Holiday Inn Express hotel where I stayed previously. I had used the Chongqing city map to show taxi drivers how to take me to my hotel. Upon arrival at the airport, I took the next available local taxi in the queue and gave my hotel address and my map to the driver. He indicated that he knew where to take me. After trying to deliver me to two incorrect hotels, he finally called someone who spoke English as an interpreter. After using the interpreter, we set off again to find my hotel. When I started to recognize the scenery from my prior visit, I pointed to places where the driver should turn and we arrived right in front of my hotel – all is well that ends well.

Peng, the Air China flight attendant who I met a year ago, and her husband, Thong, picked me up at my hotel on Sunday, 27 April, to go to the Dezhuang Hot Pot restaurant for lunch. Not only did they pick me up in their car but they also brought some gifts for me. The renowned Chongqing hot pot lunch was wonderful. During lunch, I noticed the Yangtze River Cableway while looking out of the window of the restaurant and we decided to ride on it later.

After lunch we drove to Foreigner Street where we met up with Peng’s friend, Summer. Summer is also an Air China flight attendant. We walked around the amusement park area. We were hopeful that we could go for a boat ride or train ride. However, since it was a Sunday afternoon, there were too many families and long lines for us to go for a ride. We decided to go for a ride on the cableway instead.

We rode the cableway northbound across the Yangtze River and later back southbound across the river. Our next stop was at the Grand View Garden. It is a complex high on a mountain with many restaurants and magnificent views. We decided to have dinner at the Flower in Bowl restaurant. The meal was wonderful, and I especially enjoyed the river snails. After dinner they took me back to my hotel and planned to meet me again the following day.

Peng and Thong picked me up on Monday to go visit the Chongqing Museum, originally named the Southwest Museum, that was built in 1951. I tried to visit this museum last year when I was in Chongqing. Although this museum was listed in my Chongqing Travel Guide published by the China National Tourism Authority, we were informed that it had been closed and that the relics and books had been moved to the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum. Since the museum was no longer there, we decided to eat lunch at a local neighborhood restaurant.

After lunch we visited the Exhibition Hall at the former residence of Soong Ching Ling. Mme. Soong Ching Ling lived here from 1942 to 1945, and it once served as the Central Committee of the China Defense League during the War of Resistance against Japan.

Our next stop was at the Republic Studio in Longxing Old Town. It is a town built for a movie set and people are encouraged to start small businesses in the buildings. We enjoyed exploring the old town and had dessert at an ice cream shop before returning to Chongqing. Back at Chongqing, Peng and Thong took me to their home for tea. After tea, we went to one of their favorite restaurants for a fresh grilled fish dinner.

Thong’s grandmother called him and asked him to come to visit her the following day. Although they wanted to spend another day sightseeing with me, I felt is was more important for them to spend the following day with his grandmother. When we returned to my hotel, I thanked them very much for spending two days showing me around Chongqing and we said good-bye.

I departed China on Wednesday, 30 April, on a flight to Bangkok. On the flight to Bangkok, I reflected on just how wonderful my trip to Gansu Province and Chongqing had been. I was so lucky to find Helen and Mr. Ten from Dunhuang, to meet up with Sunny at Jiayguan, to hire Helen as my guide for Zhangye and Lanzhou, and finally to spend the wonderful time with Peng, Thong, and Summer at Chongqing. What a marvelous trip it was indeed!

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  February 2014
Norway

Travel Notes

 

After researching a possible trip to Norway to see the Northern lights, I was able to arrange an individual, unescorted tour through Fjord Travel. The trip would originate in Oslo with a train trip across the mountains to Trondheim. We would board a Hurtigruten ferry ship and sail north along the coast of Norway and around the North Cape to Kirkenes. Excursions would include a dog-sledding trip at Bodø, an excursion to the North Cape, and a snowmobile safari at Kirkenes. In addition, we would spend one additional night at the Kirkenes Snow Hotel before flying back to Oslo.  

Jan and I arrived at Oslo, Norway, on Thursday, 20 February, at about 10:00 AM. After clearing immigration, I obtained some Norway Krone at an ATM machine before we exited the terminal and located the SAS airport bus. The SAS airport bus took us to within one block of the Thon Hotel Bristol in the Oslo city center. We had booked two additional nights at the hotel prior to starting our Fjord Travel tour in order to be able to spend a couple of days in Oslo. 

We spent most of Thursday afternoon resting at the hotel and researching sights that we wanted to visit in Oslo. We had a wonderful dinner at the Bristol Grill in the hotel where we got our first introduction to just how expensive most things are in Norway. Jan looked on the Internet and Norway is currently the most expensive country in the world according to the “Big Mac Index.” Most convenience type stores in Norway have ATM machines. 

Norway has a senior discount program and the discount is granted not only to the qualifying senior person but also to the people who are accompanying him/her. Since I qualified for the senior discount, we saved a considerable amount of money when we traveled by bus and visited local sightseeing attractions.

On Friday morning, after a magnificent buffet breakfast at the hotel, we obtained information at the hotel front desk on riding the bus to the National Theater stop and taking the No. 30 bus to the nautical museums. We walked to the bus stop and took the bus to the stop for the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Fram Museum and the Maritime Museum.

We first visited the Fram Museum which houses the FRAM, the most famous ship in polar history. It is known for the expeditions to the North and South Poles and can be toured by visitors to the museum. In an adjacent building, connected by an underground tunnel, the museum also houses GJOA, the first ship to navigate the Northwest Passage. The museum exhibits document polar exploration expeditions and it has spectacular models of FRAM icebound aircraft and airships, a theater, and a polar activity center.  

Our next stop was at the Norwegian Maritime Museum. It emphasizes ship building, maritime history, art, and archaeology. We went from here to the Kon-Tiki Museum where the original KON-TIKI balsa wood raft is on display. Thor Heyerdahl gained worldwide fame when he crossed the Pacific from Peru to French Polynesia on KON-TIKI in 1947. The film about the expedition, which won an Oscar in 1951, is screened every day at noon. Heyerdahl also had spectacular expeditions on the reed boats Ra and Tigris. The vessel Ra II is also on display at the museum. Ra II was a reed boat that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados in 1970. In addition, the museum has a very nice exhibit about Easter Island. 

We re-boarded bus No. 30 and went to the Viking Ship Museum. This museum houses three Viking ships: the Gokstad, the Oseberg, and the Tune. These ships were discovered in three burial mounds along the Oslo fjord. They had been buried more than 1,000 years ago to serve as vessels for their royal owners’ final journey to the realm of the dead. The exhibition also shows skeletons from the ships, the funeral carriage, sledges, and other artifacts from the graves.  

On Saturday morning, we walked to the Royal Palace. The palace was closed to the public but the palace grounds were very nice. We continued walking to the Cultural History Museum. This museum opened in 1904 and documents 9,000 years of Norwegian history with displays of Bronze Age burial sites and Viking weapons, jewelry, and handicrafts. The museum also houses medieval church art, gold artifacts, and a coin cabinet displaying Norway’s coin history. Other exhibitions included hunting and fishing in the Arctic, ancient Egypt, Samuari swords, and American Indians. 

We continued walking to the Oslo Cathedral and then on to the Akershus Fortress and Castle. The Oslo Cathedral is the main church of the Oslo diocese, established in 1076. The current building is Oslo’s third cathedral and was consecrated during 1697. It is Norway’s official church with the Palace, the Parliament, and government buildings located within its parish boundaries. Many national, parliamentary, and royal events have been celebrated there. 

The Akershus Fortress and Castle is a medieval castle that was built to protect Oslo. Initial construction on the castle began in the late 1290s. The fortress was first used in battle in 1308, when it was besieged by the Swedish duke Eric of Sodermanland. The main building has undergone restoration and it has been used for official events and dinners for dignitaries and foreign heads of state. The Akershus fortress is still a military area but is open to the public at certain times.  

We arrived at the southeastern entrance to the fortress just in time to witness the changing of the guard. We then walked around the south end of the fortress and north along the western side to the entrance of the castle building. The castle is open only on certain days and we were very fortunate that it was open when we arrived. We took an audio tour of the castle and were able to see the government representation rooms, the castle church, the royal mausoleum, and the dungeon. The Norwegian Ministry of Defense and Defense Staff Norway have a joint modern headquarters in the eastern part of the fortress. 

As we departed the main castle building, we noticed that Norway’s Resistance Museum was also within the fortress. We toured the Resistance museum and were impressed with the exhibits and documentation of Norway’s resistance efforts during the occupation of Norway by the German Nazis during World War II. After the resistance museum, we walked back to our hotel. 

Since we had an early train to Trondheim on Saturday morning, the hotel had packed a breakfast-to-go for us and ordered a taxi to the Central Train Station. It was a short taxi ride and, after asking directions, we found the track for our train to Trondheim. We had a reservation reference number from Fjord travel for coach 3, seats 143 and 144, on the NSB train with an 8:02 departure time. We also had instructions to board the train and give the reference number to the conductor who would then provide us with our tickets. When the conductor came to us after the train had departed the station, he had our train tickets with him. 

The seven-hour train ride to Trondheim was through the Dovrefjell Mountain plateau which is also a national park. The Dovre mountain range is also important in Norwegian folk tales and is the home of “Dovregubben,” a troll king. Upon arrival at Trondheim, we took a taxi to the Rica Nidelven Hotel – the taxi trip was so short, we could have walked to the hotel with our luggage. We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring downtown Trondheim.  

After a marvelous buffet breakfast at the Rica hotel on Monday, 24 February, we walked to the dock where the Hurtigruten Coastal Steamer ship M/S Nordkapp was docked. Although the ship was within walking distance, we decided to take a taxi with our luggage from the hotel to board the ship. The ship is a ferry, with a deck for cars, but the cabins and dining room are as nice as most cruise ships. 

Once aboard M/S Nordkapp, we were assigned to a cabin near the bow and, when we arrived at the cabin, the electronic lock on the cabin door would not work. One of the staff members of the ship used her master key to access the cabin and we were dismayed by the tiny and dingy cabin. The staff member said that since the electronic lock was broken, we would be assigned another cabin. Back at the reception desk, the lady said that the only other cabin that was available all the way to Kirkenes was near the stern of the ship and might have some engine noise and vibration. After seeing the first cabin, we said that we would take the aft cabin in spite of the potential noise. Once we arrived at the aft cabin, we were delighted to find that it was a spacious three person cabin with large windows and plenty of storage space for our luggage.  

Our aft cabin was directly below the dining room and was only minimally noisy when the ship’s thrusters were being used when docking at or departing a pier. It was also very convenient to the aft lift on the ship. The daily meals consisted of wonderful open-seating breakfast and lunch buffets and a three course dinner at an assigned table. We were told that the M/S Nordkapp was one of the newer Hurtigruten ships, and we were very pleased with all aspects of our cruise to Kirkenes once we received the aft cabin. 

Shortly after departing Trondheim, we passed Monk Island and later in the afternoon passed Kjeungskjær Lighthouse. This lighthouse from 1880 is regarded as one of the most beautiful lighthouses along the coast. Since we were having good weather, the Captain decided to sail through Stokk Sound a narrow and picturesque passage. Our first stop was for thirty minutes at Rørvik between 8:45 and 9:15 PM.  

We continued sailing north and crossed the Arctic Circle at about 7:10 AM on February 25 where there is an island with an Arctic Circle marker. Some passengers celebrated with “Arctic Circle champagne” which they purchased for the occasion. After passing the village of Ørnes, our next port was a 4½ hour stop at Bodø before continuing north to Stamsund and on to Svolvær. At approximately 11:15 PM, we sailed to the entrance of the Trollfjord where the ship attempted to illuminate the surface of the sheer mountain with a spotlight. The mouth of the Trollfjord is only 100 meters wide and the mountains surrounding it are between 600 and 1,100 meters high. 

After sailing through the night, we arrived at Harstad at 6:45 AM on Wednesday for an hour and a quarter stopover. The sunrise over Harstad was very beautiful as we approached the city. After departing Harstad, we passed the Trondenes Church which is the northernmost medieval stone church in the world. After a short stop at Finnsnes, we continued north to Tromsø. 

We arrived at Tromsø at 2:30 PM for a four hour visit. Our tour included a dog sledding excursion where we were taken by bus to the dog sledding facility. There were so many people for this excursion that we were broken up into three groups. The advertised excursion began with a dog sledding ride followed by warming up in a Sami tent with an open fire and a hot beverage. It also included a lecture about dog sledding and the dogs themselves. Our group started in the Sami tent with cake and hot coffee then out to visit the dogs and receive the lecture. Our final event was the actual dog sledding ride before returning to the ship. 

After dinner, we got our first chance to observe the Northern Lights. They were not brilliant but were readily visible. As we continued north, we made a short stopover at Skjervøy at 10:30 PM. 

On Thursday morning, we arrived at Hammerfest for a fifteen minute stopover and at Havøysund for a thirty minute stopover en route to a 3½ hour stop at Honningsvåg at 11:15 AM. Honningsvåg is the main port for the North Cape which is the northernmost point on the European continent. Our tour included a North Cape excursion where a bus took us from the ship across the 71st parallel to the North Cape. The landscape between the port and the North Cape is spectacular, with the North Cape plateau rising 307 meters almost vertically above the Arctic Ocean.  

After arriving at the North Cape, we visited the Children of the Earth Monument. The Children of the Earth project began in 1988 when seven children, selected at random from different parts of the world, were flown to the North Cape. Each child made a clay relief which was enlarged, cast in bronze, and erected in 1989. A statue of a mother and child was also erected in 1989 to complete the project.  

We visited the North Cape Hall visitor center and the North Cape monument. We also watched the marvelous 180° panoramic film about Finmark and the North Cape in the North Cape Hall. 

As we continued sailing eastward, we passed the Finnkjerka (Finn church), a unique rock formation at the entrance to a calm bay called Kjøllefjord. After passing Finn church rock, the ship’s crew offered a special Finn church celebration drink to the passengers and displayed several king crabs that had been caught earlier in the day. After a one hour stopover at Kjølleford and a 45 minute stopover at Berievåg, the weather conditions at Berievåg provided us another opportunity to see the Northern Lights. 

We continued sailing southeast along the coast for a thirty minute stopover at Vadsø before arriving at Kirkenes at 9:00 AM on Friday, 28 February. Since our tour included a snowmobile safari excursion and one night at the Kirkenes Snow Hotel, we disembarked with our luggage and boarded a mini-bus to go on the snowmobile excursion. Upon arrival at the snowmobile facility, we were outfitted with thermal suits, heavy boots, helmets, and gloves before being briefed on the snowmobiles and the rules of operation. The snowmobiles had heaters that heated the handlebars as well as the area near our feet. The safari was along a frozen section of a fjord with hot beverages and dried reindeer meat served in a Sami tent. Our hosts also put on a native Sami show for our benefit.  

When the snowmobile safari concluded, we were transported to the Thon Hotel Kirkenes where we stored our luggage, packed a small overnight bag, and waited for pickup by personnel of the Kirkenes Snow Hotel. We ate lunch and made use of the public computer at the Thon hotel to check-in for our SAS flight to Oslo and print our boarding passes. 

The mini-bus from the Kirkenes Snow Hotel picked us up around 6:00 PM and transported us to the hotel. Upon arrival at the snow hotel, we were taken to a large Sami structure where we were briefed on the snow hotel and where each person cooked a reindeer sausage over the open fire. We then went to the snow hotel lobby area with ice tables and a round ice bar in the center where we received additional briefings and our hotel room assignments. We were assigned to Room No. 4. The rooms are connected to the lobby area by a long snow hallway with rooms located on both sides of the hallway. After locating our room, we went to the large heated service building where the use of the sleeping bags, internal sheets, sleeping caps, and additional dry socks were demonstrated. After the demonstrations, we went to the dining area where we were served dinner. After dinner we went to the service building lounge area to wait until we were ready to get our sleeping gear and go to our rooms for the night. 

The hotel is reconstructed every year and is made by inflating large balloons and then blowing freshly made snow from the nearby lake over the balloons. After the snow on the balloons is several feet thick and allowed to set up, the balloons are deflated and the interior walls are carved. There are holes in the top of the internal chambers and rooms, and the rooms have only curtains at the doorways to permit air circulation within the snow structure. The temperature within the snow hotel is maintained at approximately -5° C (23° F). The snow hotel also provides saunas and showers in the service building for the guests. 

I was very tired and fell asleep in a chair in the service building lounge area early in the evening. We went to bed in our snow hotel room at about 11 PM. Jan was having some difficulty breathing enough oxygen and returned to the service building around 3 AM to sleep on a sofa. I woke up several times between 4 and 5 AM because I was extremely hot in the sleeping bag and very thirsty. I finally got up at around 5 AM and went to the service building lounge area to get some coffee and wait for breakfast.  

After breakfast, we walked around the grounds and visited the dog sledding dogs and the reindeer. One building adjacent to the Sami structure had a sign above the door that read “Kirkenes Snow Hotel – The World’s 25 Best New Adventures for 2008 by National Geographic.”  

We were taken by bus back to the Thon Hotel Kirkenes where we repacked our luggage and called a taxi to take us to the airport to catch our SAS flight to Oslo. The flight to Oslo was uneventful, and we took the SAS airport bus back to the Thon Bristol Hotel for our last night in Norway. We had a wonderful dinner at the Bristol Grill restaurant and one last buffet breakfast at the hotel before taking the bus back to the Oslo airport. We departed Oslo on Sunday, March 2nd, on our flights back home to California.

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  January 2014
West Bengal and Sikkim, India

Travel Notes

 

After researching a possible trip to West Bengal and Sikkim, India, for early 2014, I contacted my friend, Lily Zaho, in Australia to ask her what travel group she used for her India trip. I met her in Kajuraho, India, in 2013 while she was also doing independent travel across northern India and then on to Nepal. She said that she used the Caper Travel Company and sent me their email address. I contacted Caper Travel and we worked out a travel itinerary for a trip from Kolkata to Darjeeling and beyond into Sikkim, India.

I arrived at Kolkata, India, on Sunday, 10 January, at about 11:00 PM. After clearing immigration, I exited the terminal and located the representative from Hi-Life Tours holding a sign with my name. After a short introduction, we drove to the Fortune Park Panchwati Hotel.

After a very early breakfast on Saturday, 11 January, I went to the Kolkata airport for a domestic Spice Jet flight to Bagdogra, India. Upon arriving at Bagdora, I was introduced to Mr. Prakash who would be my driver to Darjeeling and to Gangkok. The drive to Darjeeling from Bagdogra typically takes between three to four hours through the lower Himalayas. The narrow winding mountain roads to Darjeeling range from good to very poor. We arrived at Darjeeling after dark and I checked into the Elgin Darjeeling hotel for two nights.

I requested a 4:00 AM wake up call for Sunday, 12 January, and met Prakash at 4:15 AM to drive to Tiger Hill to observe the sunrise over the Himalayas. Tiger Hill is famous for magnificent views of Mount Kanchenjunga, Mount Everest, and other eastern Himalayan peaks at sunrise. Although the temperature was below freezing, more than two hundred people braved the cold to view the sunrise. Our views during the sunrise were pretty good and certainly worth getting up early.

On the way back to the hotel for breakfast, we stopped at the Yiga Choling Old Ghoom Monastery. It is one of the oldest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the Darjeeling area built in the year 1850. It is about 8 km from Darjeeling and is at an altitude of approximately 8,000 feet. From here we drove back to the hotel where I ate breakfast before continuing my Darjeeling sightseeing.

After breakfast, we set out to go to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) and ran into traffic gridlock due to road closures for the Darjeeling Police Marathon which was in progress. We were delayed for nearly forty minutes and when the road was re-opened we were driving in traffic beside some of the slower runners in the marathon. While we were stopped in traffic en route to the HMI, I gave some water to one lady runner who asked me for some water.

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was created by Tenzing Norgay and is situated within the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. Tenzing Norgay is the Sherpa who conquered Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. Since the traffic was in a near gridlock state, Prakash parked the car and I hiked up the steep road with switchbacks to the entrance of the zoological park. The zoo was very nice and I got an opportunity to see many animals including Himalayan wolves, yak, blue sheep, and Himalayan thar as I walked to the HMI. No photography is permitted within the HMI museum and the displays of mountain climbing equipment are superb.

After hiking back down to our car, we continued to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center which is also known as the Tibetan Handicraft Center. It is situated high up a mountain and is accessed by a very narrow and very poor winding mountain road. We were fortunate that we did not encounter any oncoming vehicles while on this road. Once we arrived at the refugee center, we discovered that it is closed on Sundays. I strolled around the center and noticed that it was very similar to the Tibetan refugee center that I visited at Pokara, Nepal, several years ago.

Our last two stops for the day were at two more Buddhist monasteries. The first was the Dunggon Samten Choling Monastery and the second was the Drux Thupten Sangag Choling Monastery. They are both situated along the road from Darjeeling to Ghoom.

During the evening, I tried to walk to Observation Hill which the hotel staff told me was a short distance up the hill from my hotel. It was dusk and almost dark when I left the hotel and I am not sure whether I ever found Observatory Hill. In any event, I passed Saint Andrew’s Church and the Ranga Mancha which was closed to the public during renovation activities. Full darkness set in and I abandoned my quest and returned to the hotel for dinner.

On Monday morning, the hotel opened the restaurant early for me to get a hot breakfast so that I could meet Prakash at 7:00 AM to go to the Darjeeling railroad station. I had a ticket for the 8:00 AM departure on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railroad (DHR) which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The DHR is commonly referred to as the “Toy Train” and is operated between Darjeeling and Ghoom (also spelled Ghum) for tourists to experience a part of Himalayan history. It is a 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge railway originally built between 1879 and 1881 that runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. Its elevation varies from 100 meters (328 ft) at New Jalpaiguri to about 2,200 meters (7,218 ft) at Darjeeling. Daily tourist trains run between Darjeeling and Ghum (India’s highest railway station).

After some confusion, the Station Manager arrived and assured me that the train would be operating and the departure time would be delayed for about fifteen minutes. I was the only paying passenger on the train and the conductor made a special effort to show me which seat he considered to be the best. The ride to Ghoom took about an hour with a ten minute stop at the Gurkha, a War Memorial honoring Nepalese Soldiers. During the short stop at the Gurkha War Memorial in the center of the Batasia Loop Garden, I met a couple in traditional Neplalese dress and the lady posed with me for a photo beside the train.

The train operates as a round trip from Darjeeling to Ghoom with a one half hour stop at Ghoom to visit the Ghoom Toy Train museum. In addition to interior exhibits, the museum displays some old railroad cars and an old steam locomotive. Since Ghoom is on the way to Gangtok, after touring the museum, I met Prakesh to drive to Gangtok and we said good-bye to the conductor.

Gangtok is located about 90 km to the east of Darjeeling. The drive to Gangtok from Ghoom is a very interesting journey across the lower Himalaya Mountains. The roads were narrow and ranged from good to very poor. They are very scenic with many very tight switchbacks and crossed mountains and at times followed rivers. At one point, I noticed a sign showing the altitude of 6,280 feet.

We stopped for a little while at Lamahatta which is where a beautiful large Tibetan garden is located. One of the local residents took a couple of photos of me in front of the garden. Farther along we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the confluence of the Rungeet River and the Teesta River. Later we would eventually cross the Teesta River just below the confluence. Before reaching the confluence we saw very few large trucks on Highway 12 from Ghoom but beyond the confluence we encountered many large trucks on Highway 31A to Gangtok.

As we approached the checkpoint into Sikkim at Rangpo, a border official requested my passport and then directed us to an office to fill out the paperwork for the special permit needed to travel in the state of Sikkim. The Sikkim Government required photocopies of my passport and India tourist visa plus one passport photograph before filling out the permit application. Next we were directed to go to another building where officials reviewed my documentation and finally placed a Sikkim stamp in my passport and on my copy of the entry permit. With the proper documentation we were allowed to continue our journey for another forty kilometers to Gangtok. The state of Sikkim became the 22nd state of India on May 15, 1975.

I checked into the Elgin Nor-Khill hotel at Gangtok for two nights. Built by the King of Sikkim in 1932 around a beautiful garden, the Nor-Khill served as his royal guesthouse for receiving Heads of states and dignitaries. It is now a luxury hotel that continues to be frequented by many famous people.

Gangtok was a small hamlet until the Echey Monastery was built during 1840 and made it a pilgrimage center. It also became a major stopover between Tibet and British India at the end of the 19th century.

On Tuesday morning, I was provided with a new Sikkim tour registered driver for my local sightseeing because Prakesh was not allowed to do local sightseeing driving in Gangtok. I met my new driver and we went over my itinerary for the day before driving to the Echey Monastery. The current Echey Monastery was built in 1901 under the reign of Sidkeong Tulku and follows the Nyingmpa Order. Photography within the monastery proper is prohibited and the murals within are exquisite.

After leaving the monastery, we went to the Himalayan Zoological park which is located high upon a mountain. In addition to identification signs on many of the plants and trees, the zoo has many animals in natural habitat enclosures. I viewed a Himalayan black bear, a clouded leopard, and some of the birds. Since I had just been to the Darjeeling zoo, I chose not to spend very much time here.

We went from the zoo to Ganeshtok which is a very popular small Hindu temple that commands a fantastic viewpoint of Gangtok and the surrounding mountains. The Government Institute of Cottage Industries (GICI) was to be our next stop but since today was a government holiday, it was closed. The Namgyal Research Institute of Tibetology was also closed because of the holiday.

We continued on to the Palace of the Chogyal and my driver finally found someone to let us enter the grounds. The Tsuklakhang is located here and is the place where royal marriages and coronation ceremonies took place. Unfortunately, the Tsuklakhang was not open for me to be able to view the impressive collection of scriptures and images of Buddha contained within. I met a couple of young boys who took me to a pasture where a horse was grazing. When the horse began walking toward us, the boys said he was wild and they ran behind the doorway to the pasture. The horse appeared to be gentle and walked up to me for affection. After patting and rubbing him, I rejoined the boys who seemed to be in awe of my encounter with the horse. On the way out of the palace, I passed two young ladies sitting in the sunshine with a small baby. I gave one US dollar to the baby for good luck.

We continued on to the Do Drul Chorten where two large stupas are located. The Dul-dul-Chorten Stupa was built to commemorate the victory of good over evil. The Jhang Club Chorten Stupa was built to perpetuate the memory of a great spiritualist of today.

On our way to the Lal Bazaar, we stopped at the Sikkim Legislative Assembly complex and an entrance to the Nan Nand scenic viewpoint located across the road from the legislative assembly. The Nan Nand area was very beautiful with a multitude of Tibetan prayer flags among the tall trees. After walking through the Lal Bazaar area, we returned to the hotel and I said good-bye to my driver.

I met Prakesh at 7:00 AM on Wednesday morning to drive back to Badogra and catch my Spice jet flight to Kolkata. Our first stop was at the Sikkim Border Station to return my Sikkim Travel Permit prior to departing Sikkim. Our journey to Badogra would be mostly along Highway 31A to Sevoke and Highway 31C to Siliguri. Our second stop was at a viewpoint for the confluence of the Rungeet and Teesta rivers. As we continued southbound toward Badogra the road mostly followed the Teesta river and the road conditions varied from good to terrible, coupled with considerable large commercial truck traffic.

After crossing the railroad at Senoke, we exited the lower Himalaya mountains and entered mostly flatland terrain. After driving through Siliguri, the Badogra airport was a short distance in heavy traffic. My flight to Kolkata was uneventful and my driver was waiting for me at the domestic arrivals exit. The drive to the Fortune Park Panchwati Hotel took nearly one hour from the airport.

I met my driver in the morning of Thursday, 16 January, for a local tour of Kolkata. After crossing the Vidyasagar Setu Bridge into Kolkata City, we drove to the famous Kalighat Temple. There was a festival in progress. My driver accompanied me to the temple where there were throngs of people queued up waiting for an opportunity to enter the temple. While I was taking some photos of the crowds outside of the temple, a man who is a Brahman priest approached me. He said that I should follow him to a private entrance into the temple for foreigners. Although my driver appeared to be skeptical of the priest, I decided to go with him while my driver waited for me.

The priest took me to a side door to the temple and a security guard gave us access into the temple. The priest gave me a guided tour through the temple among the packed pushing and shoving crowds while warning me to be aware of pickpockets. He pointed out the temple building where animals were sacrificed. He said a sheep is sacrificed every day and the meat is cooked in the temple kitchen along with rice to provide lunch for poor people. Photography is prohibited within the temple in all areas except for the area containing the sacred bathing ghat referred to as the Kundupukur. Within the bathing ghat, the priest took a couple of photos of me at the white marble statue of a meditating Lord Shiva. I left a donation at the statue to buy rice to feed the poor before we exited the temple. We located my driver among the crowd outside the temple, and I thanked the priest for his help in making it possible to enter the temple.

South Kolkata was interesting with some tree lined streets and some side streets which appeared to be narrow and very dirty. In addition, the traffic in Kolkata was among some if the worst that I have ever experienced. It is common for people to shut down their vehicles in stopped traffic waiting for indeterminate periods of time while traffic police direct traffic at intersections. The street car rail trolley system is interesting and some trolley cars appeared to be very old.

Our second stop in Kolkata was at the Birla Temple. Since photography within the temple was prohibited, I opted to only photograph the temple exterior and to pass on visiting the interior.

En route to Kolkata Town Hall, we visited Mother House which contains Mother Teresa’s grave. We also visited St. John’s Church, a protected monument, where the caretaker turned on the lights in the church for me to take some photos. Our final two stops were at the St. Paul’s Cathedral and Victoria Memorial Hall.

Back at my hotel, I ate lunch and downloaded some photos while waiting for my very late checkout. My drive met me at 7:30 PM to go to the Kolkata airport to catch my midnight flight to Bangkok. There was moderate fog and the drive to the airport in the heavy traffic after dark was somewhat tricky. I was happy to have had a very good driver. Most flights within India are usually late arriving and departing, and my flight to Bangkok was late departing. En route to Bangkok, I reflected on what a good trip I had just completed.

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  October 2013
Batam, Indonesia

Travel Notes

 

I had been told that many people from Singapore go to Batam Island, Indonesia for short weekend trips and I decided to also visit Batam Island during my October 2013 trip to Asia. Since I already had airline tickets to Bangkok, I continued on from Bangkok to Singapore. Batam Island is approximately 12 miles south of Singapore and easily accessible by ferry.

The island of Batam is a part of the Riau Islands Province of Indonesia, and is one of 3,200 islands in the province. Since Batam became part of a Special Economic Zone with Singapore in 2006, it has experienced high population growth rates. As a free trade zone, Batam has also become a major harbor and industrial zone and is the site of many factories operated by foreign companies. In addition, as a free trade zone, Batam also attracts tourists who are interested shopping for bargain prices.

On Sunday afternoon, 13 October, I took the Batam Ferry from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal in Singapore to the NongsaPura International Ferry Terminal at Batam Island, Indonesia. After disembarking from the ferry, I saw a man who was a representative of the Batam Bay View Resort. Since I had a reservation for that hotel, I approached him and gave him my confirmed reservation voucher. Although he was there to meet another couple, he immediately volunteered to assist me with my visa on arrival and then transported us to the hotel in the hotel courtesy bus.

Batam Bay View Resort is situated at a point with views across a bay toward Nagoya city to the west and across the Singapore Strait to Singapore. Nearly every room in the hotel has an ocean view. Although the resort location is close to the Nongsa International Ferry Terminal, it is more than 30 minutes by taxi to Nogoya, the largest city on Batam. There are other resorts and several very nice golf courses nearby.

After I settled into my room, I went for a walk to become familiar with the main buildings and to explore the resort grounds. There were not many people at the resort, and I enjoyed the scenery and the view across the strait to the Singapore skyline. Later I stopped by the Concierge Desk where I met Mr. Harrys Munandar. We talked about travel in general and about sights to see while at Batam.

He told me that the resort is normally crowed only on the weekends. He also said that most of the tourists come from Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and South Korea. In addition, he said that most tourists come to Batam for a weekend of duty-free shopping and playing golf. I told him that I normally hire a car and driver for local sightseeing, and he said that he thought it would be possible to hire a taxi for a day once I figured out where I wanted to go and that he would accompany me as a guide. We exchanged mobile phone numbers and I booked a local city tour for the following day to get a closer look at Batam Island.

The city tour was primarily a tour for tourist shopping and some limited local sightseeing. Three other people joined me on the tour and our first stop was at a chocolate store. Other stores consisted of a spice store, several outlet stores, and a large shopping mall. Sightseeing stops included the Maha Vihara Duta Maitreya Temple, the Batam Go Kart Center, and Batam Miniature House Indonesia. In addition, we ate lunch at the Golden Prawn restaurant.

The Maha Vihara Duta Maitreya Temple is one of the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia and is reported to be the number one tourist attraction in Batam. It is located in the Batam Center area of Batam. The main chamber consists of statues of Buddha, and the side chambers feature Goddess of Mercy (Guan Yin) and Guan Gong deities. The temple was beautiful and had unique white statues in the large area in front of the temple.

A young couple on my tour wanted to drive Go Karts at the Batam Go Kart Center. After watching them beginning to drive the go karts, I noticed a poster advertising Batam Miniature House Indonesia. The tour guide said that it was very close and I went there while the folks continued to drive the go karts. Batam Miniature House Indonesia is a park that features replicas of 33 traditional houses from 33 provinces in Indonesia. The park has a long winding path with the 33 houses spread out at many places. The houses are made from cement and have a height of around 1.5 meters. They come from various provinces starting from Ache, Bali, Bangka-Belitung, and continuing until Maluka and Papua. I was really impressed with this park and would rate it as a must visit place when traveling to Batam Island.

We stopped for lunch at the Golden Prawn Restaurant which is advertised as one of the best seafood restaurants on Batam. We enjoyed a large multi-course seafood lunch before continuing our tour. The restaurant was huge and was not at all crowded. Although the food was good, I believe that the Amazon Restaurant adjacent to the Nongsa International Ferry Terminal served better seafood.

After returning to the hotel, I met with Harrys and we discussed a day of Batam Island sightseeing. Harrys said that he would rent a car and would drive me as well as be my guide for a full day trip. Since Harrys was a long time resident of Batam and had spent much of his life there, I knew that this arrangement would be perfect.

Harrys met me at the hotel with a late model rental SUV for our sightseeing day trip at about 9 AM. I left the itinerary of where we would visit up to him and he made sure that I received a very comprehensive sightseeing tour of Batam.

We drove first to the Kabil Industrial Park and then past the LNG Power Grid facility to the Telaga-Bunggur domestic port where he pointed out the Port Master Building. We continued on to the nearby picturesque Kampung Tua – Old Chinese Village, where we observed the Navy Post, a Chinese temple, and the Landlord’s House.

We continued on to the very large and beautiful Mesjid Raya Mosque, which we walked through. From the mosque we walked across the road to see the Mayor’s House, the Senate House, Harris Hotel, the Mega Mall, and then took some photos of the white “WELCOME TO BATAM” sign on the side of a small nearby hillside. Mr. Harrys commented that the sign is the Batam equivalent of the famous white “HOLLYWOOD” sign in Los Angeles, California, USA.

Our next stop was at the Toa Bek Kong Bio old Chinese temple. This is also a very picturesque temple and well worth a visit. Continuing on to the Nagoya business center, we stopped at the Yong Kee Istimewa Restaurant for lunch. Mr. Harrys said that this is the best local restaurant in Batam to get Batam noodles for lunch. We both had the Batam noodles, which were delicious.

After lunch, we drove past a Christian church with a gold dome that looked like it could be a mosque from a distance. We also stopped by Harrys’ motorcycle shop where he keeps the bikes that he races in competition and then visited the Tahu Saluyu Factory which makes tofu every day. It is owned and operated by Mr. Harrys’ mother. I was given two packages of freshly made tofu to take back to my hotel for the chef to prepare for me.

We drove to the KTM Resort in the Sakubang District to see the large statue of Buddha before continuing on to Sakumbang Lake which Mr. Harrys referred to as his “favorite make-out place.” Our next stop was at the Mata Lucuing mini zoo which was an interesting walk through the forest with a few animals and birds in captivity. As we continued driving toward the Barelang Bridge, we drove through the local second-hand market and past the Temiang Cemetery which was home to both Christian and Muslim gravesites.

South of Batam are several small islands that are connected by a chain of six bridges that are collectively called Barelang Bridge. In addition, “Barelang” refers to the islands themselves. Bridge No. 1, Tengku Fisabilillah, connects Batam and Tonton Island and is 642 meters long. It is a cable-stayed bridge with two pylons 118 meters high and a main span of 350 meters. It is also the most popular of the six bridges and is the one photographed for tourism brochures. Bridge No. 2 connects Tonton and Nipah Islands. Bridge No. 3 connects Nipah and Setoko Islands. Bridge No. 4 connects Setoko and Rempang Islands. Bridge No. 5 connects Rempang and Galang Islands. Bridge No. 6 connects Galang and Galang Baru Islands.

The high pylons of the Tengku Fisabilillah bridge came into view above the hills well before we arrived at the entrance to the bridge. As we crossed the bridge it reminded me a little of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, USA. We stopped on Bridge No. 2 to take some photos of the Tengku Fisabilillah bridge before continuing the drive South.

After crossing Bridge No. 5 to Galang Island, we visited the Galang Refugee Camp. The Galang Refugee Camp accommodated Indochinese refugees from 1979 until 1996. Approximately 250,000 refugees passed through this camp. The camp had two sections: Camp One and Camp Two. Camp One was for newly arrived refugees, those who had not yet been approved for resettlement in the United Stares or another third country settlement. After approval, refugees were transferred to Camp Two where they received instructions in English as well as cultural information regarding life in the main resettlement countries. Camp Two also housed Cambodians who had been camped and approved in Thailand. Policing was done by the Indonesian Police, while caseworkers and legal officers from participating countries and the United Nations came in as needed.

After crossing Bridge No. 5, we arrived at the refugee camp during the late afternoon. The sign at the entrance to the Galang Refugee Camp refers to the camp as Camp Vietnam Galang Island. As we drove through the camp I was amazed at the large area encompassed by Camp Vietnam. In addition to the buildings and a refugee graveyard, some of the boats used to transport refugees were on display. There is also a small museum in one of the administration buildings. We arrived at the museum just as it was about to close and the caretakers kept it open for us to tour the museum. This is an interesting place to visit, and I wished that I had more time to walk around the camp.

Instead of going on to Bridge No. 6, we drove west across large hills to the Mirota Resort located on a beach to watch the sunset. Mr. Harrys said that before a change in the governing officials, this area was to become home to a large casino, which is why the resort was built. After a new Government official arrived, however, he cancelled the casino plans and this resort now continues to struggle; it has no restaurant, but very nice sunsets.

Dusk arrived as we began our journey back to Batam Island. Along the way, we passed fresh water fish farms and stopped at one farm to look at some Dragon Fruit plants. As we approached the Tengku Fisabilillah bridge, Harrys stopped and we each purchased an ear of freshly grilled sweet corn with a spicy sauce. We stopped in the middle of the bridge and ate our ears of corn before continuing to Batam.

As we approached the city, Harrys took me to Satay Paradise where I ate lamb satay for dinner while he had the chicken satay. After dinner, I noticed a shop that sells perfume refills – a first for me.

Before returning to the hotel, we visited the Waterfront City area, the night market, the Regatta Kids Park, and the Nagoya Entertainment District, which Mr Harrys referred to as “white guys’ village.” As we got close to the hotel, we stopped at a Chinese Cemetery on top of a high hill and looked at the view of Batam at night including the illuminated white “WELCOME TO BATAM” hillside sign. Our last stop of the night was in an old village where there is only one house that is constructed on stilts, and I took my last photo of the full day trip with Mr. Harrys.

After returning to the hotel at about 9:30 PM, I placed the tofu in the refrigerator in my room and all I could say was “WOW, what a great day trip we had!” The following day, Harrys came to my room and we went through my photos from the day before to properly identify each photo. That evening, the chef at the hotel dining room cooked the freshly made tofu from Mr. Harrys’ mom’s factory, and it was very good.

Meeting Harrys was the highlight of my trip to Batam, and I continue to keep in touch with him. He was trained as a chef and served as a chef on cruise ships. He returned to Batam and has a travel website for adventure travel in addition to being the concierge at the Batam Bay View Resort. His email address is h.r.harrysmunandar@gmail.com.

Harrys arranged for my ferry return ticket boarding pass to Singapore and accompanied me to the Nongsa International Ferry Terminal on the morning that I departed Batam Island to return by ferry to Singapore to catch my flight to Bangkok.

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  October 2013
Cambodia

Travel Notes

 

Once I arrived at Bangkok on my flight from Singapore during the afternoon of 19 October, I needed to figure out where I wanted to go while I was still in Asia. I had originally planned to go to Pakse, Laos, and points south including the archaeological ruins nearby and the waterfalls on the Mekong River. But while I was at Batam Island, Indonesia, a plane operated by Laos Airline crashed into the Mekong River just north of Pakse. Consequently, I decided that Pakse would be overcrowded with people investigating the airplane accident and not a good place to visit at this time.

While spending two nights near Bangkok International Airport, I finally decided to go to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I had met a man on my flight from Bangkok to Singapore who said that Phnom Penh was a good tourist destination and that the Riverfront area of the city was quite nice. I booked both my flights from Bangkok to Phnom Penh and an inexpensive hotel in the Riverfront area on the Internet.

I flew to Phnom Penh on Monday, 21 October. After obtaining my visa on arrival at the airport and clearing immigration, I took a taxi to the Queens Wood hotel in the Riverfront area. The taxi was a nice Toyota Camry with good air conditioning, and the driver said that he always uses this particular taxi. During the taxi ride to the hotel, I asked him about day trips out of Phnom Penh that were listed on a brochure in the taxi. He described one to Chiso Mountain with a stopover at the Killing Fields on the way back to Phnom Penh that appealed to me, and I reserved that daytrip with him for later in the week. When we arrived at the hotel, he gave me his card with his phone number and then waited until I checked in so that he could also contact me at the hotel.

The hotel could use a facelift but would be adequate during my stay in Phnom Penh. It had a breakfast room restaurant off the ground floor lobby where a simple buffet breakfast was served daily. It also had a restaurant on the eighth floor with a nice view overlooking the city. My room was a corner room with a large double bed, thermostat controlled air conditioning, a refrigerator, a hot water kettle, WiFi, en suite facilities, and an in-room safe. It also had good city views from the two corner windows.

After settling into my room, I went for a walk to explore the neighborhood and to purchase some extra water for my refrigerator. I walked through a large local market area near the hotel and then explored the Riverfront area from the Night Market to 178 Street. The man on the flight to Singapore was correct when he said that this area of Phnom Penh was very nice. The Riverfront area occupies a portion of the Daun Penh District of Phnom Penh adjacent to the Ton Le Sap River near where it joins the Mekong River. It extends west from the river into the city for approximately three city blocks. There is a spacious public area between the river and Preah Sisowath Quay, the main street adjacent to the buildings facing the river, and it is popular with people both during the day and after dark. Numerous nice hotels, restaurants, and shops are located here.

I spent Tuesday morning walking for several kilometers and exploring the area along the river from the Night Market to the Samdech Chuon Nath statue. I admired the architecture of the Royal Palace, temples, monuments, and many of the public and private buildings. The Dorngkeur God Prayong complex is adjacent to the river opposite the Royal Palace Park. It is beautiful, and there were people paying to set caged birds free – some of the literature states that the birds are trained to fly back to their cages. I also walked through several parks and greenbelt areas that included the Royal Palace Park and Kron Ngoy Gardens. It is nice to find an area where you can enjoy walking both during the day and at night.

After lunch, I spent time at the Wat Ounalom temple while I waited for the Royal Palace afternoon tour to open. The Royal Palace complex which includes the Silver Pagoda, is spectacular and should not be missed when visiting Phnom Penh. The Silver Pagoda, officially known as Preah Vihear Prea Keo Morakot, is the official temple of the king of Cambodia and contains many national treasures of Cambodia. Among the treasures are gold and jeweled Buddha statues, including the 17th century baccarat crystal Buddha, the “Emerald Buddha of Cambodia,” and the life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds. The largest diamond is 25 carats and the gold Buddha weighs 90kg.

I met my driver for my Wednesday daytrip to Chiso Mountain. On the way to the mountain, I was able to get a close look at other areas of Phnom Penh which were much more typical of an ordinary Southeast Asian city. My driver informed me that there were on-going demonstrations by people protesting the recent Government elections. After passing several security checkpoints, we were forced to detour along tiny one-lane roads. Security forces had closed the main highway to deter country-side people from traveling to Phnom Penh presumably to participate in the political protests. After circumventing the checkpoint roadblock, we returned to the main highway and continued on to Chiso Mountain.

My driver told me that the villagers near Chiso Mountain specialized in cooking fresh chickens and recommended that we eat lunch there. I told him that I would like my chicken grilled, and he said that he would order lunch while I went sightseeing. I had requested that he purchase water before he picked me up because Cambodians can purchase water much cheaper than foreigners. People hiring a car and driver in Cambodia should always have the driver purchase the water for the trip.

Chiso Mountain is located 62 kilometers south of Phnom Penh and is the home of the Phnom Chiso ancient Hindu temple built in the 11th century. Phnom Chiso is located on top of Chiso Mountain and shares the top of the mountain with recent Buddhist temple structures.

According to the literature, most people who visit Phnom Chiso choose the easier climb of about 180 steps via the northern entrance and descend via the southern entrance. My driver took me to the southern entrance stairway with 412 steps and waited while I climbed to the top to visit Phnom Chiso temple. Once I arrived at the top of the mountain, I began exploring the Buddhist temples where I met a young lady who began to show me around. She also took photos of me at various places. Although she could use some refinement of her photography skills, I was very happy to have her accompany me.

Phnom Chiso is the highlight of the 380 meter high mountain. The original name of the temple was Sri Suryaparvata. It was built in the 11th century of laterite and bricks with carved sandstone lintels by the Khemer Empire King Suryavarman I who practiced Brahmanism. It faces to the East with ancient laterite steps descending straight down the side of the mountain to the plain below and toward a building known as Son Reveang, which is now used as a Buddhist place of worship. Beyond Son Reveang is Tonle Om, the baray of the temple. The views from Phnom Chiso are stunning. Although Phnom Chiso is damaged, it is very photogenic and a delight to explore. Now that I have visited Phnom Chiso, I would very much like to explore the plains area to the East of Chiso Mountain on a return visit to Cambodia.

Once I completed my visit to Phnom Chiso and the adjacent temples, I said good-bye to my friend and gave her a nice tip for her guide services. The climb down the southern stairs was uneventful and my driver was waiting for me with lunch. Lunch consisted of a rather small chicken that had been grilled and a large bowl of cooked green beans. We ate lunch at a sheltered structure while we watched local villagers slaughter more chickens – at least, we knew that our grilled chicken was indeed fresh. The lunch was good but it was also grossly overpriced. I would recommend that if someone visits Chiso Mountain, they might want to consider skipping the fresh chicken lunch offering at the southern entrance to the mountain.

After lunch we began the return journey back toward Phnom Penh. We had passed an interesting Buddhist temple complex on our way to Chiso Mountain. It was situated several kilometers to the northwest of Chiso Mountain, and I asked my driver to stop there on our way back to Phnom Penh. Within the Buddhist temple complex is Prasat Neang Khmau, two ancient brick prasats that were built in the Angkorian-era in the 10th century under King Jayavarman IV and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. This temple complex was picturesque and well worth a short visit.

As we continued on the main highway toward Phnom Penh, I noticed that security personnel no longer occupied any of the prior checkpoints along the highway.

Our final stop was at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, which is located roughly 17 km south of Phnom Penh. According to the literature, it is best-known of the more than 300 sites known as the “The Killing Fields” where the Khmer Rouge executed over one million people between 1975 and 1979. It was an orchard and a Chinese graveyard prior to becoming a mass grave site containing more than 8,895 bodies. Most of the original buildings were destroyed by angry Cambodians after the site was discovered following the defeat of the Khmer Rouge by the communist Vietnamese army during 1979. A Buddhist stupa with transparent acrylic sides has been erected to house human skulls and bones exhumed from the mass graves – it contains more than 8,000 human skulls. At one corner of the site, there is a museum that has a video presentation in addition to static exhibits.

Each visitor is provided with a brochure and an individual audio player with earphones. The site includes 19 locations keyed to the audio tour and also has signs in both English and Khmer. In addition, the audio tour also included survivor stories that can be played at any time during the tour. Most of the people brutally executed here had been transported from the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh which today is known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

I spent Thursday morning at the National Museum of Cambodia. This museum has magnificent artifacts from all over Cambodia and is another “must-see” attraction when visiting Phnom Penh. Before entering the museum, I walked around the outer perimeter of the building to see the statues and artifacts on display outside. Photography within the museum is prohibited but a photo pass can be purchased that allows visitors to take photos in the open central courtyard area. I purchased a wonderful book at the museum gift shop that features many of the best museum artifacts.

After a late lunch on Thursday, I returned to my hotel and spent the remainder of the afternoon downloading and editing photos. I also spent some time on the Internet deciding where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see on Friday, my last day in Phnom Penh.

I traveled by “tuk tuk” on Friday from my hotel to Wat Phnom. Wat Phnom stands on the only hill in Phnom Penh and is the tallest religious structure in the city. It was originally built in 1373 and stands 27 meters above the ground. Legend has it that Daun Penh, a wealthy widow, found a large koki tree in the river and inside the tree were four bronze statues of Buddha. Lady Penh constructed a small shrine on top of an artificial hill made by the people living in the village. The structure has been built and rebuilt several times. Wat Phnom is the center of celebration during the Khmer New Year and Pehum Ben.

After visiting Wat Phnom, I went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which was known as Office 21 and was called S-21 Prison under the Khmer Rouge from 1975 until 1979. It was originally the Tuol Sleng Primary School and Tuol Svay Prey High School. Office 21 was created under orders of Pol Pot on 17 April 1975 and designed for detention, interrogation, inhuman torture, and killing after confessions from the detainees were received and documented. The brochure from the museum states that an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned here. Typical imprisonment lasted two to four months and political prisoners were held between six and seven months. Many of the prisoners from here were transported to the Choeung Ek killing field. The museum has displays of torture techniques employed by the Khmer Rouge, photos and documents of many of the prisoners, photos of the Khmer Rouge leaders, and many other historical photos of Phnom Penh and the killing fields. In retrospect, I believe that it would have been better if I had visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum before visiting the Choeung Ek Genocide Museum.

After leaving the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, I asked my “tuk tuk” driver to go to the traffic circle where the Independence Monument is located and then eastbound along Neak Banh Teuk Park. While driving past the park, we passed a large group of security personnel resting in the park with their riot shields stacked together on the grass. There is another traffic circle at the eastern end of the park where the Samdech Chuon Nath statue is located.

Since this was my last day in Cambodia, I went one last time to the Pop Café Restaurant which was my favorite restaurant in Phnom Penh. It is an authentic Italian restaurant where I noticed a man eating a wonderful looking pizza at a small table in front of the restaurant as I was looking for dinner one evening. The restaurant was very nice and the food was delicious. It is managed by a lady named Davy and a customer volunteered to take a photo of me with Davy and her staff during my last dinner in Cambodia.

I flew to Bangkok the next morning and spent the night near the Bangkok International Airport before catching my early morning flight back home to Los Angeles.

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  September 2013
Dubai

Travel Notes

 

After flying all night from Washington, DC, I arrived at Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday, 12 September 2013, at about 3:30 PM. The main objective of my long weekend trip was to determine if the Dubai International Airport might be a good choice as a place for me to connect to other places in southern Europe, the Middle East, and possibly India.

After clearing Dubai immigration, I located an ATM in the shopping area adjacent to immigration and obtained some local currency, the Emirate Dirham which is commonly referred to as AED or DHS. I proceeded outside of the terminal to the taxi stand to get a local taxi. However, when I reached the podium where the man was directing people to the taxis, he directed me to a man with a Mercedes who took me to my hotel.

I had booked a room at the Holiday Inn Express Jumeirah hotel near Jumeirah Beach. When we arrived at the hotel, I was concerned that the hotel appeared to be situated in an industrial area some distance from a typical downtown location. After checking into my room, I decided to relax and unwind from more than twenty-three hours of flying. The view from my room looked toward the Persian Gulf and the Drydocks World - Dubai facility. The shipyard is the largest facility in the Middle East and is the flagship company of the Dubai World subsidiary Drydocks World. Some of the workers at the shipyard were also staying at the hotel.

When I went to see about finding a restaurant for dinner, the hotel staff directed me to the large hotel restaurant which offered a full buffet dinner for 69 AED, including beverages. The buffet consisted of soup, salad bar, a variety of main dishes from different countries, and deserts. Many of the shipyard workers ate dinner there, and the buffet served different main dishes every evening. I was very happy with the inexpensive buffet dinner and ate there every evening.

The next day was Friday, and I learned that some local tours do not operate on Friday. I spent time on Friday looking at different sightseeing options and met Mr. Waqas Rehman, who was in charge of the tour desk at the hotel representing Asia Pacific Travels & Tourism. I booked a Dubai City tour with him for Saturday. He is also the owner of EMAL Magazine.

The Dubai City tour took about six hours and was very well done. A small van picked me up at my hotel on Saturday morning and drove to Dubai Creek where we joined another group of people in a larger bus. Dubai Creek is a saltwater creek that ends at Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. It was dredged to become a harbor for Dubai and it remains the home of smaller port facilities, such as Port Saeed. We continued from Dubai Creek to the Al Fahidi Fort in Bastakia. The fort is over 180 years old and also the home of the Dubai Museum. The museum extends underground and has wonderful exhibits of early times in Dubai.

Our next stop was at the large gold souk where many shops displayed elaborate gold jewelry. One shop displayed an enormous gold ring that is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest golden ring. The current price of gold was posted by carat per gram at locations throughout the gold souk. I was also impressed with the elaborate shoes and clothing for women on display in the gold souk.

We continued on to the Grand Jumeirah Mosque and Jumeriah Beach, where we were able to photograph the famous Burj Al Arab hotel, before continuing to the Madinath Jumeriah resort complex, where we made a quick u-turn in the first entrance driveway. We proceeded to the famous man-made island, The Palm. We stopped for photos at the ocean side of the Atlantis hotel at the far end of The Palm. The Atlantis, The Palm hotel, is frequently referred to as being the only seven-star hotel in the world. There are lunch and dinner tours available for people who want to enter the hotel.

We continued on to Burj Khalife, the tallest structure in the world, standing 2,722 feet tall with more than 160 floors. We were only able to photograph Burj Khalife from a distance. There are also special Burj Khalife tours available for people who want to visit the building.

The city tour made me realize that Dubai City is large and many of the luxury hotels are situated in different sections of the city requiring a car or taxi to go from place to place. After returning to my hotel, I no longer had reservations about the hotel location and enjoyed my stay there. The hotel also granted me a 6:00 PM late checkout for Sunday.

While on the city tour, I received an SMS text message from the tour office that I had requested an Internet booking for an East Coast tour for Sunday, September15. The SMS text confirmed my request and, after returning to my hotel, I formally booked the tour by email. The tour normally required a minimum of two people but, since I was alone, my booking involved paying some additional AED.

On Sunday morning, Rahaman picked me up in a Toyota Fortuner SUV, and we set out to visit the East Coast. The journey to the East Coast began with a golden sand dune landscape that changed to a flat landscape with acacia trees and finally morphed into rugged mountains before reaching the East Coast seaside. After passing through the oasis town of Dhaid, we stopped at the Friday Market, which is now open seven days a week. We continued eastbound through Masafi and stopped at a mountain scenic overlook area near Masafi. We branched off onto the Masafi-Dibbah road and drove northeast to the fishing village of Dibbah, which is adjacent to the border checkpoint with Oman to the north. After walking to the beach at Dibbah, we continued southbound along the Gulf of Oman shoreline and stopped at the town of Khorfkhan, where we had a wonderful lunch at a small local restaurant.

After lunch, we continued southbound to Madha, which is an enclave of Oman. We stopped to buy gasoline for our car at a popular gas station in Madha. Rahaman gave me the receipt for our gas purchase within the Sultanate of Oman. After our brief foray into Oman, we continued southbound to the Al Badiyah Mosque, the oldest known mosque in the UAE. As we approached Fujairah, we passed the enormous oil exporting facility that was built to export oil to Europe. The oil is transported by pipeline across the UAE to this facility. This facility allows the UAE oil to be exported from the Gulf of Oman rather than the Persian Gulf.

Upon arrival at Fujairah, we stopped at the Fujairah Fort. We walked around the outer perimeters of the fort but were not able to enter the fort. Rahaman also took me to visit his sister’s home in Fujairah for tea and banana chips before returning to Dubai City; it was so kind of him to take me there.

The East Coast tour gave me the opportunity to see more of the United Arab Emirates than just the opulence of Dubai City. It also showed me that the individual emirates were not contiguous entities but were disjointed local areas within the UAE. During the East Coast tour, we drove through Dubai Emirate, Sharjah Emirate, Ras al-Khairmah Emirate, Fujairah Emirate, and into the Madha enclave of Oman.

After retuning to my hotel, I packed for traveling, checked out, and ate one last buffet dinner at the hotel restaurant before taking a local taxi to the airport. After checking into my flight and clearing airport security, I settled into my very long flight which departed Dubai at 12:10 AM on Monday, September 16, en route to Washington, DC. It was an interesting long weekend trip, and I look forward to returning to the UAE at some time in the future.

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  August 2013
Datong, China

Travel Notes

 

After flying all night, I arrived at Datong, China, on Sunday, 4 August 2013, at about 8:30 AM. On my flight to Beijing, Peng, a wonderful Air China flight attendant from Chongqing, gave a stuffed Air China baby dragon to me. I viewed the baby dragon to be a good luck charm for my upcoming China travel. When I arrived at Datong, I found a local security person who directed me to a local taxi driver.

Although the taxi driver did not speak English, I gave him the address of my hotel in Datong in Chinese and he took me directly to the hotel. En route to the hotel, he handed me a laminated plastic guide to local Datong tourist attractions. Since several of the attractions were on my list, I pointed to a couple and he pointed to three in a circular motion and wrote 400 Yuan on a scrap of paper. I now had a benchmark for approximate costs for a taxi tour with non-English speaking taxi driver. I took his mobile phone number in case I decided to call him for his services.

I arrived at the Holiday Inn Datong City Center hotel around 9:00 AM and was informed that my room would not be available for another thirty minutes. The hotel guest services manager escorted me to a lounge area in the lobby and, after bringing me a cup of freshly ground coffee, we discussed the possibilities of her lining up a car and driver with an English speaking guide for multiple day trips in the vicinity of Datong, including the Yungang Grottoes and Mount Heng (Hengshan).

She called a local tour person and informed me that the cost of a car with English speaking driver for a full day would be 500 Yuan and an English speaking tour guide would be an additional 200 Yuan. Since I had been traveling all night, I asked her to inform the driver to meet me at the hotel the following morning at 8:00 AM to plan travel for that day and possibly several additional days. I spent the remainder of Sunday resting and exploring the area adjacent to the hotel.

I met with the taxi driver and the hotel guest services manager on Monday morning at 8:00 AM, and I decided to go first to the Yungang Grottoes which are located at the foot of Mount Wushou. The grottoes are described as being the earliest and largest Buddha statue complex preserved in China. According to the literature, the Northern Wei Dynasty was established at the time that the practice of carving Buddha statues in grottoes was being spread eastward from India. In AD 439, Emperor Tai-wu conquered Liangzhou (the area west of the yellow river in present-day Gansu) and many monks, craftsmen, and common people were forced to move to the capital Pingchen (present-day Datong). This helped to spread Buddhism eastward.

When Emperor Wen-cheng came to the throne, he revived the practice of Buddhism. In AD 460, by order of Emperor Wen-cheng, the eminent monk Tanyao, as a supervisor, had five grottoes excavated, called “The Five Grottoes of Tan-yao.” Over the next sixty-years, the gigantic project of Yungang Grotto Complex was completed. It stretched over 15 kilometers from east to west.

The present-day Yungang Grottoes stretch one kilometer from east to west. More than 1,100 grottoes and nitches with 51,000-odd statues have been preserved. There are fifty-three major grottoes. In 1961, The State Council entered the Yungang Grottoes as the focal protection historical relics nationwide. In 2001, the Yungang Grottoes were named as the “World Cultural Inheritance” by the UNESCO.

My taxi driver’s name was Mr. Wang, and his English was very good. As we drove to the Yungang Grottoes he informed me that, since I was older than 65 years, upon presenting my passport I would be granted free admission to all China tourist attractions excluding transportation services. Upon arrival at the Yungang Grottoes, I presented my passport and was granted free admission. China is one of the only countries that I am aware of that has this policy that includes foreigners.

As I walked toward the grottoes, I first toured the Ling Yan Temple complex. It was a very impressive complex and a bonus for my visit to the grottoes. As I exited the Ling Yan Temple, I visited the ShiGu Cool Spring and walked through the gateway to the footpath to the grottoes. I began my grotto visit at Cave No. 1 and then continued in increasing sequential order as I explored the grottoes. Cave No. 3 is the largest grotto and contains a ten-meter high main Buddha statue with attendant Bodhisattvas on both sides in the back chamber. Cave No. 6 is the best preserved grotto at Yungang but was closed to the public during my visit. Caves 9 to 13 were also closed to the public for maintenance during my visit.

Caves 16 thru 20 are “The Five Grottoes of Tan-yao.” The main statues in these grottoes are respectively 13.6 to 16.8 meters high. According to the literature, the main statues in these five grottoes were carved after the images of the first five emperors of the Northern Wei Dynasty – thus they are Buddha figures and human figures as well. Cave 20 was unique among these five caves in that the Buddha statue was exposed to the outside environment whereas the Buddha statues in Caves 16 thru 19 are contained within excavated grottoes behind doorway openings.

I continued exploring the grottoes until I arrived at Cave 41 where I found Caves 41 to 45 to be closed to the public. I then visited the Yungang Museum Exhibition Hall of Northern Wei Dynasty which had very good exhibits. One exhibit highlighted different additional grotto sites in the adjacent Gansu province. I took a photo of that exhibit and later researched those grotto sites on the Internet after returning to my hotel room. I was very interested in visiting the Maiji Mountain Grottoes but they were too far away for a long day trip from Datong – they will go on my short list for future China travel. Instead of going directly to the exit, I returned to the grottoes and walked back along them retracing my visit for a final look at the Yungang Grottoes.

Back at my car, Mr. Wang and I decided to travel farther north to the Outer Great Wall near Zhen Chuan village. This was actually the first time that I realized that there was an Outer Great Wall as well as an Inner Great Wall. The city of Datong is situated between the Inner and Outer Great Walls. The Outer Great Wall served as the “national boundary” and dividing line between the agricultural nationalities and the nomadic nationalities. The Inner Great Wall was the second line of defense.

Although most of the highways in the vicinity of Datong were quite good, the drive to the Outer Great Wall took well over an hour over some really poor areas of highway. The Outer Great Wall was an earthen structure with earthen watchtowers along both sides of the main wall. The remains of the wall were visible coming across the flat land to the east and continuing up and over mountains to the west. A small village was built along the southern portion of a remaining section of the wall. After I walked through the village and along a portion of the wall, I returned to my car for our drive back to my hotel.

On Tuesday morning, August 6, I met Mr. Wang at 7:30 AM to go south to Heng Mountain (Hengshan). The weather forecast called for rain by the afternoon. I was informed that the Hanging Temple that I had planned to visit had been closed for maintenance following some sort of rock slide problem and that I would only be able to view it from a distance. In addition, I was informed that the cableway at Hengshan had also been closed for maintenance. I decided to continue to Hengshan anyway, and we traveled very good highways for our journey.

The Hanging Temple is located on the sheer cliff of the Golden Dragon Gorge at Hengshan Mountain. The temple is 1,500 years old and was built during 471 and 523 of the Northern Wei Dynasty. It is considered to be the number one wonder of Hengshan. The gate faces south and there are forty halls, towers, and pavilions in the temple. The temple contains more than 80 statues of bronze, iron, clay, and stone.

As we approached Hengshan, I was able to observe people actually visiting the Hanging Temple. When we arrived at the parking area for the temple, we found that today was the first day that the temple re-opened following the rock slide problem. What a lucky break for me as the morning sun pattern was perfect for photos of the temple. I hiked up to the temple and through the temple while meeting many Chinese people who wanted photos with me. During my visit to the temple, the clouds began forming and it began to look like rain might be imminent.

Despite the clouds, after visiting the Hanging Temple, I decided to continue on to the cableway to verify that it was still closed for maintenance. Much to our surprise, we found the cableway to be operating. Today was also the first day that the cableway had re-opened after maintenance. Mr. Wang could hardly believe just how lucky I had been with both the Hanging Temple and the Hengshan Cableway. I attribute part of my luck to the Air China Baby Dragon that Peng had given to me on my Air China flight to Beijing. Hengshan is the northern-most of China’s five sacred mountains. I hiked Haushan, the western-most of the five sacred mountains, about a year ago. Hengshan will be my second sacred mountain in China.

As we drove up the mountain road to the Hengshan Square parking area, the clouds began to dissipate and we once again had bright sunshine. I took the cableway about half-way up the mountain to the Hengshan station and began hiking around Hengshan to enjoy the stunning views and visit many of the structures, palaces, and temples on the mountain. After hiking around Hengshan to the Sister-in-Law Cliff and the Deyi Nunnery temple, I returned to the cableway for the ride back down to visit a temple adjacent to the parking area.

With bright sunshine prevailing, we decided to visit the Sakya Pagoda in Yingxian County which was built during the second year of the Liao Dynasty. The tourist literature describes Sakya Pagoda as the largest pure wood construction still existing in the world. The pagoda is 67.31 meters high and weighs more than 7,000 tons. There are more than 40 murals and statues within the pagoda, and interior photography is prohibited.

After such good luck with the weather, the Hanging Temple, and the Hengshan cableway, I decided to take the following day, Wednesday, as a relaxing day at the hotel to work on editing photos. This turned out to be another lucky decision as it rained all day Wednesday. I arranged for Mr. Wang to meet me on Thursday morning for some Datong City local sightseeing.

Datong City has had a history of coal mining for several hundred years and has recently been taking steps to improve the air and environmental quality of the city. Many industries are moving or have already relocated to industrial parks away from Datong City. It appeared to me that coal production activities, including associated coal trucking and coal rail hauling, are being cut back with an emphasis on environmental quality and green energy. Mr. Wang explained to me that what appeared to be a modern nuclear power plant complex was actually producing electricity by coal and there was not a trace of smoke in the air. There is also an emphasis on solar and wind turbine production for electricity. In any event, I was surprised that the Datong City air quality was quite good.

Datong City has also embarked on the construction of a new wall around the old city area of Datong, complete with and exterior moat. Remnants of what appeared to be portions of the old earthen city wall still remain near the new city wall construction. Many new low rise buildings have been constructed facing new wide streets. Portions of the old city residential areas remain in areas behind the new low rise buildings. Outside the city walled area is the area of the new city with high rise office and residential buildings.

Mr. Wang met me Thursday morning, and we set off for some local Datong City sightseeing. Our first stop was at the entrance to a pedestrian street. Mr. Wang told me to walk along the street more than 100 meters to the Kungzi Temple, a Confucian temple. Upon arriving at the temple, I was impressed at the immense size of the temple complex and the beauty of the structures, murals, and statues. While walking back to my car, I met a beautiful young Chinese lady dressed in red who posed for me to photograph her; she became my favorite person photo of this trip to China.

Our next stop was at the Drum Tower, a local landmark in the middle of the intersection of four major streets near the center of the old city area. We continued on to visit the Huayan Monastery which Mr. Wang referred to as the city Temple. It faced a beautiful large square with a beautiful fountain. The monastery was also a very large and beautiful temple complex. Actually, all of the temple complexes that I visited in Datong City were very large with beautiful murals and statues.

We continued on to visit the famous Nine Dragon Screen which is one of several dragon screens that are situated within Datong City. Before finishing our local sightseeing tour, we visited the Fuhua Temple complex, the Five Dragon Screen, the Shanhua Monastery, and a mosque.

The following day, I decided to spend most of the day walking around the old part of Datong City. I walked along part of the new city wall and remnants of the old city wall. I walked along small older streets through portions of the old city residential areas. While walking through the old city, I came across two more temple complexes off the beaten path – the Dijun Temple and the Guandi Temple. Both of these temples were very beautiful, and I was glad that I discovered them.

I departed Datong on Sunday, August 11, to continue on to Thailand before returning home. Although several people had told me to expect much air pollution at Datong, I found it to have pretty good air quality. It is obvious that the Chinese Government is making strides to make Datong City a good place to live and to visit.

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  May 2013
Alaska

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I arrived at Anchorage, Alaska, late at night on Saturday, May 18th, and took a taxi to an Anchorage hotel. The following morning we took a bus to Seward, Alaska, to board the cruise ship ZAANDAM for an Inside Passage cruise to Vancouver, B.C. The bus stopped at several sightseeing spots along the highway to Seward designed to time the bus arrival with the ship’s scheduled boarding time. One stop was at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. While walking around the center, we saw many animals including moose, elk, caribou, musk oxen, a porcupine, black bears, brown bears, Sitka black tailed deer, wood bison, and a lynx.

We arrived at Seward at about 1:00 PM on May 19th and boarded the ZAANDAM. We had a cabin toward the bow of the ship with a large window that faced the promanade deck and was very near to the passenger lifts to the other deck levels. The ship departed Seward that evening and began sailing in a southeast direction. After the information and mandatory safety briefings, we settled in for our cruise to Vancouver. Since we had requested open seating, we had the freedom to dine in different restaurants at times of our choosing and to sit with many different people – a great way to make new acquaintances.

We spent Monday, May 20th, at sea and arrived at Glacier Bay during the morning of May 21st. Several USA National Park rangers boarded the ship and we spent the day cruising in Glacier Bay National Park. While in Glacier Bay, we stopped in front of the Margerie Glacier and turned around in front of the Grand Pacific Glacier adjacent to the border with Canada. After dropping off the park rangers, we sailed during the night up the Lynn Canal arriving at Haines, Alaska, on the morning of May 22nd.

We disembarked at Haines and visited Fort Seward, the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center, and the American Bald Eagle Foundation. The American Bald Eagle Foundation has two Bald Eagles that are fed two times a day with visitor viewing and several other birds as well as a wonderful display of preserved wildlife that included fish, mammals, and birds common to Alaska.

We re-boarded the ship and began cruising onwards to Juneau, the capital of Alaska, arriving at Juneau on the morning of May, 23rd. After disembarking from the ship, we rode the Mount Robert’s tramway to the top of Mount Roberts where we hoped to hike a couple of trails. We soon found that the trails were closed due to late winter snowfalls. The complex at the top of the tramway had a beautiful female bald eagle, shops, a theater, and a restaurant. We saw a wonderful performance by the Alaska String Band, a family of Alaskan musicians.

After descending back to Juneau on the tramway, we walked around Juneau city admiring the architecture, the four storey totem pole, and the State Capital Building. We also visited the library where we used the library Wi-Fi to catch up on our e-mails.

The ship departed Juneau that evening and we arrived at Ketchikan during the morning of May 24th. We disembarked from the ship and caught a complimentary shuttle bus to the Totem Heritage Center which houses a marvelous collection of 19th century totem poles and other carvings retrieved during the 1970s from abandoned Tlingit Indian villages. The Indians moved to Ketchikan at the beginning of the 20th century in order to be near schools, churches, and the canneries, mines, and sawmills that offered employment. We then returned to downtown Ketchikan and walked along historic Creek Street which I found to be a very photographic area. We visited Dolly’s House, the home of Dolly Arthur who was Ketchikan’s most famous madam in the heyday of Creek Street. We continued touring downtown Ketchikan and visited the Tongass Historical museum before attending the Great Alaskan Lumberjack show.

We departed Ketchikan during the evening and continued cruising toward the Inside Passage and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. We cruised through the Inside Passage on May 25th and arrived at Vancouver on Sunday morning, May 26th.

After disembarking from the ship and clearing Canada Customs on Sunday morning, we boarded the Quick Shuttle bus to Bellingham, Washington. After clearing USA Customs at the border we arrived at the Bellingham Airport where we took another bus to Anacortes, Washington, and took a ferry to Orcas Island to visit with friends.

Although it rained nearly every day that we were at Orcas Island, we had a wonderful visit with our friends until we departed on May 30th to continue our journey to visit with friends at Federal Way, Washington. During our visit at Federal way, we went to Tacoma, Washington, on Friday night, May 31st to see the Tacoma Glass Museum at night. The Bridge of Glass was magnificent to view at night as were the other outdoor displays at the museum.

After another wonderful visit with friends, we flew home to Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon, June 2nd.

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  April 2013
Dazu County, China

Travel Notes

 

I originally planned to travel to Pakse, Laos, and vicinity during April 2013 and had booked my flights to Bangkok but had not made any other bookings for southern Laos. While flying to Hanoi in March, I noticed that Air Asia had a nonstop flight from Bangkok to Chongqing, China, and decided to go to China instead of Laos and return to Thailand for the Songkran Festival. Chongqing is near Dazu County where the Dazu Rock Carvings are located. Since I had recently added these rock carvings to my short list of places to visit, I booked the Air Asia flights and hotel accommodations in Chongqing when I returned home from Vietnam.

I arrived at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on 3 April 2013 for my flights to Bangkok and was selected for a random check by the TSA after successfully passing through the security screening machine. The random check consisted of wiping my hands with cloth-like strips and placing the strips in a machine. When the strips from my hands were placed in the machine, a red sign illuminated indicating the presence of explosives. From that point on, I was subjected to a thorough search of my hand-carry luggage with wipe-downs of my belongings and then a thorough “pat-down search” of my body – just short of a “strip-search.” When the TSA failed to find anything incriminating in my luggage or on my body, I was finally allowed to re-pack my belongings and continue on my journey. Since this whole “random check” procedure took nearly half an hour, I was glad that I make it a practice to always allow plenty of extra time at airports when flying.

I flew from LAX to Tokyo, connected to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport, and took a taxi to the Bangkok Don Mueang Airport where I had another six-hour layover to connect to my Air Asia flight to Chongqing. By the time I arrived at my hotel in Chongqing on the morning of April 5, I had been traveling for nearly thirty-six hours since leaving my home in Los Angeles. After a short nap at the hotel, I went outside to explore the neighborhood after dark. I found a couple of fast food places and a huge department store that would rival any large Walmart or Target store in the United States.

Although Chongqing is one of the main cities for tourists to embark on Three Gorges River cruises, it is not a popular tourist town for foreigners and most people there do not read, write, or speak English. Although I had a map and address of my hotel, the Holiday Inn Express, in English on my confirmed booking printout, I had a very difficult time getting a taxi. I stopped at the Tourist Information desk in the airport and the lady wrote something in Chinese on my hotel printout and told me to take it to the policeman by the taxi stand. The policeman put me in a taxi and gave my printout to the taxi driver. He did not speak English and asked other local people for directions to drive me to my hotel. It was raining when we left the airport to go to my hotel.

After driving for some time, the taxi driver stopped local people on the street to ask directions. He finally stopped and pointed to the right side of the taxi and indicated that we had arrived. I couldn’t see any “Holiday Inn” sign on any building so I shouted out to a well-dressed Chinese woman walking near the taxi to ask if she could help. She came over to the taxi and was looking at my printout while standing in the rain. I invited her to sit inside the taxi out of the rain, which she did. After scrutinizing my printout and talking to the taxi driver, she agreed that we were close to my hotel and that I should walk toward a nearby building. I got out of the taxi and the taxi driver demanded that I pay him immediately but I insisted that he get my carry-on from the trunk of the taxi before I paid him. I started walking in the direction that they pointed and the nice lady came over and escorted me around the building where I could see the Holiday Inn Express hotel. I thanked her profusely and continued walking through the rain to my hotel.

I purposely selected the Holiday Inn because I assumed that it would be more likely to provide information in English. When I went to the front desk the following morning to inquire about tourist information, I found that none of the young ladies at the front desk spoke English. One of the ladies went to a back office to find a young man who did speak English. He told me that they had no local tourist map, no Chongqing travel guide information, no travel desk, and no concierge. He said that he would speak to his manager about tourist maps. After I went back to my room to look up tourist information, the front desk called to tell me that his manager said that I could buy a tourist map of Chongqing from a vending machine near the lobby. I bought the map only to find out that it was all in Chinese. I was, however, able to locate the intersection where my hotel was situated, and I went for another walk in the daylight to familiarize myself with the neighborhood near the hotel. This would later prove to be a Godsend.

So far, my first day in Chongqing, was pretty much a wasted day. I continued looking at tourist information on my computer and reviewing information on the Dazu Rock Carvings that I had come here to visit. I finally decided to call the Intercontinental Hotel to see if they could arrange for a car and driver for me to go to Dazu on Monday, April 8. I called the front desk and got the English speaking person on the line who gave me a phone number to call for the Intercontinental Hotel.

When I called the number, it was a number for reservations and I went through the whole litany of no tour desk and no concierge at the Holiday Inn Express. The reservations person put me on hold and I was soon reconnected with the young man at the Holiday Inn who said that he could provide a hotel car and driver for a daytrip to Dazu and asked if I also needed a tour guide. When he said that the driver did not speak English, I said that I would like an English-speaking tour guide who was also familiar with the Dazu Rock Carvings. When I told him that I wanted the car and tour guide for a full day on Monday morning, departing the hotel at 7 AM, he said that he would get back to me regarding availability and pricing. He called back with pricing that I thought was “over-the-top” and asked if I was able to afford it. I knew that I had no room to bargain if I wanted to visit Dazu so I accepted. When I said that I wanted to visit all five main carving sites, he said that it would probably not be possible to visit more than two due to the distances involved. I reiterated that I was booking the car and guide for a full day and would try to see as many carving sites as possible. He told me that Sunday was his day off and gave me his mobile phone number if I needed to contact him.

After breakfast on Sunday morning April 7, I went to the front desk to have them fill out “taxi take me to: ¬¬¬¬_____" cards which also included the Holiday Inn information and map. How simple this would be, I told myself, only to find that the people at the front desk were unable to fill out the cards for major tourist attractions. I finally requested an English speaking person to fill out a card to go to the Intercontinental Hotel, which she did for me. I took several of the blank Holiday Inn taxi cards and caught a taxi to the Intercontinental Hotel.

After arriving at the Intercontinental Hotel, I was approached by a nice young lady who asked if she could help me. I introduced myself and, when I told her about the lack of tourist information at the Holiday Inn Express, she was appalled. She gave me two tourist maps, one in English and one in Chinese, filled out several of my taxi cards and took me to the concierge for help with the other taxi cards. The concierge also went somewhere and brought a “Chongqing Travel Guide” book, which he gave to me. The lady also gave me her business card and told me to call her if I needed any additional help – she is the “Intercontinental Hotel Loyalty Manager.” I felt like I had died and gone to heaven, and I thanked them profusely.

Things were finally beginning to fall into place. My first stop was at the Three Gorges Museum. It is situated on the western side of the People’s Square and is opposite the Chongqing People’s Auditorium. The Three Gorges Museum is a magnificent structure with wonderful exhibits; most Three Gorges river cruises bring tour groups here. Next I visited the People’s Auditorium, which is the location for diplomatic meetings and functions as well as for artistic performances.

Since I was unable to locate the city museum, I hailed a taxi to take me back to my hotel. I gave the driver the Holiday Inn Express taxi card and he looked puzzled. I pulled out the Chinese map that I had purchased from the hotel and pointed to the intersection where I had located the hotel. He nodded “ok” and off we went toward the hotel. When we were getting close to the intersection, he threw up his hands, but I recognized the neighborhood from my walk the day before and pointed him to the hotel.

When I returned to the hotel, I had received an email from Kaj, the son of a United Airlines flight attendant who is a friend of mine. I had never met Kaj but he had been living and working in Chongqing for the past three years and was about to move to Dubai. He met me at my hotel and we rode the light rail to the city center. Due to the recent rains, the city center at night was absolutely beautiful. We then went to a spicy hot pot restaurant where we met up with a group of his international friends at 8:30 PM for dinner. Spicy hot pot is a Chongqing specialty; don’t inquire as to the ingredients, just enjoy the flavors and textures of the food cooked in the hot pot. Good food with new friends made for a marvelous evening. After dinner, I took a taxi back to the Holiday Inn and once again needed to show the driver the intersection on my Chinese tour map.

I was up early on Monday morning and ate breakfast at 6 AM when the restaurant opened. Jack, my guide, was waiting for me in the lobby and Eugene, my driver, was about 15 minutes late. I showed Jack the list of the five main Dazu rock carving sites and he decided that since I only had the car for one day, we would do our best to visit all five sites. Dazu Rock Carvings is a general term for the cliff carving and grotto art in Dazu County. The grottos were carved during the late Tang Dynasty (618-907) and early Song Dynasty (960-1279). There are over 50,000 grotto statues and over 100,000 characters of inscriptions that have been preserved. The Dazu Rock Carvings were added to the World Cultural Heritage List in 1999. The Baodingshan Cliff Carving and the Beishan Cliff Carving sites are close to each other and admission to both sites may be combined on one joint ticket at a cost savings. These two sites are the ones most often visited by tourists.

The drive to Dazu took nearly two hours and we went to Baodingshan first. This is the site with the most colorful rock carvings. The Baodingshan Cliff carvings are located in a U-shaped valley surrounded by cliffs on three sides, and the carvings extend for approximately 500 meters. Our next stop was at the Beishan Cliff carvings. This site boasts nearly 10,000 Buddha statues.

Our next stop was at the Nanshan Cliff Carvings site. My guide had never been there before and we stopped many times to ask local people how to get there. After several unsuccessful attempts, we finally arrived at the mountain and found some rock steps going up the mountain adjacent to a wall. We climbed the rock steps and encountered more vertical steps up to a temple where the Nanshan carvings were located. A caretaker collected 5 RMB for admission. The carvings area was near the top of the mountain. It was small but interesting and afforded a good view of Dazu city below.

Our next stop was at the Shimenshan Cliff Carvings site. After asking for directions many times, we found ourselves on a small mountain road where we came upon a road construction crew. We stopped and, when we asked directions to Shimenshan, were told that we had passed the path to it a few hundred meters back down the road. We turned around and found the stone path going across a rice paddy that led to the carvings. When we arrived, the entrance gate was locked but my guide finally noticed a phone number and when he called it, a caretaker came to the gate and unlocked it for us. The admission cost was also 5 RMB. The carvings were interesting and well worth the difficulty of finding them.

It was now about 2 PM. Jack and I decided to continue on to the Shizuanshan Cliff Carvings site. I had downloaded a tourist map of Dazu County onto my Galaxy Note 2 the night before and together with the GPS on Jack’s mobile phone and several stops for directions, we finally managed to get near Shizuanshan. We were frequently on unimproved back roads, which sometimes reminded me of the poor roads in India. We stopped one last time in a tiny village to ask directions and one of the local men decided to get in the car and go with us to Shizuanshan.

Shizuanshan was surrounded by a wall, and the plain metal entrance gate was closed. Jack reached around to the inside and opened the gate. We were met by a caretaker who charged the 5 RMB admission and escorted us through the site to view the carvings. When Jack asked him if many tourists came there, the caretaker replied that no tourists came and the only recent visitors were some archaeologists from Beijing. The carvings here were also interesting and worth the time and trouble to get there to see them. It was now after 5 PM, and we stopped at a noodle restaurant before leaving Dazu County for a late lunch. We arrived back at the Holiday Inn at approximately 8 PM. It had been a wonderful day trip with beautiful clear sky and sunshine, and it felt so good to have been able to visit all five main rock carving sites in Dazu County – truly “mission accomplished.”

Tuesday was a miserable rainy day. I spent most of the day reading my travel guide, editing some of my photos, and trying to decide what things to see before leaving Chongqing. I also sent an email to Jack, asking if he would like to be a local guide for me on Thursday, April 11, which was scheduled to be my last day in Chongqing.

Wednesday morning was cloudy and foggy. I took a taxi to the Chongqing Zoo where I spent several hours admiring the layout of the zoo as well as looking at the animals, birds, reptiles, and fish. The Giant Pandas and the South China Tigers were advertised as the top attractions. I found it interesting that the Chinese visitors appeared more keenly interested in the two giraffes than the Giant Pandas and the South China Tigers.

After visiting the zoo, I took a taxi to the Gele Mountain Martyrs’ Cemetery and Exhibition Hall. I believe the exhibition hall is sometimes referred to as the Revolution Museum. Admission to the exhibition hall was no charge and it highlighted the War of Resistance against Japan and the subsequent Liberation War. A large section of the exhibition hall is devoted to the individual communist prisoners who were held by the KMT and subsequently murdered two days before the Communist Army marched into Chongqing and liberated the city. After the very sobering visit to the Martyrs’ Cemetery, I took a taxi back to my hotel and once again needed the Chinese tour map with the intersection marked for my hotel location and needed to point the way to the hotel based on my knowledge of the area near the hotel. Back at the hotel, I received an email from Jack agreeing to be my local guide on Thursday. Before going to bed, I made a list of the places that I wanted to visit with Jack on Thursday.

Jack met me in the hotel lobby early Thursday morning, and I showed him my list of places to visit. We decided that the Stilwell Museum would be our first stop. Because it was rush hour we had some difficulty hailing a taxi. The taxi driver was not familiar with the museum and, after some degree of difficulty, Jack finally got her pointed in the direction of the museum. After a stop to refuel the taxi, we arrived at the museum.

The Stilwell Museum is the former residence of General Joseph Stilwell, Commander of the U.S. forces in China, Burma, and India during World War II. He served as the Chief of Staff to the Far East Theater and headed the Chinese Expeditionary Army in the fight against the Japanese invaders in the north of Burma. This museum is the only venue in China devoted to commemorating the cooperation between China and the United States in fighting the Japanese during World War II.

After touring the museum, we realized that it was very close to a light rail station and that we could have walked to the light rail station near my hotel and saved considerable time and money. We then located my other places of interest on my Chinese tour map and mapped out our travel routes utilizing the light rail to the maximum extent possible. Since Jack had a bus pass, he had no cost for his use of the public transportation.

As we exited the Stilwell Museum, we noticed a tour bus with foreigners parked across the street. They had just visited the Chongqing Flying Tigers Museum which neither Jack nor I were familiar with. We decided to visit the Flying Tigers Museum while we were already there. This museum is dedicated to the American Flying Tigers in China from the formation of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) in Tongoon, Burma, to the U.S. Army’s 14th Air Force. According to a museum brochure, the Flying Tigers shot down more that 2,600 Japanese aircraft at a cost of approximately 500 airplanes lost. They also sank 44 Japanese warships and 2.23 million tons of shipping. They are also attributed with a casualty of more than 66,700 people in the Japanese forces and safeguarded China’s rear area in the air. In addition, they smashed Japan’s strategic plan to cross the Nujiang River for the conquest of Kunming and even Chongqing.

The Flying Tigers Museum had many interesting exhibits. One exhibit that I found to be particularly interesting was a large map which detailed the locations of approximately thirty-eight U.S. air bases in China during World War II. Jack had never been to either of these museums and was impressed with them both.

Our next two stops were to be two temple complexes further southeast. We walked to the nearby light rail station and took the light rail to the station closest to the temples and then took a taxi to the Tushan Temple which is sometimes called “Zumwu Temple” because it houses the statue of Zumwu Master. It is the oldest temple in Chongqing and consists of eight temple palaces covering an area of 10,000 square meters. It was an interesting temple located part way up a mountain in which Buddhism and Taoism coexist harmoniously with each other.

Since no taxis could be found after visiting the Tushan Temple, we walked down the mountain road to a main road where we took a local bus to the intersection of a road that went to our next stop, the Laojundong Taoist Temple. We exited the bus and saw an available taxi, which we hailed. The taxi took us up a winding mountain road to the entrance of the temple.

The Laojundong Taoist Temple was built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) as a Buddhist temple called Guang-hua Temple. In 1581, the temple was converted into a Taoist Temple and renamed “Taiji Palace.” There are thirteen palaces within the temple that zigzag along steep cliffs and spiral from the gate to the top of the mountain. Jack and I began climbing the steps and cement paths up the mountain. It was quite a climb, and we visited several palaces including the multistoried temple near the top of the mountain, which jutted out from the mountain high above Chongqing city. The views from this temple were spectacular, and I managed to get a panoramic photo of Chongqing city center at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers. Since we were already near the top of the mountain, we continued climbing to the summit. The summit was interesting with inscriptions and graffiti carved into the rounded summit rocks. The mountain is one of the highest near Chongqing city and it was quite a climb to the top. Jack had never been to either of these two temples but was really impressed with the hike to the top of the mountain, the temple palaces, and the panoramic views of Chongqing city.

After descending to the entrance gate area, we soon realized just how difficult it was going to be to find a taxi for hire. After waiting for about fifteen minutes, Jack flagged down a new automobile that was departing the temple parking area. After Jack had a short conversation with the owner of the car, we were offered a ride in a luxury automobile to a light rail station. The man and woman in the car were listening to American rock and roll music on the car radio as they graciously drove us to the light rail station. Upon arrival at the rail station, we all exchanged “nice to have met you” greetings in English, and I thanked them for their hospitality. I am always amazed by the wonderful friendly people whom I am fortunate to meet during my travels.

We took the light rail to the city center and walked to the Liberation Monument. After getting lunch at a local noodle restaurant, we then walked to the Hongyadong Folklore Zone. We continued walking to Chaotianmen Square which was built in 1997 and overlooks the Yangtze cruise ship docks and the confluence of the Jailing and Yangtze Rivers.

We took a taxi back to the city center and went to a large bookstore to look for a book on the Dazu Rock Carvings. When Jack could only find a small book in Chinese, he asked a salesperson for assistance. The lady went through a door to a storage area and, after about five minutes, returned with a large hard-bound book on the Dazu Rock Carvings that was written in English. I immediately purchased it and managed to barely squeeze it into my backpack.

We walked from the bookstore to a section of the old Chongqing city wall remains at Tongyuanmen City Wall Ruins Park. This is the location of the Tongyuan Gate, which is the only well-preserved gate by the land route to Chongqing. The City Wall Ruins Park was set up beside the gate in 2005 and has statues of invaders attempting to scale the wall.

The city wall was our last destination on my list and Jack figured out which local bus we should take to go back to my hotel. Once back the Holiday Inn, I bid good-bye to Jack and began packing for my flight to Bangkok the following morning.

I departed Chongqing on Friday morning on a flight to Bangkok where I connected later during the day for a flight to Chiang Rai, Thailand. I attended the Songkran festivities in Chiang Rai before returning home to Los Angeles.

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  March 2013
Vietnam

Travel Notes

 

I arrived at the Hanoi International Airport at Hanoi, Vietnam at about 9:00 AM on Friday, March 15. After clearing customs and locating an ATM machine to obtain about 4 million Vietnam Dong, I went to the taxi stand outside the terminal and hired a taxi to take me to my hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi City. The currency exchange rate was roughly 20,000 Dong to the US Dollar. The airport is located approximately 45 km from Hanoi City and I was amazed at how polite the Vietnamese drivers were on the highways to the city. As I checked into my hotel the receptionist gave me a one page map of Hanoi City and annotated the locations of several of the main tourist attractions in the city. She also pointed out the location of the night market which she said was only open on Friday and Saturday nights.

My room was very nice with a dedicated laptop computer in the room for the guests and very good wireless Internet service. After checking my backlog of email, I went for a walk to become familiar with the neighborhood close to the hotel. I walked from the hotel to the Quan Chuong Gate and then began walking in the opposite direction of the hotel when it began to rain. I returned to the hotel and rested for a while before going back outside to get some noodle soup for lunch at one of the small local restaurants close to the hotel. After lunch, I decided to explore the area around Hoan Kiem Lake.

Hoan Kiem Lake is located on the city center and is beautiful with park-like areas alongside the lake. There are two temples on islands in the lake: one is a very old temple on an island near the center of the lake and the other is the Ngoc Son Temple on an island connected to the shore by a red bridge. I walked around the lake and since it was nearly closing time for the Ngoc Son Temple, I decided that I would visit it another time.

Since it was a Friday, I decided to walk to the night market. The vendors were setting up their stands in the middle of one of the major streets in the Old Quarter that had vehicular traffic excluded for the market. I stopped for dinner at a local restaurant adjacent to the wholesale market complex. After dinner the night market was in full operation and stretched for many city blocks from the wholesale area all the way to Hoan Kiem Lake – the size of the market was impressive.

On Saturday morning, March 16, I decided to take a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh Complex to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum, the One Pillar Pagoda and the Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace area. The receptionist at the front desk called a taxi for me and advised that the mausoleum would be closed by the time that I arrived at the complex. I decided to continue to the complex anyway and when I arrived there, I was instructed to go to the end of a very long line of people about four people abreast several blocks long waiting to enter the complex. Many of the people in line were groups of small school children who enjoyed waving and shouting “hello” to me.

The line moved rather quickly and once inside the complex gate, the line continued for another long distance. As the line of people passed in front of the Ho Chi Minh Museum, some people left for the museum and I stayed in the line, which was actually the queue for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Eventually I was at the entrance of the mausoleum, which was still open, and I walked through the mausoleum to view Ho Chi Minh. Upon exiting the mausoleum, I decided to visit the One Pillar Pagoda en route back to the museum. The museum was closed for the afternoon lunchtime break and would not open for another couple of hours.

Not to be discouraged, I hailed a bicycle rickshaw and went to visit the Hoa Lo Prison, which had been built by the French during the late 1800’s and subsequently used to house some American pilots captured during the Vietnam War and nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.” The captured Americans were released in March 1973. During 1993, about two thirds of the prison was demolished to make room for the construction of the Hanoi Tower buildings. The remaining third is preserved as a museum.

The booklet on sale at the museum states: “Hao Loa Prison today is a special museum of Ha Noi, which keeps all the evidence of the crime of the French colonists against the Vietnamese patriots and revolutionist. A lot of documents and personal dossiers of stronghearted and loyal communists, as well as the legends of their struggling in prison to make the glory of Vietnamese heroism are kept there. Hoa Lo Prison today [is] also a place to educate the young generation of Vietnam in the revolutionary tradition, the spirit of national pride and the responsibility to the Fatherland in the new era of peace and development toward a society of wealth, fairness, democracy and civilization.”

After visiting the prison, I returned to the Ho Chi Minh Palace area of the complex to see the Presidential Palace (formerly Indochina’s General Governor Palace of the French), It was built by the French and used by Ho Chi Minh as his palace. House No. 54, where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from 1954 to 1958, and the historic House on Stilts were both used by Ho Chi Minh before his death in 1969. I then visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum before returning by taxi to my hotel. The Ho Chi Minh complex and the Hoa Lo Prison museum made for a full day of sightseeing.

On Sunday morning I went to the Temple of Literature, which is the first National University of Vietnam. It was originally constructed in 1076 and was dedicated to sages and Confucian scholars and used for training talented men for the nation. It is currently described as one of the most important historical and cultural sites of Vietnam. I took another bicycle rickshaw from there to the Opera House, which was also built by the French in the early 1900’s. The rickshaw driver was very good and I got his telephone number to use him in the future. I walked from the Opera House to the National History Museum which is housed in two buildings. One building contains ancient artifacts and the other building is described in some literature as the Revolution Museum. Both buildings were well worth a visit and I continued walking back past Hoan Kiem Lake to my hotel.

I booked a day trip to Ha Long Bay for Monday, March 18. The medium sized tour bus picked me up at the hotel at 7:30 AM for a nearly four-hour drive to Ha Long Bay. The bus stopped at a rest stop and shopping complex en route to Ha Long Bay where many large rock carvings were being constructed by artisan craftsmen. The tour included a bay cruise with lunch aboard a Chinese junk boat through spectacular limestone island formations, a rowboat tour from a floating village through a cave formation, and a walking tour through another cave. A Vietnamese lady rowed my boat. The return bus trip arrived back at Hanoi about 8:00 PM.

I also booked a day trip to Hoa Lo and to Tam Coc for Tuesday, March 19. A small tour bus picked me up at the hotel at approximately 8:00 AM for a two-hour drive to Hoa Lo, a former ancient capital of Vietnam. We visited two temple complexes at Hoa Lo before continuing on to Tam Coc. We had a very extensive buffet lunch at Tam Coc before going to the wharf for a 90 minute rowboat ride on a river through three limestone caves. Two Vietnamese women rowed my boat – they were mother and daughter. The daughter was 35 years old with three children and the mother was 67 years old. Some of the people rowing the boats were rowing with their feet. The scenery during the boat trip was superb. The return bus trip arrived back at Hanoi about 4:00 PM. After dinner, I walked around Hoan Kiem Lake one last time.

My last day in Vietnam was Wednesday, March 20, and I had the hotel call my previous rickshaw driver who arrived at the hotel in roughly ten minutes. I told him where I wanted to go and asked him the cost. He replied that it was “up to me.” I never agree to the “up to you” tariff because no matter what amount you decide to pay, it is never enough. I insisted on a fixed amount before starting my journey with him. He replied one million Dong, which I said was too expensive. When I pointed out the distance that we had traveled on Sunday for 150,000 Dong and determined that the distance today would be roughly three times Sunday’s distance, he promptly replied 500,000 Dong, which I accepted.

Shortly after leaving the hotel, he stopped at a beautiful temple that I have not been able to identify. I then visited Quan Than Temple which is situated adjacent to Truc Bach Lake. From there we went to visit the Tran Quoc Pagoda which is situated adjacent to West Lake. I was disappointed that the entrance gate to the Tran Quoc Pagoda was closed and locked. I continued on to visit the Womens’ Museum which is a highly rated attraction and well worth a visit. After the Womens’ Museum I went to visit the Ngoc Son Temple on the island in Hoan Kiem Lake, which would be my last stop of the day, and I bid good-bye to my rickshaw driver.

Overall I was impressed with how clean Hanoi was compared to many other cities in Asia and how friendly the people were. I was also impressed with the abundance of ATM machines in Hanoi. I departed Hanoi on Thursday morning, March 21, on an Air Asia flight to Bangkok before flying home on Saturday, March 23.

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  January 2013
India

Travel Notes

 

I wanted to return to India during January 2013 and I contacted Javed Kahn to see if we could put together a trip first north to Devprayag and then back through Agra and then out to Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela festival before returning back to Delhi. I also wanted to have the same car driven by Bharat, my driver last year. After several E-mail exchanges, we finalized a trip based on my desired itinerary. I arrived at New Delhi around midnight on 25 January 2013 and spent the night at the Airport Hotel New Delhi. Bharat met me at the hotel on the morning of January 26 with the same car that we had last year and drove 240 km north to Dehradun which is the capital city of the state of Uttarakhand. It is situated in the Doon Valley in the foothill of the Himalayas between two of India’s mightiest rivers – the Ganges on the east and the Yamuna on the west. The state of Uttarakhand borders the western boundary of Nepal to the east and China to the north and is odfen referred to as “The Land of the Gods.”

While in Dehradun, we visited the Mindrolling Monastery complex, the Tibetan Buddhist Temple, a popular red temple on the highway south of the city, and the clock tower. The huge Buddha statue at the Tibetan Budddhist Temple is magnificent. The Mindrolling Monastery is adjacent to the Buddha statue temple and is quite large. Several of the buildings were very beautiful – the Tara statue and the World Peace Stupa are also situated here. Bharat had never been to Dehradun, Devprayag, or Rishikesh before so we were frequently stopping to ask directions en route.

On the morning of January 28, we drove approximately 120 km northeast to Devprayag. “Devprayaga” means “Godly Confluence” in Sanskrit. According to Hindu Scriptures, Devprayga is the sacred event of the merging of two heavenly rivers, Alakananda and Bhagirathi, to form the holy Ganges. It is also the second most important confluence in India, after Allahabad where the Yamuna, Ganges, and Sarasvati are said to meet. Allahabad is one of my later destinations during this trip to Inda. The actual river confluence is properly referred to as the “Sangam.”

First we drove northeast to a point above Rishikesh and then northeast along the western side of the mountain gorge formed by the river Ganges. The road was narrow and in some places in need of much repair requiring a very skilled driver for safe passage. For everyone familiar with the famous road to Hanna in Maui, this road makes the road to Hanna look like a cakewalk. There are some very picturesque fleeting views of the mountains and the Ganges far below along the journey. I had seen several classic photos looking down on Devprayag and the confluence forming the Ganges and wanted to find such a place to take my own photo. As we approached Devprayag, I got a glimpse of the temple in Devprayag in the distance and told Bharat to be prepared to stop for a photo. As we came around a curve it looked like the right place so Bharat stopped and I got out and started walking along the road looking for my photo opportunity. As I walked up to what appeared to be a restaurant in a building built over the mountainside high above the confluence forming the Ganges, I knew that I had found my spot.

I invited Bharat to join me for a cup of coffee. As we finished our coffee, Bharat asked the person in the restaurant directions to my hotel, we were surprised to find out that we were at my hotel and I checked into my room with a magnificent view of Devprayag and the river confluence forming the river Ganges. Although my hotel room had no heat and no hot water, it had a large balcony with the best view available anywhere in the area. I spent a lot of time sitting on my balcony admiring the view of the silt-laden Alakanda on the right joining the light blue Bhagirathi on the left forming the Ganges.

After checking into the hotel, we continued driving to Devprayag. Since there are no roads into the town, we were required to park high above the town and walk down steps along the mountainside into Devprayag. Inside the town, the walkways were very narrow with many steps and no vehicular activity of any kind – no bicycles, pushcarts, handcarts, etc. There were cows and pigs sharing the narrow walkways with people. Bharat and I first walked all the way down to the ghat at the point where the confluence formed the Ganges. We waded into the Ganges at the ghat, washed our hands and slashed some river water across our faces. Next we visited the Raghuanata temple complex which contains the Hanuman, Annapurna Devi and Garud Temples as well as the Rama’s Stone. It was quite a steep hike getting back up the mountainside to our car to return to the hotel. I was impressed by the tranquility of Devprayag compared to most other places in India. Back at the hotel, I watched both the sunset and sunrise over Devprayag from my balcony viewpoint.

On the morning of January 29, we drove back southbound along the mountain road above the Ganges to Rishikesh. Rishikesh is considered to be the birthplace of yoga in India. We stopped at Rishikesh, and I hired a guide to walk with me across the bridge to visit the ghats by the Ganges and several holy places where no photos were allowed on the inside. The bridge that we walked over was a new bridge that was built in 1984 and was not the Laxman Jhula footbridge built in the early 1930’s and situated approximately two kilometers upstream. Since I had taken a photo of the older bridge as we passed the area, but did not see a place to stop to park alongside the road, I decided to skip going back just to walk across the old bridge. Admittedly the water level of the Ganges was very low, coupled with the fact that it was not the prime tourist season, I was somehow disappointed with my visit to Rishikesh.

After visiting Rishikesh, we continued driving south along the Ganges to Haridwar. The Ganges exits the mountains and enters the Indo-Gangetic Plains of North India for the first time at Haridwar. Haridwar is one of the seven holiest places in India which, along with Ujjain, Nasik, and Allahabad, is one of the four sites where drops of Amrit, the elixir of immortality, accidentally spilled over the pitcher while being carried by the celestial bird Garuda. This is manifested in the Kumbh Mela being celebrated once every three years in one of the four places, and thus every 12 years in Haridwar. Likewise also every 12 years in Allahabad where I will visit later during this trip. In Haridwar the spot where the Amrit fell is located at the Brahma Kund and is considered to be the most sacred ghat in Haridwar.

Upon arriving at Haridwar, Bharat parked at a remote parking area because my hotel was situated in the old part of the city in the market area where no autos or similar type vehicles are allowed during the day. We hired a man with a bicycle-rickshaw to transport my luggage from the car to the hotel. I explored old town Haridwar on foot during the remaining hours of daylight. One of my unique finds was a man who made very creative woodcarvings from driftwood. I chatted with him for a while and he was very happy that his art never involved cutting down a living plant. His name is Harishanker Bansal and he can be found at the Bansal Guest House, Ram Ghat, Haridwar.

Bharat met me the following morning and we rode the cable car to the Mansa Devi Temple high above Haridwar where no photos were allowed. From there we returned to the car and drove to take another cable car to the Chandi Devi Temple high above the east side of the Ganges. Our next stop was to visit the Daksha Mahadev Temple at Kankhal Town. Our final stop for the day by car was at the area of Sapt Rishi Ashram and Sapt Sarovar which is a picturesque place near Haridwar where seven great sages are said to have meditated. It is also the place where the Ganges split herself into seven currents so that the Rishis would not be disturbed by the flow. After returning to Haridwar, I spent time in the holy ghat area and the clock tower before returning to view the evening prayer (Arati) at the Brahmakund ghat.

On the morning of January 31, we drove nearly 410 km to Agra to reposition ourselves for the east/west portion of the trip. After spending the night in Agra, we drove another 240 km from Agra to Orchha, stopping first at Gwalior to visit the fort and the rock-cut statues in the cliffs below the fort. Our second stop was Jhansi and the road from Gwalior to Jahnsi was just dreadful – one of the very worst roads that I have been on during my many trips to India. We visited the fort at Jhansi and continued on to Orchha.

The next morning we visited the Palace and Fort at Orchha as well as the Chaturbhuj and the Lakshmi Temples. The Orchha Fort and Jahangir Mahal Palace complex were large and fun to explore on my own. After Orchha we continued another 180 km to Khajuraho. After the dreadful road between Gwalior and Jhansi, I was surprised that the roads were much better than I had anticipated. I had been to Khajuraho nearly ten years ago and stopped primarily to visit with my friend Rakesh. After locating a mobile phone number for him in an old E-mail, I contacted him and arranged to meet the following morning.

On the morning of February 3, Bharat and I met Rakesh near the entrance to the Western Group of Temples and went to a restaurant for masala tea and conversation. After tea, Rakesh guided Bharat to drive us to the remote Bijamandal Maudir new temple archeological site and a couple of additional remote sites that I had visited before. Although Bharat had been to Khajuaro four times previously, these were new sites for him. Rakesh is now working for a man who manufactures replica stone carvings and we stopped in to see the carvings – they were very well done. I had Bharat return me to the hotel where I said good-bye to Rakesh and prepared for some down time to work on photos and travel notes before continuing on to Allahabad.

Bharat met me at the hotel at 8:00 AM for our 270 km drive from Khajuraho to Allahabad. The road was in pretty good shape when we departed Khajuaraho but rapidly deteriorated to very poor. Our 270 km journey turned out to be a grueling 8 hour drive to Allahabad. My tour company had changed my hotel reservation during our drive and a representative from the tour company at Allahabad was frequently on the mobile phone with Bharat. As we approached Allahabad, the traffic density increased and Bharat was frequently stopping to ask directions. Many of the temporary security personnel are from other parts of India and could not give directions to us; others just motioned us to keep moving. We finally found my hotel and after checking in and resting up for a little while, I took Bharat out to dinner. We decided to visit the Allahabad Fort and Museum the following day in hopes of avoiding the masses at the Kumbh Mela festival.

Bharat picked me up at the hotel at 9:30 AM to drive to the fort. Today would be a big learning experience for us. We had planned to go visit the Allahabad Fort and then the Allahabad museum. We figured that we would save our Kumbh Mela experience for tomorrow. During our drive we stopped at what appeared to possibly be the Allahabad Museum, but it turned out to be an old cemetery.

As it turned out, the fort was impossible to reach by car. Bharat asked directions so many times with many people unable to understand him here that I was feeling sorry for him. Finally he talked to a bicycle rickshaw driver and the rickshaw driver took me to as close to the fort as he could get. I motioned for him to wait for me and struck out among the masses of people to find the entrance to the fort. Bharat remained behind in the car because there were no legal parking places.

It turned out that the fort was being used as the command center for the military personnel stationed to provide security at the Kumbh Mela. The fort is also right in the center of the main Kumbh Mela activities. After finding the entrance to the fort, I toured the public accessible areas, including an underground temple, and then exited the fort via the signs at a different location from the entrance that I had used. My next challenge was to find the first entrance to get my bearings on how to hopefully find my bicycle rickshaw driver. After I located the first entrance, I walked to a Yamuna River ghat adjacent to the fort to check out the ghat and the rowboats on the river.

I then managed to backtrack back to the area where I had left the rickshaw driver and saw what appeared to be the bicycle rickshaw with the canopy raised. When I approached the rickshaw, I saw someone on the seat sleeping. I pounded on his foot and when he woke up, I asked him if he was my driver whereupon he perked up and nodded that he was my driver. He took me back to a place only part way to where Bharat had dropped me off and I refused to exit the rickshaw. I said back to driver and motioned with my hands like turning a steering wheel. We continued on until we actually arrived back at my car and Bharat. I had learned enough to realize that tomorrow would be much different – Bharat and I would take a tuk tuk rickshaw from the hotel to the Kumbh Mela and when finished with Kumbh Mela, we would return to the hotel by tuk tuk.

The Kumbh Mela is really something!!!!! It is billed as the world’s largest religious festival that is expected to be visited by 100 million people over 55 days ending on March 10. It was spiritual, and I never saw any pushing, shoving or yelling – just a large mass of humanity gathered to celebrate the Allahabad Kumb Mela 2013. In fact, the Kumb Mela Festival made the front page of the Los Angeles Times newspaper while I was in Allahabad.

My next stop was at the Swaraj Bhawan Museum which was Nehru's house, where Indira Ghandi was born and the place where so many of the events connected with the national struggle for independence took place. We continued to the old All Saints’ Cathedral which was situated a couple of blocks from my hotel. The cathedral was closed so I walked around the perimeter fence for several photos.

The following morning Bharat and I took a tuk tuk rickshaw from the hotel to the Kumbh Mela. The tuk tuk dropped us off near one of the entrance areas and, since I had been there yesterday, I knew exactly where we wanted to go. We walked along the high ground toward the fort and then down alongside the fort to the Yamuna River ghat where the rowboats were dropping off people. Bharat talked to a couple of young boys who said that Bharat and I could hire a rowboat for two hours for 400 Rupees. The boat would take us to the Allahabad Sangam, the convergence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and the official end of the Yamuna River. They would also row us around on the Yamuna River.

We followed the two boys through masses of people to where they secured a boat for us. The two boys occupied the portion of the boat with the oars and somehow managed to get us launched amidst the hundreds of nearby rowboats. They rowed us out into the Yamuna and then gradually downstream to what appeared to be an arc of hundreds of rowboats similar to ours extending way out into the river. This was actually the Sangam sandbar-like area with the rowboats docked to give people the opportunity to bathe in the Ganges at the Sangum.

I took a good look at the river water alongside our rowboat and decided that, while it may be a holy ritual for Bharat to wash and bathe here, I would stay on the boat and keep dry. After we docked at the Sangam, Bharat filled a plastic bottle with water from the Ganges to take back home with him and then went for a bath at the Sangam. After Bharat bathed at the Sangum, our two boys rowed us further out and upstream against the Yumana River current before returning us to the dock at the ghat near the fort where we had first met them. After disembarking, I paid the boys and then we continued walking through the Kumbh Mela grounds alongside the ghats beside the Yamuna and the Ganges. It was interesting to watch the current of the Ganges move alongside the Sangam toward the area where Bhatat had bathed.

We finally reached the point where the easterly most pontoon footbridge was constructed across the Ganges. Although there were several pontoon footbridges, the easterly most pontoon bridge is the one closest to the Sangam – most Kumbh Mela photos show one of the pontoon bridges.

Bharat and I walked across the easterly most pontoon bridge and through the encampment area on the other side of the Ganges. We started to cross back on another pontoon footbridge but I decided that I wanted to return via the easterly most pontoon bridge. After re-crossing the pontoon footbridge, we walked back through the encampment area until we found a tuk tuk rickshaw to take us back to the hotel. As we were leaving the encampment area two men jumped into our tuk tuk one in front by the driver and the other beside Bharat. A little further, two more men tried to climb in beside me but I would not move for them and only one made it in beside me. Bharat said that the men were policemen – being a policeman has extra privileges in India. The men exited the tuk tuk near the police station.

Up to this point my current trip to India had been very good. In retrospect, I should have ended it with Allahabad Kumbh Mela and returned to Delhi for a flight home.

We departed Allahabad on the morning of February 6 to drive to Ayodhya, an old city noted for large numbers of temples, and then on to Faizabad. It had rained at Allahabad during the night which settled much of the continual dust, but also made for some muddy areas. Since Bharat had never been in this area before, he had no idea of what the road conditions might be and/or point to point driving times.

After driving to Ayodhya, we parked the car and visited Hanuman Garhi, a four sided fort with circular bastions at each corner. This fort houses the Temple of Hanuman. We were informed that Mani Parbat and Sugriv Parbat, additional sites on my list were closed and would not re-open until 7 AM the following day. We continued on to Faizabad where we finally found my hotel on a remote muddy narrow dirt road. This hotel was really marginal by my hotel standards and was raucously loud during the night with perhaps questionable restaurant standards. After most likely getting sick on some Masala Tea that Bharat purchased for me in Rishikesh, I now suspected that some restaurants might be using marginal water for cooking, coffee and tea. In addition, I started to come down with a fever and severe head and chest congestion. Bananas remained one of the few safe foods available.

After enduring a long and loud night in the hotel, I was glad to see Bharat and to try to do some sightseeing at Faizabad. Our Faizabad sightseeing took about thirty minutes and we continued on to Lucknow. Lucknow is the capital city of the state of Uttar Pradesh and I looked forward to a better hotel than the one that I had in Faizabad.

Upon arriving in Lucknow, we spent nearly an hour trying to find my hotel. When we finally arrived at the hotel, I was immediately appalled by the neighborhood. The hotel lobby was situated several floors above the street and there was no lift to access the lobby. The sign in the lobby indicated that it was a member of the same hotel group of the prior hotel in Faizabad. My room was an interior room with no workable desk area, one working electrical outlet that required unplugging the television to be able to get electrical for my camera batteries, mobile phone battery, and laptop computer. The air conditioner would not work for me. There was a small coffee table which I later found out was for food service.

After putting my luggage in my room, I returned to the lobby where Bharat was drinking some tea. The hotel asked me if I would like some tea and when I asked if it was made with mineral water, the man said yes. When he returned, he had a tray with a partially full bottle of mineral water, a teapot with the rest of the mineral water and a cup with a teabag. Needless to say more, the hotel might be cooking with marginal water. I would be stranded here the rest of the day on a street in a neighborhood where I did not want to walk and with no other restaurant options.

The room service menu in the room was dilapidated and looked like it had been in the room for years. When I went to look for the hotel restaurant, I was informed that the hotel only offered room service. Since the hotel might cook with marginal water, I struggled with trying to find something safe to eat. I finally decided that I would order two fried eggs, plain toast with jam, mineral water and canned orange juice. The hotel was adamant that I could only order fried eggs for breakfast and not for dinner. I settled on two pieces of toast, two cans of orange juice and mineral water – I sure was glad that I had several bananas in my backpack. Since the orange juice arrived in a glass, I could  not be sure whether it was actually canned. I endured another really long night in a bad hotel with a fever and my congestion becoming worse.

The next morning Bharat met me at 9 AM with a local person to go sightseeing. En route to sightseeing, we went through the nice portions of Lucknow which left me pondering whatever prompted Javed to book such a marginal hotel in such a bad neighborhood. When our guide told Bharat that there were no KFC restaurants in Lucknow, I purchased more bananas. Our sightseeing included visiting the Bara Imambara, the Imam Bargah, the Globe Park, and an art gallery. In addition, the magnificence of the relatively new Ambedkar Memorial Park area was stunning. Alas, all good things must come to an end as we returned to the hotel.

Back at the hotel, I insisted that the hotel turn on the air conditioning unit which required them to activate a remote electrical connection somewhere. I also sent an E-mail to Javed regarding the Faizabad and Lucknow hotels and questioning the next hotel at Kanpur. He said that he would speak with the hotel and the hotel senior management. I looked up KFC on the Internet and found that there were some located in Lucknow. I tolerated another long night in a very bad hotel after making dinner out of some Toblerone chocolate, my freshly purchased bananas, and mineral water. In retrospect, I should have looked up a couple of five star foreign hotels and then should have had Bharat take me to one for dinner – something that I will keep in mind for such a situation in the future. My head and chest congestion continued to worsen. I requested Bharat to run the car air conditioning to improve the air quality within the car.

Bharat picked me up at8:30 AM to go to Kanpur on the morning of February 10. The 90 km drive to Kanpur took a couple of hours and upon reaching Kanpur, Bharat began looking for the Mandakini Palace hotel. After spending nearly 45 minutes asking directions, we arrived only to find that Javed had written the wrong name for the hotel and we were to go to the Mandakini Place hotel instead. After driving for more than half an hour asking directions, we finally arrived at the Mandakini Place hotel. As we entered the lobby, I observed that it was also owned by the same hotel chain as the prior two hotels. Before going further, I asked if the hotel had a restaurant – the answer was no and I immediately directed Bharat to take me Agra.

After loading my luggage back into the car, Bharat asked if there was anywhere that I wanted to visit en route to Agra. We decided to go to Bithoor and try to see Nanaro Fort and Shivrajpur temple. We asked directions to Bithoor and finally arrived at what we believe to be Nanaro Fort. We spent about fifteen minutes there and when we were told that Sivrajpur was an additional 40 km away, I scratched it from our list and we proceeded directly to Agra. Upon arriving at Agra one night early, I informed Bharat that I would only spend one night in Agra and my last two nights would be in Delhi.

After checking into the Taj Inn hotel, Bharat took me to a nearby KFC restaurant where I ordered KFC to take back to the hotel. I ate my chicken in my room and spent the night at the hotel which was marginal by most of my standards. I could not get the air conditioning to work and the room became increasingly hot and humid. Everything in the room felt like it had been in a steam proof-box by the time I finished my shower the following morning. On my way to breakfast a lady asked me if my room had a window. I replied that it did not and that it was really hot and humid. Instead of eating the buffet breakfast which I had during my prior stay here, I ordered my breakfast cooked special.

Breakfast was just ok and I was only too happy to be back in the car and on my way to the FatehpurSkiri, the ancient Akbar old capital city. My camera had picked up moisture in the hotel room and was very slow to start for taking any photos. As I was finishing up my photos, the camera picture image went to a purple hue and then the camera became inoperative. My fever and congestion continued to worsen and the dust, dirt and smoke continue to aggravate my condition; running the car air conditioning helped the in-car air quality somewhat.

Bharat was unable to give me any substantive information regarding my Delhi hotel – type of room, desk for working, air conditioning, restaurant vs room service, etc. The traffic was terrible and when I finally asked Bharat why he didn't take the expressway, he essentially said because it cost more Rupees – the expressway could have probably shaved off more than two hours of driving time on our drive to Delhi. In addition, he said that my Delhi hotel was located in central Delhi and that the drive from the hotel to the airport for my flight to Singapore would take an additional one to one and a half hours.

At this point the traffic was a total nightmare with massive amounts of dust and acrid smoke in the air. The thought of spending two nights at Javed's Delhi hotel sight unseen, coupled with fighting Delhi traffic en route from my Delhi hotel to the airport, became just too much for me to bear. I called the Delhi Airport Hotel on my mobile phone and booked two nights in a nice double room with a desk, refrigerator and satellite TV. I now requested Bharat to drive me to the Airport Hotel and we arrived there in about one and one half hours. What a relief!!! Ten minutes maximum from the Airport Hotel to the airport terminal to check-in for my flights to Singapore on the morning of February 13.

I completed my hotel check-in and bid good-bye to Bharat. I was sorry to see Bharat go because he is a superb driver and a very good friend. I hope to be able to travel with him again during a future visit to India.

After checking into the Delhi Airport Hotel, a hotel representative took me to a local store nearby where I bought three scoops of plain dry white rice. I placed my digital camera with the rice in a ZipLock© bag and sealed the bag. I am hoping that the rice will be able to draw the excessive moisture from within the camera to allow it to function properly again. After dinner, I did some laundry, sent some E-mails and relaxed. My room at the Airport Hotel was perfect for my needs with the air conditioning temperature controlled. I still had a fever and heavy head and chest congestion, but I didn’t have to breathe the outside dust, dirt and smoke. The following day, I ate breakfast at the hotel and worked on writing my travel notes and editing photos. My fever persisted and my congestion remained about the same.

On the morning of February 13, I got up and took my digital camera out of the ZipLock© bag of white rice and reinstalled the battery and memory card. When I turned the camera on, it immediately started up in the normal fashion. I was really happy that the white rice had indeed extracted the moisture from the camera. White rice in a sealed bag has saved some of my electrical equipment a couple of times while traveling.

I packed up, ate breakfast, and had the hotel car drive me to the airport to catch my flights to Singapore. I arrived at Singapore a little before midnight and took a taxi to the Holiday Inn Atrium hotel where I would spend the next two nights. I still had heavy head and chest congestion but my fever finally broke during the second night at the Holiday Inn. On February 15, I moved to the Crown Plaza Singapore Airport hotel for my final night in Singapore where my congestion seemed to be improving. I flew back home on February 16. After returning home, I scheduled an appointment with my doctor where I was diagnosed as recovering from pneumonia. Apparently I had contracted influenza which progressed into pneumonia during my India travels.

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  November 2012
Nepal & Thailand

Travel Notes

 

I wanted to return to the 2012 Annual Elephant Roundup at Surin, Thailand, which is held during the third weekend of November. In addition, I wanted to return to Nepal to spend additional time in the Kathmandu Valley. I decided to combine the two trips and contacted Chiran and Ishwar at A1 Smile Travel to arrange for a car and driver during my stay in Nepal and to book two hotels where I had stayed previously. I also advanced booked a hotel at Surin for the Elephant Roundup.

I flew to Katmandu on November 3rd and met up with Chiran and Ishwar who were waiting for me at the airport with a garland of flowers. Ponchalal, who would be my driver for the next week, accompanied them to drive us to the Fuji hotel where I would spend most of my nights in Kathmandu. They told me that the weather this year had been so much better that when I was there last year. I decided to re-visit Swayambhunath (the monkey temple), Boudanath, and Patan Durbar Square the following day since the weather forecast was for sunshine and clear skies. I also told Chiran that I wanted my driver to eat lunch with me every day and that I would buy his lunch. Before arriving at Kathmandu, I had decided that eating lunch with my driver would not only be more efficient but also would generate a closer personal relationship with him – the lunches worked out very well.

Chiran met me at the hotel on the morning of November 5th to make sure that Ponchalal and I had agreement on my agenda for the day. Chiran would meet me every morning when I was at the Fuji hotel. The sky was clear and I was able to get some nice sunny photos of both Swayambhunath and Boudanath. After driving to Patan, we ate lunch and then spent time visiting Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The following day, the first stop for Ponchalal and me was Kathmandu Durbar Square, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Last year my guide did not want to take the time to visit the museum at Kathmandu Durbar Square so Ponchalal and I made a point of visiting the museum which was extensive and very interesting. Our next stop was at the Narayanhiti Palace Museum which had been the royal palace at the time of the massacre of the Nepal Royal Family in 2001. The palace has since been turned into a museum.

Our last stop of the day was at the Budhanil Kantha Temple. During my visit, I saw a young girl watering flower garlands and decided to take her photo. By the time I could get close enough to her to take her photo, she had put the watering can away but agreed to stand by the flower stand for a photo. I gave her 100 Rupees and, as I walked away, I noticed an older woman walk over to the young girl – I presumed that the lady was the young girl’s mother. After looking at some souvenir stands, we returned to the car and I decided to give the lady my card so she could show the young girl her photo on my web site. It turned out that the lady was the owner of the flower stand. The lady’s younger sister, Sharmila, also came over and introduced herself. Sharmila gave me her E-mail address and said she would provide a copy of the photo to the young girl. Sharmila’s older sister then gave me a book of postcards as a present and Sharmila said that she also wanted to give me a present.

I was scheduled to check out of the Fuji Hotel on the morning of November 6th and spend the night at the High View Resort hotel at Dulikel. When Chiran met me at the Fuji Hotel, we decided to keep my room at the Fuji Hotel in addition to my room at Dulikel. Although Chiran had a confirmed E-mail for the High View Resort, he received an E-mail the night before that the High View Hotel had suddenly become overbooked and consequently moved me to the Mirabel Resort and Hotel which was touted to be better that the High View Resort. With some trepidation about the Mirabel hotel, Ponchalal and I set off to Bhaktapur, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and then continued on to the old city of Panauti. While in Panauti, Ponchalal bought a large bag of assorted pastries for his wife’s mother who lived nearby. We made a stop at his mother-in-law’s new home which he had not seen before and then continued on to the Mirabel hotel.

When I checked into the Mirabel, the person at the front desk had no record of the transfer from the High View Resort to the Mirabel hotel. After making a call, I was taken to my room in a building called “Cozy Rooms.” I had purposely requested the High View Resort because it was a very nice hotel complex with gorgeous views of the valley and- the Himalayas. Well, the “Cozy Room” was certainly an austere, tiny dingy room down a long hallway in a dilapidated building – no phone, two tiny beds, tiny bathroom, no view at all, and certainly a far cry from the High View Resort. The mobile phone service in Nepal works on occasion and fortunately my mobile phone connected when I called Chiran to complain about the “Cozy Room.” Within ten minutes a man appeared at my door and moved me to a Deluxe Room with a gorgeous view of the Himalayas. Chiran sure came through like a champ in remedying the situation.

The restaurant at the Mirabel was very nice and, although the WiFi in my room did not connect, I could get WiFi in the lobby area. When I checked my E-mail, I found an E-mail from Sharmila who said that she hoped to be able to see me again. I told her that she could go with Ponchalal and me to visit Kirutipur and Chobar if she was able to meet us at the Fuji hotel the following morning around 10:00 AM when we returned to Kathmandu from Dulikel.

Ponchalal and I returned to Kathmandu on the morning of November 7th and arrived at the Fuji hotel shortly after 10:00 AM. Sharmila was waiting for us in the hotel lobby and went with us to visit Kirutipur and Chobar. I had been to both places during my 2011 trip, but had not visited the temple on the banks of the river at Chobar. We walked down to the temple and it had some of the most colorful wood carved roof support columns of any of the temples that I had previously seen in Nepal. After visiting Chobar we returned to Kathmandu, and Ponchalal drove us to one of his favorite restaurants. I really enjoy the Nepal set menu lunches and dinners.

That evening, I went to the travel office, had coffee with Chiran and Ishwar, and picked up my ticket for the Mount Everest scenic flight that they booked for me for the following morning. In fact, every evening that I was in Kathmandu, I would go and have coffee with Chiran and Ishwar.

My Mount Everest flight scenic flight was operated by Bhudda Air and departed very early from Kathmandu in order to hopefully see the sunrise over the Himalayas. I was scheduled on the first flight of the morning which required Ponchalal to pick me up at the Fuji hotel at about 5:00 AM. Ponchalal was right on time and delivered me at the Kathmandu Airport well in advance of the opening time of the Domestic Terminal. I was about number three in line waiting for the terminal to open. A short time later, several buses and minivans delivered many people and a long line of people rapidly formed behind me. Being near the front of the line definitely had its advantages as the security screening was a slow process. I quickly checked in for my flight and boarded the first airplane to depart for the mountains.

During the flight, each passenger was invited to go up to the flight compartment to get a really good view of the Himalayas. When given a second opportunity to go to the cockpit, I gave my camera to the first officer who took several very good photos of Mount Everest through his windshield. The weather was very good and the mountains from the plane were spectacular.

Ponchalal had waited in the parking lot during my flight and greeted me upon my return. We drove back to the Fuji hotel and Ponchalal agreed to return to pick me up around 9:00 AM. I ate breakfast at the hotel and got ready to go to Bungmati and Khokana, two places where I had not been before. The day before, I told Sharmila that she could go with us to Bungmati and Khokana if she met us at the Fuji hotel around 9:00 AM. When Sharmila had not arrived by 9:30, I tried calling her but the Nepal phone system did not let my call go through to her. At 9:30 AM, Ponchalal and I departed for Bungmati.

At about 11:00 AM, after visiting Bungmati and as we started driving to Khokana, I received an SMS text message from Sharmila that she was at the Fuji hotel. I tried to call her but could not get through. I sent her an SMS text telling her that we would return to the hotel in about one hour and to wait for us at the hotel.

After visiting Khokana, we arrived back at the Fuji hotel around noon only to discover that Sharmila had left the hotel. The hotel owner said that she said that she received a message from me and would return at 1:00 – she misread one hour to be 1:00 PM. I told the hotel owner to tell her to meet us at the restaurant at the end of the block where we would wait for her. Ponchalal and I were sipping coffee when Sharmila arrived a little before 1:00. We went to another restaurant nearby and had a very nice lunch. Since Ponchalal would not be driving me to the airport the following morning, I said good-bye to him and we exchanged contact information. I was sorry to see Phonchal leave, and I hope to keep in touch with him and his daughter Renuka.

Sharmila and I returned to the hotel where she looked at photos from some of my travels on my computer. Before leaving, she gave me a small plaque from her temple, a scarf, and a bracelet. She also gave me a beautiful bracelet to take home to Jan.

That evening, Chiran and Ishwar took me to dinner and gave me a beautiful replica of Swayambhunath encased in a glass display case which I managed to carefully pack into my small backpack to hand-carry for my flight to Bangkok. Dinner was wonderful, and I really enjoyed the time that I spent with Chiran and Ishwar while I was in Kathmandu,

Chiran met me at the hotel on the morning of November 9th and accompanied me to the airport for my flight to Bangkok. After making sure that I was all set to check into my flight, we said good-bye and I proceeded on to Bangkok.

After arriving at my hotel near Suvarnabhuimi Airport in Bangkok, I arranged for the hotel to carefully store my small backpack until I returned from my visit to Surin. The following day, I flew to the far north to visit Chiang Rai before continuing on to Surin to attend the annual Elephant Roundup Festival.

I arrived at Surin on Friday, November 16th. The Elephant Roundup Festival main event is a performance at the stadium parade grounds. On Saturday morning, November 17th, I woke up to a huge thunderstorm with torrents of rain. Since the rain did not appear to be letting up and there would be a repeat performance on Sunday morning, I decided to go back to bed. The rain continued for most of Saturday but the weather was overcast with no rain on Sunday morning when I went to the performance.

I had been to the festival about six years earlier and most of the open-air seating had been replaced with permanent concrete structures and permanent seating under a roof-like structure. The stadium grounds were still muddy and soggy from the rain the day before but that did not impact the show. People performed barefoot in the mud and soggy grass. The sun came out sporadically during the show and it was magnificent. I was particularly impressed by the elephant that painted a beautiful flower on a large poster sized paper on an easel. There were many performances by local people in colorful attire and the finale was a re-enactment of a battle with Burmese soldiers, complete with cannons. After the show ended, the weather turned back to light misty rain as throngs of people departed the stadium area. I managed to catch a local minibus that dropped me close to my hotel in downtown Surin.

The following day, I rode the VIP express bus to Bangkok and took a cab back to the hotel near the airport where I retrieved my small backpack and spent the night. On the morning of November 20th, I caught my flights to Tokyo and on to Los Angeles.

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  August 2012
China

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel China to climb Mount Hua (Huashan) in China. Huashan is situated approximately 120 km west of Xi’an, China. It is one of the five sacred Taoist mountains in China and a very popular year-round pilgrimage site for the Chinese people. Huashan had been on my travel short list for the past several years due to the spectacular scenery, the famous Cliffside Path (Plank Walk), and the thousands of rock-cut steps and concrete steps installed by the Chinese Government over the years. Huashan consists of five major peaks: North Peak at 1,614.9 meters, East Peak at 2,096.2 meters, Central Peak at 2,037.8 meters, South Peak at 2154.9 meters, and West Peak at 2082.6 meters above sea level.

I arrived at Xi’an on 24 August 2012. After checking into my hotel near the Xi’an Bell Tower, I rested up from my journey. I walked to the train station the following day and purchased a train ticket to Huashan for the afternoon of August 26th.

Jan and I had been to Xi’an nearly twenty years ago and the old part of the city within the old city walls has changed dramatically. Entire sections of the city have been demolished and replaced by modern buildings and shopping malls. I went to the train station to buy my ticket to Huashan. I took some photos as I walked past the bell tower and along the streets teeming with buses, taxis, automobiles, motorbikes, etc. en route to the train After departing the train station, I walked along the north city wall to the North City Gate and then back to my hotel.

On August 26th, I took the train to Huashan. There were huge queues of people waiting outside to gain access to the security checkpoints to enter the train station. Shortly after I took my place in a queue, it suddenly started to rain. Most of the people standing in the queue ran for shelter and I was suddenly very close to accessing the checkpoint. I pulled out my umbrella and passed through the checkpoint quickly. Once inside, I managed to locate the doorways for my train to Huashan and found a seat for a two-hour wait to board my train. I noticed that people began queuing up at the doorways for departing trains at least an hour before scheduled departure time. My train to Huashan was no exception and I found myself joining the Huashan queue at least an hour before departure time. As time progressed the queue became so tightly packed we were like sardines in a can.

Finally the doors opened and the mass of people headed out to board the train. I was in Coach No. 8 at Seat No. 45. Thank goodness for Arabic numbering and I found my seat with relative ease. The train ride to Huashan took nearly two hours with one intermediate stop.

After departing the train and before leaving the train station, I decided to purchase a return train ticket to Xi’an for August 29th. I selected a 1400 hour departure time and then took a taxi to my hotel. When I arrived at the hotel, I was surprised at how far outside of the village the hotel was situated. The front desk person didn’t recognize my confirmed reservation and the taxi driver kept insisting that I was at the correct hotel. When the receptionist offered me a room rate that did not match my confirmed rate I refused and demanded to speak to someone in English. At this point the taxi drive called someone who spoke English and handed his mobile phone to me. When I said that I was certain that I was not at the hotel where I had my reservation, the man on the phone asked me if I had already prepaid for my reservation to which I replied with an emphatic yes even though I had not prepaid for my reservation. The man on the phone asked to be returned to the taxi driver whereupon the taxi driver then took me to the Huashan Hotel where I had my reservation. I wonder how many solo tourists get pushed into the wrong hotel by dishonest taxi drivers.

Anyway, the Huashan Hotel was situated in the middle of Huashan Village within walking distance to whatever I wanted. After checking into my room for three nights, I decided to go for a walk and get some lunch. As I walked past a small restaurant, a young Chinese girl came out and asked if they could prepare some food for me. I said that I was interested in some lunch and we finally decided on chicken with rice. The chicken came cooked in a heap of both green and red very hot chili peppers – I could handle the chicken and rice but had to leave the peppers. She said that her name was Yao and that she was a university student in Xi’an studying economics and finance. She sat at my table practicing her English while I ate my lunch.

After lunch, she offered to go with me to the store to purchase some snack foods to take with me to Huashan to following day. She wanted her photo with me and then we went to a local small market where I purchased some snacks. She returned to work and I took my snacks back to the hotel. I packed up my backpack for climbing Huashan and planned to spend the following night at one of the guesthouses on Huashan while retaining my room at the Huashan Hotel.

Later that evening I decided to get something to eat for dinner. I went back in the direction of the restaurant where I ate lunch and it was empty. Yao saw me and explained that there were two restaurants owned by the same people. She said that I should go to the other restaurant where she was currently working. I had the wide and long noodle dish with tomatoes and spinach which was quite good. Since she was going back to Xi’an the following day, I asked her to write down the name of the noodle dish in Chinese – she gave me the restaurant card that featured the noodle dish.

On the morning of August 27th I ate breakfast as soon as the hotel restaurant opened and grabbed my backpack to go to the mountain. I walked to the main street in front of the hotel and caught a taxi to the Huashan Visiting Center where I purchased my admission ticket and minibus roundtrip ticket to the entrance area. Upon arriving at the Huashan Scenic Area entrance, I purchased a roundtrip ticket on the cable car to the station near the Huashan North Peak. The true diehard travelers can trek up the stairways to the North Peak enduring an additional 3,999 steps for the 2 km long 755 meter high climb to the North Peak cable station.

After the ten minute cable car ride, I went to the North Peak Hotel to take a look at available rooms. There were signs for rooms on different floors that I passed on my way to find the reception area. I noticed that there appeared to be some rather nice rooms at the top with a view of Huashan and told the receptionist that I wanted one of them. She said that they were first class double rooms and I told her I would take one with a view. The room was clean with no running water – a basin and a bucket with some water was provided but no towels. The toilet was the public toilet area four stories down and around in back of the hotel. Since I now had a place to stay, I pared down my backpack and headed off to climb toward the Central Peak, the Plank Walk, the South Peak and the West Peak. I would save the North peak for the following morning.

Trying to describe my climb by the different names of places along the way is difficult in that I could not find a comprehensive map and found in the literature that people use different names for some of the same places. My photos are in the order of my climb and descent with some captions added. In addition, there are practically no traditional hiking trails on Huashan – there are either rock-cut steps or concrete steps and the climb is mostly either going up or going down. The rock-cut steps have varying rise and run and require concentration when climbing or descending on them. It is also customary for visitors to Huashan to hang a brass lock (golden lock) on one of the chain railings when they come to climb Huashan for good luck. I purchased my lock from one of the souvenir vendors who engraved my name and date on the lock and attached the bright red ribbon to it – I was now ready for my climb.

I left the hotel and began the climb up what some folks call Ear-Touching Cliff and continued to the Heavenward Ladder up to Riyue Rock. The clouds would come and go enveloping various portions of Huashan and providing an ever-changing landscape. I believe that I ascended the Black Dragon Ridge and the Blue Dragon Ridge to Wu Yun Peak which is the only way to go to the main peaks. I continued climbing up to Golden Lock Pass where I ate a corn on the cob for lunch before continuing an upward climb to the Central peak. As I climbed, Huashan people would stop me and ask me how old I was and wanted me to pose for photos with them which I am always happy to do. One young lady in a black dress that asked for a photo exclaimed: “You are so cool!” Many more people smiled and gave me a big thumbs-up along my climb.

The stairway at Central Peak suddenly made a steep descent for as far as I could see. This steep descent was a major disappointment for my legs which were already becoming tired and craving more oxygen than my bloodstream was readily able to supply. Upon reaching the bottom of the stairway, I was faced with a choice – either climb up to the East Peak and then descend again before climbing up to the Cliffside Plank Walk and the South Peak and onwards or take a pass on the East Peak. My legs made the decision for me and I headed in the direction of the Plank Walk.

Once again, climbing countless steps, I finally arrive at a sign pointing left to the Plank Walk and right to the South Peak. I turn left to climb up to the Heavenly Gate, the entrance to the Cliffside Plank Walk. I am now climbing with renewed enthusiasm to and through the Heavenly Gate to locate the Plank Walk ticket counter.

The information sign in both Chinese and English states: “The Cliffside Plank Path is No. 1 steep road in Mount Hua. This road is excavated in the middle of south peak, both the up and down are cliffs, the iron chain is hanged the road surface is built by stone and rafter, and is hanged by peg.” The ticket counter is part way down a cliffside walkway at the entrance to a temple cave – an umbrella provided shade for the attendant. When I arrive at the counter, the attendant instructed me to stash my backpack under his chair and he fitted me with an upper body safety harness. I keep my camera and start by descending down some steel bar steps which transition to vertical rock-cut steps to complete my initial descent. Steel chains are provided for hand holds and secondary safety cables have been added within the past several years. There are a series of horizontal rock-cut steps that lead to the actual wooden planks. The literature states that the Plank Walk is about sixty meters long. At the far end of the planks a series of vertical rock-cut steps are provided to climb up to a small plateau-like area to the dead-end of the plateau where a cave temple is situated.

Since the plank walk dead-ends, participants are required to pass other people going the opposite direction. Because I was taller, it was easier for me to lean out and have other people pass under my arms between me and the cliff. I really enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the Huashan Plank Walk experience which I found to be exhilarating.

Back at the ticket counter, I returned my harness and retrieved my backpack to continue climbing upward toward the South Peak summit. Climbing through Bizhao Cliff was another unique area to enjoy. An occasional off-in-the-distance view of Central Peak with the steep descending stairway reinforced the immense size of Huashan.

As I approached the South Peak, I was treated to occasional views of the West Peak which was being buffeted by clouds blowing in from the West. I placed a 5 Yuan note into a small pond at the South Peak along with many Yuan notes already left by other travelers. After a photo opportunity at the South Peak, I descended once again before climbing up to the West Peak. I passed the classic photo viewing point for the West Peak and marveled at the large photo on display of the West Peak on a clear day – today that view was completely obscured by clouds.

After visiting the West Peak, I began my descent back toward the North Peak where I began my climb and passed the Zhenyue Temple en route to and through the Golden Lock Pass. By now every uphill and downhill step was becoming increasingly painful to my legs. I was really glad that I had booked the room earlier in the day and rested for an hour or so before trying to see the sunset. When I went out to wait for the sunset, I got a momentary glimpse of the sun through the clouds. While I was waiting, the clouds continued to envelope the North Peak area and there would be no visible sunset for me today.

After dark, the view of Huashan from my room suddenly changed as lights installed alongside the stairways suddenly illuminated. It was similar to someone suddenly turning on the runway lights at an airport. I was surprised because the literature that I had read talked about people climbing Huashan during the night using flashlights and the dangers involved. With regard to climbing Huashan at night, the literature stated that there was a Chinese saying that you do not fear what you cannot see. The installation of the lights appears to be an ongoing improvement.

I slept well and set my alarm to get up early to hopefully see the morning sunrise. I soon realized that my legs had not fully recovered from yesterday’s climbing. When I first got up, the sky was mostly clear with quite a few stars being visible. It didn’t take long for the clouds to reappear and once again deny any opportunity for me to view a Huashan sunrise. I did enjoy the gradual daylight illumination through the clouds of Huashan.

After daybreak, I hiked up to the North Peak summit and hung my golden lock on a chain at the North Peak. I tried to take some photos of my lock showing my name and finally found a position for the lock with a reflection of my shirt on the lock which made my name easy to photograph. I explored the area of the north peak navigating several steep rock-cut ladders one last time on the way back to my room.

I checked out of my North Peak room and took the cable car back down to the lower station to catch the minibus back to the visitors’ center. A short taxi ride soon had me back at my room at the Huashan Hotel where I immediately washed my clothes and dried out my backpack that had become drenched in sweat during my Huashan climb. What an adventure Huashan had been for me!

On August 29th, I took a taxi to the Huashan train station about two hours before my train departure time. When I arrived at the train station, I realized that all of the trains were delayed approximately forty-five minutes and that there were trains to Xi’an about every thirty minutes. I exchanged my train ticket for an earlier train to Xi’an. When I arrived at Xi’an, getting a metered taxi from the train station proved to be a challenge. I ended up sharing a minivan to go from the train station to my Xi’an hotel.

After breakfast on August 30th, I walked to the old city South Gate. Within a block of the gate, I found a street of Old Xi’an that had been preserved probably for visiting tourists and shopping. I took some photos of the South Gate and then walked along the old city street and purchased a few inexpensive-easy-to-pack souvenirs. I walked through several interesting streets and finally took a taxi to the old city East Gate. After photographing the East Gate, while I was trying to get a taxi, a man on a motorcycle offered me a ride and took me to the West Gate. The motorcycle in the Xi’an traffic was an interesting ride for which I was charged twice as much as a metered taxi would have cost. I photographed the West Gate area and finally managed to get a taxi to the Drum Tower. I walked from the Drum Tower through a park-like area to the Bell Tower and back to my hotel.

While walking the night before, I observed that both the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower were beautifully illuminated at night. I also noticed a large McDonald’s near the Drum Tower and decided to return to McDonald’s for dinner and to photograph the illuminated Drum and Bell Towers. When I returned to McDonald’s, I ordered a meal and two young ladies came over to my table and asked if they could get a photograph with me. I asked them to join me at my table and learned that they were university students and anxious to practice speaking English. The lady next to me said that her name in Chinese meant October and that I could call her October. Back at the hotel, I repacked for my flight to Beijing.

When I woke up on August 31st, it was raining in Xi’an. Due to the rain, I checked out of my hotel more than an hour earlier than normal and found it impossible to get a taxi due to the rain. The hotel finally sent me to the airport in the hotel car. My final destination was Bangkok and I had a six hour connection time at Beijing. After checking into my flight to Beijing, I soon discovered that my flight to Beijing had been delayed due to flow control. Bottom line is that due to multiple delays at Xi’an, I ended up with less than an hour to connect to my Bangkok flight after finally arriving in Beijing. I would rest up in northern Thailand before returning home.

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  July 2012
San Francisco

Travel Notes

 

During the weekend of July 7th, Jan and I drove to San Francisco for a weekend getaway and to renew my India tourist visa. After checking into our hotel near the San Francisco airport, I realized that I had forgotten to bring along a pair of shoes – I had been driving in a pair of flip-flops. We spent a couple of hours shopping for my new pair of travel/hiking shoes.

We relocated to a downtown San Francisco hotel the following morning. We walked from our hotel to the Ferry Building and checked out the street vendors and shops within the Ferry Building. We continued walking to Chinatown where we ate lunch.

There were several afternoon activities that were of interest to us including a jazz concert in the Pacific Heights District, the San Francisco Orchestra playing a “Concert in the Park” at Stern Grove, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe performing at a park in the Mission District. We finally decided on the mime troupe performance. After lunch, we walked to Market Street and took the trolley toward the Castro. We exited the trolley at Dolores Street and walked to the mime troupe performance in the park.

The following morning I went to the India visa outsource location where I had my visa application appointment. After the paperwork formalities, I was told to return at 5:00 PM to pick up my passport.

Since we had the better part of the day open, we checked out of the hotel and drove through Haight Ashbury to the Golden Gate Park. Since it was Monday, the flower conservatory was closed but the outdoor flowers were spectacular. The separate Dahlia Garden was just exquisite – so many different species of Dahlia!

We continued meandering through Golden Gate Park and spent some time at the northern-most windmill. We continued driving north to Lincoln Park and stopped at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. We stumbled upon the Holocaust Memorial designed by George Segal in 1984 which is situated adjacent to the parking lot for the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

We also visited the site of some of the old artillery defenses for the Golden Gate at the Presidio and photographed the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog. We drove through the Presidio and south along the ocean before returning to the city to pick up my passport with my new India tourist visa.

We caught the tail end of the rush hour traffic as we drove south on Highway 101 to a hotel near Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world. The annual garlic festival was still about two weeks away. A man at a store in Gilroy directed us to the LJB Farm where we purchased some fresh garlic. We also stopped at a local roadside market to purchase some very fresh cherries en route to Los Banos where we connected with Interstate 5 for a leisurely drive back home to Los Angeles.

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  June 2012
Turkey

Travel Notes

 

When I decided to travel to Sanliurfa, Turkey, my primary goal was to visit Gobekli Tepe, the world’s oldest archaeological sanctuary discovered to date. In addition, I also hoped to be able to arrange a visit to Mount Nemrut.

After overnighting in Istanbul, I flew to Sanliurfa on June 7, 2012. The Sanliurfa airport is situated about 35 kilometers from the city. As I departed the terminal, I noticed that there was only one taxi to be found and I immediately hired it for the journey into Sanliurfa. I had a reservation for a hotel that I reserved via the Internet and upon arrival, I was surprised that the front desk was empty and nobody could speak English or interpret my confirmed reservation for a private single ensuite room. They pointed to a sofa and indicated that I should wait there. Young children would come in and sit on an opposing sofa, stare at me, occasionally say “hello” and then giggle. After nearly half an hour, a man arrived, turned on the lights above the front desk and said that my room would be ready soon. After waiting nearly an hour, a young man came, took my bag and motioned for me to follow him. After several flights of stairs, we arrived at what was to be my room. It was the smallest hotel room that I had ever seen (barely room for the bed and barely room for one carry-on bag at the end of the bed) and the ensuite toilet with shower appeared to be about four feet by four feet square. The bathroom floor was permanently wet and moldy.

No money had as yet changed hands, so I went for a walk and stopped in at the Hotel Arte to see if any rooms were available. A nice young lady said that they had rooms with breakfast included and free WiFi. I looked at two available rooms – one was very nice and the other one was considerably less desirable. I immediately booked the very nice room and walked back to the first hotel and moved out. I offered to pay for my time there but the man behind the front desk declined to take any money.

I moved my belongings into Hotel Arte and took a short nap in one of the two large very comfortable beds in my room. I figured that my next challenge might be to find a car and English speaking driver to take me to the places that I wanted to visit in the area. An Internet article stated that the Hotel Ugur owner, Mr. Mustarfa, speaks four languages (Turkish, English, Arabic, and Kurdish) and is able to arrange tours to destinations in the surrounding area and Syria. As I was moving into the Hotel Arte, I noticed that the Hotel Ugar was located nearby. I decided to go and try to meet Mustafa after breakfast the following morning.

I was awake early the next morning and after breakfast, I walked over to the Hotel Ugur and asked if Mustafa was available. A man named Adam said that he was Mustafa’s brother and that Mustafa would be taking a small group to Mount Nemrut in about twenty minutes. I asked if I could join the group and Adam said that I could. In a few minutes a lady from Taiwan named Sunny came into the lobby. She said that she had just arrived in Sanliurfa and had also just joined the group to go to Mount Nemrut. Soon, Mr. Mustafa arrived and, after meeting him, a group of eight people plus Mustafa departed in his minibus for Mount Nemrut. What a lucky break for me!

Our first stop en route to Mount Nemrut was at the Ataturk Dam. This is a very large rock-filled dam on the Euphrates River situated on the border of Adyaman Province and Sanliurfa Province. Construction began in 1983 and was completed during 1990 as part of the State Hydraulic Works (DSI). It is the sixth largest dam in the world and the largest dam in Turkey. The dam provides water irrigation to the region as well as electricity generation. The dam was originally called the Karababa Dam but was later renamed in honor of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. We were able to admire the dam from a viewing location on an opposite hilltop while sipping tea. We left the viewing area and, after crossing a bridge over the Euphrates river, we turned off the road and drove down to the river bank beside the bridge to get a close look at the Euphrates River. Some people waded in the water and other people practiced skipping small flat stones across the surface of the water.

We continued driving northbound to the west of Lake Ataturk Dam, the large lake formed by the filling of the Ataturk Dam. We stopped for lunch at the Papatya Restaurant in Katha where we had salad and our choice of entrees and beverage. Our next stop was at the Karakus Tumules. This monument tomb was erected by Kommagene King Mithridates II for his mother Isias and is called Karakus (Black Bird) Tumulus because of the eagle on the southern column. The tomb is approximately twenty five meters high with soil and stones and was decorated with three groups of columns during its construction. The column with the hand-shaking scene was for his sister, Laodike; the column with the bull statue was for his mother, Isias; the column with the eagle statue was for his father, Antiochis and his daughter Aka; and the lion statue that has fallen to the ground was for his sister, Laodike. In addition, he constructed a sacred temple at the site but when the Romans occupied Kommagene, they removed the temple building stones and used them in constructing the Cendere Bridge. In addition, a very good view of Mount Nemrut is visible from Karakus Tumules. We had time to walk around the site and climb to the top while enjoying panoramic views in all directions. Karakua Tumulus is within the National Park protection area and is considered to be the entry point to Nemrut Mountain.

Our next stop was at the Cendere Bridge, constructed by the XVIth Roman Legion in 200 AD to span the Cendere River which was known as Chabines in ancient times. The bridge has remained in remarkably good condition. It has two columns erected at the southwestern end of the bridge for Emperor Septimus Severus and his wife Julia Doma and originally had two columns at the opposite end erected for the emperor’s sons, Caracalla and Geta. Only the column for Caracalla remains – Caaracalla upon becoming emperor, killed his brother, Geta, and subsequently had the column erected in Geta’s name removed. The bridge was erected at the downstream mouth of a huge Cendere River gorge. After walking across the bridge, several of us climbed the western rocky side of the gorge to admire the view of the river flowing through the gorge. Downstream from the bridge, the landscape became a plateau-like area with the Cendere River joining with the Nymphois River before eventually flowing into the Euphrates River.

Our next stop was at the Selcuk Bridge over the Nymphois River also known as the Old Katha Brook. This river flowed between Arsameia and New Fortress during the Kommagene period and was called “Nymph” which translates to fertility in Greek. The water for both Arsameia and New Fortress was supplied from here. As we looked upstream, the mountain top on the left was New Fortress and the mountain top on the right was Arsameia. This water irrigating the Kommagene lands to the Euphrates River was considered sacred by Kommagene people.

We drove around and up the mountain and eventually arrived near the ancient city ruins of Arsameia. After a short uphill hike, we arrived at a lower level of the city with several rock-cut caves that formed a part of the city. There were several stone reliefs with inscriptions, including one with the largest and oldest inscription of Anatolia. In addition, there is large stone relief depicting a scene with Antiochus shaking hands with Hercules Herakles. Below this large relief is a rock-cut tunnel some 158 meters long that had been hewn deep into the mountain. The actual city and palace ruins are situated on the plain on the top of the mountain. From the top we could look across the Nymphois River to New Fortress on top of the adjacent mountain which Mustafa said is also called Old Katha. The panoramic views from the top were absolutely stunning. Mustafa also pointed out where some stone floor murals had been removed and taken to a museum for protection.

From Arsameia, there are two ways to drive to the top of Mount Nemrut. The more direct route was undergoing major construction so Mustafa opted to take the longer but safer road. The last several kilometers have a very steep grade to the top which is some 2,150 meters above sea level. After we arrived at the parking lot during late afternoon, there was another 600 meter uphill climb to reach the top where the temples at the base of the tumulus are located – I opted to ride on one of the mules to the top and also to ride the same mule back to the parking lot. King Antiochus 1 erected a magnificent tomb for himself that consisted of a tumulus formed by broken stones over the tomb room and sacred areas surrounding three sides of the tumulus. The tumulus mound was originally sixty meters high and has decreased to fifty meters high due to natural forces and destructive research methods. The sacred areas are called terraces and the east and west terraces have large statues which represent the deities including the king’s own figure as well.

On the inscriptions at the east and west terraces, the following words of Antiochus 1 describe the construction: “I had these statues really worthy of the deities erected: The statues of Zeus-Oromasdes, Apollon, Mithras-Helice, Hermes, Artagnes-Herakles-Ares, a representation of Kommagene feeding everything as a symbol of my own self as engraved from the same stone and seated on the throne together with them erected beside the deities who hear everything...” He also states in the inscriptions that his sacred tomb where he wants to lie in peace forever after death is located under the tumulus.

We stayed until the sun set behind the mountains to the west and then returned to the parking area. After dining at the Papatya Restaurant for dinner, we returned to Sanliurfa around midnight. Mustafa had delivered a wonderful fifteen-hour day trip excursion to Mount Nemrut for us!

During our trip to Mount Nemrut, I arranged for another day trip with Mustafa the following day to go to Harran and several other places of interest south of Sanliurfa. By the time we arrived back at his hotel, three other new arriving guests also wanted to join the trip to Harran. The next morning, June 9, the three new guests joined me, along with Sunny and Mustafa, for our day trip to Harran and vicinity.

According to some of the Turkish tourism literature, Harran is a very interesting ancient place. Harran and nearby Sumatar were two of the main centers of the Paganism which is based on polytheist beliefs of the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian cultures. Harran is also mentioned in both the Book of Genesis and in the Islamic Qur’an. According to some of the literature, Harran is where Terah, his son, Abram (the Prophet Abraham), his grandson, Lot, and Abram’s wife, Sarai, settled while in route to Canan. Harran is also connected with Isaac and Jacob – it was the home of Isaac’s wife, Rebekka, and their son, Jacob. It was strategically located and figured prominently in the Assyrian, Median, Persian, Seleucid, Classical, and Islamic periods.

Our first stop was at the Harran ancient city archaeological site. Harran is also the location of the first university in the world. We walked past the current archaeological area and visited the site of the Grand Mosque of Harran which is described as being the oldest mosque in Anatolia – it is also referred to as the Ruins of the University of Harran because it housed the university. The University of Harran was an 8th and 9th century center for translating works of astronomy, philosophy, natural sciences, and medicine from Greek to Syriac by Assyrians. Harran is also famous for its beehive domed houses. We visited an area with traditional beehive buildings, and I was amazed at just how cool the interior of the domed buildings was when it was very hot outside. Although the Harran Castle site was not open, we were able to walk around the perimeter of the castle. About half way around the castle, three cute young girls came up to me and wanted me to take a photo of them – I got a great photo and they each got one Turkish Lira.

Our next stop was at the Bazda Caves which are located approximately sixteen kilometers from Harran. These large stone pits were used as quarries for large building stones used in construction at Harran, Suayb, Sehri, and Han el-Ba’rur. The caves are huge with many square tunnels and galleries that also include exits to both sides of the mountain.

After exploring part of the Bazda Caves, we continued to Han el-Ba’rur, also known as Kervansarayi, which was on a caravan route. This building is situated approximately twenty-six kilometers from Harran in Goktas village. This building dates back to the age of Ayyubids (Christian Era 1219). According to the legend, Haci Husameddin Ali Bey, son of Imad, son of Isa who had this khan constructed, filled it with dried grapes and offered them to his passerby guests and/or accommodated guests. This building was ruined after the Mongolian invasion and later used as a stable.

Although the main road from Sanliurfa to Harran and the Syrian border was very good, the small roads from Harran to the Bazda Caves and our subsequent destinations were in need of major repairs. Mustafa blamed the condition of the small roads on corrupt contractors and large truck traffic.

Our next stop was at the Suayb Ancient City ruins. Ancient Suayb was the home of the Prophet Jethro (Sho’aib) and is thirty-seven kilometers from Harran. The Prophet Jethro met Moses in the nearby Sumatar Ancient City after Moses first escaped from the Egyptian Pharaoh, and where Jethro gave the legendary miraculous rod to Moses. Moses also married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and lived in Suayb Ancient City prior to returning to Egypt. We explored the ruins of Suayb and also visited the cave house where the Prophet Jethro lived.

Our next destination was the Sumatar Ancient City ruins. Sumatar Ancient City, also referred to as Sogmatar Ancient City, is situated about eighteen kilometers from Suayb Ancient City and approximately fifty-seven kilometers from Harran. We climbed to the top of the solid rock “Sacred Hill” at Sumatar Ancient City which has reliefs of the sun god and the moon god carved in the slopes and which has tablets engraved on the ground at the top. Mustafa said that the tablets were engraved in the Syriac language. Off in the distance to the west, we were able to see the seven hilltops where the ruins of seven temples symbolizing the temples which were built for the planets of Saturn, Shamash (Sun), Jupiter, Sin (Moon), Venus, Mercury, and Mars. After descending from “Sacred Hill,” we visited the Sumatar Pognon Cave. The southern, northern, and western walls of the rock-cut cave are decorated with man sized reliefs symbolizing gods and inscriptions in Syriac. Two of the reliefs have a crescent shaped design above the heads that symbolizes the Moon God Sin.

Our final stop for the day was at Gobekli Tepe, the oldest archaeological sanctuary in the world that has been discovered to date. It is situated seventeen kilometers northeast of Sanliurfa city and has been radio carbon dated back to 9,000 BCE but some scholars believe it to be even older. It was first observed during a survey in 1964 during which it was postulated that a Byzantine cemetery lay beneath the surface of the hill. During 1994, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt visited the site and determined it was a much older Neolithic site. Excavation here has continued since 1995, and it is estimated that only about five per cent of the entire site has been uncovered. The structures are round buildings and include numerous T-shaped monolithic stone pillars many of which have relief carvings on them. The relief carvings include foxes, lions, cattle, hyenas, wild boar, wild asses, cranes, scorpions, ants, spiders, many snakes, and some anthropomorphic figures. The site was backfilled sometime after 8000 BCE when the buildings were covered up with debris consisting mainly of flint gravel, stone tools and animal bones. Gobekli Tepe surpasses the Gigantia Temple on Gozo Island in Malta which I visited in February, 2012, as being the oldest sanctuary in the world discovered to date.

By the time we arrived at Gobleki Tepe, it was late in the day and the light for taking photographs was very dim. We explored the site and watched the sun set to the west before returning to Sanliurfa.

During our day trip to Harran, I arranged for a short day trip for Sunday, June 10, with Mustafa to visit some of the local attractions in Sanliurfa city. Sunny was departing and, after reserving a seat on a bus departing at 8:30 PM, decided to join Mustafa and me on Sunday morning as my guest for our local day trip.

The Turkish Government Tourism literature generally refers to Sanliurfa City as Urfa which had also been known as Edessa in ancient times. It refers to Urfa as being the oldest settlement point of Mesopotamia and a strategic point throughout history due to its proximity to water resources and being on the trade routes. The history of the city center is dated back to around the 9th millennium BCE after the excavations made in Gobekli Tepe only fifteen kilometers from the Urfa city center. Throughout history, Urfa has been under the dominations of the Eblaians, Acadians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Hurri-Mitannis, Armenians, Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, the Crusaders, and the Islamic dynasties. The literature states that Urfa is the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham and that Urfa is the fourth holy place of the Islamic World after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. In addition, the literature states that the Prophet Job (Ayyub) suffered in a cave and then died in Urfa and that the Prophet Elisha (Alyasa) traveled to Eyyupnebi village where Job lived but died before seeing him.

Our first stop in Urfa was at the park in the Hanlar Region Gol Quarter of Urfa. Since I was unable to find a specific name for the park, I will refer to it as “Hanlar Region Gol Quarter Park” or “The Park.” The Park is an area with much history in that it contains the Urfa Castle, the Cave where the Prophet Abraham was born, the Halil-Ur Rachman Lake, the Ayn-I Zeliha Lake, the Hallil-Ur Rachman Mosque, the Razvaniey Mosque, and the mosque at the entrance to the Cave of Abraham.

Since it was Sunday, The Park was very crowded with people visiting and picnicking. We walked past the Hallil-Ur Rachman Mosque and went directly to the Halil-Ur Rachman Lake. The Halil-Ur Rachman Lake is also known as the Sacred Fish Pond. The Turkish Government Tourism literature states that this is the location where the Prophet Abraham was thrown into the fire by King Nimrod for his struggle against the idols which the people worshiped. When Abraham was thrown into the fire, the fire turned into water and the wood for the fire turned into fish. Legend also states the when Zeliha, who believed in Abraham, could not bear the fact that Abraham had been throwm into the fire, also threw herself into the fire from the site where Urfa Castle stands. On the place where she fell into the fire, there formed the lake known as Ayn-I Zeliha Lake which means tears of Zeliha.

After visiting the Halil-Ur Rachman Lake, we visited the Razvaniey Mosque which is adjacent to Halil-Ur Rachman Lake. We then continued walking through the park and stopped at a silver shop which was owned by Mustafa’s nephew to relax out of the hot sun and to sip some tea. After tea, we walked through The Park past the Ayn-I Zeliha Lake to the mosque at the entrance to the Cave of Abraham. We went through the mosque to a courtyard where sacred water flowed in a channel and where the entrance to the Cave of Abraham is located.

There are two entrances – one for men and one for women – to get to the actual entrance to the Cave of Abraham, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham. Sunny went through the women’s entrance and I used the men’s entrance. The room in front of the cave was crowded with people and the cave was behind a clear glass panel. There were lights within the cave which reflected on the glass viewing panel and made any attempt at photography very difficult.

We then went to a very nice restaurant that overlooked The Park and the Urfa Castle. We were seated on cushions on the floor and enjoyed a superb lunch. During lunch, I told Mustafa that I wanted to return to Gobekli Tepe with the bright sunshine overhead and after lunch, we went back to Gobekli Tepe. The sunshine was perfect for much better photographs and the visible relief carvings on the stone pillars were stunning.

After taking photographs at Gobekli Tepe, we returned to Urfa and went to the Halepli Bahce Murals. These murals, dated from the 5th century AD, are located in a 13-room palace that was found during a proposed development project. Excavations began during 2007 and still continue. Original stones from the Euphrates River that are between 1 and 4 square millimeters were used on the floor mosaics of this palace. According to the Turkish Government Tourism literature, the mosaics describe four Amazon queens fighting against male dominance, the life story of Asil Ktitic, who was the protector of the building, the story of Black Slave and Zebra, and mosaics having plant and animal patterns.

After visiting the mosaics, we returned to The Park where Sunny and I climbed to the top of Urfa Castle. The two columns at the top above the castle are dated to the 3rd century BCE. It is believed that the Prophet Abraham was thrown into the fire from this hill. The views from the top were magnificent. After walking the length of the castle top, we noticed the entrance to a rock cut tunnel down as an exit. We walked down the tunnel which took us all the way down to the ground below where we met Mustafa and returned to his hotel. Back at the hotel, Sunny prepared to go to catch her bus and Mustafa suggested that I return in the morning to go with him to visit the bazaars.

On Monday, June 11, I returned to Mustafa’s hotel and Mustafa said: “I think you may be angry with me.” He then explained that four young ladies arrived the night before and that he had agreed to take them to Mount Nemrut so he would not be able to go with me to visit the bazaars. I assured him that I was very happy that he had arranged the trip to Mount Nemrut with the ladies and that I was very happy to explore more of Urfa on my own. Before he left for the mountain, he recommended that I have tea at Yildiz Sarayi Konnkevi, a hotel and restaurant in old Urfa, to visit the Ulu Mosque, and several bazaars that he recommended.

Since I had two days remaining in Urfa, I decided to split them up and visit the bazaars and mosque during the morning and edit photos during the afternoon. I would visit the Urfa Archaeological Museum the following day. I finally found Yildiz Sarayi Konnkevi in the narrow streets of old Urfa and enjoyed a cup of tea in a second floor alcove overlooking the courtyard. The waiter asked where I was from and said that there would be no charge for the tea.

The streets of old Urfa are very picturesque and interesting to meander through. I visited the Ulu Mosque and then explored the colorful bazaars before returning to my hotel to begin the daunting task of editing photos.

On Tuesday morning, June 12, I visited with Mustafa and as I asked questions about the region, he managed to locate a copy of a guidebook for Sanliurfa in English published by the Turkish Government Tourism Department. This was the first publication in English that I had seen since I arrived in Sanliurfa. Suddenly many loose ends from our prior day trips began to come together. Since it was his only copy, I photographed some of the pages that I found to be the most interesting, and I became determined to try to find some additional English publications.

After being directed to two different locations, I was finally directed to the Culture and Tourism Department Building. I walked into the building and a man finally took me to an exit into a courtyard area and pointed straight ahead and then indicated a turn to the right like a U-turn. Halfway across the courtyard was a sidewalk where I turned right and went to the end where I only saw utilities for the building. I went back to where I had turned right and the man kept pointing to the building across the courtyard. I went into the other building into an empty hallway with all of the doors closed and no signs on the doors. As I was about to give up, a man came out of one of the closed doors and, when I communicated that I wanted the tourism office, he opened a door and indicated for me to go inside. Once inside, a man came over and in good English said that I was at the right place. I told him that I wanted a tourist guidebook and map in English. He gave me a Sanliurfa Travel Guide map and said he did not have any books or pamphlets. When I asked if he had any additional travel information in English, he gave me a tourism DVD captioned “The City of Prophets Sanliurfa.” I thanked him and finally felt that I had gotten the additional information that I wanted.

Adjacent to the Culture and Tourism Department Building is a wonderful Culture Garden with replicas of many of the prized archaeological items on display in a large open courtyard. I explored the Culture Garden before continuing on to the Urfa Archaeological Museum.

The Sanliurfa Archaeological Museum has some amazing exhibits from the region. Attempts to establish a museum in Sanliurfa began with a collection of items for the museum in 1948. The museum opened in 1969 and is now the fifth biggest museum in Turkey with approximately 74,000 items in its possession. Some of the oldest items in the world are exhibited in the museum including the “11,500 Years old Balikligol Sculpture which is the oldest sculpture in the world.” After viewing the exhibits within the museum, I also viewed the exhibits outside. The museum was a fitting conclusion to my visit to Sanliurfa.

I returned to my hotel and continued editing photos. That evening, I went to have tea and to visit one last time with Mustafa at Hotel Ugur. In the event that anyone would like to contact Mr. Mustafa, he can be reached via E-mail (musma63@yahoo.com) and his mobile phone number is 0 (522) 685 29 42.

I departed Sanliurfa on Wednesday, June 13, and flew to Istanbul where I spent the night before flying home to Los Angeles on June 14.

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  May 2012
Seattle and
Orcas Island

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I arrived at Seattle, Washington, on Thursday, May 3, to visit friends in Federal Way and Orcas Island. We spent several days in Federal Way visiting friends. On Saturday they took us to see some sights at Tacoma. On the way to lunch, they parked near the old Tacoma Union Station which has been integrated into the Federal Courthouse. We all walked from Union Station across the “Bridge of Glass” and meandered through the Tacoma Glass Museum complex. After eating lunch at one of their favorite German restaurants, we spent some time exploring a large nursery while they shopped for some landscaping plants. While driving in the vicinity of Federal Way, we were occasionally treated to majestic views of both Puget Sound and of Mount Rainier, the highest mountain in Washington State.

We returned to the SeaTac Airport on Monday, May 7, to catch the Airporter Shuttle bus to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal where we took the ferry to Orcas Island. We were able to see Mount Baker in the distance from Anacortes and from various open areas during the ferry ride through the San Juan Islands to Orcas. Mount Baker is the second highest mountain in Washington. The ferry stopped at Shaw Island before proceeding to the Orcas Island Ferry terminal at Orcas Village.

We spent four days with our friends on Orcas, and they treated us to smoked salmon and smoked halibut right out of their smoker. They also prepared absolutely wonderful fresh oysters and clams during our stay. Also during our visit, they showed us some of the local tourist sites. One interesting site is a building brightly painted each year by high school students who also paint their names on the end of the building facing the road. We visited Cascade Bay, Deer Harbor, Doe Bay, and the two bays at Eastsound Village. Our friends said that they had never seen such low tides at these bays during the entire time that they have lived on Orcas.

One afternoon, we drove to the top of Mount Constitution, the highest point on Orcas, and admired the panoramic views from the viewpoint. We also meandered through the Orcas Island Pottery grounds where we purchased several small items. While browsing through several shops at Eastsound Village, we purchased a few small items at Kizmit, a store which had a large selection of items imported from Southeast Asia.

On Friday, May 11, we backtracked on the ferry to Anacortes and continued on the shuttle bus to SeaTac where our friends from Federal Way once again met us. We spent the Mother’s Day weekend with them and caught a late afternoon flight back to Los Angeles on May 14. I usually book aisle seats for my flights but this time I had a window seat on the left side of the plane. The weather was clear as we flew past Mount Rainier and Mount Adams but the clouds completely obscured any view of Mount Hood in Oregon. Jan was able to get a glimpse of Mount St. Helens out the right side of the plane. A break in the clouds afforded me a distant view across the California High Sierras to Mono Lake and then Yosemite National Park came into view. As we approached Los Angeles above the Santa Monica Mountains, the late afternoon sunshine illuminated the Getty Museum and Westwood. 

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  April 2012
Java

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel to Central Java, Indonesia, to visit the Buddhist temple of Borobudur and the Hindu temples of Prambanan. After spending time researching the Internet, I contacted Mr. Wiedy Antara of Borobudur World Heritage to inquire about the possibility of arranging a special tour package for me with a private car and driver. Mr. Wiedy responded with some suggested activities and we finally customized a five day private tour package that included Borobudur, Prambanan, the Dieng Plateau, the Mount Merapi volcano, and several other tourist attractions in the vicinity of Yogyakarta City.

I arrived at Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia in the early afternoon on Friday, 6 April, where I was met by Rudy, my driver, with a Suzuki minivan. After a quick stop at an ATM machine, we drove to visit the Hindu temples of Prambanan where a pre-arranged guide was waiting for me to arrive. With the assistance of my guide I was able to explore Prambanan, the inner zone temples, and the nearby Prambanan Museum before an afternoon rain shower arrived.

Prambanan is a 9th century Hindu temple complex and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally there were 240 temples within the complex that consisted of three zones. The outer zone was surrounded by a wall. The middle zone contained hundreds of small temples. The inner zone was the most holy zone and it contained eight main temples and eight shrines – these temples and shrines have all been reconstructed. The largest temple within the inner zone is forty-seven meters tall.

We continued driving for about an hour to the Manohara Hotel, which is situated within the Borobudur Park and is within two hundred meters of the temple entrance. The rain had subsided by the time I checked into the hotel, received my Borobudur entrance pass, breakfast voucher, audio visual presentation voucher, and was briefed on the details for my Sunrise Tour the following morning. Since I still had thirty minutes before Borobudur closed for the day, I walked up to Borobudur and around a portion of the temple base to become familiar with the temple layout. While I was there, a man requested permission to take a photo of his wife with me. I agreed and loaned my camera to him so that he could also take a photo with my camera – requests for photos with me occurred nearly everywhere I went whenever I was walking alone. The documentary video presentation on Borobudur was magnificent and provided much insight in preparation for my visit the following morning.

Borobudur dates from the 8th century and is the single largest Buddhist structure on Earth. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It consists of six square platforms above which are three circular platforms and a large main stupa dome at the very top. The literature states that the temple is decorated by at least 2,670 wall relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The three upper levels have a total of 72 Buddha statues seated inside perforated stupas. It is situated in the Kedu Plain between the two volcanos of Mount Sumbing and Mount Sundoro to the west and Mount Merbabu and Mount Merapi to the east. The eruption of Mount Merapi during October and November 2010 covered Borobudur with volcanic ash, and the temple complex was closed during November 2010 to clean up the ash – the upper levels remained closed to the public until late September 2011. Following the reopening of the upper levels, the Borobudur Conservation Agency has restricted the number of visitors to the upper levels to 82 people. Mr. Wiedy said that since people who visit after 9:30 AM are allowed only five minutes to visit the three upper levels, the Sunrise Tour becomes even more special.

After dinner, as I walked through the hotel lobby, the receptionist called me by name and informed me that a man named Mr. Ronnie would be the guide arranged by Mr. Wiedy for my Borobudur Sunrise Tour. I got up at 4:00 AM and met Mr. Ronnie in the hotel lobby at 4:15 AM. As part of my tour package, I was given a tour ticket, a flashlight, and a sarong to wear at the temple. Visitors to the temple are required to wear a sarong but the rule didn’t appear to be strictly enforced. Although quite a few people were gathering in the lobby for the tour, Mr. Ronnie and I left early and we were the only ones at the upper levels the temple for about fifteen minutes while Ronnie pointed out stupas of particular interest. After a spectacular sunrise, I took photos from the upper levels before returning to the hotel to enjoy a wonderful buffet breakfast.

I returned to the temple by myself after breakfast and systematically walked around each of the six square lower levels admiring the carved relief panels and had one last quick look at the three circular upper levels. Many young people stopped me and wanted to practice English and to have their photo taken with me – I requested them to also take a photo with my camera on several occasions.

Borobudur was an ancient Buddhist pilgrimage site and two additional nearby temples were part of the ancient pilgrimage route to Borobudur. They are Candi Mendut and Candi Pawon – Candi means temple in Java. I was able to visit both of these small temples en route to my next hotel after I finished exploring Borobudur.

On Sunday morning, we departed the hotel at 6:30 AM and drove for about two hours to the Dieng Plateau. The Dieng Plateau is a volcano caldera that was formed by the eruption of the ancient Mountain Prau. It is 2,000 meters above sea level and volcanic activity still continues in the area. The scenery is spectacular and this region grows large quantities of potatoes.

The ancient Javanese Hindus built many temples and made Dieng Plateau a sacred place. The temples were built between the 8th and 13th centuries and about nine of the temples remain today. Although there are several temple complexes on the plateau, the largest is Complex Candi Arjuna. It consists of an area with five temples and an adjacent area to the North called Complex Darmasala with two ancient wells and only temple foundations remaining. The five temples in the complex from north to south are Candi Arjuna, Candi Semar, Candi Srikandi, Candi Sembadra, and Candi Puntadewa. Complex Candi Sietiaki with one intact temple, Candi Sietiaki, is several hundred meters to the west of Complex Candi Arjuna. Complex Candi Gatotkaca is adjacent to the road several hundred meters to the south of Complex Candi Arjuna. Two additional temple situated sites farther away from Candi Arjuna are Candi Bima and Complex Candi Dwarawah.

We parked at the roadside entrance to the Candi Arjuna Complex, and I walked to the complex to see the temples first. I continued walking to the adjacent Complex Darmasala and paid special attention to the two ancient wells that the literature states have never run dry even during droughts. I also walked to the Complex Candi Sietiaki to have a look at Candi Sietiaki before hiking back to the highway entrance where I also visited Complex Candi Gatokaca.

After exploring the seven temples that remain in the vicinity of Candi Arjuna, we drove to visit an active volcano crater called Sikidang Crater. I hiked to the edge of the crater with spectacular boiling mud that was spewing out sulfur gas and steam. There was so much steam that it was difficult to capture the very large roaring boil of the mud in a photograph.

My next stop was at Candi Bima, which is near the entrance to the Sikidang Crater. Candi Bima was the eighth actual temple that I would visit – I did not visit the Candi Dwarawati Complex where one more temple has been reconstructed.

Telaga Warna, which means colored lake, is a very beautiful lake that attracted many visitors. Our last stop was at the Dieng Plateau Theater to see a documentary film about the Dieng Plateau volcanic action and geothermal activities. After visiting the Dieng Plateau, I searched the Internet for additional information and the most complete site for Dieng Plateau tourism that I have found to date is at http://heritages.wordpress.com/.

Once again, I was surprised at how many random strangers stopped me at various locations at the Dieng Plateau and asked to have their photos taken with me. Several times I loaned them my camera so that I could also have a photo with them. It was also interesting that I was never approached by random strangers when I was accompanied by someone.

The drive back to Yogyakarta took approximately three hours where checked into my last hotel. That evening I had the opportunity to go to dinner at a local restaurant with Mr. Wiedy Antara. He is a very unique person from Borobudur who went to the university to learn English and journalism. He specialized in travel journalism and ultimately returned to Borobudur where he teaches local residents English, computers, and how to be drivers and/or tour guides – the first course taken is free, and the costs for two additional courses are pro-rated. He is also largely responsible for promoting Borobudur into the most popular tourism site in Indonesia. My driver and all of my tour guides were Borobudur local residents from Mr. Wiedy’s school. We had a wonderful dinner, and I was extremely happy that Mr. Wiedy is focused on improving opportunities for the Borobudur local residents. Anyone who may wish to contact Mr. Wiedy can do so via email.

On Monday morning, 9 April, we drove to Mount Merapi where I explored a portion of the site of the 2010 eruption and hiked out on an area of the lava flow. We drove back to Yogyakarta to tour the Sultan’s Palace and the Taman Sari and to visit a batik factory.

In the evening, I went to the Ramayama Dance Ballet presentation at the Purawisata Jogja open air theater in Yogyakarta. Fortunately for me, they passed out a brief description of the story in English before the actual performance began. The costumes were exquisite and the performers coupled with the musicians were a delight to watch.

We returned to the hotel sometime after 10:00 PM and I completed my final packing to be ready to meet Rudy at 5:00 AM the following morning for my flight back to Singapore. Rudy was in the hotel lobby waiting for me when I arrived at 4:45 AM for our final drive to the Yogyakarta International Airport. As I flew to Singapore, I marveled at how courteous the Javanese drivers were and how much I enjoyed all of the Indonesian people that I interacted with during my trip – especially the young adults that wanted to be photographed with me.

After returning to Singapore, I continued on to Thailand where I attended the Songkran Festival at Chiang Rai. The Songkran Festival is the celebration of the original Thai New Year. One of the highlights of Songkran is the many water fights in the streets engaged by people of all ages. I walked to one of the main streets in Chiang Rai and a small Thai boy approached me and began spraying me with his water gun. He soon ran out of water and, after refilling, he returned with his smaller brother and they both enjoyed drenching me with their water guns.

Some people stationed themselves curbside in the streets with barrels and tubs of water, buckets, pans, and hoses to constantly refill the barrels and tubs. They would engage people passing by. Other people put tubs and barrels of water in the beds of trucks and would throw water at the other people alongside the streets and in the streets. The Chiang Rai Times newspaper published a photo of an elephant being used to spray people during the water fights. The water fights are all in good fun and are thoroughly enjoyed by everyone.

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  February 2012
Malta

Travel Notes

 

I arrived at Malta in the early afternoon on Friday, 24 February 2012. The weather was warm with bright sunny skies. After checking into my hotel near the Castille Square in Valletta, I decided to explore the neighborhood near the hotel. While walking, I came across signs pointing to the Lascaris War Rooms.

Since I had never heard of them, I decided to stop in for a visit. They were an ultra top secret complex which housed Great Britain’s War Headquarters in Malta. It was here that the defense of Malta was conducted and the Allied offensive operations in the Mediterranean were directed. It was also here during 1943 that General Eisenhower and his Supreme Commanders directed the Allied Invasion of Sicily. Following World War 2, it became the Mediterranean Fleet Headquarters. In 1967, it was taken over by NATO to be used as a strategic Communication Center for the interception of Soviet submarines in the Mediterranean. They are being restored to the circa WW2 timeframe and the tour was well worth the admission charge.

The following morning I went to visit some of Malta’s prehistoric megalithic temples. My first stop was at the Tarxien Temples which date back to 3600-3200 BC and are a World Heritage site. Both the South Temple and the East Temple were built between 3150 and 2500 BC. After leaving the Tarxien Temples, I went to see the Blue Grotto en route to the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temple sites. The Blue Grotto is spectacular and should not be missed while visiting Malta.

After touring the visitor center at the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temple sites, I walked to Hagar Qim Temple which dates back to 3600-3200 BC. I continued walking down the hillside to the Mnajadra Temples which also date back to 3600-3200 BC and consist of three temples overlooking a forecourt. The middle temple is the most recent of the Mnajadra Temples and dates from 3100-2500 BC. Both of these temple complexes are also World Heritage sites.

Upon returning to Valletta, I visited the Malta National Archeological Museum to view relics from various prehistoric Malta temples. The collection in the museum was magnificent and which I appreciated even more for having been to several of the temples earlier in the day. The museum also allowed photography.

When I arrived back at the hotel, I had the receptionist book a day trip to the Island of Gozo for me the following day. A little later I inquired to the hotel receptionist about obtaining a ticket to the very exclusive Hal Saflieni Hypogeum ancient underground burial complex. She told me that tickets were extremely difficult to obtain but that they are normally available from the Malta National Archeological Museum and that a few last-minute tickets are available each morning when the Fine Arts Museum opens. I walked back to the Archeological Museum and was told that tickets for the Hypogeum were fully booked thru March 2. They also said that a few last-minute tickets for the following day are available each morning when the Fine Arts Museum opens. I asked how to get to the Fine Arts Museum and I walked to the museum to be sure that I knew how to get there in case I decided to try for a last-minute ticket.

When I arrived at the Fine Arts Museum, I went to the receptionist and asked if this was the place to obtain last-minute tickets. He replied that it was the place and asked me how many tickets I needed. I replied that I needed only one ticket and he replied that he had two tickets for the following day and could sell me one. I immediately purchased the ticket for the 12:00 noon tour for Sunday, 26 February. Upon returning to my hotel, I told the receptionist that I had somehow managed to obtain a Hypogeum ticket for Sunday and she changed my Gozo Island reservation to Monday.

On Sunday morning, I took a taxi to the Hypogeum and the taxi driver was amazed that I had actually been able to obtain a ticket. The Hypogeum was amazing – no bags, backpacks, purses, or cameras are allowed. The number of visitors is strictly restricted and the air within the Hypogeum is climate controlled. Each visitor is given an automatically functioning audio headset guide which only requires adjustment of the volume after the language is set by the staff. A staff person leads the small group of people through the Hypogeum.

The Hypogeum, or underground cavity, consists of a complex of rock-cut halls, passages, and chambers on three levels underground that reach a depth of 10.6 meters and cover an area approximately 500 square meters. The halls, passages, and chambers were carved using only stone tools. Curvilinear and spiral paintings in red ochre remain visible in some areas. The oldest part of the Hypogeum is the level closest to the surface and dates from 3600-3300 BC. The middle level dates from 3300-3000 BC. The lowest level dates from 3250-2500 BC with the most recent part being the deepest underground. Based upon excavations of the site, archaeologists have determined that the Hypogeum was a burial complex. It is also a World Heritage site.

After touring the Hypogeum, I went to the walled medieval city of Mdina which was once the medieval capital of Malta. It was later taken over by the Knights of St. John in 1530. The literature states that because Mdina was far from the sea and the Grand Harbour making it was difficult to defend, the Knights built a new capital at Valletta and many of the residents of Mdina moved to Valletta. Valletta became the capital in 1571 and remains the capital today. Although the Mdina Cathedral is said to be spectacular, it is closed on Sundays. After walking through Mdina, I returned to Valletta as the weather was becoming increasingly overcast, cold, and windy.

On the morning of Monday, 28 February, I woke up a little before 5:00 AM and observed that it was raining. When I got up at 6:30 AM, the rain had stopped and when I went to breakfast the sun was shining brightly. By the time I went to catch the tour bus to transfer me to connect to Gozo Island ferry it was overcast again but became sunny as we approached the harbour at Cirkewwa. The ferry ride to Gozo Island did not take very long and I met the “hop on hop off’ bus upon arriving at Mgarr Harbour on Gozo Island. The weather was gorgeous, and I exited the bus near the prehistoric megalithic Ggantija Temples. These are described as the oldest free-standing structures in the world, and they date back to 3600-3000 BC. The largest monolith to be found at the Ggantija Temples weighs about fifty tons, and the temple walls reach a height of around seven meters.

After visiting the Ggantija Temples, I hopped back on the next bus and continued the “hop on hop off” bus tour of Gozo admiring the spectacular scenery. I exited the bus at the stop in Victoria and walked to the Citadel. The Citadel is situated upon one of the highest points on the island and has been fortified for many centuries. After exploring the Citadel, I returned to the bus stop and once again caught the next “hop on hop off” bus. I originally planned to take the bus tour of the entire island but to my dismay, there are three “hop on hop off” bus stops at the same location so when I caught the next bus, I missed out on visiting the portion of the island with the famous Azure Window rock and instead passed through Xlendi, a small fishing village, before continuing on to Mgarr Harbour. The ferry back to Cirkewwa was a smooth ride and after a short wait, my transfer tour bus picked me up and delivered me back to Valletta. The weather all day on Gozo remained gorgeous and my day trip to Gozo was sensational.

On Tuesday morning, 29 February, I checked out of my hotel and flew from Malta to Frankfurt, Germany, to connect with my flights back to Los Angeles.

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  January 2012
India

Travel Notes

 

Prior to traveling to India, I arranged an advanced reservation at the Airport Hotel which included breakfast and complimentary arrival and departure airport transfers. I flew from Bangkok and arrived at New Delhi, India, on 19 January 2012 a little before midnight. After clearing Immigration, I found my hotel transfer person waiting for me right on schedule outside Gate 6 of the International Terminal. Much to my surprise, he and his driver had a brand new car and I was their first passenger in the car. After a short drive, we arrived at the Airport Hotel. The room was clean and adequate for my one night stay before continuing on to Jodhpur the following day. I had my choice of three items on the breakfast coupon plus juice and coffee. The staff delivered my breakfast to my room about twenty minutes after I placed my order and it was wonderful.

I checked out after breakfast on January 20 and the same person with the new car arrived to take me to the Domestic Terminal 3 to catch my Air India flight to Jodhpur. The weather was very foggy and many flights were delayed and/or canceled. I checked in for my flight and began a long wait to see if my flight would be delayed or canceled. Finally the screen showed my flight to be delayed about thirty minutes with no gate assigned. Later, when my flight was assigned a gate, I made my way to the assigned gate. After a gate change, we boarded the plane. The Captain announced that due to the fog, many flights were backed up. Since we were number sixteen in line to depart, the crew served lunch while we sat at the gate waiting for clearance to depart. We finally departed to Jodhpur. Following an uneventful flight to Jodhpur, I finally found Bharat, my driver, at the Jodhpur airport. Bharat was my driver for my entire trip to Rajasthan and he took me to my hotel in Jodhpur. We agreed that he would pick me up at 8:00 AM the following morning. 

After checking into the Kuchaman Haveli hotel, I explored the area in the vicinity of the hotel and decided to have dinner at the hotel. A young man showed me how to go to the rooftop of the hotel building which offered a magnificent view of the Mehrangarh Fort, the city, and some of the surrounding area landmarks. Although the hotel said that breakfast began at 7:30 AM, the hotel staff members were late arriving to serve breakfast which resulted in toast and coffee before dashing off to meet Bharat.

Since we would be returning to Jodhpur on January 24, we decided to drive directly to Jaisalmer. I took a few good early morning photos of the Mehrangarh Fort as we drove toward Jaisalmer. Since most of the roads that I traveled on prior visits to India were very poor, I expressed my surprise to find many of the roads in Rajasthan to be very good highways. Bharat explained that the roads are very good because the large numbers of Indian military defenses in the area require good highways. The drive to Jaisalmer was pleasant through the desert and we arrived at Jaisalmer around noon.

I checked into my hotel and, after lunch, Bharat and a guide picked me up to go sightseeing. We went to the Jaisalmer Fort and the city inside the fort. My guide showed me a lookout point for a view of Jaisalmer from the fort and said that pigeons were considered holy in Jaisalmer. The Jain temples within the fort are closed during the afternoon and my guide said that I was unfortunate to not be able to visit inside the temples. I took photos of the exterior of the temples and decided to return the following morning. We meandered through the narrow streets designed to keep much direct sunlight out in the hot weather. My guide seemed to be in a hurry and was keen on pointing out shops where he would have liked for me to visit and purchase something – I find this to be typical of guides in India and declined guides for the remainder of my trip. The marketplace shops and homes were colorful while the several havelis that we passed were exquisite. Patwon Ki Haveli and the Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli were two that my guide pointed out in particular. The Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli was unique in that two architect brothers designed the haveli – each brother designed one half and they wanted the design to be similar but not the same. The resulting building is a spectacular sight to behold.

After leaving the guide in Jaisalmer, we drove about forty-six kilometers into the desert to the Khuri Resort to ride a camel to the sand dunes sunset point. The camel ride turned out to be between six and seven kilometers roundtrip to the sand dunes. Unlike the camel saddles in Egypt, the camel saddles at the Khiri Resort had no stirrups and the ride was rough, rougher and much rougher depending on how fast the camel ran. The rougher ride was when the camel walked and the next faster gait was somewhat smoother. The much rougher ride was when the camel ran and the lack of stirrups added to the misery – several days later I did see a boy riding a camel that had a saddle with stirrups. The changing shadows on the sand dunes as sunset approached were interesting to watch. After the camel ride, I stayed for the dance show and a buffet dinner. The music and dance show were very good – I would recommend it. We drove back to the city after the show and dinner. Many people recommended spending a night in the desert but I believe that my camel ride, buffet dinner, and the music and dance show provided much the same experience.

On the morning of January 22, I walked from the hotel to the Jaisalmer fort and visited the Jain temples. The carved columns and sides of the temples inside the temples were exquisite and I spent nearly two hours exploring the temple interiors. After lunch, Bharat drove me to see Gadisar Lake and the Salim Singh-ki Haveli; the Bada Bagh Cenotaphs; and the Jain Ludarwa Temple. The Bada Bagh Cenotaphs is a royal cemetery for some Maharajas of Jaisalmer state and was well worth the visit. The Jain temple at Ludarwa was not as elegant as the temples within the Jaisalmer Fort but was also well worth the visit.

On the morning of January 23, we left Jaisalmer and drove to Bikaner. The roads were the best that I had seen in India. About 165 kilometers from Bikaner, we visited a lake at Kichan which is a migration destination for Siberian Cranes – the locals said there were one million birds there. On the outskirts of Bikaner, we stopped at the Gajner Palace. This palace was once a hunting lodge for birds with a natural lake on 6,000 acres – it is now one of the luxury palace hotels in India. I paid the 200 Rupee fee for the tour of the hotel and a coffee at the lakeside restaurant. The lake is a migration destination for Siberian ducks and there were many of the ducks close to the hotel.

We continued to Bikaner and I checked into the Harasar Haveli Hotel. After a quick lunch, we went to the Junagarth Fort and then to the Lallgarh Palace and Sri Sadul Museum. The fort was very interesting and took nearly two hours to tour. The Lallgarh Palace is also one of the palace hotels in India. The architecture is most impressive from the outside. I did not attempt to tour the interior but I did take one of the hotel brochures from an attendant. The Sri Sadul Museum situated on the hotel grounds has some interesting local exhibits and is worth a visit.

On the morning of January 24, we began driving back to Jodhpur. About 30 kilometers from Bikaner we stopped at the Karni Mata Desnok Temple. This is the most famous of the Karni Mata temples and it is the temple where rats are considered to be sacred. The literature states that the rats are afforded protection within the temple and if one is killed, it must be replaced by a rat made of solid gold. It also states that out of the thousands of rats in the temple there are only four or five white rats and that seeing one of the white rats is a special blessing. The temple was crowded inside and while I saw many black rats, I was not among the fortunate ones to see a white rat.

As we continued our drive to Jodhpur, we passed a disabled bus off to the side of the highway. Upon arriving at Jodhpur, we returned to the Kuchaman Haveli hotel where they remembered me and took me directly to my room bypassing the reception desk. After a quick lunch, I met Bharat and we went to the Mehrangarh Fort, Jaswant Thada, and the Umaid Bhawan Palace. The Mehrangarh Fort is one of best forts that I visited in India. Not only is the structure magnificent but also the museum furnishings within the fort are remarkable. I am glad that I was able to explore the fort at my leisure without a guide.

The Jaswant Thada Cenotaphs is another royal cemetery adjacent to a small lake on top of another mountain nearby Mehrangarh Fort. The architecture of the structures makes the visit here very worthwhile. Our final stop at Jodhpur was at the Umaid Bhawan Palace and museum. This is another of the Palace Hotels in India and prominently occupies the top of Chittar Hill overlooking Jodhpur.

We departed Jodhpur on the morning of January 25 and began our journey to Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh, and Udaipur. On the highway to Ranakpur, we passed one overturned truck. Later we passed a disabled truck and another truck that apparently ran into the disabled truck. Ranakpur is the home of the Sheth Anandji Kalyanji Jain Temple complex. It is situated in the mountains between Jodhpur and Udaipur and the narrow mountain roads slowed down our progress considerably. The Sheth Anandji Kalyanji temples are world renowned for the exquisite marble temple carvings. The large temple has nearly 1,500 carved marble pillars with no two alike in addition to the other carvings inside and outside the temple. I also visited a second much smaller temple with equally exquisite carvings. This temple complex was on my short list of places to visit in Rajasthan and I was not disappointed.

After exploring Sheth Anandji Kalyanji, we continued driving through the mountains to the Kumbhalgarh Fort, the second largest fort in India. The literature states that the Kumbhalgarh Fort is hard to get to but well worth the effort. When we arrived, there were hardly any tourists at the fort and I enjoyed exploring the mountain top fort. There were no museum furnishings at the fort but the panoramic vistas of the surrounding areas were wonderful. We continued driving in the mountains until we finally got back to a main road to Udaipur. We arrived at Udaipur shortly before sunset and my hotel was lakeside in an old part of Udaipur with extremely narrow streets. The rooftop restaurant afforded a good view of Fateshsagar Lake and the water palaces.

We got a late start the following morning because the Udaipur City Palace Museum did not open until later in the morning. The City Palace Museum was absolutely wonderful. It was a beautiful palace and it was loaded with museum exhibits. It was undoubtedly the best attraction that I visited while at Udaipur. It also afforded some of the most beautiful views of the white water palace that Udaipur is noted for. The main courtyard area where my driver would normally park had been taken over for a wedding – that wedding must have cost a large fortune. This resulted in my driver being required to park around toward a rear entrance and finding him after I visited the palace was no small task – actually he found me.

I decided to skip taking a boat ride on the lake in hopes of having more time at the Chittorgarh Fort later in the day. Before leaving Udaipur, we visited Shahelion Ki Bari and Pratap Smark. Shahelion Ki Bari is a major garden in Udaipur while Ptatap Smark is a monument to the legendary Rajput warrior Maharana Pratap.

The roads to Chittorgarh Fort were also small mountain roads and travel was slow. We arrived at Chittorgarh Fort, the largest fort in India, around mid-afternoon and were able to drive up to and through the fort. Within the fort we visited two small Jain temples with more exquisite carvings. Other notable sights within the fort included several elegant towers and Hindu temples, a lake, and a water reservoir.

We departed Chittorgarh late in the afternoon and continued on to the holy city of Pushkar. The drive to Pushkar was also difficult. Even though we finally got to the main national highway, we still had an additional thirty kilometers of not so good roads to Pushkar which we drove after dark – after dark driving here is another not so nice situation. We finally arrived at the hotel in Pushkar at about 9:15 PM on January 26.

I explored a bit of Pushkar early the next morning and visited the holy lake and the Brahama Temple in addition to walking through the local bazaar area. We departed Pushkar and after backtracking the thirty kilometers, we reached the main highway and continued on the Jaipur. Along the way, we passed a large flatbed tractor-trailer truck with huge blocks of marble that had been in a collision.

We arrived Jaipur in the early afternoon of January 27, and I checked into my hotel. Bharat picked me up at 3:00 PM to go to the office of A-1 Tour & Travels to meet Mr. Javed Khan who worked with me on the Internet to custom arrange my Rajasthan travel. I paid Javed the remaining balance due for my trip and we talked travel for nearly two hours while he and Bharat reviewed my travel web site. Javed Kahn at A-1 Tour & Travels can be contacted via email.

Bharat then took me to his home in Jaipur for dinner where I met Saroji, his wife, and their four children, Poonam, Komal, Lucky, and Ganesh. I had a wonderful time with Bharat and his family and thoroughly enjoyed the homemade Indian dinner prepared by Saroji.

On the morning of January 28, we drove into the Jaipur old city and stopped briefly at the Hawa Mahal (the Palace of the Winds) en route to the Amber Fort. The Hawa Mahal is the famous multi-storied pink building that was built for the ladies of the Royal Family to look out at festivals and parades without being required to wear veils.

When we arrived at the Amber Fort, I opted not to ride up to the fort on an elephant and instead chose to have Bharat drive up to another entrance to the fort. The Amber Fort was quite large and I took my time exploring the nooks and crannies of the fort. After completing my visit to the fort, I located Bharat and we drove to see the Water Palace, the Jaipur City Palace Museum, the Albert Hall Museum, the Monkey Temple, several city gates, and one of the local bazaars. The City Palace Museum was a large palace complex and had quite a few very nice interior exhibits with no photography allowed. One of the highlights of the City Palace was an arching doorway adorned with tiles and peacocks as an entrance to a courtyard. It appeared to be one of the most popular photo spots in the museum. A very large main courtyard was in the process of being decorated for a big wedding – another very big money affair.

The Monkey Temple complex, also known as Galwh Bagh, was a very interesting old temple complex on the outskirts of Jaipur and it was not swarming with tourists. Although people said that there would be many monkeys at the temple, I saw less than twenty during my visit. Javed recommended going to this temple complex during our meeting. It is a very photogenic site and I considered it to be one of my better site visits.

We departed Jaipur early on the morning of January 29 to visit a fort at Alwar and to continue on to Delhi where Barat would drop me off at the Airport Hotel. The normal tourist route would have been Jaipur direct to Delhi but I had arranged a stop at Alwar along the way. I didn’t realize that my little side trip would take us across a mountain range and through the Sariska Jungle. The normal mountain roads that we traveled were narrow and in need of some repairs. The mountain road through the Sariska Jungle was among the worst that I have traveled anywhere. Bharat explained that there were so many accidents involving vehicles and jungle animals that the Indian Government has an incentive not to maintain the roads just to keep the vehicular traffic slow. While driving through the jungle, we saw monkeys, deer, and peacocks.

When we finally reached Alwar, Bharat began asking directions to the fort. We were finally directed to a mountain road that took us to the fort at the top of the mountain. The main buildings were dilapidated and were undergoing some repairs. In addition, special permission was required to enter the buildings and I was denied access. Bharat talked to the security people and he was told that tourists visit the museum at the palace within Alwar. We went back down to Alwar and visited the city museum complex. Although the museum had some very nice interior exhibits, no photography was allowed. In retrospect, I felt bad that we had done a side trip of several hours to Alwar over a terrible road through the jungle for so little sightseeing benefit.

We finally made our way back to a main highway to Delhi which had many areas of construction and traffic diversions. After asking directions a couple of times, we located the Airport Hotel. Bharat and I said good-bye at the hotel – he would be driving back to Jaipur that evening while I would be re-packing for a flight back to Bangkok in the morning. I am hoping to arrange another trip to India next January and will be contacting Javed Kahn at A-1 Tour & Travels, India, to try to once again put together a visit with Bharat as my driver.

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  November 2011
Nepal

Travel Notes

 

In July, 2011, I decided to plan a trip to Nepal and searched the Internet for possible itineraries that might work for travel by private car and driver. I finally decided that I would like to essentially plan a Buddhist pilgrimage type tour without visiting the Chitwan National Park. I sent several inquiries about arranging a nine to eleven day trip during late October or early November for either one or two persons with suggested places that I would like to visit by private car and driver. Smile Adventure and Tours promptly replied with a suggested itinerary by private car and driver that was open to both additions and/or deletions – they would provide car and driver; airport transfers; hotel accommodations with breakfast; and guide services at some destinations. The suggested itinerary was satisfactory for my trip and, after I booked travel from Bangkok to Kathmandu for November 1, I sent a deposit via Western Union to confirm the itinerary. I received my confirmed travel itinerary voucher by E-mail and booked travel to Bangkok with an extra day at Bangkok in the event of a delay or cancellation of my flights from Los Angeles.

Between July and late October, Thailand experienced the worst flooding in many years with the threat of Central Bangkok becoming flooded. The old Don Muang airport became flooded several days before my scheduled departure to Bangkok but the new Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport, protected by large embankments, remained open.

Although I was concerned that flooding might affect my travel to Bangkok, I flew to Bangkok on October 29. When I took the hotel van, I noticed that a low section of the road in front of the driveway to my hotel was under water. Although the sidewalk from the hotel driveway alongside the flooded street was dry, an elevated wooden walkway beside the sidewalk had been constructed in the event of higher water.

I walked from the hotel to the restaurants alongside the street the following day for dinner. After dinner, I continued walking to the 7-Eleven store where concrete walls about one meter high had been constructed and there were sandbags at the entrance. Before going to bed, I was beginning to have some concerns about becoming stranded due to rising water in front of the hotel in spite of the airport remaining open. However, in the morning, the water level had not risen appreciably and I was very happy to take the hotel van to the airport for my flight to Kathmandu.

The flight to Kathmandu was uneventful and I filled out the Nepal Immigration forms that a flight attendant left for me at my seat. I arrived in Kathmandu at12:50 PM local time on November 1. While we were in line for the Visa on Arrival, a man from Calgary, Canada, whom I had met in Bangkok while waiting to board the flight to Nepal, pointed out that I did not have the “Visa on Arrival” form. The Thai Airways flight attendant had failed to provide me with the “Visa on Arrival” form. He held my place in line while I located the proper form. He probably saved me over an hour of time to get my visa.

I was also concerned that the Thai and US currencies, in addition to the many cameras and mobile phones, I carried exceeded the declaration limit. When I went to ask a customs officer what I should do, however, he waived me through the “Nothing to Declare” exit.

After exiting Immigration, I located a man holding up a sign with my name emblazoned upon it. I let out a sigh of relief that my arrival at Kathmandu was at last complete. As promised, Mr. Chiran from Smile Adventures and Tours met me and took me to my hotel. This was my first opportunity to experience the traffic in Nepal, as well as the abundant amount of haze, dust, vehicle exhaust, and smoke in the atmosphere.

After checking into the Fuji hotel and resting up for about an hour, Chiran met me at the hotel and we walked to his office. I paid him the remaining balance due for my itinerary, and he provided me with my additional hotel vouchers as we went over my itinerary details. I told Chiran that I would like to take him out for dinner one evening which we tentatively set for Wednesday, November 6.

I ate dinner a restaurant near my hotel that Chiran recommended – the food was excellent and very reasonably priced. I ate there several times and it was always crowded. I enjoyed the food in Nepal very much and usually had the Nepal set menu meals (either vegetarian or non-vegetarian) with the waiters usually offering more rice at no additional charge.

Chiran met me at the hotel lobby at 9:00 AM on November 2 to introduce me to both my driver and my guide for a day of local sightseeing in Kathmandu. My driver’s name was Roshan and our car was an older Toyota. Roshan would end up being my driver for my entire trip. Our first stop was at the hilltop Swayambhu Temple, also known as the monkey temple. Swayambhu literally means “Self-Existent One.” This is a pilgrim site visited by large numbers of both Buddhists and Hindus. It is considered to be the best place to observe religious harmony in Nepal where Buddhist stupas and Hindu pagoda style temples coexist adjacent to one another.

Our second stop was at Boudhanath which is the central Buddhist pilgrim site in Kathmandu. The thirty-six meter high stupa at Boudhanath is one of the largest stupas in South Asia. My guide, Sundar, said that the base of the stupa is one hundred meters across in all directions. The Boudhanath stupa had a pyramidal style at the top whereas the large Swayambhu stupa had a concentric circular style top. Swayambhu and Boudhanath are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The holy area of Pashupatinath is situated along the Bagmati River and is one of the most religious sites in Asia for Shiva devotees. Pashupatinath, dedicated to Shiva the Destroyer, is the holiest Hindu pilgrimage destination in Nepal. Many Hindu people aspire to end their life here and to be cremated alongside the river. A large yellow building is a hospice facility and a large red building adjacent to the yellow hospice building is the administration building where the cremations are arranged – cremation supplies, including timber and sandalwood, are purchased here as well. Several cremations were in process as we visited Pashupatinath.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant overlooking Patan Durbar Square, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is situated in the center of Patan City and consists of monuments, temples, three main courtyards, and an ancient royal palace complex built during the Malla period. I had the chicken curry with rice and ordered it extra-spicy – it was superb. After lunch, we explored Patan Durbar Square before returning to the hotel.

After I checked out of the hotel on November 3, Chiran met me in the hotel lobby with Roshan. Roshan and I departed the hotel at 8:00 AM in the trusty Toyota for a three hundred kilometer drive to Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, and one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in the world.

It was a drive full of dust, haze, and smoke obscuring any possible panoramic views. The car windows were quickly covered with a light coat of dust as we drove away from the hotel. We climbed out of the Kathmandu Valley on the Prithivi Highway westbound toward Mugling through the Mahabharat mountain range alongside the Trishuli River which gradually increased in size as many smaller mountain streams emptied into it. At Mugling, we turned southbound on the Narayanghat Mugling Highway to Narayanghat, still driving alongside the Trishuli River. Several kilometers before arriving at Narayanghat, the Trishuli River merged with the Kali Gandaki River becoming the Narayni River which continues on to meet the Ganges in India. The Kali Gandaki River originates in the Himalayas at the Tibet border and is the longest river in Nepal with the Trishuli being its largest tributary.

We turned onto the Mahendra Highway at Narayanghat and continued westbound toward Butwal. These were some of the major roads in Nepal. They were narrow two lane mountain roads with steep rocky sides that were pretty good in some spots but had many areas with broken pavement, gullies, gravel, and dirt with large sharp rocks protruding, and, above all, continual blowing dust and exhaust smoke. This traffic was among the worst I have ever encountered – huge trucks, small trucks, buses, vans, cars, motor cycles, motor bikes, tractors, rice patty tractors, oxen carts, bicycles, and, of course, pedestrians constantly walking along all of the roads. To top it off, since there are few shoulders along the highways, disabled vehicles remain parked in the single traffic lanes with rocks placed on the road behind the vehicle to warn approaching motorists of the danger. We passed two prior accidents involving overturned local buses – one bus was being held by a metal stake and chain to prevent it from tumbling over the cliff beside the road.

Before reaching Butwal, Roshan took secondary roads as shortcut to Lumbini with many more farming vehicles and oxen carts than on the major road. The three hundred kilometer journey to Lumbini took nearly eight hours including a stop along the way for lunch.

By the time we arrived at Lumbini, which is situated west of Kathmandu and very near the Indian border, there was no time for local sightseeing. We checked into the Lumbini Buddha Garden, a rustic hotel in a wooded area specializing in bird watching. Parking is just inside the entrance gate and the buildings are accessed by footpaths. I occupied one half of a duplex cabin building with a thatched roof. Dinesh, the manager, was very knowledgeable about Lumbini and loaned me a wonderful book on Lumbini to read and which I ultimately purchased from him.

The Government of Nepal and the United Nations sponsored a Lumbini Master Plan for the development of Lumbini. This plan was to be completed in two phases – phase one completion by 1985 with phase two completion by 1995. The Master Plan encompasses an area three miles north to south and one mile east to west. It is divided into three main one square mile zones from north to south: the New Lumbini Village, the Monastic Zone, and the Sacred Garden. Forty-two plots were reserved within the Monastic Zone to be provided to different countries and Buddhist organizations upon which to construct monasteries.

According to the literature, Mayadevi and her attendants arrived on Vessakh Purnima (Full Moon Day) in 623 BC. Mayadevi was attracted by the sanctity of the place as she strolled around the garden. While enjoying the natural grandeur, she suddenly underwent labor pangs. She took a bath in the holy pond there to purify herself. She then walked twenty five paces to the north where she found a tree with many branches. While supporting herself on a drooping branch of the tree, she gave birth to the Lord Buddha.

The following morning, at 7:30 AM, our guide, Dinesh, joined Roshan and me to visit the Lumbini UNESCO World Heritage Site. We first visited the German Great Lotus Stupa and Monastery in the Monastic Zone and then went to the Archeological Section of the Sacred Garden encompassing the Asoka Pillar, the Sacred Pond, the Mayadevi Temple excavation containing the marker stone of the exact birthplace of Buddha, the Bodhi Tree, and the two adjacent recent Nepal Temples.

After visiting Lumbini, I checked out of the hotel and we began our drive north to Pokhara. Of course we took the ubiquitous secondary roads as we departed Lumbini and continued north on a secondary winding mountain road following the Tinau River to Butwal. We turned onto the Mahendra Highway at Butwal and took it all the way over the mountains to Pokhara. We crossed the Kali Gandaki River at Galyang where a large festival was underway. These roads were in no better condition than the previous roads traveled, and the traffic was just as precarious. Of course we continued to be plagued by the dust, smoke, and haze along the way. We entered Pokhara after dark on November 4 and, when we arrived at my hotel, we were met by a man named Sundar who introduced himself as my guide for my visit to Pokhara. Before he left the hotel, Sundar and I went over our itinerary for the following day. He would arrive with a local car and driver in the morning for local sightseeing – Roshan and the trusty Toyota would get a free day. The weather was deteriorating and, shortly after we entered the hotel, the rain downpour arrived.

Pokhara is in central Nepal approximately 220 kilometers to the north of Lumbini and about 200 kilometers to the west of Kathmandu. It is situated adjacent to Phewa Lake, the second largest lake in Nepal. Although Pokhara is touted as an enchanting city with magnificent views of the Himalayas, the weather conditions precluded any panoramic views while I was there. Pokhara was once part of a trade route between India and Tibet and has become the starting point for many popular trekking and rafting destinations.

Sundar met me on schedule at the hotel on November 5. During the morning, we visited Devi’s Falls, the Gupteshvor Mahadev Cave, the Old Town Pokhara, the Bindhyabasini Temple, the Seti River Gorge, the Pokhara Regional Museum, and Phewa Lake.

The water outflow from Phewa Lake feeds the Pardi River which runs through Devi’s Falls, a series of waterfalls in a narrow gorge that turns into a cave and the water continues in an underground passage. Some of the literature states that a foreigner named David was skinny-dipping in the Pardi River when the floodgates of the dam were opened, sweeping him into the underground passage beneath the falls – he was never seen again. The Gupteshvor Mahadev Cave is a sacred cave with an entrance across the road from Devi’s Falls. This cave holds special value for Hindus since a phallic symbol of Lord Shiva is preserved in the condition in which it was discovered. Beyond the sacred chamber, a portion of the underground passageway of Devi’s Falls can be observed.

Old Town Pokhara is picturesque and was once the area of the old bazaar. The Bindhyabasini Temple complex is the center of religious activity in the old bazaar. It is dedicated to goddess Bhagwati and worshipers flock here to perform sacrifices. On Saturdays, the grounds take on a festive flair – I was fortunate to visit here on a Saturday morning. After visiting one of the temples, as I was putting on my shoes, a young lady approached me to ask where I was from. We talked for a while and she said that she was visiting her uncle in Pokhara. She was accompanied by her grandmother and they allowed me to take a photograph of them. Later she approached me again to introduce me to her two younger brothers – most people in Nepal were very friendly.

Unlike the Pardi River fed from Phewa Lake, the Seti River is fed from the mountains. It flows right through the city and runs completely underground in some areas. At certain points, the river appears to be hardly two meters wide but is more than twenty meters deep. We stopped at Mahendra Pul, a small bridge near the old Mission Hospital, to observe the rushing river and the deep gorge made by it.

Although the Pokhara Regional Museum is not large, it reflects the ethnic mosaic of western Nepal. The lifestyles and history of ethnic groups such as the Gurung, Thakali, and Tharu are nicely displayed.

After returning to the hotel for lunch, the rain resumed for a couple of hours and then subsided. Sundar returned after the rain and we drove to the Tashii Palkheil Tibetan Refugee Settlement, visited the Jangchub Choeling Monastery, and observed the Tash Gang Maha Guru Temple. I bought a couple of souvenirs from the monks at the monastery and from the Tibetan refugee vendors. The rain showers resumed that evening but stopped by morning.

One of the popular tourist attractions at Pokhara is to get up before dawn and drive to Sarangkot, the hilltop sunrise viewing point, to watch the stunning views as the sunrise illuminates the Annapurna mountain range in the distance. On November 6, Sundar met me at the hotel at 5:30 AM with the car and driver, and we drove up a very dilapidated barely two lane mountain road to Sarangkot. As fate would have it, the sunrise was obscured by high clouds and, after about forty-five minutes, we drove back to the hotel.

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, Roshan and I departed at 8:00 AM in the trusty Toyota to drive back to Kathmandu via the Prithivi Highway. At about 9:00 AM, traffic came to an abrupt halt. An accident had occurred farther down the highway and we were in a line of stopped vehicles over one kilometer long. Everyone shut down their vehicle engines and many curious people were milling around beside the parked vehicles. The hillside adjacent to the road, with sizable vegetation and beside a cliff high above a river, would soon become a public toilet area.

Roshan maintained contact with someone and, after being stopped for nearly half an hour, he started our Toyota and, along with another car, began passing the stopped vehicles in the empty opposing traffic lane. Soon the line of stopped vehicles began to slowly move and Roshan ducked back into the line of vehicles as several oncoming vehicles began approaching. We finally arrived at the accident site to find an overturned local bus that had been dragged to the side of the road to allow traffic to pass – this was the third overturned large vehicle accident that we had passed since departing Kathmandu.

We reached Kurintor before noon and stopped to take the Manakamana Cable Car across the Trishuli River and up through the low clouds to the Manakamana Temple. This stop was not on my original itinerary and I treated Roshan to this side trip – he enjoyed the cable car ride very much. The Manakamana Temple was picturesque being partially obscured by the low cloud cover. After returning by cable car to the riverside station, we drove to the River Side Spring Resort where we ate lunch.

After lunch, we continued along the Prithivi Highway with an estimated arrival at Kathmandu by 5:00 PM. We passed an area where people were painting the white highway center lines by hand with paint brushes and pails of white paint. I had observed people painting the yellow dashed lines along the side of the road by hand a couple of days earlier.

After passing a vehicle about half way up a mountain grade, I pointed out to Roshan that our Toyota was overheating as steam began surging out of the hood in front of me. Fortunately we were approaching a curve with a bit of a pull off area as Roshan stopped the car. We had just joined the multitudes of stranded vehicles in a portion of the traffic lane. Suddenly I had a flashback to when I blew up the engine on a rental car while Jan and I were on a remote winding mountainous section on the Tasman Highway in northeastern Tasmania in 1989. And so we became a disabled vehicle stranded on the Prithivi Highway about thirty kilometers from Kathmandu. It was 3:20 PM and we could now kiss our 5:00 PM Kathmandu arrival good-bye.

Roshan opened the hood and determined that a water hose near the bottom of the radiator had developed a crack. I suggested that he back the car up to get more out of the traffic lane which we did. Roshan gave the car keys to me and caught a ride back down the road somewhere to a town while I waited nearby the car in a small roadside temple. When Roshan returned, he had procured a small container of “BONDSET,” a fast setting two-in-one play dough like putty, which he kneaded together his hand. He then applied the putty around the cracked area of the hose and said that we needed to wait at least half an hour for the putty to set up. Meanwhile he gathered up several empty plastic water bottles along the side of the road and walked back down the road in search of some water for the radiator. He returned about fifteen minutes later with the water and filled up the radiator while keeping an eye on the repaired water hose. He started the engine and waited for the thermostat to open and finish filling the cooling system with water before declaring mission accomplished.

At 5:11 PM we once again commenced on our journey to Kathmandu. Darkness was soon setting in and it began raining in a heavy downpour. I thought that I had become accustomed to Nepal traffic but the traffic took on a whole new dimension at night on the mountain roads in the pouring rain. By the time we arrived back at the Fuji hotel, I began to feel like a seasoned Nepal road warrior with my trusted driver, Roshan.

Chiran was at the Fuji hotel to meet me as I arrived. We went over my itinerary for the next two days and I quickly checked into Room 203. Since it was November 6, I took Chiran out to dinner – we both had the Nepal vegetarian set menu. We discussed my travel experiences to date and he invited me out to dinner on November 8, my last night in Nepal.

On the morning of November 7, Chiran and his brother, Ishwar, met me at the hotel at 8:00 AM to introduce me to Uddhav, my guide for the next two days, review my itinerary, and see me off to Dhulikhel with Roshan, Uddhav, and our trusty Toyota. I don’t know if Roshan replaced the repaired water hose or whether it was as repaired on the highway the day before.

As we exited the continuously highly congested Kathmandu Ring Road onto the Araniko Highway, I was amazed to see a good four lane highway with a center meridian divider. Uddhav explained that this section of the road was built by the Chinese Government. This section of divided highway lasted until we reached Bhaktapur where it reverted to the normal two lane major highway to which I had become accustomed. Bhaktapur is the location of the Bhaktapur Durbar Square UNESCO World Heritage Site which might account for the Chinese road construction between Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.

Prior to reaching Dhulikhel, Uddhav directed us to the heritage city of Panauti. The Old Town section of the city was very picturesque with numerous temples, stupas, and a very nice but small museum. This small city appeared to be off of the normal tourist beat with Uddhav and me being the only tourists. The old section terminated at the confluence of the Rosi and Punyamata Rivers. In Nepali society, such river confluences are considered to be holy and sacred places. A visit or just an ablution in such places enables a man to be freed from many sins and anxieties. Moreover, it is also believed that at Panauti, in addition to the Rosi and Punyamata Rivers, a third river, Lilawati, also converges making it again a tri-junction called Triveni. However, the Lilawati is said to be visible only to the seers and intellectuals – the Lilawati remained invisible to me. Ghat Sattal is a three storied building situated at the confluence point that provides shelter to sick persons on their death bed who want to breathe their last breath in this holy place. This is also the site of cremations, and a cremation was currently underway while we were there.

After Panauti, we continued to Dhulikhel and I checked into the High View Resort. This hotel was high above a narrow relatively unimproved mountainside road. It had a small roadside parking lot from which I had to climb 206 steps to get up to my room. Fortunately, the hotel provided men to carry my luggage to the room. There were an additional fifty-seven steps between my room and the hotel restaurant. Uddhav and Roshan left to find a place to spend the night while I settled into my room and ate lunch at the restaurant. It was quite hazy but I could tell that the view from my room would be spectacular on a clear day. This was also the nicest hotel that I stayed in while in Nepal.

Uddhav and Roshan returned about ninety minutes later and we drove to the Namo Buddha Monastery. The first ten kilometers was a two lane road that Uddhav said had been built by the Japanese Government. Once we turned off onto a very narrow primitive road in much need of repair, the remaining seven kilometer drive became much more challenging. On several occasions, we had to squeeze beside oncoming local buses, some of which had many people riding on top. Most of the traffic consisted of motorbikes and there were also a few trekkers along the road. Once we reached the monastery at the top of the mountain, it soon became obvious that it was well worth the drive.

Namo Buddha is a very sacred Buddhist place where Lord Buddha saved the life of a tiger dying of hunger by giving her his own flesh. While at the monastery, I met Ram Upadhhayay, a Nepali man from Texas, who had returned to Nepal and was living at Dhulikhel. I posed with him and his family for a photo and also had the group photo taken with my camera. Ram invited me to visit them at his home in Dhulikhel but unfortunately, I was unable to make a visit work with my relative seclusion at my hotel. After visiting Namo Buddha, we went to visit Old Town Dhulikhel. The buildings and temples in Old Town Dhulikhel were also very picturesque as we walked through the area. Local people were drying some of the local rice harvest in the courtyards and squares. At this point, I began looking forward to the additional old town areas that we would visit tomorrow. Upon returning to my hotel, Uddhav and I discussed a proposed itinerary for the following day and arranged to meet early in the morning for my last full day of sightseeing in Nepal.

I woke up before dawn on November 8 and witnessed a wonderful sunrise that illuminated the snow-covered Himalayan mountains across the valley from the hotel with peaks ranging from nearly 7,000 meters high to 8,013 meters high. This was the first relatively clear day that I had seen since arriving in Nepal a week earlier. After breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and a man carried my luggage down the 206 steps to the parking area while I followed behind him.

Uddhav and Roshan arrived at 7:45 AM and, before continuing back toward Kathmandu, Roshan stopped at a public water spigot to add some water to the Toyota radiator. I observed that the temperature gage in the Toyota was not operational as we continued driving but figured that Roshan knew the Toyota pretty well by now – if he wasn’t overly concerned, I would not be worried either.

Our first stop was at the Bhaktapur Durbar Square UNESCO World Heritage Site along the way. Roshan dropped us off at one city gate and would pick us up outside another gate at the opposite end of the site. Durbar Square was a most impressive site and extended over quite a large area. As we entered the area, we passed the local meat market section and walked throughout the site. As in Dhulikhel, local people were drying some of the local rice harvest in the courtyards and squares – a sight that we would see at additional stops during the day. The monuments, stupas, temples, and building architecture here were exquisite and the buildings are renowned for the exquisite wood carving lattices over the windows. In fact, I was surprised to find one temple with exquisitely carved wooden roof support beams containing small erotic images from the Kama Sutra similar to those found at the temples in Khajuraho, India. I would find at least one such temple at Kiritipur and at Kathmandu Durbar Square later during the day.

We drove from Bhaktapur to Kiritipur to visit Old Town Kiritipur. Some of the literature states that whereas the Patan, Kathmandu, and Bhaktapur Dunbar Square UNESCO sites are preserved, Kiritipur Old Town is not. I found the Old Town section of Kiritipur to be somewhat hilly and very interesting as Uddhav and I walked along the narrow streets devoid of the tourist masses. The monuments, stupas, and temples were well worth the visit. Since today was a relatively clear day, I was able to see the snow covered mountaintops off in the distance from a large temple in Kiritipur.

After leaving Kiritipur, we drove to the Chobar Gorge where the Bagmati River cuts through Chobar Hill. Since the 1903 Bagmati Suspension Bridge over the gorge was closed, we viewed both the gorge and the Jalabinyak Temple from the roadway bridge. The Jalabinyak Temple is situated beside the Bagmati River at the end of the gorge.

As we continued southbound along the Bagmati River, the road became a narrow winding mountain road as we approached the top of a mountain where we turned onto a one lane dirt road to visit a couple of monasteries. One was a nun monastery for women, but it was closed. The other was the Neydotashi Choelng Monastery where we were allowed to visit even though the monks were having lunch. The view over the valley below was impressive as were the visible snow capped Himalayas.

We returned to Kathmandu and visited the Kathmandu Durbar Square UNESCO World Heritage Site. This site was quite large with over forty monuments, stupas, and temples. It was also the King’s residence until the early 20th century. This site, bustling with both local people and throngs of tourists, was a fitting climax to my sightseeing visit to Nepal.

When we returned to the Fuji hotel, I was given Room 101. As I was beginning to re-pack for my flight back to Thailand, Chiran came to my room to confirm my departure time to go to the airport in the morning and to reconfirm dinner with him and Ishwar. Chiran returned at 6:00 PM, and we walked to a restaurant near his office where Ishwar joined us for a wonderful dinner.

Chiran met me at the hotel in the morning with a new driver and we drove to the airport. This was my last chance to experience the hectic Kathmandu traffic on the Ring Road en route to the airport. Chiran escorted me to the proper entrance to check in for my flight and then we said good-bye. While waiting at the airport, I was able to observe the snow capped Himalayas in the distance. My flight back to Thailand was uneventful. For anyone who may wish to contact Chiran, his mobile phone is +9779841229733 or he can be reached via email. As for me, I plan to keep in touch with both Chiran and Ishwar.

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  August 2011
Australia

Travel Notes

 

I arrived at Sydney, Australia, early on the morning of 10 August 2011 before continuing on to Darwin, Australia. I went to the Australian National Maritime Museum to see the new exhibit on Scott’s last expedition to Antarctica. The exhibit was very well organized and I was particularly impressed by the shoes for the sled dogs and the snowshoes for the horses. While I was at the museum, I was also able to see the replica of the Dutch sailing ship Duyfken which was visiting the museum.

The VOC Jacht, Duyfken (Little Dove), is a replica of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship that made the first recorded European visit to the Australian continent. Commanded by Willem Janszoor, who made the first chart of the mainland of Australia, she landed on the west coast of Cape York in April 1606. The replica was built in Western Australia and launched in 1999.

I flew to Darwin on August 12 to be in position to board the HMB Endeavour for the Darwin to Broome, Australia, voyage segment as part of the Australian National Maritime Museum HMB Endeavour Around Australia 2011-2012 Voyage. The HMB Endeavour is a replica of Captain James Cook’s 18th century sailing ship which I visited while at Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney Australia, during 2009 and 2010. Endeavour was constructed in Freemantle, Western Australia, between 1988 and 1994, at a cost of 17 million Australian dollars and is considered to be Australia’s Flag Ship. The overall length is 109 feet 3 inches, the breadth is 29 feet 2 inches, main mast height is 127 feet 11 inches, fore mast height is 109 feet 10 inches, mizzen mast height is 78 feet 9 inches, and has a displacement volume of 550 tons.

Since I was required to transport my sailing clothing as airline checked baggage, I made certain that I allowed plenty of time in the event one of the airlines misplaced or lost my bag. Fortunately, my checked baggage arrived with me, and I had several days to explore Darwin.

I arrived at Darwin during the afternoon and began exploring the neighborhood near my hotel. I continued walking in the direction of the wharf area and spotted the Endeavour off in the distance. I gradually made my way down to the Stoke’s Hill Wharf area and walked to where the Endeavour was moored. She had been open for public tours earlier in the day but was closed by the time I arrived. I spent some time talking to the security guard and decided to return the following day when she would again be open to the public. The wharf area has recently been developed to include the Darwin Convention Centre, a wave pool, and new high-rise housing units. I returned to my hotel before 6:00 PM and was amazed that most of the stores were already closed – pubs and restaurants were pretty much all that remained open and many restaurants were closed before 9:00 PM.

I returned to the Endeavour the following day and spent several hours there visiting with people and taking the public tour of the ship with all of the museum exhibits on board. I was informed that the Darwin to Broome voyage was so popular that it was completely sold out. They said that the ship would be open to the public for one more day and that they would remove all of the museum exhibit materials from the ship on Monday, August 15, in preparation for crew boarding on August 16. After leaving the Endeavour, I visited the World War II Oil Storage tunnels on my way back to my hotel. These were oil storage tunnels that were constructed between 1943 and the end of the war to protect Darwin’s oil supplies from enemy bombardment during wartime. Two of the tunnels are open to the public with Darwin wartime photos displayed on the tunnel walls. Several areas of Darwin have permanent exhibitions commemorating the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese during February 1942.

On the morning of August 14, I continued my explorations of Darwin on foot. I explored Bicentennial Park from the Parliament House to the Aquascene at Doctors Gully and many other Darwin points of interest including Lyons Cottage, Smith Street Mall, the Old Town Hall Ruins, Survivors’ Lookout, the HMS Beagle Bell Chimes, and Government House. Masked Lapwings and Orange Footed Scrubfowl were among some of the interesting birds that I observed in Bicentennial Park.

The Lyons Cottage was built in 1925 as accommodation for the Darwin Cable Company management staff and their families. Although the bombing destroyed most of Darwin City, the Cottage survived intact and was occupied by the United States Army between 1943 and 1945. The Cottage suffered damage during Cyclone Tracy and was restored to post-1942 exterior while the interior reflects the period between 1926 and 1942.

A telegraph pole statue marks the site where the First Overland Telegraph (OT) Pole was erected on 15 September 1870. The OT Line which stretched 2,000 miles from Port Darwin to Port Augusta in South Australia, was finally linked to Java via a submerged telegraph cable on 27 August 1872. The OT Line provided the first permanent means of communication between Australia and the rest of the world.

I also went to an aboriginal art exhibition that was being held at the convention centre and visited the Indo Pacific Marine Exhibition. The Indo Pacific Marine Exhibition has more than thirty marine displays including living marine coral reef ecosystems. The proprietor said that he has one of only three natural living coral reef ecosystems with his being self-sustaining and self-stabilizing with no water filtration for the past eighteen years – Okinawa and the Smithsonian Institute are the locations of the two other living coral reef ecosystems. I found the exhibits with living coral to be fascinating when viewed through magnification provided by the proprietor.

On August 15, I decided to try my luck with the Darwin public transportation system and I took the No. 8 bus to the Aviation Heritage Centre at Winnellie. This museum has numerous helicopters, homebuilt aircraft, aircraft engines, and fixed wing aircraft. The fixed wing aircraft include a Boeing B-52G bomber, an MK VIII Spitfire replica, a CAC Sabre Jet Fighter, a Dassault Mirage fighter, and a Tiger Moth WW II training airplane. I took the No. 8 bus back to Darwin and then took the No. 4 bus to the Fannie Bay Gaol (jail) which first opened in 1883. Following the bombing raid on Darwin in February 1942, the prisoners were released and the military took control of all of the buildings. The jail resumed operations after the war until it was closed in 1979. The gallows inside the Old Infirmary were used for only two executions in 1952. The Gaol suffered damage during Cyclone Tracy in December 1974. An aboriginal art exhibit was open in a portion of the old medium security section during my visit. I then took the No. 4 bus from the jail to the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery which had a number of exhibition galleries including a Cyclone Tracy Exhibit and the Colin Jack-Hinton Maritime Gallery. I returned to downtown Darwin via the No. 4 bus and began packing to checkout the following day to board the Endeavour.

I boarded the Endeavour on the morning of August 16. Most of the day was spent with orientation, training, and ship safety. The Endeavour had a professional crew of 16 people, a maximum voyage crew of 36 people, and supernumerary (gentlemen sailor) crew of 4 people. The voyage crewmembers sleep in hammocks in the 18th century deck area which they set up at approximately 8:40 PM and stow in the morning at approximately 7:15 AM. The voyage crewmembers are required to perform all voyage crew duties including watches, sail handling, anchor rope handling, galley duty, daily shipboard cleaning, helm duties, and lookout duties. Each supernumerary crewmember is assigned to one of four private cabins which are replica cabins of the gentlemen sailors who accompanied Captain Cook aboard the Endeavour between August 1768 and July 1771. Each Supernumerary has the option to choose individual shipboard watch activities in which he or she wishes to participate. The supernumeraries also have access to a separate toilet and shower facility, which they share with the Captain, and have complete access to the 18th century officers’ mess area as well as the great cabin. I booked my passage as a supernumerary and was assigned to the Mr. Joseph Banks cabin. This cabin is a replica of the cabin occupied by the botanist and member of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, when he sailed with Captain Cook.

The first day was spent with assignment to watch groups, assignment of climbing harnesses and reflective vests, safety orientations, climbing orientations, and familiarization of the ship, onboard rules, and protocols. The modern galley and food service area as well as two large separate areas containing modern toilets, lavatories, showers, and clothing storage lockers for the voyage crewmembers are located on the 20th Century deck – the 20th Century deck is located beneath the 18th Century deck and is accessed via a stairway between the decks.

The voyage crewmember and supernumeraries were assigned to three separate watch groups: Fore Mast Watch, Main Mast Watch, and Mizzen Mast Watch. I was assigned to the Mizzen Mast Watch along with Greg Keays, another supernumerary. The watch groups rotated through the ships watches – Afternoon (1200-1600), 1st Dog (1600-1800), 2nd Dog (1800-2000), Evening (2000-2400), Middle (000-0004), Morning (0400-0800) and Forenoon (0800-1200). As supernumeraries, Greg and I opted to perform watch duties between 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM which included climbing the mast and yards, sail handling, lookout duties, and steering the ship at the helm. The other two supernumeraries were Cliff Pulling, who was sailing on the voyage with his son, and John Boulton, a pediatrician who currently specializes in providing medical care to the Aboriginal population in the Kimberly. John, Greg, and I spent quite a bit of time together and became very good friends during the voyage. I would like to travel with them again on some future visits to Australia.

Since the Captain decided to wait for high tide before departing Darwin, we departed Darwin at 7:00 PM on August 16. A Scottish bagpipe played on the dock amid a crowd of people who came to see us leave, and we fired one of Endeavour’s 17th Century cannons as we departed. We sailed northeast and anchored in Shoal Bay for the night. The following morning we hoisted the anchor and set sails on a westerly course as we began day 2 of our voyage to Broome. We continued sailing on a northwesterly course while we were waiting for favorable winds. I took my turn at the helm during our watch periods. Unlike the Europa, where one person steers the ship from the helm, the helm on the Endeavour requires two people: one person, called the “brawn,” positions the helm wheel pursuant to instructions from the “brain,” who determines the proper position of the helm wheel. The Endeavour employs three methods of steering: following precise instructions from a professional crewmember; steering a course based on the ship’s compass; and steering “Full and By” which is based upon watching the wind in the sails. Most of my times as “brain” at the helm involved steering by compass although I got an opportunity to steer “Full and By” on one afternoon en route to Careening Bay.

During watch on August 18, I got an opportunity to climb to the fore mast top gallant spar and out to the starboard end of the top gallant yard-arm to release and unfurl the sail. I also got an opportunity to climb about half-way out on the bowsprint during forward lookout duty. We also saw a few sea birds, several humpback whales, and a large yellow sea snake as we continued to wait for more favorable winds. Throughout the voyage, I was amazed at how few sea birds we encountered.

The winds came up on August 19 and we were finally sailing in excess of 8 knots. Of course the increased winds created waves and several crewmembers succumbed to sea sickness. During mid-afternoon, we crossed into Western Australia and continued our course toward Cape Londonderry. On August 20, the ocean began to change to a dirty greenish color as we encountered silt from the Ord River and during late afternoon we passed Cape Londonderry. Members of our watch hauled out the anchor rope in anticipation of anchoring sometime during the night. The anchor rope is a rope approximately three inches in diameter and coated in pine tar as a preservative; handling the anchor rope is a rather messy job. The Captain decided to anchor overnight at Napier Broome Bay just west of Cape Talbot because we would be approaching very strong tidal currents, hazards, and sand banks in the dark.

I saw several Lesser Frigate birds at sunrise at Napier Broome Bay on August 21. Departing Napier Bay, we sailed in a northerly direction at speeds in excess of 7 knots. We changed course mid-afternoon and sailed between Troughton Island and Cape Bouganvile to shorten up our course to Bigge Island which was our first tentative shore landing. I helped stow away the anchor rope during our afternoon watch and it took lots of heavy duty soap to remove the tar from my hands and arms upon completion. En route to Bigge Island I observed several Brown Boobies, a type of Gannet bird, and Roseate Terns.

We sailed overnight and arrived at Wary Bay on the west side of Bigge Island early morning on August 22. The Captain wanted to anchor and have shore excursions so that we could explore the rugged coastal landscape and see indigenous rock art created by the Wunambal people on cave walls at Wary Bay. Unfortunately the Gods were against us and, after three unsuccessful attempts to anchor at Wary Bay, we moved farther north and attempted one more time to anchor. This anchorage initially looked to be successful but, while the zodiac boat was being deployed, the anchor began dragging and we were forced to abandon our shore excursion between 12:30 and 1:00 PM. The Captain sailed south and successfully anchored at Boomerang Bay on the southeast end of Bigge Island at 2:30 p.m. in hopes of trying to anchor again at Wary Bay the following day.

Since the following morning brought high winds and strong currents, the Captain canceled attempting a shore landing at Wary Bay and instead motored to a position to sail a southwesterly course. At roughly 3:00 PM on August 23, we sailed east of Lemark Island en route to Careening Bay. It was during this afternoon watch that I got my opportunity at the helm to steer using the “Full and By” method – watching the sails to ensure that they are catching the maximum wind before losing full sail due to the wind moving in front of the sails. We observed whales and dolphins en route and arrived at Careening Bay at approximately 9:30 PM. The Captain anchored quite a distance form the beach at Careening Bay due to the 3.6 meter draught of the Endeavour.

During the morning of August 24, we began the shore excursions using the zodiac boat and transporting five people per trip to the beach to see the famous Boab Tree. In 1820 the cutter ship, HMC Mermaid, spent sixteen days at Careening Bay while repairs were carried out on the keel, stern post, rudder connections, garboard strak,e and fasteners. While the ship was being repaired, members of the crew carved “HMC Mermaid 1820” into the trunk of a very large Boab tree. This site has since become a UNESCO World Heritage site and we were fortunate to be able to stop and see it. Greg and I were aboard the first zodiac trip to the beach at approximately 9:30 AM and visited the Boab Tree and hiked to view the landscape and other vegetation including “dinosaur trees.” We also observed an eagle-like bird soaring above us while we were on the beach. Since there was virtually no shade on the beach, Greg and I returned to the ship at approximately 11:15 AM.

While the Endeavour was anchored at Careening Bay, a large tourist ship, Oceanic, arrived at approximately 1:00 PM and also began to do shore excursions with large shore parties. A couple of other ships sailed past us at anchor and our last shore party returned to the ship at 4:30 PM. After hauling in the anchor, we motored back out of Careening Bay and set sails sometime before dawn.

On August 25, we sailed southwest to the west of White Island and began motoring during the late afternoon. Between 6:00 PM and 7:30 PM, I managed the helm by myself during our watch while the sails were being furled. We motored all night and most of the following day, and we were observed sea snakes, a school of feeding dolphins, Brown Boobies, and whales. We set the sails at 3:30 PM and then observed a very large pod of whales. At least some of the whales were sperm whales. The Captain navigated the ship around for a course to better observe the whales. Several of the whales breached and one whale did a long high breach above the water – the “Air Jordan” of the pod. The Captain once again reversed course and we returned to motoring en route to Broome.

We sailed alongside Cape LaVesque at 7:14 AM on August 27 and observed the red cliffs, white sands, and the lighthouse. We saw many whales and several sea snakes during the afternoon. After our afternoon watch, Greg and I obtained permission to climb to the top of the main mast watch to take some photographs. Some of the shroud lines had just been re-coated with fresh pine tar which made the climb from the main mast course platform to the top gallant area messy and gooey, requiring extra-special attention to our climbing. We each left one of our cameras with watch members on the main deck to take photos of our climb to the top and took other cameras to the top with us. Greg and I photographed each other at the main course platform halfway up the mast and at the top gallant platform at the top. Since this was the next to the last night aboard the ship, the supernumeraries were treated to a private dinner with the Captain served in the Great Cabin. The Captain wore his uniform to dinner and the best that I could do was to put on clean traveling clothes for dinner. It was a very nice dinner with a large platter of appetizers followed with the main course and dessert. We once again motored overnight in order to be on schedule for our arrival at Broome the following day.

Our last day of sailing was August 28. As we got closer to Broome, we observed sea snakes, turtles, whales, a school of skipjacks, Lesser Frigate Birds, and Brown Boobies. We sailed into Cable Beach, which is a northern suburb of Broome, and anchored at approximately 1:35 PM. While some members of the crew went swimming alongside the Endeavour, I worked on downloading photos that I had taken during the voyage. Quite a few people sailed out to get a better look at the Endeavour, and I enjoyed looking at the different types of ships sailing past us at anchor. Of particular interest was a Pearl Lugger ship of the kind used for pearl diving years ago; pearl diving was a large industry at Broome prior to World War II. At 6:00 PM, an “all hands dinner” was held in the 18th Century area where the permanent crewmembers served a steak dinner to the voyage crewmembers and supernumeraries. After dinner an amateur hour talent show was put on by the permanent crew and the three watches. The show was wonderful and highlighted how many talented people were on our voyage.

After breakfast on the morning of August 29, we turned in our reflective vests and climbing harnesses. We completed packing our personal gear and had our final “all hands” voyage crew meeting where the Captain passed out certificates of participation on the voyage and the voyage chart that Greg had prepared during the voyage. We disembarked from the ship into a small boat to be ferried to Cable Beach and our luggage followed once all personnel were ashore. While waiting for our luggage, John and I were interviewed by a local TV station regarding our voyage. When asked why I came all the way from Los Angeles to sail on the Endeavour, I said that I had seen her at the Australian National Maritime Museum during 2009 but could not get on board because a mast was being replaced. When I returned to the museum in 2010, I was able to tour the ship and signed up for E-mails. When I returned home to Los Angeles, I told my wife that I wanted to sail on the Endeavour but that I was too old to “sling a hammock” and would want to sail only as a supernumerary with a cabin. Shortly thereafter, when I received an E-mail from the museum announcing the 2011-2012 Endeavour Around Australia voyage, I immediately signed up as supernumerary for the Darwin to Broome voyage segment.

John had arranged for one of his associates to bring his four wheel drive vehicle to Cable Beach and he transported Greg to his hotel and me to the Bay House B&B. John took a slight detour to check out picturesque Minyiir Gantheaume Point where people can hike down the rocks at low tide to observe dinosaur footprints on some of the rocks.

I checked into Bay House and was greeted by the owners, Paul and Shary’n, who said that they had sailed past the Endeavour the prior afternoon at Cable Beach. They said that they had been in the hotel business previously and had also had a McDonalds franchise before moving to Broome. I spent much of the afternoon repacking my sailing clothes for my upcoming flights to Sydney and onward to Los Angeles before going for a walk to explore the neighborhood.

I met up with many of our shipmates at Matso’s, a bar and restaurant, near my B&B for dinner. After dinner, Greg drove me back to Bay House in the car that he had rented and we agreed to meet at 5:30 AM the following morning to try at low tide to see the wreckage of some of the seaplanes that had been bombed in Roebuck Bay during World War II.

Greg picked me up at 5:30 AM on August 30, and we drove to the point where we should have been able to see some of the wreckage in the distance at very low tide. We hiked down to the exposed ocean floor and started to walk out toward the wreckage which was far away – we soon abandoned our hike as the ocean floor was very muddy. We cleaned off our shoes and decided to drive to Minyiir Gantheaume Point to try to see some of the dinosaur footprints. The point was beautiful at sunrise, and we hiked down toward the water and found a large rock with some dinosaur footprints. We also ran into John and several other people hiking along the rocks. On the way back to the car, we passed the lighthouse with a pair of nesting Goshawks about halfway to the top. We could also see Cable Beach and the Endeavour at anchor off in the distance before returning me to Bay House.

Back at Bay House, as I was eating breakfast, a couple came down the stairs and asked me if I had sailed in on the Endeavour. When I said yes, they said that they saw me being interviewed the prior evening on the local TV station.

Since I was scheduled to fly from Broome that evening, I showered and packed up for my flight. I checked out of my room and stored my things in the office. Paul and Shary’n gave me a key to Bay House to use during the day and said that they would drive me to the airport for my evening flight.

I then began exploring Broome on foot with my first stop being the Broome Historical Museum which occupies the old Broome Customs House. The museum is a treasure trove of the early days of Broome and the pearl industry. It also has a section devoted to the bombing of Broome with some recovered wreckage from the airplanes destroyed by the Japanese in Roebuck Bay. Although no photographs are allowed within the building, photos of the artifacts in the outside area are allowed. I took some photos of a Wright Cyclone radial engine that was recovered from one of the Dornier seaplanes destroyed in the bay during the bombing and had a long discussion with the gentleman in charge of the aviation wreckage.

I continued walking toward downtown Broome and ran across Greg as he was arriving at Matso’s. Greg gave me part of a small bottle of Eucalyptus Oil that I brought home and which completely removed the tar from my hat and clothes. I joined Greg and some other shipmates for lunch and took a photo of our group as I said good-bye to explore more of Broome on foot.

I walked through some public parks and along many of the picturesque streets of downtown Broome. There is one set of statues commemorating the pearl divers with a large statue of a hard hat pearl diver and plaques honoring pearl industry people. The Sun Pictures movie theater was originally built in 1916 by pearling master Ted Hunter and screened it’s first talkie, “Monte Carlo,” in 1933. The picture garden with deck chairs both undercover and open-air is still original. It still shows motion pictures every night.

At the present time, many people in Broome and aboriginal people in particular are protesting attempts by one or more large corporations to establish a large $30 billion production plant to process natural gas from the offshore Browse Basin project – building a huge industrial complex at James Price Point on the coast north of Broome. Some people in Broome have erected protest signs at their homes which I walked past as I explored Broome.

I returned to the point overlooking Broome Roebuck Bay and took some late afternoon photos before returning to Bay House. After a short rest, Paul drove me to the airport to catch my flight to Perth where I connected to Melbourne and again connected to Sydney, arriving Sydney on the morning of August 31. I spent the night in Sydney and flew back to Los Angeles on September 1.

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  June 2011
Thailand

Travel Notes

 

I arrived at Chiang Rai, Thailand, on 9 June 2011 with scattered rain, intense heat, and over-the-top humidity. Although I didn’t have any specific itinerary for this journey, I wanted to return to the Oup Kham Museum to talk to them about the special green tea that I had been served when I visited the museum during January 2011. This special green tea comes from the tea plantation that is owned by the owner of the museum and is served to people who visit the museum. Although I was told that it sells for a very high price in China, museum visitors could purchase it at the museum.

When I returned to the museum on June 10, Ms. Kai, the same lady who was there in January, greeted me and we had a nice chat over a pot of the tea. She referred to it as the tea of Chinese royalty and I purchased a package from the museum for 600 Thai Bhat. She made out a receipt to me for the purchase and listed it as Thai tea. The following day, when I called the mobile phone number for the museum to try to get a proper name for the tea, the museum owner answered. He was very patient with me as I rambled on and on about the tea and my purchase the day before. He told me that the tea is called “The Emperor’s Tea.”

The following day, I hired a tuk-tuk taxi to go to the Tum Phra Buddha Cave adjacent to the Mae Kok River several kilometers west of Chiang Rai. Several monks live in the cave which contains small stone Buddha statues dating back several hundred years. Although I have been in many Buddha caves in Thailand, this cave was well worth the drive outside the city. As we returned to the city, we stopped along the road near the Tum Tu Pu cave complex to photograph some of the images on the rocks beneath the hillside cave entrance.

I flew from Chiang Rai to Khon Kaen before continuing on to Roi-Et by bus to explore some new places in Northeast Thailand. Roi-Et has a beautiful 200,000 sq.m. lake known as Bueng Phalan Chai in the center of the city. It is blessed with a relaxing atmosphere, with an island decorated with a large flower garden. It is also the home to the city pillar shrine, the sacred shrine that is highly revered by the people of Roi Et. The city also has some beautiful canal-like waterways. The very tall golden standing Buddha statue situated within the Wat Buraphaphiram complex is a major landmark within Roi-Et city. Although the literature mentioned eleven wonderful city gates, I am not sure that I saw any of them. Within Roi-Et city I also visited the Roi-Et National Museum and the Roi-Et Municipal Aquarium. Each time that I visit an aquarium in Thailand, I am amazed at the unique varieties of fish and marine life on display.

Other tourist sites that I visited in the vicinity of Roi-Et city included Ku Phra Kona, Ku Ka Sing, Ku Phon Ra Kang, Phrasat Nong Ka/Prang Ku, and Ku Noi Bann Yang Ku. These are all ancient temples and archeological sites. Ku Phra Kona had a unique charm whereas Ku Ka Sing was the largest and had an on-site museum.

I traveled by bus north from Roi-Et to Kalasin. Within the city of Kalasin I visited Wat Klang and attempted to visit the Kalasin Museum which I found was closed to the public.

I visited tourist sites in the vicinity of Kalasin including Muang Fadaet Songyang, the Sirindhorn Dinosaur Museum and Dinosaur Park, Phu Khao, the Phufaek National Park (Dinosaur Footprints), and Phu Po. Muang Fadaet Songyang was registered as a national historic site in 1936 and the Phrathat Yakhu or Ka Ku is the biggest Chedi (Buddhist stupa) in the site. Phu Khao is a temple complex at the top of Phu Sing Hill that may be best known for a two meter long inclining Laying Buddha. There is a legend that this Buddha image was built more than 2,000 years ago by Phra Mokkhallana, an apostle of Lord Buddha. The complex is quite large with many peafowl wandering about the temples and forested grounds. I also saw a deer among the trees as I walked along a path. Phu Po is a monastery situated at a the top of a hill with two inclined Buddha images that were carved out of the rock cliffs by Dvaravati artisans – one image at the bottom of the hill and the other image near the top of the hill. Phu Po was somewhat difficult to find and, in spite of the hot afternoon, I climbed to the top of the hill where the scenery was spectacular.

I also visited the Sirindhorn Museum project which was started in 1995 due to the discovery of dinosaur fossils at Wat Sakkawan. The museum is the first dinosaur fossil museum in Thailand established for the purposes of study and research, preserving fossils as references, and geological tourism. The literature also states that fossils found are of new species and kinds. The museum has a research building and an exhibition building. Replica statues of many different dinosaurs are located in garden-like display areas outside the museum called the Dinosauria. This was one of the highlights of this trip to Thailand.

After Sirindhorn, I visited Phufaek National Park where in November 1996 two girls and their guardians went for a picnic and found strange footprints in a rocky open space by the Huai Ngao Stream at the foot of Phufaek Hill on the Phuphan Mountain Range. They notified geological authorities who traveled to the site and discovered that there are seven footprints of Therropod Dinosaurs, classified in carnivorous Karnosaur. These footprints are 140 million years old. At Phufaek National Park, I saw some petrified wood and hiked to the site of the dinosaur footprints. When I arrived at the site, I found several Thai families there enjoying a picnic. They were surprised to see a Californian visiting the site and offered to have me join their party. The dinosaur footprint fossils were fantastic and may well have been the highlight of my trip.

I traveled by bus from Kalasin back to Khon Kaen. Khon Kaen City also has a beautiful large lake called Bueng Kaen Nakhon with an area of 603 rai and a shady park around the lake. The magnificent Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon or 9-storey stupa is adjacent to the lake and the Khon Kaen City Museum is also near the lake. Each floor of the 9-storey stupa is unique with murals, carvings and artifacts – relics of the Lord Buddha are housed on the 9th floor. Other sites within Khon Kaen that I visited were Sala Suk Chai where the city pillar shrine is located and an interesting adjacent temple complex.

Tourist sites that I visited in the vicinity of Khon Kaen included the King Cobra village of Thailand, Ku Prapha Chai, and Phrathat Kham Kaen. Ku Prapha Chai is a Khmer ruins archeological site of a hospital built during the reign of Jayavarman in the 13th century. Phrathat Kham Kaen is located in Wat Chetiyaphum and is believed to be the origin of Khon Kaen City since ancient times.

The King Cobra Village, Ban Khok Sa-nga in Tambon Sai Mun is famous for its strange pets, king cobras, kept at every house. For a long time the villagers earned extra income by selling herbal medicines while traveling around through villages. By 1951, a local doctor, Ken Yongla, initiated a cobra show, which was successful in attracting his clients to the village. Since a cobra show was too dangerous because a cobra can spit its poison for two meters making a man blind, he changed the show to be conducted with king cobras together with the snake handling skills of the villagers. Today in the village, a snake show is held at Wat Si Thamma with villagers performing different series of shows such as python snake dancing, and boxing between king cobra and man. Exhibitions of king cobra and other reptiles, mammals, and birds are located on either side of a large pond adjacent to the snake show arena. I arrived in the morning and there were just a few other Thai people visiting the village. My driver and I went from cage to cage to look at the different cobras, snakes, birds, and mammals – there was no admission charge to visit the village and look at these. One lady had a large python and wanted me to photograph the snake for a fee, but I declined.

After viewing the snakes in the cages, I was invited into the large tent-like arena where the snake show was performed. I asked when the show was scheduled to begin and was told in just a few minutes. A few minutes later, the other five or six Thai visitors arrived and the show began. The first performance was two Thai ladies each dancing with a python over their shoulders and for the finale, they each inserted the head of the python in their mouth as they danced. The following shows all featured king cobras. Several Thai men boxed with the cobras and one man kissed the head of a cobra. A small boy played with a smaller king cobra and barely missed being bitten by the snake on numerous occasions demonstrating his snake-handling skills. Donations were solicited after the performances. After the show and before we could leave, the lady with the python greeted us and held out the python for someone to handle. Since none of the Thai people would take the snake, I gave my camera to one of the Thais and took the python from the lady. The Thais seemed to be enamored by me and the python as photographs were taken. When the lady asked me to put the snake’s head in my mouth like the lady dancers had done during the show, I refused and returned the python to her. On the way back to the car, I stopped and purchased a Thailand King Cobra Village shirt and decided that my visit to the cobra village was another highlight of the trip.

After we departed the King Cobra Village, we passed a group of Thai men in the process of having a party while butchering a large pig beside the highway. We stopped and I asked permission to take some photos. The men agreed, asked me to join their party, and offered me a beer.

I flew from Khon Kaen back to Chiang Rai, and visited several tourist sites North of the city including, Mae Sai City, Wat Phra That Doi Wow, Wat Phra Doi That Tung, Sathop Doi Chang Moup, and Doi Tung.

Mae Sai City borders on Myanmar's Tha Khi Lek market by the Mae Sai River with a bridge spanning both sides. Although foreign visitors are allowed to cross over to the Tha Khi Lek market by presenting their passports and paying a fee at the Mae Sai Customs House immigration checkpoint, I decided not to enter Myamnar. There is alao a very large market area within Mae Sai which we drove through to get to Wat Phra That Doi Wow which is situated on a hilltop within Mae Sai. Wat Phra That Doi Wow is also known as the scorpion temple and has an impressive statue of a scorpion overlooking the city. Mae Sai is an interesting city in which I might like to spend more time during a future trip.

I had selected several sites along highway 1149 in the mountains near Mae Sai that I wanted to visit when I contracted with my car and driver. My driver missed the road to highway 1149 within Mae Sai and headed back toward Chiang Rai on highway 1. I finally got his attention and after he stopped to ask directions a couple of times and made a couple of calls on his mobile phone, we found a road to take us to highway 1149. Once we arrived at highway 1149, we had to backtrack on it toward Mae Sai to visit my selected sites. Highway 1149 is a narrow and winding road in the mountains which was very scenic.

We visited Wat Phra That Doi Tung which is situated near the top of Doi Tung Mountain, the highest mountain in Chiang Rai Province with an elevation of approximately 2,000 meters. Wat Phra That Doi Tung was constructed in the 10th century and was renovated by Chiang Rai's most famous ruler King Mengrai during the 13th century and by the famous Chiang Mai monk, Khru Ba Siwichai, at the turn of the 20th century. The temple complex is comprised of twin Lanna style chedis, one of which is said to contain the left collarbone of the Lord Buddha. Throughout the year, the holy relic draws devout Buddhists from all over Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. The pedestrian walkway up to the temple is lined with large bells on each side which most people ring as they pass each bell – I had never seen so many bells at one location. A tree within the complex also had hundreds of smaller bells suspended from the lower branches.

As we continued driving to Sathop Doi Chang Moup which is a sacred archeological site higher up on the mountain, my driver was complaining about the difficulty in getting there. However, once we arrived and hiked to the site which is centered around a rock that resembles an elephant, he became very excited and will probably take more tourists there. It was a very serene and peaceful place which would be quite good for meditation.

We continued our journey back along highway 1149 toward Chiang Rai and stopped to look at a portion of the Doi Tung Development Project established by the late Princess Mother in 1987. Phra Tamnak Doi Tung, the royal villa, is situated on the slopes of the adjacent Pa Kluay Reservoir and was built to serve as a royal winter retreat for the Princess Mother, who passed away in 1995. It was originally built on the theory that the local hill tribes would be honored by the royal presence and thereby cease their opium cultivation. The main attraction for visitors to Phra Tamnak Doi Tung is “Suan Mae Fa Luang,” the beautiful landscaped gardens filled with hundreds of different kinds of plants and flowers, named in honor of the Princess Mother.

Since Thailand was scheduled to hold its National election on July 3, many election posters were set up along every road that I traveled within Thailand during this trip. I guess the total number of political election posters along the roads in Thailand was probably in the millions.

I returned to Bangkok on June 24 and continued my flights back home to California on June 25.

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  March/April 2011
Sri Lanka & Thailand

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I arrived at Bangkok at about midnight on Tuesday, March 22nd, and spent the next three nights at a hotel near the Bangkok International Airport before continuing on to Sri Lanka. We spent March 23rd relaxing and acclimating to the time change. My Thai friends, Pam and Sit, met us at our hotel on March 24th for a sightseeing day trip to Kanchanaburi. Although we had originally asked Pam and Sit to help in booking a car and driver for the day trip, they graciously volunteered to drive us in their car and to join us. I had compiled a tentative itinerary for the day trip in advance and we did our best to try to visit all of the places on my list. I had been to several of the places on a prior trip to Thailand and I wanted to make sure that Jan got an opportunity to visit the Tiger Temple and to experience being with the tigers. I also wanted to visit Hellfire Pass further to the North, if possible.

Pam and Sit picked us up at our hotel and we drove northwest of Bangkok to the Sai Yok Noi Waterfalls where we visited a World War II Japanese Locomotive that is on display in a pass cutting that was part of the Death Railway, the Burma-Thailand Railway, built by the Japanese using thousands of Allied prisoner of war laborers. This railroad crossed the River Kwai and was the subject of the movie “Bridge on the River Kwai.” There are several Allied Prisoner of War Cemeteries in the immediate area. We continued further north to visit the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. Unfortunately, in order to visit the Tiger Temple, we did not have time to hike through the famous “Hellfire Pass” cutting which got its name from the fires used to illuminate the cutting throughout the nights as the prisoners of war were forced to cut the pass through the mountain.

Our next stop was at the Tiger Temple, a refuge sanctuary for tigers operated by Buddhist monks. The adult tigers exercise during the morning and have a rest period in a canyon during the early afternoon. Beginning at 1:00 PM, visitors to the temple can interact with the tigers under supervision of temple staff. Jan got the opportunity to hold and be photographed with adult tigers and later with a couple of baby tigers. Other animals at the temple included deer, cattle, water buffalo, horses, goats, and pigs which were allowed to wander about the sanctuary unrestricted.

On our way back to Bangkok, we stopped at another section of the “Death Railway” at the Thamkrasse Bridge, a wooden trestle bridge beside the River Kwai. As we approached the bridge, a train had just crossed the bridge and we walked across the bridge to the next train station and visited the Krasse Cave in the mountain beside the bridge. Steel rails from the original Burma-Thailand Railway remain on the bridge between the rails used for the current railway operations. Before returning to our hotel we stopped for a wonderful dinner at Tang’s Bug, one of Pam & Sit’s favorite Thai restaurants. It was a long day trip as well as a very long way for them to drive and we appreciate very much their spending the day with us.

Pam and Sit also picked us up at our hotel the following morning and drove to the Klong Suan 100 Year Old Market located in the Samut Prakan Province. This is a traditional Thai market that dates back to the reign of King Rama V. Since sweet mangos were in season, we ate sweet mangos and sticky rice and other Thai sweets as we toured the market. We also visited the famous Wat Sothan Warawihan Temple in Chachoengsao Province along the west bank of the Bang Pakong River. This temple currently enshrines the famous Luang Por Sothon Buddha statue in the temple’s new orientation hall which took fifteen years to construct. Construction began in 1988 and the orientation hall was officially opened to the public in 2004. The hall extends to a height of 84 meters and features a five-tier golden umbrella which weighs exactly 77 kilograms. I believe that this may be the largest temple in Thailand. We also visited the Rong J Wat Sothon Chinese Buddhist temple which is a part of the Wat Sothan Warawihan complex.

Since we had been snacking on Thai sweets that Pam purchased, we were too full to stop for lunch. We returned to our hotel and said good-bye to Pam and Sit – they really went out of their way to make our time with them special and we remain grateful to have such good Thai friends.

After a late checkout from our hotel, we went to the airport and checked into our evening flight to Sri Lanka. We arrived at Colombo, Sri Lanka, at about 12:15 AM on March 26th. After clearing customs, we found ourselves unable to locate our driver to our hotel. It began to feel like my travels to India where my pre-arranged drivers frequently do not show up at the airport. A nice man from one of the car rental booths came over and asked me if I was having a problem. When I said that I was unable to locate my driver, the man asked me for the phone number of our hotel and called our hotel on his mobile phone. He said that our driver had been stuck in traffic and that he would arrive shortly and would meet us at the car rental booth – what a nice first impression of Sri Lanka!

Our driver, whose name is Gamini, arrived and drove us to the Garden Guest House, the bed & breakfast hotel (B&B) where we had a reservation for the remainder of the night. Gamini was a friend of the owners of the B&B and stayed while we checked in and offered to drive us to our hotel in Sigiriya in his van. We took him up on his offer and arranged to visit the Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala en route to Sigiriya

Breakfast at the Garden Guest House was very nice and the owner said that she makes a slightly different breakfast daily. She also said that she had been operating as a B&B for nearly 28 years. We also had reservations at the Garden Guest House for our last nights in Sri Lanka when we were scheduled to return to Colombo before returning to Thailand.

Gamini picked us up in his van and we drove northbound toward Sigiriya. The traffic and drivers in Sri Lanka appeared to be much more disciplined than what I have experienced while traveling in India. People appeared to drive slower than in most other Southeast Asian countries. As we traveled from Colombo to Sigiriya, most of the roads were two lane highways that appeared to be in need of repair. In addition, the local buses seemed to stop at nearly every bus stop along the highway forcing the vehicles behind them to wait for the loading and/or unloading of passengers. The residents along the highways also appeared to enjoy a higher standard of living than comparable people in India.

We arrived at the Elephant Orphanage shortly before the elephants were scheduled to go to the river as part of their daily routine. We observed the herd of elephants and saw some very young baby elephants – Jan bottle fed a young elephant and got an opportunity to interact with some of the elephants. We then followed the elephants to the river and ate lunch at a restaurant overlooking the elephants in the river. We insisted that Gamini join us for lunch and we ordered the same rice and curry lunch that he ordered even though he was sure that it would be much too spicy for our palates. Lunch convinced him that we really did like very spicy food and that we would be right at home with the traditional spicy Sri Lanka cuisine. During the drive to Sigiriya, we hired Gamini to be our driver/tour guide for the remainder of our time in Sri Lanka.

We arrived at the Hotel Sigiriya just before dusk and would spend four nights there. The hotel is situated in the jungle and has a wonderful view of the famous Lion Rock of Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had a nice room with both an overhead ceiling fan and a thermostatically controlled air conditioner unit. The hotel restaurant offered a large buffet breakfast that was included with the room. The restaurant also offered a large buffet dinner each evening as well as individual choices from the menu. Since we were still full from our rice and curry lunch, we each ordered a bowl of soup for dinner. The three following nights, we opted for the buffet dinner and really enjoyed the traditional food from the Sri Lanka table.

Gamini picked us up at the hotel early on the morning of March 27th for a full day excursion to the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura was founded in 380 BC and was both the capital of Ceylon and the sacred city of Buddhism on the island. The sacred city was established around a cutting from the “tree of enlightenment,” the Buddha’s Bodhi Tree (Bo Tree), brought there in the 3rd century BC by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns. With the exception of the period of invasion of the Tamil princes, at the beginning of the 2nd century BC, Anuradhapura remained the religious capital of Ceylon for approximately ten centuries. The Tamil invaders were expelled in 161 BC. by Dutthagamani who re-established Buddhism in place of Brahminism and endowed Anuradhapura with extraordinary monuments. Anuradhapura was sacked and taken by the Pandyan kings during the 9th century and then returned against the payment of a ransom. The city never recovered after its destruction in AD 993 and having lost its position of capital, it was deserted in favor the new capital city of Polonnaruwa.

Gamini tended to avoid the main roads and elected to drive us on many local back roads to our destinations. It later became apparent that the local back roads with little or no traffic were faster than the main roads with heavy traffic and the local busses. Anuradhapura is a huge UNESCO World Heritage site and Gamini drove us to the individual sights that we wanted to visit. Our first stop was to visit a couple of ancient cave shelters before continuing to the Isurumuniya Temple and archaeological museum. The Isurumuniya rock temple at Anuradhapura was built during the 3rd century BC and was very impressive. The moonstone is a widespread architectural characteristic in Sri Lanka. It is found at the base of a short staircase and is in the shape of a half-moon. Two balustrades flank the sides of the staircase and terminate with two large vertical stones called “guard stones.” The moonstone and guard stones at the Isurumuniya Temple were intricately carved and served to welcome visitors. The small Isurumuniya Archeological Museum contains the famous rock carving known as the “Isurumuniya Lovers” in addition to many other rock carvings and exhibits.

While at Anuradhapura, we visited the Sri Maha Bodhi, the Sacred Bo Tree (Ficus religiosa), that was brought to Sri Lanka from India by Princess Sanghamitta, a Buddhist nun. The Sri Maha Bodhi is considered to be the oldest recorded tree on earth and was a sapling of the Bo tree in Budda Gaya in India under which Prince Siddhartha attained Buddhahood.

We visited several stupas including Ruwanweliseya or the “Great Stupa” which stands 300 feet tall and is regarded as the most important monument at Anuradhapura. Gamini said that this stupa is white-washed once every year. The Jethavana Stupa was the central ritual monument of the Jethavana Monastery which was established in the 3rd century BC. This stupa is the tallest brick structure in the world – at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, this stupa was the third tallest structure in the world with only Pyramids 1 and 2 in Egypt being taller.

Other highlights at Anuradhapura included the Kuttam Pokuna, or twin ponds; the Samadhi Buddha; and the moonstone at the entrance of the Abhhayagiri monastery ruins considered to be the finest moonstone in Sri Lanka.

During our drive back to our hotel, we detoured to visit the massive reservoir at Kalavewa that was constructed during the 4th century AD and to visit the 13 meter high Aukana Buddha statue carved out of solid granite dating back to the 5th century AD. Although the literature recommended visiting the Aukana Buddha during the morning when the sun is shining on it, we made the most of our late afternoon visit.

Gamini picked us up at the hotel early on the morning of March 28th to go to the Lion Rock of Sigiriya UNESCO World Heritage Site. This fortress-citadel was founded 1,500 years ago by King Kassapa (447-495 AD). The king transformed this 600-foot high rock into an impregnable fortress after he displaced some forest dwelling monks which relocated to another large rock nearby. Sigiriya was re-discovered in 1853 and offers visitors a gallery of 5th century paintings coupled with landscaped gardens and paintings of 23 women, mostly in pairs and usually consisting of a lady and her maid. The maidens in the Sigiriya murals have been identified as ladies in the court of Kassapa and included his queens, daughters, maid servants, and concubines. The Lion Terrace is situated half way up the rock and guards the entrance leading up to the summit. The main palace was situated on the summit and overlooked the gardens and surrounding area.

There are more than 1,000 steps to the summit and it was a very invigorating morning climb. As we descended from the summit, we came across a snake charmer who showed off his skills at charming a cobra in exchange for some money to allow us to take photographs.

After lunch, we embarked on a two-hour jeep safari in the Hurulu Eco Park, a Sri Lanka Government protected wild elephant sanctuary. The dirt roads in the park had deep ruts from the prior rains and required four-wheel drive vehicles. In addition to several beautiful birds and quite a few wild elephants, we saw a Sri Lankan Jackal and a couple of mongooses. The Sri Lankan Jackal is a species of the Golden Jackal found in southern India and Sri Lanka – spotting and photographing it was the highlight of our wild elephant safari. In addition, the safari offered us an opportunity to see some of the Sri Lanka scrub jungle and natural elephant habitat.

Gamini picked us up at the hotel the following morning to embark on a day trip to Polonnaruwa, the second capital of Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa was the seat of government from the middle of the 11th century to the 13th century. While Anuradhapura extended over an area of 18 square miles, Polonnaruwa can be divided up into four main zones. The Parakrama Samudra, sometimes called the “Sea of Parakrama,” is an enormous irrigation reservoir that was built by King Parakramabahu I. It covers 5,940 acres, can irrigate 18,500 rice paddies, and bears witness to Polonnaruwa’s glorious past.

Upon arriving at Polonnaruwa, we drove along the dam that forms the Parakrama Samudra to the Potgul Vilhara complex where the large 12th century statue carved out of a giant rock, and often referred to as “The Sage,” is situated. Nearby the statue were the ruins of several buildings, one of several at Polonnaruwa that once housed the sacred Tooth Relic from the Buddha – the Tooth Relic of Buddha is currently housed in the Tooth Temple at Kandy. Our next stop was at the Polonnaruwa Archaeological Museum and the adjacent Dipauyana (Island Park) palace grounds which included King Nissanka Malla’s lion throne, his council chamber, the remains of his summer house, and bathing ponds.

The third area that we visited was much larger and was accessed alongside a road several kilometers long. This area contained the ruins of King Parakramabahu’s seven story palace, his council chamber, and royal baths. Other very notable structures included a 7th century Circular Relic House; the Thuparama image house; Atadage, the first Tooth Relic Shrine in Polonnaruwa built in the 11 century; Hatadage, the second Tooth Relic Shrine built in the 12th century; and the Gal Pota or “Stone Book” inscribed in a single piece of granite measuring eight meters high and 4.25 meters wide. The area also contained some Hindu shrines that have been restored.

Further away is the Gal Vihara which is described as one of the finest group of sculptures in the world. It consists of four sculptures of the Buddha carved from a huge single granite rock – two seated, one standing, and one reclining. One seated Buddha is within an artificial cave and is surrounded by various deities including Brahma and Vishnu, an interesting combination of Buddhist and Hindu sculpture. The standing Buddha is seven meters tall, and the reclining Buddha is fifteen meters long.

We continued on to the Lotus Pond and to the Tivanka Image House. It is called Tivanka (meaning three bends) because the giant Buddha image inside is bent at three places, namely the shoulder, the hip, and the knee. It is also famous for its 12th century paintings that depict certain incidents from the Jataka stories and the life of Buddha. On the way back to the hotel, Gamini drove us past the large white statue of Buddha in Sigiriya which we had seen from the top of Sigiriya Rock the day before.

After checking out of our hotel on March 30th, Gamini drove us to Dambulla where we climbed to the principal shrine 600 feet above the plains, known as Rangiri Dambulu Viharaya, or the golden cave temple. The facade of the caves was constructed in 1938 and has five cave temples. The cave temples are spectacular with paintings and many Buddha images. As we continued on toward Kandy, we stopped at a small house beside the road where the resident family demonstrated a multitude of uses and products that are derived from the coconut. We also stopped at a spice garden where we saw many different spice plants – before leaving, our guide treated us to a personal showing and sales pitch for many spice products and medicinal spice products.

En route to Kandy, we visited the Naranga Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage site. This temple was reconstructed during 1975. It is situated beside a large reservoir and is said to be at the center of Sri Lanka.

We arrived at Kandy mid-afternoon and checked into the Queen’s Hotel in downtown Kandy. This hotel was one of the original colonial hotels in Sri Lanka and is associated with British royalty. In spite of the sloping second story hallway and creaky room floors, the Queen’s Hotel was a wonderful place to spend the night. Shortly after checking into the hotel, we met Gamini in the lobby and went to visit the Kandy National Museum. The museum was interesting and the caretaker, once he realized that I had paid extra for the privilege of taking photos in the museum, took an extra special interest to make sure that we saw all of the very best exhibits. After the museum, we struck out on our own to explore downtown Kandy and to search for an Internet café. We visited a combination Buddhist and Hindu temple where Jan received a blessing from a Buddhist monk. That evening we took Gamini to dinner at a local Kandy restaurant of his choice where we watched some of the semi-final Cricket match when India beat Pakistan.

After a buffet breakfast at the hotel, Gamini took us to the Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth Relic of Buddha for the morning offering ceremony on March 31st. Access to this temple is currently controlled by elevated security measures since it was bombed by the Tamil Tigers terrorist attack in 1998. We visited the museum on one of the upper floors of the temple complex prior to the start of the offering ceremony. The ceremony was very elaborate and we joined the procession of people who walked past the window that is opened only during the offering ceremonies to view the Tooth Relic. Following the ceremony, Gamini took us to see the famous temple elephant that was preserved after he died and remains on display in a separate building.

After checking out of our hotel, we drove to a popular viewpoint overlooking downtown Kandy. We also stopped at a two different tea plantations en route to Colombo. The first was a small building adjacent to a hillside with tea plants and the second was at the Geragama Tea Factory. The tour of the tea factory was very interesting, especially the methods by which the same tea leaves produce many different types of tea – we sampled a cup of English breakfast tea before we continued on our journey to Colombo.

We arrived back at the Garden Guest House B&B during the late afternoon and, after freshening up, we went to the home of some friends who live in Colombo, Wilfred and Cynthia. Wilfred is a professor in Colombo and Cynthia is a medical doctor in Colombo – they are the parents of one of our friends back in Los Angeles. After we enjoyed a very nice visit and appetizers at their home, Wilfred took us to visit the Cricket club to which he belongs and where he once was a player. He picked up Cynthia and we all enjoyed a wonderful Sri Lanka rice and curry dinner at the club.

After breakfast on the morning of April 1st, Gamini picked us up for a day of sightseeing in Colombo. We visited the Kalyani Institute for Buddhist Studies and toured the temple complex. The inside walls and ceilings of the main temple were adorned with wonderful paintings and Buddha images. We also enjoyed the different sculptures on the exterior of the temples. Another very colorful and elaborate temple complex that we visited was Gangaramaya Temple and we were fortunate to be invited into a special museum section of this temple by its caretaker. Other Colombo sights included the Independence Hall, the historic Dutch reformed Church, Viharamahadevi Park, downtown Colombo, and a drive along the Indian Ocean. We enjoyed a wonderful Sri Lanka buffet lunch at the restaurant in the Grand Oriental Hotel overlooking the harbor.

We returned to the B&B, packed and rested up for our flight back to Bangkok that departed after midnight. Gamini picked us up for the last time and drove us to the airport where we thanked him for his wonderful service – for anyone who might wish to employ him in the future as guide and driver, his name is Gamini Jayasinghe and you can contact me for his email address.

Our flight to Bangkok was uneventful and after clearing customs at Bangkok, we checked into our flight to Phuket. After checking into our hotel at Patong Beach on April 2nd, Jan determined that given the lack of effective Internet service and unexpected events at her office, she really needed to cut her trip short and return home. The following morning I was able to re-book her flight from Bangkok for April 4th and booked a flight for her to Bangkok that evening. She left for Bangkok that night and returned home.

I took the early afternoon ferry to Phi Phi Island on April 4th and spent two nights at Phi Phi with a snorkeling trip to Mosquito Island on April 5th. Each time that I snorkel at Mosquito Island, the coral has deteriorated from my prior visits – too many tourists have extensively damaged the coral and it was the last good snorkeling site at Phi Phi Island. This may well end up being my last snorkeling trip to Phi Phi Island.

I took the ferry to Ao Nang on April 6th to be in place for Nhong, my tour guide, to pick me up for my trip to the far south of Thailand the following morning. I was amazed at how much Ao Nang was built up since my last visit several years ago. Before, there was an abundance of Indian tailors; this time, there was an abundance of Indian restaurants. Fortunately for me, the dinner buffet at Bernie’s Place was still operating and had not changed over the years – dinner at Bernie’s was just like old times.

Nhong arrived at the hotel with a van and driver as I was finishing breakfast on April 7th. The driver’s wife, a school teacher in the Manang district of Satun province, also accompanied us as we set off for Satun Province. Our first stop was at the picturesque Wang Sai Thong Waterfalls in the Manang district of Satun. Here water cascades down the slopes of limestone mountains where the water forms plunge pools at the bottom of the mountain. The unique thing about the Wang Sai Thong Waterfalls is that pools of water cascading into each limestone basin appear as if the lotus has bloomed. It also appears as if you were inside a cave with the roof of the cave open to the sky. These waterfalls are off of the tourist beaten path and difficult to get to without someone familiar with the area.

After the waterfalls, we visited Phu Pha Pet Cave in the Manang district of Satun. This is the largest cave in Thailand, the third largest cave in the world, and has only recently been open to the public. We paid our fees, rented our cave headlights, and climbed the 335 steps to the cave entrance. We obtained a local cave guide at the cave entrance who accompanied us on our tour of the cave. Access to the cave requires crawling through a small cave entrance after which the cave becomes enormous. Out of the entire 18 acres and seven floors of caves here, only two floors are open to the public for exploration. Stairs lead to different levels of the cave and one of the most interesting sights is the giant Jade Rock or Stone of Phuphaphet in a chamber which is illuminated by daylight from an opening near the ceiling of the chamber. Although this cave is not one of the more beautiful caves that I have visited, it was well worth the visit.

Our third and final stop for the day was at Rim Varee Bungalows where we hired a couple of river kayak canoes for a river canoeing trip down the Jed Kod River through the Jed Kod Cave. Nhong and I shared a canoe while our driver, his wife, and the guide shared the second canoe. Nhong had never been river canoeing and we managed to capsize our canoe on two separate occasions: once before we reached the cave, and once more when we ran into a bamboo tree that had fallen across the river after we had exited the cave. Nhong lost her camera into the river when we first capsized, and the canoe people managed to recover it from the river bottom the following day after we had departed for Tarutao National Park. The portion of the trip through the cave was in total darkness, required cave headlights, and was much longer that I had anticipated. We were picked up by the canoe people at a bridge several kilometers downstream from where we began our trip.

We spent the night at the Rim Varee Bungalows and continued on to Pak Bara the morning of April 8th to take a speedboat to Kho Lipe (Lipe Island) which is one of the islands in the Adang Archipelago of Tarutao National Park. The speedboat made several stops en route to Pattaya Beach, Koh Lipe’s main village area, where we transferred to a longtail boat that took us to the opposite side of Koh Lipe to the Andaman Resort. We had somewhat primitive fan-cooled bungalows at the resort and moved the following day to slightly better bungalows that faced the beach. My main purpose for going to Tarutao National Park was to snorkel some of the islands which were touted as still having some very good coral.

On the morning of April 9th, we hired a longtail boat for the day and set off to do some snorkeling. Our first stop was at the island of Koh Hin-ngam which has a beach covered with small black rocks. From the beach we snorkeled along the east side of the island and viewed some spectacular coral and marine life. Our second stop was at Jabang where beautiful colorful soft corals could be observed. Our third stop was at Koh Hin-son (sometimes spelled Koh Hin-sorn) and then on to Koh Rokroy (sometimes spelled Koh Lokloy) where we ate lunch. After lunch, we visited Koh Rawi where we snorkeled back toward Koh Rokroy and enjoyed some more very good coral. Our last stop was at Koh Yang but the coral there was extensively damaged and therefore a huge disappointment.

On the morning of April 10th, we hired the same longtail boat for a half day and left early to go back to Jabang – we were the first boat there, the water was very clear, and the soft coral was beautiful. From Jabang we went back to Koh Hin-ngam and snorkeled along the west side of the island where the coral was not as spectacular as along the east side but where we saw large numbers of different species of fish. Our last stop was along the west side of Koh Adang where the coral was once more a disappointment having been extensively damaged. We returned to the resort and packed up to return to the mainland. Our longtail boat took us back to Pattaya Beach where we transferred to a speedboat and returned to Pak Bara. Nhong and our van delivered me to the Hat Yai airport for my evening flight to Bangkok.

I spent much of April 11th drying out my clothes and snorkel gear to prepare for my long flights home the following day. I believe that my future snorkeling trips to Thailand will most likely be confined to Mu Koh Surin National Park and Tarutao National Park.

See pictures from Sri Lanka and Thailand

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  February 2011
Sofia, Bulgaria

Travel Notes

 

For the past four years when Europe winter airfare goes on sale, I have booked a trip to Europe sometime during February and this year was no exception. I arrived at Sofia, Bulgaria, during the afternoon of Friday, February 15. The airport at Sofia is nearly new and I hired a taxi to take me to the Best Western City hotel which was situated in downtown Sofia. The roads from the airport to the city center were very good and there was not very much vehicular traffic. The pedestrians in Sofia always have the right-of-way and the vehicular drivers were very courteous. The downtown area has some wonderful architecture and was fun to explore on foot.

The Sofia weather forecast called for rain and snow during the weekend. Since the weather was overcast with no rain, I decided to immediately explore some of the outdoor sites that I planned to visit and save the museums for a day of inclement weather. My hotel was within two blocks of the Seveta Alexander Nevski Cathedral and the Basilica of St. Sofia. Since the cathedral, with its golden domes, is a highly visible center city landmark, exploration on foot was quite easy. During that first afternoon I was able to visit the Russian Church of St. Nikolai, the Rotunda of St. George, Seveta Petka Church, and the Central Hali Shopping Center. I was also able to observe Syndol Palace, the Military Club, the statue of Saint Sofia, the Central Synagogue, the Banya Mosque, several city squares and parks with interesting statues, the Archeological Museum, the National Art Gallery, the National Assembly, and numerous other architecturally pleasing structures. Although the streets were very good, many of the sidewalks were paving stones that were uneven. While crossing a street via an underground tunnel, I walked passed the Eastern Gate and part of the old city wall.

It was getting dark by the time that I returned to my hotel and, due to some wireless Internet difficulties, had to move to another room. After making the move and getting a shower, I set off to find a restaurant for dinner. I finally settled on the Taj Mahal Restaurant near my hotel. The restaurant was packed and I enjoyed a wonderful Indian dinner.

It snowed during the night which changed to intermittent rain in the morning. I decided to visit the Archeological Museum and the National Art Gallery. The Archeological Museum is housed in a former mosque and contains some of the best ancient gold and bronze artifacts that I have ever seen – the gold artifacts from the 6th and 5th centuries BC were superb. The National Art Gallery is housed in the former royal palace and the building itself is a wonderful showplace for the art. I also walked to the National Theater building and then visited the Natural History Museum. On the way back to the hotel, I visited both the Seveta Alexander Nevski Cathedral and the Seveta Alexander Nevski Cathedral Crypts, which have been converted into a gallery displaying old Bulgarian religious art. I returned to the hotel and located a restaurant for dinner with Bulgarian food which was delicious.

It snowed Saturday night and I was greeted by a winter wonderland on Sunday morning. After breakfast, I took a taxi to the Boyana Church which is situated in a wooded area about ten kilometers from Sofia. The fresh snow made the church and woodlands very beautiful. It is a UNESCO World Heritge site and the frescoes are magnificent. When I left the church, I took a taxi to the nearby National History Museum. Once again I was treated to magnificent 6th to 4th century BC artifacts. Some of the most spectacular artifacts included a gold wreath from a royal grave from the mid-4th century BC and the Panagyurishte Gold Treasure from the 4th century BC – simply amazing! Since there were no taxis at the museum, I asked a group of people which way I should walk to find a taxi. A young Bulgarian lady said that she was going to catch a bus and that I could go with her to the bus stop. When she realized that there were no taxies nearby the bus stop, she called for a taxi on her mobile phone before she boarded the bus – eventually the taxi arrived and transported me back to my hotel.

The following day I checked out of the hotel and went to the airport to begin my journey back home, having just completed my fourth annual long winter weekend somewhere in Europe.

See pictures from Sofia

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  January 2011
India/Thailand

Travel Notes

 

After spending three nights in Bangkok to help adjust to the time zone changes en route to India, I arrived at the Mumbai International Airport at Mumbai, India at about 10:00 PM on Thursday, January 20. Of course, my car and driver arranged by my hotel was nowhere to be seen. After circling the arrivals area several times just to make sure that my car and driver were not there, I went to the “Prepaid Taxi” booth and hired a taxi to my hotel. I was instructed to follow a person to find my taxi and we finally located my taxi car number, a tiny rather old taxi. After tipping everyone who played any part at all in getting me to my taxi, it didn’t take long in the local street traffic to realize that I was back in India.

The following day, I flew to Aurangabad and was pleasantly surprised to see a man holding up a sign with my name in large letters. At least my mobile phone SMS text messages to the hotel recommended travel office had indeed secured my hotel transfer. As I walked toward the car, another gentleman came up and introduced himself to me as Majad, the travel agency owner. After checking into my hotel and prior to going to my room, Majad and I settled on a small car with driver to be provided each day for my stay in Aurangabad. We also discussed the tourist attractions that I wanted to see with all of the costs negotiated and agreed upon. My driver would meet me in the hotel lobby at 9:00 AM the following morning to go to the Ellora Caves and to the Daulatabad Fort.

On Saturday morning, my driver arrived about ten minutes late and we proceeded to the Ellora Caves which are about 34 kilometers from Aurangabad. I usually ride in the front seat with my driver and the traffic in India is incredible – traffic lanes painted on the roads appear to be of no concern to the drivers. After a while watching my driver dart in and out of tiny spaces in traffic, creating multiple lanes out of a single traffic lane, and managing to just miss and to just be missed countless other vehicles; I began to feel comfortable with his driving skills. After all, I am back in India!

Since I was having some concerns about being able to visit both the caves and the fort in one day, I instructed my driver to go to the caves first. Upon arriving at the Ellora Caves, I bought my entry ticket and got the mobile phone number of my driver to be able to send an SMS if I needed to contact him. I declined the services of a guide to the caves and purchased a small guidebook to both the Ellora and Ajanta caves from a young boy who also wanted to sell a large well-illustrated book. Another man who came to be known as Samad, was persistent in trying to sell me a carved elephant and followed me as I walked from cave to cave.

The Ellora Caves are rock cut caves and number thirty four (34) in total. The caves were all excavated from the mountain by hammer and chisel. Caves 1 to 12 are Buddhist caves; Caves 13 to 29 are Hindu caves, and Caves 30 to 34 are Jain caves. The Buddhist caves were excavated from 500 to 700 AD; the Hindu caves from 757 to 900 AD; and the Jain caves 900 to 1100 AD. The caves contain elaborate sculptures as well as beautiful columns. Several of the caves have some remnants of beautiful paintings that are still visible.

I started at Cave #1 and proceeded to visit each of the other caves in order, Cave 2 through Cave 34. Nearly all of the caves contain beautiful sculpture panels on the walls. Cave 16 is by far the most interesting from an architectural viewpoint. It is named Kailas and is the highest peak of cave architecture in the world. The giant cutout which was carved out of the solid mass of rock to create this largest cave temple has no parallel in the world. The carving work was started out at the top and ended with the completion of the ground floor. While carving, the huge middle mass of the rock was preserved for the temple, providing vacant surrounding space for the multi-storied side galleries. It is difficult to imagine that this marvelous creation was carried out with only chisel and hammer.

While visiting Cave 32, a caretaker came over to me and took me to see some of the beautiful paintings on the walls and ceilings – most of the tourists who visit this cave probably don’t realize the paintings exist in some of the dark shadowy areas of the cave. I am very appreciative for his assistance in making my visit to Cave 32 special. By the time I finished my visit to Cave 34, it was nearly 3:30 PM. Needless to say, I had no time left to visit the fort and would have to put it off for another day.

The original plan was to go to the Ajanta Caves on Sunday, January 23. The Ajanta Caves are about 120 kilometers from Aurangabad and the typical driving time is roughly two hours. Because my driver arrived at the hotel nearly an hour late on Sunday morning, Majad and I were forced to change my itinerary – I would visit the Daulatabad Fort today and postpone the Ajanta Caves until Tuesday. The fort was magnificent. It is a combination of the Ground fort and the Hill fort which my guidebook says is rarely found in India.

According to my guide book, some historians believe that the Rashtrakut Kings who built the world famous Kailas Cave of Ellora, might have also built this fort. The earliest recorded history of this fort dates from 1187 AD. Originally this fort was known as Deogiri, a hill of gods. In 1327 Mohmmed Tughlaq, Sultan of Delhi, made this fort the capital of India and renamed it as Daulatabad, a city of fortune. The fort is constructed on an isolated pyramid-shaped natural mountain peak 200 meters above sea level. The rock around the fort has been chiseled so skillfully that climbing the fort was almost impossible. The fort has two moats – one around the fort which was dry and another around the citadel which was always filled with water. The fort is surrounded by three ramparts which are known in India as Kots. The first is Amberkot which surrounded the old town. There are two more Kots on the way to the citadel, Mahakot and Kalakot.

The Mahakot has eight gates which do not oppose one another meaning that the age-old practice of breaking doors open by the use of elephants was impossible here. The creation of the wet moat for entering the citadel was a unique strategy as the water level could be raised to flood the v-shaped crossing steps. After crossing the moat there was another strategy of dark passage (known as Andhari) with a zig-zag rock cut passage-way with stairs in darkness for entering the citadel. The guide book describes the citadel as invulnerable and invincible and that it was conquered only by treachery.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Bibi-ka-Maqbara, a miniature replica of the Taj Majal. It is the only example of Mughul architecture of its kind in the Deccan plateau. It was built in 1679 by Aurangzeb’s son in a tribute to his mother, Begum Rabia Durani. It is situated within the city of Aurangabad and is a landmark. It is currently undergoing some exterior renovation and, while it is well worth a visit, it lacks much of the splendor of the famous Taj Majal in Agra.

On Monday morning, a new driver and I went to the Aurangabad Caves which are situated just outside of Aurangabad. They consist of nine rock cut caves, believed to have been excavated between the 2nd and 6th centuries. Several of the caves have intricate carvings and sculptures. Cave 4 is supported by twelve columns carved with scenes depicting stories from the Jataka tales. Cave 7 has stunning carvings of women adorned with jewels. The main attraction is the sculpture of a “Bodhisatva” praying for deliverance.

While returning to the hotel, we stopped at Panchakki, a 17th century water mill. The name has been derived from the mill that crushed grain for the pilgrims. It also houses a garden with several fish tanks which had way too much algae to be considered picturesque. I spent the balance of the afternoon resting some sore muscles in anticipation of hiking the Ajanta Caves the following day.

Tuesday, January 25, was my last chance to visit the Ajanta Caves and Majad had assured me that my driver would pick me up at the hotel at 8:00 AM. I was surprised when the hotel front desk called me at 7:30 AM as I returned to my room from breakfast, to inform me that my driver was waiting for me. I grabbed my backpack and went to the lobby to meet my driver. My second surprise was that I had another new driver – he was an older man who spoke very limited English. I became more reassured after I showed him a picture of the Ajanta Caves and he nodded and said yes. Although his small car appeared to have seen better days, I was determined to make the two hour journey to the caves. His driving style was very different from my previous drivers – he drove a little slower but the traffic near-misses were still a part of driving in India.

The journey to the Ajantra Caves took approximately two hours and thirty minutes over some of the worst highway conditions that I have ever encountered on any major roads. The roads were paved, or had been paved at some time, with some good sections that changed abruptly into sections littered with countless potholes, some which could better be described as miniature sink-holes. We transversed many deep potholes that impacted the suspension of the car so violently, I began to wonder if the car was durable enough to even make it to the caves. My only concern at the moment was just to make it to the caves – I could always manage to get back to my hotel after visiting the caves. I guess the huge trucks manage to rapidly damage the highway surfaces.

Although the roads were designed to be two lane highways, the Indians somehow manage to squeeze them into three, four, and sometimes five lanes of congestion with the motorbikes, oxen carts, tractor & wagons, auto-rickshaws, small cars, trucks, buses, and enormous trucks. The old saying that “missing by an inch is as good as missing by a mile” certainly applies on the streets and highways in the vicinity of Aurangabad.

As we rounded a bend in the road along the top of a mountain, my driver pointed off in the distance to a large complex on the valley floor and said “Ajanta Visitor Center.” After arriving at the center, it became a challenge to try to figure out how to hook up with him when I would be ready to return to Aurangabad. Previously, I had gotten the car identification numbers and the mobile phone numbers of my drivers and would send an SMS message for them to meet me. This time, when I sent a test SMS to my driver, I saw it arrive on his phone but he did not know how to access the SMS and his English impaired our communications. A young Indian man who spoke very good English came to my rescue and told me in which car park my driver should park in and directed me to the special pollution-free buses for the four kilometer drive to the caves. He said that he operated shopping stall #47 in the visitor complex and asked me to remember him as #47.

Whereas the Ellora Caves belonged to the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain religious faiths, the Ajanta Caves are all Buddhist caves. In addition, the Buddhist caves at Ellora belonged only to the Mahayan sect of Buddhism. Both the Buddhist Hinayan sect and Mahayan sect have separate caves at Ajanta. The Ajanta Caves are estimated to have been excavated from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD and were lost for many centuries until accidentally discovered in 1819 – John Smith, a British captain, caught a glimpse of Cave 10 during a hunting trip from the present site of View Point.

It is believed that Siddharth as Bodhisattva had passed through several rebirths before he attained the highest position called Buddha. All of the stories related to his past births are called Jatak Katha. Whereas the Ellora Caves are famous for their rich sculpture-panels depicting Jatak Katha, the Ajanta Caves are famous for colorful paintings depicting Jatak Katha.

After arriving at the caves and purchasing my admission ticket, I began my hike to the caves. Although there are 30 caves in total, only 26 caves numbering 1 through 26 can be visited. I started at Cave 1 and proceeded to Cave 26. Flash photography is banned at the caves and the caves have special low intensity lighting installed to gently illuminate the magnificent wall and ceiling paintings within the caves. Caves 1, 2, 16, and 17 are entirely painted, including the walls, ceilings, pillars, and corners. Although I was able to capture a few existing-light photos, I purchased a couple of books on Ajanta for the beautiful photographs of the paintings.

After visiting Cave 26, I hiked down the floor of the canyon, crossed the river and hiked up the opposing side of the mountain to an overlook point to view a panorama of all of the caves. The Ajanta caves are along one wall of a horseshoe shaped canyon with the Waghora River running through the canyon. At one end of the canyon, the river flows down seven waterfalls from the mountain plateau to canyon floor. I walked along the edge of the plateau to get a better aerial view of the river, the waterfalls, and the caves before returning by special bus to the visitor complex. As I walked into the visitor complex, #47 was there to greet me and to show me his shop. I purchased a pair of small rock carved elephants out of my gratitude for his assistance to me and then he accompanied me to the parking lot where we found my car but no driver. I waited at the car for a few minutes while he managed to locate and return with my driver.

The drive back to Aurangabad took nearly three hours over the same miserable highway conditions. Shortly after departing Ajanta, a car which had passed us a few minutes earlier and another jeep-like vehicle were pulling off the road in opposite directions – apparently they had some sort of traffic side-swipe mishap. Fortunately my excursion to Ajanta ended well and my driver’s car was a little bit more dilapidated than when we began our journey about nine hours earlier. Majad met us at the hotel and I settled my account with him. I also expressed my appreciation for the car and driver service that he provided to me.

On Wednesday afternoon, Majad sent a car to take me to the airport to catch a flight back to Mumbai. There are very few flights to and from the Aurangabad airport and there are a very large number of airport security people employed. Consequently the security screening process was intense and my carry-on bag with my computer, cameras, mobile phones, and associated electronics was x-rayed and then emptied with the contents x-rayed again. After repacking my carry-on, it was hand searched two additional times before I finally boarded my flight to Mumbai. Perhaps the large number of security people need to demonstrate intense screening to justify all of the people employed.

After arriving at the Mumbai Domestic Terminal and claiming my one checked bag, I located the “Prepaid Taxi” counter and gave the young lady a copy of my Holiday Inn Mumbai International Airport confirmed reservation. She appeared to be having some difficulty as she consulted with an associate and then gave me my pre-paid receipt. I finally located my taxi and on the way to the hotel the taxi driver was insistent in taking me to the Mumbai International Airport. It turned out that the young lady was not familiar with the Holiday Inn hotel and simply routed me to the international airport. The taxi driver insisted that the pre-paid fare was insufficient to go beyond the international terminal. I finally convinced the taxi driver to take me directly to the hotel for which I gave him an extra 200 Rupees.

As I was departing from the Holiday Inn the following evening, I learned that the hotel was nearly brand new, having been open only nine months. That might explain the difficulty that the young lady at the taxi stand was having. My return flight to Bangkok was uneventful and I planned to spend some time in the far north of Thailand before returning home.

I flew to Chiang Rai and booked into the Starbright Hotel which is situated in the city center near the Night Bazaar. I spent some time walking in the vicinity of the hotel to become familiar with the local neighborhood. Chiang Rai Province is situated in the far northeast and includes the Golden Triangle of Thailand. Chiang Rai city is very relaxed and laid back compared to Chiang Mai, with relatively little automobile traffic on the smaller streets. The Night Bazaar is situated adjacent to the bus station and draws large numbers of the local population as well as tourists. It has two food courts with very reasonable prices and is a very popular dining area for the locals – I ate all of my evening meals at the Night Bazaar.

I hired a tuk tuk to visit Chiang Rai city local tourist attractions. Wat Rong Khun, the white temple, is located 5 kilomerers south of Chiang Rai and was spectacular as it glistened in the morning sunshine. Although it may well be the most popular local attraction, I was really impressed by my visit to the private museum Oub Kham Museum. This museum is an Ancient Lanna Heritage Conservation Center founded by Mr. Julasaak Suriyachai to preserve the precious heritage of the ancient Northern Lanna Kingdom. In addition to the marvelous precious artifacts, I loved the architecture and statuary of the museum. The museum website is www.oubkhammuseum.com.

The Hilltribe Museum and Education Center is described as the best place to learn about tribal people of Northern Thailand. It is operated through the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) headquartered in Bangkok. The PDA recommends that tourists visit the Hilltribe Museum before booking a tour to tribal villages. I found the museum to be well worth a visit.

The King Megrai Great Memorial celebrates the king who founded the Lanna Thai Kingdom in 1296 – Lanna, land of a million rice fields. King Megrai was the ruler of Nakhan Hiran Ngnen Yang (an ancient town on the bank of the Mekong River around Chiang Sean). The hilltop City Naval Pillar was erected in 1989 to commemorate King Megra’s declaration during 1262 of the hill to be the city navel or spiritual center of the city and dependent country.

I visited many local Buddhist temples in Chiang Rai. The Wat Phra Kaew complex stood out as one of the most interesting. It houses Phra Chedi which dated from the founding of the temple and is where the famous Emerald Buddha was discovered in 1434. It also houses Phrachao Lan Tong, the largest, most beautiful Palawa style Buddha in Thailand. It also houses Hong Luang Saengkaew, built to preserve the heritage of the temple complex, and contains a very nice museum.

Other local temples that I visited included Wat Jed Yod, Wat Klang Wiang, Wat Phra Singha, Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong, and Wat Ming Muang. They were all beautiful and are well worth a visit.

For a one-day trip, I booked a car and driver to visit the ancient city of Chiang Sean on the bank of the Mekong River and then to the famous Golden Triangle where the countries of Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Thailand all come together. The drive to Chiang Sean took about an hour and we visited the hilltop temples of Wat Phra That Chom Kitti and Wat Chom Chang. My driver parked at the base of the hill and there are 388 steps up the hill to reach the top. Both temples were worth the hike and the view toward the Mekong River was quite good. Part way up the hill, I came upon the ancient temple of Wat Shan Seanuk.

We continued north to the Golden Triangle. I was impressed with just how beautiful the tourist complex was on the bank of the Mekong overlooking the Golden Triangle – so many photo opportunities! After eating lunch at the Golden Triangle, we drove back to Chiang Sean to visit the ancient temples of Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Pak Sa. Both of these ancient temples were well worth visiting. The ancient city of Chiang Sean had once been surrounded by an old city wall and moat – a portion of which was visible adjacent to Wat Pak Sa. Before returning to Chiang Rai, we also stopped at the Chiang Sean National Museum which was interesting but was not as impressive as I had been led to believe from tourist brochures.

I returned home via a short stopover in Bangkok and plan to return to explore more of the far northern region of Thailand in the near future.

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  October 2010
Thailand

Travel Notes

 

I arrived at Bangkok, Thailand, on 8 October 2010 and stayed four nights at a hotel in the Chinatown section of Bangkok. Since this was the first time that I had been to Chinatown, I decided to explore the area which also happens to merge into a "Little India" section. I spent much of the first day meandering through different shopping areas, and food courts and becoming familiar with the local neighborhoods. In addition, while I was searching Chinatown tourist sites on the Internet, I came across references to Bangkok unusual attractions which included the Bangkok Corrections Museum and Chinatown's Wat Pathum Khongkha.

Since the Bangkok Corrections Museum was located a couple of blocks from my hotel, it was my first place to visit on my second day. It is a museum that depicts and preserves gruesome aspects of Thai prison history and the brutal prison life before reforms were made to the penal system. The old penal system was based on retribution through severe punishment and suffering – the exhibits utilize life-size figures to depict the tools for brutal punishment of prisoners. It is currently situated on the site of a former maximum security prison built in 1890 on Maha Chai Road. In 1987, the Thai government decided to demolish the Maha Chai Road while preserving three blocks, a cellblock, a side of the prison wall, and two watchtowers to accommodate the prison museum. The remainder of the area occupied by the prison was converted into a public park – Romanni Nart Park was officially opened on 7 August 1999.

Wat Pathum Khongkha is best remembered as being used as an execution site for members of the Royal Family in the early Rattanakosin period. Several members from the first and third regimes were disposed of on execution stone at the temple. In accordance with ancient traditions, dictating that no royal blood should touch the ground, the victim was placed in a red velvet sack and beaten to death with a scented sandalwood club. I visited the temple grounds but the temple buildings were padlocked.

I walked from Wat Pathum Khongkha to visit the Chinatown Gate. Wat Tramit is a very large and beautiful temple complex across the street from the Chinatown Gate and is certainly well worth a visit. I took a taxi from Wat Tramit back to my hotel and in retrospect I wish that I had walked back to the hotel to have better experienced Chinatown.

I decided to take a bus to Koh Chang, an island south of Pattaya in the Gulf of Thailand. The bus ride lasted several hours before we finally arrived at the ferry terminal for the ferry to Koh Chang. Thailand had been experiencing periods of heavy rains with considerable flooding. The road from the ferry to my Koh Chang hotel at White Sands Beach clings to the side of mountains and the rains had caused landslides which had eliminated half of the road in several places. It also continued to rain while I was on the island, but I was able to explore portions of the island between intermittent heavy rains. I did take a pickup truck taxi to Bang Bao at the southern tip of the island where the landmark white lighthouse is located. The road to Bang Bao and from my hotel to the ferry reminded me of the Road to Hanna in Maui, Hawaii.

Heavy rain continued all night before my early morning hotel checkout. Fortunately the road back to the ferry remained passable with several delays in the areas of the landslides. The rain continued throughout the bus trip back to Bangkok.

I spent the night at a hotel near the Bangkok International Airport to catch my flight to Phuket. I spent some time at Phi Phi Island and at Koh Lanta before returning home on October 31.

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  September 2010
Egypt

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I flew to Cairo, Egypt, on September 16, 2010, to join the Viking River Cruises Pharaohs and Pyramids Tour. We arrived at Cairo on the afternoon of September 17 and were escorted to the Sofitel El Gezirah hotel where we would spend our first three nights in Egypt. This hotel was situated on an island in the middle of the Nile River near the Egypt Opera House. We settled into the hotel and since we were on our own for dinner, we decided to eat dinner at the Sofitel Kababgy Restaurant which specializes in kebab dishes. After admiring the dinner that was served to the couple seated at a nearby table, we asked our waiter to provide the same dinner for us – an Egyptian cold appetizer special and a hot mixed grill special. While we were enjoying the array of cold appetizer dishes, our waiter brought a portable grill to our table to keep the grilled chicken and lamb hot while we ate them. This was one of the best dinners that we had while in Egypt.

After a short orientation on the morning of September 18, we boarded our bus and our first stop was at the Saqqara monuments (Saqqara is also frequently spelled as Sakkara). This is the home to the Step Pyramid and tombs of several Egyptian high priests. Our guide, Ahmed Wasfat, told us that the Step Pyramid is probably the oldest pyramid in Egypt. While visiting the pyramid, several local vendors had Jan pose on a donkey and had me pose on a camel with the pyramid in the background – they also took marvelous photos of us with Jan’s camera for which we had to tip them handsomely. While at Saqqara, we also visited the tomb of the high priest Ka-Gmni Oyn VI and admired the colorful inscriptions within the tomb. Upon leaving Saqqara, we stopped at a “carpet school” to see how Egyptian carpets are woven and of course, visited the carpet sales showroom where several people purchased some carpets. We then continued to a local restaurant for lunch and I was impressed by the mechanical driven spits above a large bar-b-que pit.

After lunch, we continued to Giza Plaza to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. We all had the opportunity to ride camels while viewing the pyramids and also more photo opportunities. We made two stops at the pyramids and a final stop close to the Sphinx. The Three Great Pyramids of Cheops, Chephren, and Mykerionos are the last of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to remain standing, and we were thrilled to finally visit them. We returned to the hotel and decided to skip an optional light show at the pyramids in favor of a buffet dinner at the hotel as part of the tour package. The dinner and buffet breakfasts that we had at the hotel as part of the tour package were all quite good.

We departed the hotel early on the morning of September 19 to visit the Citadel and the Mosque of Mohammad Ali which is situated within the Citadel. The Citadel is a prominent structure that was fortified by Saladin and his successors in the 12th century to protect against attacks by crusaders. Today the Citadel houses more than 60 mosques and the most famous among these is the Mosque of Mohammad Ali, built during the first half of the 19th century. It is sometimes called the Alabaster Mosque. Our bus took us from the Citidel to the Cairo Museum of Ancient Antiquities. The museum was our last scheduled tour stop for the day and was truly magnificent – a person could easily spend a couple of days wandering through it. Although we had previously seen two King Tut exhibitions at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, those exhibits only displayed a tiny portion of the entire King Tut exhibit in Cairo. The King Tut exhibit was phenomenal! The other highlights of the museum were the two rooms with the Royal Mummies on display – the tour did not provide tickets to see the Royal mummies so we paid for our own admission. We rank the Royal Mummies as a display that should not be missed. In order to have more time at the museum, we abandoned our tour bus and chose to walk back to our hotel. It was an interesting walk along the Nile in scorching heat and the hotel air conditioning was our reward at the end. That evening we elected to take the optional visit to the Khan el-Khalili Souk (bazaar) and to have an Egyptian dinner at a local restaurant within the bazaar. The meal at the restaurant was just average but the bazaar provided a wonderful unique look at Cairo and also should not be missed when visiting Cairo.

We received our wake-up call at 4:00 AM on the morning of September 20 in order to fly to Luxor and arrive there in time to do some serious temple tours. Upon arrival at Luxor, our bus took us to visit the Dendara Temple. Ahmed told us that many tour groups do not visit this particular temple and that Viking added it as an extra visit. We were impressed by the carvings and colors within the temple. The Egypt Air inflight magazine had a feature article on this temple as part of the celebration of the Egyptian New Year 6252 which began around September 11. One carving on the ceiling of a small second story temple structure is the Dendara Zodiac – it is a circular rock carving that contains the signs of the zodiac alongside another carving of a lady who swallows the sun each night and gives birth to a new sun each morning. Another small ceiling near the back of the ground floor cubicles depicts this lady and the sun in vivid colors. This temple exceeded my expectations for the temples along the Nile and set the stage for many exquisite temple visitations to follow.

After leaving the Dendara Temple, we proceeded to our cruise ship, the Movenpick M/S Royal Lily to check in to our cabins and to have lunch. Viking River Cruises currently has its own ship being constructed on the Nile and booked space aboard the M/S Royal Lily which was operated by Movenpick Hotels for our Viking cruise from Luxor to Aswan. Although Movenpick hotels are usually pretty good, the “good ship Movenpick M/S Royal Lily” proved to be a bit of a disappointment as the dining room staff appeared to be inexperienced and not properly trained and with some of the food being of marginal quality. Aside from the food service situation, life aboard the Royal Lily was pleasant. After lunch we visited the Temple of Karnak and the Luxor Temple. Both of these temples are spectacular and are must see temples.

We woke up early the following morning in order to meet the 5:10 AM optional hot air balloon excursion to the West Bank. We boarded a small ship which took us downstream on the Nile and across to the West Bank where we boarded small vans that transported us to the hot air balloon launch site. The hot air balloons were very popular and soon quite a few balloons were in the air gliding over the Luxor Valley on the West Bank with several temple sites including the Hatshepsut Temple visible below. We watched the sun rise over the Nile and landed on a small road a relatively short distance from where we initially ascended in our balloon. The balloon ride was interesting and the baskets were rectangular so that every participant had an unobstructed view over the side – it was well worth the extra cost.

After successfully landing the balloon and paying the tips to the local people who were photographed by the balloonists, we boarded the small vans and were driven to a parking lot adjacent to the statues of the Colossi of Memnon where we rejoined our Viking tour bus. We then visited the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Medinet Habu before returning to the ship for lunch. Cameras and photographs are forbidden within the Valley of the Kings but some very nice books are available for sale by the local vendors. Although our admission ticket included entry to three of the tombs within the valley, we had time to visit only two tombs due to long entry lines. The interiors of both tombs that we entered were magnificent and photos just do not do justice to these masterpieces. We left the Valley of the Kings and continued on to the Temple of Hatshepsut, built for one of Egypt’s female rulers, and which has largely been reconstructed. The last temple visitation at Luxor was Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramses III, and it was spectacular. The carvings and colors within the temple were superb.

At 1:30 PM on September 21 we set sail up the Nile to Edfu and sailed through a lock during late afternoon. We reached Edfu sometime during the night and after breakfast on the 22nd, we boarded a bus to visit the Temple of Horus at Edfu. Large crowds of people beat us to the temple and we had to contend with crowd gridlock within the inner temple sanctuaries. This temple was also superb with magnificent rock carvings. A highlight of this temple is a rock carved boat within the inner sanctuary that must be viewed through a doorway – this doorway was nearly impossible to reach during our visit due to the masses of people within the temple. Back on the ship, we continued sailing upstream to Kom Ombo while a tour of the ship’s bridge, engine room and kitchen was offered before lunch for interested passengers – Jan took the tour and I passed on it.

We arrived Kom Ombo mid-afternoon and had a shore excursion where we walked to the double temple of Kom Ombo dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god, and Horus, the falcon god – another spectacular temple. That evening the ship had a Galabya party and a belly dancer – Jan wore her new white Galabya to the party (purchased from vendors who threw them onto the ship from small boats).

We reached Aswan during the night and after breakfast on September 23, we took a small boat to the island of Phila where the Temple of Isis had been relocated and reconstructed during the construction of the Aswan High Dam during the 1960s. By then we had come to expect that our temple visitations would only occur at the finest temples in the region, and the Temple of Isis was no exception – it was a splendid temple. The small boat traffic and docking congestion made this temple excursion somewhat unique. Our next stop was at the Aswan Nubian Museum which presented a good overview of the Aswan High Dam construction, the affected area to become Lake Nasser and the relocation efforts by many countries world-wide to relocate temples to high ground that would otherwise have become submerged by the rising waters of Lake Nasser. In fact, all of the temples that we would visit alongside Lake Nasser had been relocated to higher ground. The museum also had some wonderful statues and other Egyptian artifacts on display.

Later in the afternoon, we were taken to a dock on the Nile below the old low dam constructed by the British in 1902. We boarded a Felucca sailing ship for a short sailing voyage to experience a traditional wooden sailing ship of the Nile. The voyage took us around several small islands in the Nile river and Ahmed pointed out several landmarks including the famous Old Cataract Hotel and the Mausoleum of Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismali Muslims. For our last night aboard the Royal Lily, the ship hosted a “Nubian party” with entertainment provided by local Nubians – the entertainers were very good and of course, they pulled in some members of the audience for added participation.

We disembarked from the Royal Lily on the morning of September 24 and flew to Abu Simbel aboard a DC-9-31 aircraft operated by Air Memphis with our tour group as the only passengers on board. After arriving at Abu Simbel, we boarded our Lake Nasser cruising ship, the Movenpick M/S Prince Abbas – a somewhat older vessel than the Royal Lily. Our Prince Abbas cabin was smaller than our Royal Lily cabin but the Prince Abbas food was by far superior and the food service was much more professional compared to the food service aboard the Royal Lily.

After lunch, we walked to the Temples of Abu Simbel which were relocated and reconstructed on higher ground during the construction of the high dam. The Abu Simbel temples were simply amazing and are dominated by the great Temple of Ramses II with the 60 feet tall statues of Ramses with his queen and daughters at his feet at the front of the temple. The original temple was situated such that on two days every year it would capture the rising sun’s glow as it reached the interior of the temple sanctuary – the relocated temple is similarily situated to continue to capture the sun’s glow on February 22 (Ramses II’s birthday) and October 22 (his coronation day). Photography within the temples was forbidden. We opted to go to the optional sound and light show that evening and the temples at night were magnificent.

The following morning, September 25, the captain of the Prince Abbas sailed in front of the temples to provide us with the ultimate photo opportunity of the Abu Simbel temples glistening in the early morning sun. We then set our course to the north and sailed to view the temple of Qasr Ibrim, perched on top of a small island where landings have been prohibited by the Egyptian Government – our “temple sail-by” provided ample views of this small temple. We continued sailing to Amada and, after lunch, we visited the two temples at Amada via a small motorboat and walked to the temples. These temples exceeded our expectations and after visiting the second temple several local people appeared with a couple of small Nile crocodiles. I couldn’t resist the possibility to get my hands on a crocodile and one of the locals placed the larger crocodile in my outstretched hands. While people were busy photographing me with my crocodile the other person amused himself by placing the smaller croc first on top of my hat and then over my left shoulder – I was not intimidated by the second croc over my shoulder and it provided people with a few good photos.

We continued sailing and the ship had a Nubian show that evening which Jan attended while I was catching up on some much needed sleep in our cabin. We arrived at Wadi El Sebua sometime during the night. After breakfast on September 26, we visited two temples at Wadi El Sebua via a small motorboat. Once ashore, we walked to the first temple and had the choice of walking about one mile to visit the second temple or taking our last opportunity to ride a camel to the second temple – Jan and I opted for the camel ride. Both temples also exceeded our expectations and as we walked back toward the beach to board our motorboat to return to the ship, a local person arrived who had a Nile crocodile for folks to view. It was somewhat larger than the bigger crocodile that experienced the day before at Amada. Once again, I reached out and the crocodile was given to me. After people took a few photographs, I passed the crocodile to Jan who after some photos passed it to Mayuri from Florida for the photo finale. It would be our last encounter with Nile crocodiles during our cruise on Lake Nasser.

As we continued sailing southbound, we viewed the film “Documentary film on the Nubian Monument Salvation” which documented the enormous undertaking by many countries world-wide to relocate many of the Nubian temples that would soon be gobbled-up by Lake Nasser during the 1960s. Ahmed gave a lecture about the Muslim religion and Egypt which was very good followed by a lively question and answer session. We arrived at Aswan that evening to complete our cruise of Lake Nasser.

On the morning of September 27, we made our final temple visit by taking a small motorboat to the Temple of Kalabasa which was the largest free-standing Nubian temple – it was dedicated to Isis and the Nubian solar and fertility deity, Madulis. Construction began on this temple in 23 AD by the Roman Emperor Octavius Augustus. It was also relocated here from its original location in the village of Kalabasa about 30 miles south when the High Dam was constructed. This temple complex presently overlooks the High Dam and was very impressive.

We returned to the ship via our motor boat and disembarked for a bus ride across the High Dam with a tourist stop mid-way across the dam en route to the Aswan airport for our flight back to Cairo. After arriving back at Cairo we spent our last night at the Intercontinental City Stars hotel and had our last Egyptian buffet dinner at the hotel. After precious little sleep, on Tuesday, September 28, we departed Cairo at 5:54 AM on a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, to begin our long journey back home.

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  July 2010
Sydney, Australia

Travel Notes

 

I flew to Sydney, Australia, on July 6th for a long weekend visit primarily to hopefully tour the tall ship HMB (Her Majesties Bark) Endeavour which is normally docked at the Australian National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour in Sydney. The current HMB Endeavour is a replica of the original circa 1780s HMB Endeavour, the vessel that Captain James Cook sailed during his famous world-wide voyages. I had visited the Endeavour during July 2009 but was unable to tour the ship because it was undergoing a refit program to replace one or more of the masts. 

I arrived at Sydney early morning on July 7th and took the train from the airport to Central Station. Since it had been raining, and rain continued to look imminent, I elected to hire a taxi to the Holiday Inn Darling Harbour hotel. I chose this hotel because it was located nearby most of the places that I intended to visit. Since my room would not be available for several hours, I checked my luggage with the hotel concierge and walked to the Australian National Maritime Museum to verify that the Endeavour was in port and returned to the hotel as it began raining once again. The rain continued most of the day and into the evening.

The following morning was cloudy as I returned to the maritime museum and was finally able to board the Endeavour. The ship is magnificent and the museum has volunteers stationed at different parts of the ship to give historical information and to answer questions from the visitors. According to the museum brochure, there are 18 miles of rope, 750 wooden blocks, and 28 sails spreading 10,000 square feet of canvas. The foremast is 119 feet, 11 inches; the main mast is 127 feet, 11 inches; and the mizzen mast is 78 feet, 9 inches, all made from Douglas Fir. The windlass with its two red carved sailor heads raises and lowers the anchors – the two largest anchors weigh nearly one ton each. The ship’s bell marked time and was struck each half hour. Eight bells started and ended each four-hour watch.

The lower deck extends the full length of the ship. The firehearth area is situated below the foredeck area and near the forward end of the lower deck. It contains the huge iron stove (firehearth) that was state-of-the-art in 1768 where all of the food was cooked. The cabins and workshops around the firehearth belonged to the carpenter, boatswain, and sailmaker. The crew’s mess deck, with swinging tables and hammocks, was situated just aft of the firehearth area. Each sailor had just 14 inches in which to sling his hammock at night – these were taken down and stowed each morning. Today, 36 voyage crew sail with the ship, relaxing and sleeping here in their numbered hammocks just as Cook’s men did in the 18th century. The midshipmen/mates’ mess and officers' cabins are situated aft of the crew mess deck area and extend to the stern of the ship.

The after deck was situated directly above the lower deck area occupied by the midshipmen/mates’ mess and officers cabins. The after deck contains the great cabin, the captain’s and gentlemen’s cabins. The area between the cabins was the commissioned officers’ mess.

The quarter deck was at the stern of the ship and was the preserve of the captain and officers. There is a large capstan (a vertical winch) that was used to hoist heavy spars and yards and to maneuver the ship at anchor. Ten wooden bars are inserted and pushed around by up to thirty sailors – this still operates by muscle power today. The wheel (helm) is manned by two helmsmen, one on each side. It is connected to the tiller by ropes which run around the large wooden drum and through a set of blocks. Pens for sheep, pigs, and poultry were kept at the stern.

Some areas of the ship were not accessible during my tour. These included the hold at the bottom of the ship and modern additions such as the engine room and the 21st century deck with showers and marine toilets.

The sun actually came out while I was touring the ship and then the clouds began to reappear as I entered the maritime museum to have a look at the new temporary exhibits that were not present last year. As I left the museum to walk back to my hotel, light misty rain began to fall. Shortly after I arrived back at my hotel heavy rain resumed and continued for the remainder of the day.

Saturday morning was once again cloudy so I decided to walk to the Powerhouse Museum – the museum for science and design. It is advertised as one of the most popular museums in Australia. One of the highlights was a vast collection of steam powered devices including the first locomotive in New South Wales, the Boulton & Watt engine, a steam powered carousel, stand alone steam engines, and many industrial machines from the age of steam power. I was intrigued by a huge box kite that appeared to be used for flying a person to altitude. The air and space section had replicas of a Russian lunar surface explorer, space capsules, and a weightless laboratory that visitors could enter and experience an illusion of being weightless. Another of the museums favorite attractions is the Strasburg Clock model built by a Sydney clockmaker, Richard B. Smith, at the age of 25 as a centenary ‘gift’ to the state of New South Wales. He began work on Australia Day in 1897 and three years later the clock was on display at the Technological Museum (as the Powerhouse Museum was then called).

I returned home on Sunday, July 11th.

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  May 2010
Maui

Travel Notes

 

I flew to Maui, Hawaii, on May 27th for a weekend visit. I rented a car and drove to my hotel, the historic Best Western Pioneer Inn, at Lahaina. It was originally built in 1901 and the addition to the hotel in the 1960’s maintained the original design. It has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operated hotel in Hawaii. I had a room with a balcony that overlooked the square where the Lahaina Banyan tree grows. The banyan tree was planted in the early 1900’s and has grown over the years to be nearly one acre in size – truly a Maui landmark. I also enjoyed walking around Lahaina and admiring the architecture and sculptures.

While at Maui, I visited the Maui Ocean Center which is a very nice aquarium. I particularly enjoyed the reef fish exhibits which displayed the different kinds of fish found at various depths of the reefs. I also drove the road to Hana with its 617 curves and 56 one-lane bridges while managing to enjoy some of the gorgeous scenery along the way.

I drove to the summit of Haleakala National Park which is 10,023 feet above sea level. The summit area was above the clouds and I had to drive thru the clouds to reach it. The multi-color views of the volcano crater from the Kalahaku Overlook and from the summit area were spectacular. I would like to return to the park and hike some of the trails within the crater.

Another highlight of my brief visit was the Iao Valley State Park which is a valley that contains a rain forest and is not very far from the Maui airport. The main attraction is the Ioa Needle (Kuka‘emoku) which is a geological formation that rises to an elevation of 2250 feet above sea level and is covered with lush vegetation.

Prior to returning home on May 31st, I also explored the coastlines of West Maui and South Maui. My favorite beach area was Honokohau Bay along the West Maui coast which I would like to explore with snorkeling gear on a return trip next year.

See pictures from Maui

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  March-April 2010
South America - Ushuaia to Chile aboard the Europa

Travel Notes

 

I booked a reservation as a crew trainee aboard the tall ship Bark Europa for the voyage from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Valparaiso, Chile, as part of the tall ships South America Bicentennial celebration. The Europa was scheduled to join the celebration at Ushuaia after completing her scheduled Antarctica voyages. The Chilean Government was in charge of the Chilean segment of the celebration and the tall ships were to sail around Cape Horn Island and then sail through the Canal Beagle (Beagle Channel) from East to West. The ships would then continue to sail through the fjords into the Strait of Magellan to Punta Arenas, Chile. The ships were to continue from Punta Arenas through the Chilean fjords to Talcahuano. After exiting the fjords, there was to be a tall ships race to Valparaiso, Chile. Due to the earthquakes in Chile, the tall ships scheduled visit to Talcahuano as well as many of the Chilean on-shore festivities were cancelled but the ten tall ships drew huge crowds of people who came out to view and to tour them at Punta Arenas and at Valparaiso.

I arrived at Buenos Aires on March 18th and spent two nights at the Jacaranda Studio & Suite B&B situated in Palermo Soho. I had the studio apartment and Lillian, the owner, made me feel right at home. Just a few doors away on the other side of the street is the Efimero Festin restaurant which I found to be superb – Carolina, the co-owner and chef, prepared a special salad for me as well as her wonderful curry with rice main course.

After spending a couple of days in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I flew to Ushuaia to board the Europa. While waiting to collect my checked baggage, I met four other passengers from the plane who were also joining the Europa. The tall ships were docked along the pier and were a spectacular sight from the taxi en route to my hotel. Although I had been to Ushuaia several times before, I had never taken the Beagle Channel (Canal Beagle) boat tour to the penguin island to see the Magellan Penguin colony. After I checked into my hotel, I booked a reservation to go to the penguin island the following morning.

The trip to the penguin island took most of the day and, after returning to the dock, I walked along the pier to view some of the tall ships. I boarded the Europa and renewed some acquaintances with some of the permanent crew from my prior voyages – some were leaving after the last Antarctica voyage and some others were just arriving for the current voyage. I made arrangements to bring my luggage aboard the following morning prior to the official afternoon boarding time.

I boarded the Europa at 4:30 PM on March 22nd at Ushuaia, Argentina, and settled in for the voyage. That evening Ushuaia put on a large fireworks display on the pier as part of the final evening celebration for the tall ships. The Europa departed Ushuaia on March 23rd at 11:20 AM as part of the Parade of Tall Ships with a military band playing for us as we departed from our position at the dock. This would be my fourth voyage aboard the Europa. The crew consisted of regular crewmembers and crew trainees like me.

After shipboard indoctrination, the crew trainees were divided into four watch teams – Red, White, and Blue. I was assigned to the Blue watch team. The Red, White, and Blue watch teams were assigned watch schedules covering twenty four hours per day. The watch duties consisted of stationing two people on the forward bow deck as lookouts and having one person steering the ship from the helm. In addition, any available crew trainees were requested to assist the regular crew with configuring the sails during the voyage. When the ship was anchored, the watch members performed anchor watch duties.

The initial rotation schedule for the Blue watch was as follows:

  • March 23 – 2 PM to 4 PM

  • March 24 – midnight to 4 AM

  • March 24 – noon to 2 PM

  • March 24 – 8 PM to midnight

  • March 25 – 8 AM to noon

  • March 25 – 4 PM to 8 PM

  • March 26 – 4 AM to 8 AM

  • March 26 – 2 PM to 4 PM when the Blue watch continued to repeat the above schedule rotations for the remainder of the voyage. The final Blue watch was on April 13th from 4 AM to 8 AM and occurred as an anchor watch just prior to sailing into position for the Parade of Tall Ships sailing into the Valparaiso Harbor on April 13th.

The weather during our Blue watches in the fjords was generally cold with occasional rain showers which provided many spectacular rainbows. The weather warmed up as we approached Acud and we had an occasional star filled night. During the voyage we experienced many magnificent sunsets, sunrises, moonrises, and moonsets. I enjoyed being able to occasionally see the Southern Cross with the two pointing stars and to try to estimate our heading before confirming the course with the ship’s compass.

Two Chilean pilots boarded the Europa at Ushuaia to oversee our voyage to Cape Horn and then through the fjords North to Acud, Chile, where the Europa entered the open Pacific Ocean to sail as part of the tall ships race to Valparaiso. We were fortunate to have had Jordie Piana on board as a guide. Jordie currently resides in Chile and has been doing marine research in the Chilean fjords for the past several years. Jordie was able to negotiate a special course with the pilots and Chilean Government for the Europa that included zodiac landings and special fjord glacier visits that were in addition to the regular tall ships itinerary with the caveat that the Europa would join the other tall ships at specified times and places.

We sailed eastbound from Ushuaia in the Beagle Channel (Canal Beagle) and then south through other channels to Cape Horn Island. We sailed around Cape Horn Island early in the morning of March 23rd and the Chilean Government took photos of the tall ships sailing past Cape Horn. After sailing around Cape Horn, we sailed back to the Beagle Channel and continued sailing westbound past Ushuaia. We made our first zodiac landing at Holland Glacier situated near the entrance to the north fork of the Beagle Channel. We hiked up a mountain for a better view of the glacier and to see the native vegetation.

We continued sailing westbound in the north fork of the Beagle Channel and then sailed northbound up the Garibaldi Inlet (Seno Garibaldi) to the Garibaldi Glacier where we made a zodiac landing at a cave adjacent to the glacier. We returned to the Beagle Channel and continued westbound exiting the Beagle Channel and continuing to sail northeast bound through other Chilean channels. We entered Ainsworth Bay (Bahia Ainsworth) where we bartered with some local fishermen for some fish and a large sack full of scallops. We made a zodiac landing at Bahia Ainsworth where we viewed some elephant seals and hiked to an area to see several beaver dams.

We continued sailing northeast through the channels and into Almirantazgo Inlet (Seno Almirantazgo). We anchored overnight at the entrance to Parry Bay (Bahia Parry) on March 27th so that we could sail into this uncharted channel early the following morning. We began sailing southbound in Bahia Parry and sailed all the way to the end where five glaciers feed into the bay. We returned to Seno Almirantazgo and sailed eastbound to Albatross Island which is situated near the end of the inlet. Jordie has been doing research on a Black Browed Albatross colony that was discovered on the island during 2003 when they named the island Albatross Island. We made a zodiac landing and were fortunate to find several young albatross chicks still remaining on their nests – we were the only group other than researchers to have visited the island with Jordie.

We sailed back to the entrance of Seno Almirantazgo and then northbound to the Strait of Magellan where we rejoined the tall ships at Punto Arenas on March 29th. We spent a couple of days at Punta Arenas where I visited the cemetery, the Maggiorino Borgatello museum, and walked around exploring the downtown area. We departed Punta Arenas on March 31st as part of the Tall Ships Parade of Sail and continued westbound through the Strait of Magellan past Cape Forward which is the southernmost portion of land on the continent of South America. Upon exiting the Strait of Magellan, we sailed northbound through the Chilean channels.

As we continued northbound through the channels, we made a zodiac landing at the Fairway Island Lighthouse where we met the lighthouse keeper and his family. As we continued northbound, we entered into Amalia Inlet (Estero Amalia) and sailed eastbound to the end to view the Skua Glacier. After sailing back out of Estero Amalia we continued northbound through the channels to our next zodiac landing which was at the village of Puerto Eden. We continued northbound through some very narrow channels and made our last zodiac landing at Locos Island (Isla Locos) where we viewed many South American fur seals – these fur seals are a different species than the Antarctic fur seals that I had seen on prior trips to Antarctica.

We continued northwest to Acud where our Chilean pilots disembarked on April 6th, and we rejoined the other tall ships to prepare for the tall ships race to Valparaiso. Soon after we began sailing northbound out of Acud, we encountered quite a few blue whales with several surfacing near the starboard bow of the Europa. Encountering the blue whales was really exciting since sighting blue whales is a relatively rare experience. Klass, the Europa Captain, said that in his over forty years of sailing, this was only the third time that he has been fortunate enough to see blue whales.

The tall ships race was postponed for a couple of days due to lack of wind and the ships continued sailing further north hoping for better wind conditions each following day. The race was finally started at 9:00 AM on April 10th, and the Europa crossed the finish line at 2:06 AM on April 11th. After finishing the race, we anchored at Green Lagoon (Laguna Verde) just south of Valparaiso.

On April 13th at 7:00 AM, the Europa sailed into position for the Parade of Tall Ships sailing into the Valparaiso Harbor. Each of the ten tall ships was greeted at the dock by a military band playing music and by people in local costumes dancing. Thousands of people came to the dock every day to view and to tour the ten ships until they sailed away as another Parade of Tall Ships on April 18th.

In addition, during the voyage, Jordie prepared an electronic Europa Voyage Logbook that each crewmember received upon disembarking at Valparaiso. Since I believe that it sets a new standard for voyage logbooks, I have attached it here (it is a large PDF file, so please be patient while it downloads). I disembarked from the Europa during the morning of April 16th and took a taxi to my hotel, the Harrington B&B. After washing a few shirts, I continued exploring Valparaiso and vicinity.

Valparaiso is a picturesque and colorful port city on the western coast of Chile that encompasses many large hills somewhat similar to Lisbon, Portugal. Although the hillside and hilltop neighborhoods are accessible by roads, many have funiculars which transport passengers up and down the hills to the level portion of the city between the coastline and the hills. The port of Valparaiso is now home to a huge container ship operation and is adjacent to the oldest part of Valparaiso (old city). Much of the picturesque old city remains in a state of disrepair. Many buildings in the old city are vacant and some have only the original exterior walls remaining while the city hopes to eventually restore much of the old city. The old city was one of my favorite places to explore but some people are occasionally victims to purse snatchers, camera snatchers, and such. One of my favorite Valparaiso restaurants was the Mariscos Anita restaurant that was situated on a corner in the middle of the old city – I frequently met Paul Hicks, another Europa sailor, there for lunch. Paul and I frequently teamed up to explore many parts of Valparaiso, Vina Del Mar, and Limache.

I found the architecture of Valparaiso to be extremely interesting. Many of the older buildings were fabricated from corrugated steel which was transported to Valparaiso by ship. It was a strong construction material that was very easy to stack in large quantities for shipment to Valparaiso.

Valparaiso has more than a dozen funiculars. Although some tourists aspire to ride all of the funiculars, I only rode three of them. The first was Funicular Artilleria (Assensor Artilleria) to the top of Artillery Hill (Cerro Artilleria) which directly overlooks the container port and the Bateria Esmeralda. The Bateria Esmeralda is the Chilean Navy port where the tall ships were docked for the bicentennial celebration festivities. Cerro Artilleria is home to the Chilean Naval Museum and the “blue house” which is visible from much of downtown Valparaiso. I enjoyed visiting the naval museum and the surrounding hilltop overlook area with street vendors. Instead of returning by the funicular, I walked the winding streets from Cerro Artilleria to the downtown old city in order to explore the local neighborhood.

The second funicular that I rode was Assensor Concepcion to the top of Cerro Concepcion which was the hilltop area where my B&B was situated. It was a charming and colorful upper class neighborhood which overlooked the Turri Clock, the bay, and a newer downtown portion of Valparaiso. It was from this hilltop overlook that I watched as the Parade of Tall Ships sailed away from Valparaiso on April 18th to continue the bicentennial celebration regatta.

The third funicular that I rode was Assensor Espirita Santo from Victoria Plaza area to the top of Cerro Bellavista. This area is one of the most colorful areas in Valparaiso and is the home of the Open Air Museum where murals have been painted on retaining walls and on buildings. Cerro Bellavista was one of my favorite areas to explore.

Avenue Brasil is one of the main streets in Valparaiso that runs parallel to the shoreline. It goes past several picturesque plazas and has several monuments situated in the center median of the avenue. The largest plaza in Valparaiso appeared to be Plaza Sotomayor which is home to the Lost Heroes Monument and appeared to separate the old city from the newer parts of Valparaiso. It is where I observed a large collection of old restored automobiles on display one afternoon and a military band in concert in the evening.

Paul and I took the train for a day trip to visit Limache and Vina Del Mar – the train runs from Valparaiso to Limache. Limache is a small inland city which was colorful and fun to explore. It is located in an area that has been irrigated and where local farmers grow large amounts of produce. Vina Del Mar is an upper class city to the north of Valparaiso and appears to be more modern that Valparaiso.

My main objective at Vina Del Mar was to visit the archeological museum (Museo de Arquelogica) which reportedly has a large collection of original items from Easter Island. When we arrived at the museum, we found that it had sustained earthquake damage and was closed for repairs. We found that unlike Valparaiso which is built mostly on rock, Vina Del Mar was built on softer ground and consequently suffered more extensive earthquake damage than structures at Valparaiso. We took a taxi from the museum to the Naval Artillery School (Escula de Armamentos) which overlooks the ocean and then walked several kilometers along the shoreline back to Vina Del Mar. We stopped along the way at Castillo Wulff, a landmark structure on the coast which is now an art gallery.

I took the bus from Valparaiso to the main bus station in Santiago on April 19th and then took a taxi to Caso Moro, my bed & breakfast hotel. It was situated on a residential street near a university and also very near to the central downtown area. Walter and Marcelo operate this wonderful B&B and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. In fact, one evening they prepared a wonderful traditional Chilean dinner for the guests at the B&B – complete with appetizers, pisco sours, dinner, wine, coffee or tea, and desert. That was the best meal that I had while I was in Chile.

While in Santiago, I walked around much of the downtown area as I explored central Santiago. One of my most memorable visits was to the Pre Columbian Art Museum – it has an amazing collection of artifacts on display. I visited the Plaza de Armas where I entered the Cathedral of Santiago and observed many monuments. The Palacio La Moneda is the presidential palace and it faces two huge plazas that are home to many monuments. I ate lunch one day at the Central Seafood Market and explored the old train station (Estacion Mapocho) which is now an art gallery. I also explored the neighborhood in the vicinity of the La Vega Produce Market.

I thoroughly enjoyed walking around downtown Santiago and admiring the architecture and picturesque buildings. I was also amazed at the number of open area parks in the downtown area. One morning I took the subway train to the Santiago Sculpture Garden which was very enjoyable to explore. I then took the funicular to the top of San Cristobal Hill to visit the statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks Santiago. The funicular stops approximately half way up the hill at the entrance to the Santiiago Zoo for people who are visiting the zoo. After visiting San Cristobal Hill, I walked through Parque Forestal from the Plaza Italia back to the central downtown area. Parque Forestal is a very long park that contains sculptures and monuments as well as the Bella Artes Museum which also houses some wonderful sculptures. I very much enjoyed my time at Santiago and would like to make a return visit at some future time.

I flew from Santiago to Buenos Aires on April 22nd and spent a couple of nights back at the Jacaranda Studio & Suite B&B. While in Buenos Aires I re-visited the Efimero Festin restaurant where Carolina greeted me by name as I entered the restaurant and prepared two more wonderful meals for me. I flew home from Buenos Aires on April 24th.

See pictures from the Europa and South America

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  February 2010
Bucharest

Travel Notes

 

I arrived at Bucharest, Romania, during the afternoon of Friday, February 5, 2010. After clearing Romanian Immigration, I found an ATM and procured some Romanian new Lie to pay for expenses in Bucharest. The weather was partly cloudy and cold with lots of snow on the ground. I took a taxi from the airport to my hotel and rested up after my long flights from Los Angeles before leaving the hotel in the evening to explore the local neighborhood. I stayed at the Hotel Venezia which faces the Piata Mihail Kogalniceanu in central Bucharest about one km from the main downtown intersection at piata December 1989. It was cold and dark when I left the hotel and I was amazed to find that the sidewalks were covered with snow and ice which made walking difficult – nearly everyone was slipping and sliding as they walked along the sidewalks. I walked to the Piara December 1989 and explored the University subway station and admired the architecture of the buildings. I returned to my hotel and made a list of the tourist attractions that I most wanted to see the following day. 

After breakfast on Saturday, February 6, I got a tourist map and directions to the nearest subway station from the hotel front desk and braved the snow and ice covered sidewalks to the subway. I purchased a ten trip subway ticket and headed off to Piata Romana (Romana Square) to see the 5th Century B.C. bronze Lupa Capitolina (Capitoline Wolf) statue that was cast in the Tiber Valley. It is approximately life-size and depicts the she-wolf suckling a pair of infant human boys, representing the legendary founders of the city of Rome, Romulus, and Remus.  

I located the 331 Bus and made my way to the 27 meter tall Arcul de Triumf (Arch of Triumph). The first wooden triumphal arch was hurriedly built after Romania had gained its independence in 1878 so the victorious troops could march under it. Another temporary arch, built on the same site in 1922 after World War 1, was demolished in 1935 to make way for the current triumphal arch which was inaugurated in September 1936. After walking around the intersection at the arch, I took the bus back to Piata Romana and then took the subway to Piata December 1989. I admired the statue of Michael the Brave and, with some help from a bus ticket salesperson, I took another bus to the 42 meter tall Foisorul du Foc (Fire Observation Tower). It was used by the firefighters until 1935 when it became ineffective as more high buildings were being erected in Bucharest and the telephone reduced the need for a watchtower. It was turned into a Firefighters’ Museum in 1963.  

I walked from the Fire Observation Tower to the Templul Elen (Hellenic Temple) which is also known as the Greek Church. It was built between 1893 and 1900 by the Greek Government for the Greek diplomatic representation in Romania. Since there was no nearby bus stop, I continued walking back toward city center and came to Piata Pache Protopopescu which had an interesting statue, presumably of Mr. Protopopescu. I continued walking until I reached a bus stop and took the bus back to Piata December 1989 and admired the Bucharest National Theater. I walked past the Sutu Palace and decided to walk along I. O. Bratianu toward Piata Unirii. I passed Piata St. Gheorghe and the beautiful church Bis. Ort. St. Gheorghe. I also passed the Roman Catholic church Bis. Rom.-Cat. Baratiei en route to the historical monument Templul Coral (Coral Temple) built in 1866, 1932 and 1945. When I arrived at the Coral Temple, it was once again undergoing renovation. As I continued on toward Curtea Veche (Old Princely Court) I came across a wonderful tiny church, Bis. Ort. St. Ioan, situated near Piata Uniril. The weather was deteriorating and snow grains were in the air as I arrived at Curtea Veche. Curtea Veche was reportedly built as a place of residence during the rule of Vlad the Devil in the 15th century. It is now an archeological site and operates as a museum which I decided to tour. A portion of the museum consists of underground excavations and the caretaker accompanied me as a guide.  

After visiting the museum, I took the subway from Piata Uniril to the Izvor subway station at Parcul Izvor to explore the area of the historical old city that was demolished by Nicolae Ceausescu to make room for the Parliament Palace which is the world’s second largest building (after the US Pentagon) and formally named “Casa Poporudu” (People’s House). One-ninth of Bucharest was reconstructed to accommodate “Casa Poporudu” and its surroundings. Casa Poporudu, which was built in 1984 by Nicolae Ceausescu, spans 12 stories, has 3100 rooms, and covers 330,000 sq meters. The building has a vast collection of marble rooms, with 100 percent of the marble and all of the original decorations coming from Romania. 

As I walked along B-dul Libertatii to Casa Poporudu the weather continued to deteriorate into blowing snow flurries. Casa Poporudu is so large that I had to cross over to Piata Constutiei in order to squeeze it into a single photograph. B-dul Unril is an enormous street that runs from Piata Constutiei eastward through Piata Unirii and beyond. I could only imagine how beautiful Casa Poporudu would be on a clear summer day as viewed from B-dul Unril during the afternoon when the sun would be shining on it. Since the weather continued to deteriorate, I walked back to my hotel and decided to try to visit several museums on Sunday.  

Unfortunately, the snow increased into near blizzard conditions during the evening and heavy snow was still falling on Sunday morning. After breakfast, I decided to brave the weather and I walked through heavy snow to the Izvor subway station and took the subway to the University Station to go to Bucharest Municipal Museum in Palatul Sutu (Sutu Palace). Palatu Sutu was built between 1833 and 1834 in the Neogothic architectural style. The interior décor was very beautiful with a massive staircase to the second floor and a huge mirror behind the landing midway up the stairway. As one stands in front of the stairway from both the ground level and the second story, a clock has a prominent position on the reflection in the mirror – the clock runs backward and has a backward dial face so the reflection in the mirror depicts the correct time. The museum had quite a few objects relating to the history of Bucharest as well as some objects from prehistoric times.  

As I departed from the museum, heavy snow was still falling with a strong wind blowing. I decided that it was not prudent for me to take long walks on the treacherous sidewalks to the other buildings and museums that I had planned to visit, so I returned to my hotel. That evening I requested a very early wakeup call and arranged for a 3:00 a.m. taxi to the international airport to catch my 5:40 a.m. flight to Frankfurt, Germany.  

The taxi was on time and the snow continued falling. As we departed the hotel, the taxi nearly became stuck in the snow on one of the narrow streets. After regaining traction and successfully making it to a main street, we continued to the airport as fleets of snowplows were busy plowing snow. Large equipment was also being used to scoop up piles of snow and to load it into large trucks for transport to someplace away from the streets of Bucharest. Upon arriving at the airport, I was glad my journey through the snowstorm had been successful and that I was able to see most of my high priority sights during my long weekend at Bucharest. After checking into my flight, I actually looked forward to the long flights home.

See pictures from Bucharest

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  January 2010
India

Travel Notes

 

I arrived in Mumbai, India, at about midnight during the night of January 6, 2010, after spending a couple of days in Bangkok, Thailand, en route from Los Angeles to India. After clearing Indian Immigration, I located my driver from the Renaissance Mumbai Hotel which is situated beside Lake Powai in North Mumbai. There was not much traffic between the international airport and the hotel that late at night and after clearing the various hotel security checkpoints, I checked into the hotel. Hotel security in Mumbai is very comprehensive following the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The Renaissance Mumbai hotel security routine consisted of the car being stopped at a remote checkpoint where the car and contents were searched by security personnel with a large dog, and a second checkpoint before entering the hotel. At the second checkpoint both me and my luggage were screened – my luggage was passed through a metal detector and also hand searched, I was directed through a metal detector and patted down by a security person. In addition, there was a tent at the checkpoint where women were screened by female security personnel. This was the usual routine for each time I would return to the hotel. 

After breakfast the following morning, I arranged for a hotel car and driver to take me to South Mumbai to the Gateway of India to catch the ferry to Elephanta Island. Elephanta Island is situated eleven kilometers east of South Mumbai beyond the Mumbai Harbour. It is noted for the Elephanta Caves – beautiful rock-cut cave temples dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. The literature dates these cave temples to a period between 600-635 AD, and the cave sculptures are most impressive.

As we departed the hotel, this would be my first look at Mumbai in the daylight. The visibility was approximately 2.5 km visible with smoke in the atmosphere. The drive to the Gateway of India was approximately 30 km and took about one and one-half hours. I was immediately impressed by the large numbers of black and yellow auto-rickshaws and black and yellow taxis. My driver informed me that all of the black and yellow auto-rickshaws and taxis were powered by clean natural gas (CNG) – quite a contrast to the auto-rickshaws in Thailand (tuk tuks with their two-cycle always-smoking engines). I would estimate that nearly forty per cent of the automobile traffic that we saw were CNG black and yellow taxis and auto-rickshaws – so far ahead of the United States in clean motor vehicle energy!  

As we continued our drive toward South Mumbai, my driver also told me that the population of Mumbai was about nineteen million people and that about forty per cent of them live in the slums of Mumbai. The slums can be found nearly anywhere and co-exist beside modern residential areas. My driver also said that the government builds large apartment complexes and gives them to people living in the slums and that many of these people later sell them and move back into the slums. After crossing the Bandra-Worli Sea Link Bridge which is still undergoing construction, we entered South Mumbai. My driver also informed me that auto-rickshaws are banned from entering South Mumbai. South Mumbai had a very different look with tree lined streets and abundant vegetation. 

We drove past the Oberoi Trident hotel which was one of the hotels attacked in November 2008 and continued to the Gateway of India which was built in 1927 and is the city’s most enduring symbol. After parking the car, we walked past the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel which is situated across the street from the Gateway of India and is still undergoing repairs from the November 2008 terrorist attack. I boarded a ferry to Elephanta Island and enjoyed the one hour boat ride to the island. The dock for the ferry is approximately one km from the island and people can either walk or take a small train along the new jetty to the island – I chose to walk. After reaching the island, it is approximately another km up a mountain to the caves via a very long rock stairway. Merchants lined both sides of the stairway from top to bottom selling souvenirs to tourists and a couple of restaurants were also situated alongside the stairway. Although I hiked up and down the stairs, it was possible to hire several people to carry you up and/or down the stairs in a chair supported by two long poles attached to the sides of the chair.  

Upon reaching the top of the stairway, I paid my entrance fees and set off to explore the cave temples. There are at least seven cave temples on the mountain numbered #1 thru #7. Cave temple #1 is the largest and most elaborate and is the main attraction. I decided to pass up cave temple #1 and hike to the farthest away temple and then work my way back. After passing cave #5, I encountered a barricade and sign stating that Cannon Hill and caves #6 and #7 were currently closed to the public. I marveled at how much labor must have been expended chiseling these cave temples out of the mountain rock mountain and to also carve the beautiful and intricate deep-relief sculptures. I then explored cave temples #5, #4, #3 and #2 as I made my way back to cave #1. Cave #1 is truly spectacular. It is an unusually large excavation which is supported by rows of massive pillars – the main portion of the cave shrine has 26 supporting rock columns. The walls of the cave shrines have panels with spectacular deep-relief sculptured scenes. The temple faces to the North where one enters through a porch and there are two additional porches to the East and West, both of these leading to courtyards of subsidiary shrines. 

After exploring the cave temples, I ate lunch at a restaurant about halfway down the mountain and then hiked back to the ferry dock. After another hour ferry ride back to the Gateway of India, I located my driver and returned to my hotel continuing to marvel at the large quantity of CNG black and yellow vehicles on the streets. 

On the morning of January 8, I arranged for another hotel car and driver to go to the Kanheri Caves. The Kanheri Caves consist of 109 rock-cut caves near the top of a mountain in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The term Kanheri has been derived from a Sanskrit term “Krishnagin” which means “black in color.” The caves are situated about 1,500 feet above sea level and have been chiseled out of a gigantic basaltic rock mountain. The cave sculptures depict the Buddha in numerous forms. These caves are dated from the 2nd Century BC to the 9th Century AD, and many were the abode of Buddhist monks. The literature states that the Kanheri Caves are an excellent illustration which portrays the rise and fall of Buddhism in India. Exploring the area also allows the visitor to view many watercourses of the ancient water system and cisterns for the caves. The majority of the caves are small cells with a stone platform to serve as a bed. Several of the caves are quite large and have elaborate inscriptions and deep-relief sculptures. 

After paying my entrance fees, the first cave that I came to was Cave #1. Caves #1, #2, #3 and #4 are situated side by side. Cave #1 remains unfinished and may have been intended to be two stories high. Cave #2 is larger and has two stupas with beautiful sculptures on the surrounding walls. The literature states that Chaitya Cave #3 is the largest and most architecturally elaborate cave at Kanheri. It is the most important cathedral or Chaitya of the Kanheri caves. The Chaitya is a Buddhist shrine and typically is a long hall with an arched ceiling with two rows of pillars that further divide the hall into a central nave and two narrow aisles on either sides of the nave in its longer axis. Almost at the inner extreme of the hall is a stupa with a hemispherical top, the object of worship in the Chaitya. Cave #3 is the second largest cave Chaitya in India, the largest being the Chaitya of Karla near Pune. In addition to an elaborate entrance and spectacular sculptured scenes, it has two gigantic figures of Buddha that are approximately 6 meters tall – these are some of the tallest images of Buddha in India. Cave #4 is a small cave with a stupa and the background of the stupa is carved with Buddha in different postures. 

As I continued to hike toward additional caves I marveled at the stairs, terraces and footpaths that are all carved out of on the surface of the hard volcanic rock. I was also impressed at the Kanheri waterworks which included channels carved in the rock and cisterns. The views of the surrounding landscapes and caves were spectacular. Additional caves that I found to be of exceptional interest were Cave #34 which was a dark cave with some paintings of Buddha on the ceiling, and Caves #11, #41 and #67 which all had elaborate sculptures. 

After hiking back to the parking lot, we drove to the Jain Temple that is situated adjacent to the entrance to the park. I briefly visited the temple and then we drove back to my hotel. I spent the remainder of the afternoon downloading and editing photos. 

Since I had arranged for a late checkout on January 9, I arranged for another hotel car and driver for a half-day sightseeing trip of Mumbai. The hotel said that they would provide a guide for Mumbai sightseeing at no additional charge. I met my driver and Aziz, my guide, after breakfast and we set off to explore some of the tourist sights of Mumbai. Although the guide was no charge, he appeared to be employed by several high end stores geared for tourists that I would be required to visit during our sightseeing. As we departed the hotel, my guide asked me what was of particular interest for me to see and I gave him a list that I had prepared. I commented at how little traffic there was on the highway and Aziz informed me that there is much less traffic on a Saturday morning.  

We crossed the Bandra-Worli Sea Link Bridge and entered South Mumbai to proceed to Dhobi Ghat. Dhobi Ghat is an enormous outdoor laundry employing over one thousand people where residents of Mumbai take their clothes to be washed and ironed professionally. Aziz informed me that the Dhobi Ghat laundry originally laundered the uniforms of the British soldiers stationed at Mumbai prior to India’s receiving independence from Great Britain. Aziz also said that somehow the laundry manages to keep track of each person’s individual items of clothing – an amazing sight indeed. Our next stop was at Mani Bhavan, the three story house where Mahatama Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1934. It is now a museum to the lifelong achievements of Gandhi. 

We continued on to the Hanging Gardens situated on the crest of Malbar Hill. These are magnificent gardens above reservoirs constructed in 1921 to contain 30 million gallons of water as the municipal water supply of Mumbai. The Tower of Silence on Malbar Hill is adjacent to the Hanging Gardens and visibility of the tower is obscured by trees and foliage. The Tower of Silence is the open grounds where the Parsis leave the bodies of their dead to be eaten by vultures and only persons of Parsi descent are permitted entrance. As we descended from Malbar Hill, we drove beside the Tower of Silence compound and observed a large number of vultures circling above the grounds. 

We continued our Mumbai tour by viewing sights that included the Rajabi Clock Tower, Wilson College, the Post Office, Town Hall, and the Police Headquarters. We also drove past the Leopold Cafe and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (also known as Victoria Terminus) – both of these locations were targeted in the November 1008 attacks. We also drove through the Dharavi slum district and then visited the St Thomas Cathedral, a very beautiful old church. We stopped at several of the tourist shops and stores required by Aziz.  

Although I was not interested in tourist shopping, I was hoping to locate a guidebook to the Kanheri Caves that I had visited yesterday. Aziz took me to several bookstores and finally to the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel. We checked out the hotel bookstore and then went to the hotel restaurant overlooking the Gateway of India. Aziz made several telephone calls and finally located someone with a used guidebook. While I ate lunch at the restaurant, Aziz left and returned with the used guidebook – I could hardly believe how hard it was to locate a copy of the guidebook but Aziz was persistent. After lunch, we met my driver and I said good-by to Aziz before we drove back to the hotel.  

After returning to the hotel, I checked out of my room, went to the lounge and took a few photos of Lake Powai. I noticed a large crocodile sunning itself on the bank of the lake – cattle grazing nearby and less than a kilometer away several small boys were swimming in the lake. On the opposite side of the hotel large modern high rise buildings towered above an area of slums. Later in the evening, I took the hotel car to the International Airport to catch my flights back to Bangkok and onward to Phuket, Thailand. 

I arrived in Patong, Phuket, Thailand, during the evening of January 10. I was planning to rest up at Patong for a couple of days and then continue on to either Phi Phi Island or to the Similan Islands for snorkeling with the fish among the beautiful coral. After dinner on January 11, I was hit by a motorcycle taxi with a paying passenger aboard as I was waiting to cross a road near my hotel. The motorcycle taxi was on the wrong side of the road, and I never saw the impact coming. I regained consciousness in the Patong Hospital Emergency Room while undergoing treatment. I received very good treatment for my injuries and, after I was discharged, I took a taxi back to my hotel. I spent the next several days resting and returning to the hospital where they changed the bandages for my wounds. I am fortunate that I did not see the impact coming and did not have time for my muscles to tense up which probably accounts for no broken bones. I flew home from Bangkok on January 20. My doctor in Los Angeles removed the stitches from my head and right ear after I returned home – the sprains to my left wrist and hand, left knee, right hand, and neck will probably take some time to mend, but all is well that ends well.

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  November 15, 2009
Laos & Thailand

Travel Notes

 

Subsequent to booking an airline ticket to Thailand, I sent an E-mail to Mr. Soulinga in Laos to see if he was still an official Lao Government approved tour guide and if he would be interested in accompanying me for travel in Laos during November. I had previously hired Soulinga to be my Government approved tour guide for my trip to Laos during April 2007. After a couple of weeks, I received a reply and we worked out a travel itinerary where he would provide transportation and would be my driver and tour guide for my visit to Laos. With the Laos travel in place, I decided to return to Phuket and Phi Phi Island while in Thailand before meeting Soulinga in Laos.

I arrived in Thailand and spent a few days at Phi Phi Island and returned to Mosquito Island for snorkeling. The coral is still in decent shape at Mosquito Island and I was fortunate to spot a Leopard Shark approximately three meters long sleeping on the sea floor in relatively shallow water. I had seen small reef sharks in the Andaman Sea on prior occasions but his was the first large shark that I had seen. Although the shark tended to blend into the sea floor, I managed to get a couple of photos. The remainder of my snorkeling was relaxing among the spectacular coral and beautiful fishes.

After Phuket, I spent a couple of days at Udon Thani, Thailand while coordinating final Laos travel details with Soulinga. I took a taxi from Udon Thani to the Friendship Bridge at 7:30 AM on the morning of November 8 and carried my luggage through Thai Immigration as I was processed out of Thailand. The Friendship Bridge spans the Mekong River between Nong Khai, Thailand, and Vientiane, Laos. I then boarded a bus which transported me across the bridge to the Laos Immigration station. After completing the “Visa on Arrival” procedures, I was processed into Laos. I was greeted by Soulinga as I exited Lao Immigration and we took my luggage to the mini bus that he had provided.

Our first stop was to be at Phonsavanh to visit the Plain of Jars. During my April 2007 visit, we had driven Laos Highway 13 North to Vang Vieng and back to Vientiane. Highway 13 is the main Laos North/South highway and extends from southern Laos to the China border in the North. Although it is the main highway, it is a two-lane road that tends to be treacherous to drive as it snakes its way through the mountains in northern Laos. Of course, most of our travel would be on Highway 13 with the remainder on another two-lane road, Highway 7, from Phoukhoun to Phonsavanh. Highway 7 runs from Phoukhoun eastward to the Vietnam border and is equally treacherous as it also snakes its way through spectacular rugged mountains. Many small Lao ethnic hill-tribe villages are situated alongside of Highways 7 and 13. I was impressed by the number of satellite television dishes in the various hill-tribe villages.

We stopped for lunch at Kasi which is situated north of Vang Vieng. As we continued north to Phoukhoun, the mountains became much more rugged and the mountain landscape was spectacular and our average speed was approximately 20 miles per hour. The only bridges on Highway 13 are to cross rivers and streams. When we reached Phoukhoun, Highway 13 veered to the left and we took Highway 7 eastbound toward Phonsavanh and the mountains became increasingly more rugged. As we approached Phonsavanh, the mountains became much less rugged and there were areas where large rice patties were possible. We arrived at Phonsavanh at about 5:30 PM, and I checked into the Vansana – Plain of Jars hotel. My first travel day consisted of more than ten hours traveling by taxi and my mini bus. Soulinga and I discussed my desire to visit Sites 1, 2, and 3 of the Plain of Jars in the morning before continuing on to Luang Prabang and we decided to leave the hotel at 7:00 AM. After a long travel day and with an early morning ahead of me, I opted to eat dinner at the hotel and went to bed early.

The Plain of Jars is a large area that extends around the town of Phonsavanh from the southwest to the northeast where huge jars of unknown origin are scattered about. The jars were created from solid stone – most from a stone similar to sandstone but some were made from granite. Nobody knows the origin or purpose of the jars which are several thousand years old and weigh up to three tons each.

Due to its proximity to North Vietnam, this area was situated on the “Ho Chi Min Trail” and was one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos between 1964 and 1973. In addition, defoliant which was also dropped on the area during the Viet Nam war, eliminated large parts of the forest. I was reminded that children in Laos are injured daily from unexploded ordnance remaining after the carpet bombing campaign during the war. The tourist office in Phonsavanh has hundreds of different bomb casings and recovered ordnance in the courtyard in front of and alongside the tourist office/museum building.

The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Unexploded Ordnance Program (UXG) cleared the Plain of Jars 1, 2, and 3 between 27 January 2005 and 28 March 2005. It was a joint project with UNESCO, the National Tourist Authority of LAO PDR and the Ministry of Information and Culture with funding provided by nzaid. Square stone markers, one half red and one half white, designate the safe zone within the sites – areas between the white have been UXG sub-surfaced cleared and areas opposite the red designate areas that were not sub-surfaced cleared but only visually cleared of UXG on the surface. Bomb craters are still visible within the sites and visitors to the sites are advised to remain only in the areas indicated by white.

Although Phonsavanh was shrouded in thick fog in the morning of November 9, Soulinga and I left the hotel at 7:35 AM and drove through the fog to Site 3. Our plan was to go to the furthest away site first and then stop at the other sites on the way back to Phonsavanh. Site 3 (Hia Hin Lat Khai) is situated about 35 km southwest of Phonsavanh on a hill-top near and is accessed by taking a 2 km hike along rice paddy dykes and up the hill. We completed the hike through the rice paddies and up the hill to Site 3 which has approximately 150 jars amid several bomb craters. Many of the jars suffered from bombing damage but I found the site to be fascinating. The lingering morning fog added some extra allure to the site.

Site 2 (Hai Hin Phu Salato) is approximately 25 km from Phonsavanh and consists of two small sites on two small hills bisected by a dirt road. This site had approximately 90 jars, more bomb craters, and some large tree roots were entwined around and within a couple of the jars. Site 2 was a very photogenic site with the lingering morning fog.

Site 1 (Thong Hai Hin) is the largest site with approximately 250 jars, most of which weighing 600 kg to one ton each. A small portion of the site is on a hill-top and the remainder is on a relatively flat area below the hill. The site also has another hill with a large limestone cave where people sought refuge during the bombings. The largest jar which weighs nearly 6 tons is situated on top of the small hill. Site 1 is 15 km southwest of Phonsavanh and is the one most often visited by tourists. After visiting site 1, I was very glad to have insisted on visiting Sites 2 and 3 which I found to be far more interesting than Site 1.

After a brief stop in Phonsavanh at the tourist office where we visited the small museum and viewed the remnants of the bombing ordnance, we began to backtrack on Highway 7 toward Phoukoun at 9:51 AM. We ate lunch at Phoukhoun and turned northbound on Highway 13 to continue our journey to Luang Prabang. Highway 13 continued through spectacular mountains and through numerous hill-tribe villages to Luang Prabang and we arrived at my hotel, Villa Santi Resort Hotel, at approximately 5:30 PM. Since we had just finished another very long travel day, I elected to eat diner at the hotel.

Soulinga met me at the hotel the following morning, November 10, and we visited several Buddha temples in Luang Prabang – Vat Xieng Thong was a very impressive temple that had an entrance overlooking the Mekong River. After visiting some temples, Soulinga chartered a boat for a 25 km trip up the Mekong to the Pak Ou Cave. Pak Ou is a well-known Buddhist site and is a place of pilgrimage. The cave contains thousands of statues and statuettes, in the traditional Luang Prabang style, mainly of Buddha. Rock stairs connect a second deeper cave higher up the mountain known as Tham Phum. We visited both caves and then ate lunch at a restaurant situated across the Mekong from the caves. The boat trip on the Mekong was relaxing and the scenery was superb.

Later in the afternoon, we hiked up to the top of Mount Phousi – Luang Prabang’s holy mountain. The climb to the top entails more than 320 steps but the temples at the top are exquisite. The views from the top of the city and the Mekong are superb. Tourists gather at the top to watch the sunset over the mountains and we joined the others to wait for the sunset. We ate dinner in Luang Prabang and then visited the night market – the city blocks off several blocks of a main street to allow the people to set up the night market. The market was very colorful and a pleasure to walk through – the merchandise for sale was primarily food items and Lao handicrafts.

We visited the Royal Palace on November 10. Luang Prabang was the original capital of Laos and after the Communist takeover on 1975, the king and queen were sent to re-education centers further north and disappeared. The new Communist Government moved the capital to Vientiane and converted the Royal Palace at Luang Prabang into a museum. Photography is prohibited inside the museum and the museum showcases the former kings and queens of Laos.

After visiting the Royal Palace, we drove 37 kms south of Luang Prabang tto the Kung-Si Waterfalls. These waterfalls are very beautiful as they cascade over the limestone mountain and into turquoise pools of varying sizes. The hike along the stream beside small cascading waterfalls before reaching the much higher main waterfalls is very beautiful. An Asiatic Black Bear conservation project is situated adjacent to the entrance to the trail to the waterfalls. This is home to many rescued Asiatic Black Bears in their native habitat and tourist donations are solicited to help support the project. I took Soulinga to an Indian restaurant in Luang Prabang for dinner and learned that it was his first time to eat at an Indian restaurant – the food was quite good and was a diversion for the local Lao food that I had been eating for the past several days.

We departed Luang Prabang at about 8:30 AM on November 12 and drove back to Vientiane. We drove through Phoukhoun at 11:45 AM and stopped for lunch at Kasi. We stopped for gasoline at Vang Vieng at 2:35 PM and arrived in Vientiane at 5:35 PM. Since nearly everyone in Laos cooks by burning wood and many people also burn rubbish in open bonfires, the air quality deteriorated rapidly during the last 37 kms before reaching Vientiane.