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  April 2021
Costa Rica

Travel Notes


After receiving my new expedited USA Passport, I completed the Costa Rica health requirement form. This form requires travelers to purchase COVID-19 Medical Travel Insurance and generates a coded image permitting travelers to check in for flights to Costa Rica. This same code would also need to be scanned by Costa Rica Immigration upon arrival.

On Saturday, 24 April, I boarded my United Airlines non-stop flight from Los Angeles, California, to Liberia, Costa Rica. The flight was uneventful with full COVID-19 precautions in place throughout the flight. During the flight, I filled out the Immigration Arrival Form which contained such small print that it was a challenge to read even with my reading glasses. Upon arrival, the Immigration Official didn’t want to look at the arrival form but asked me to show the health requirement form with the code to enter the country and a copy of my return flight ticket. I surmised that some other immigration person would collect the arrival form but nobody ever requested the form.

Costa Rica Government Regulations required everyone to wear masks both indoors and outdoors when near other people. As I exited immigration into the main terminal, I looked for information on where to find the location of the shuttle bus for the Hilton Liberia Airport Hotel. Not seeing any signs for the shuttle bus, I asked for directions and everyone was very friendly and helpful. One person actually took me outside to an area near the arrivals entrance and told me to wait there for the hotel shuttle bus. Sure enough, after about 15 minutes, the hotel bus arrived and took me to the hotel.

The hotel had hand sanitizer stations located throughout the hotel public areas. Face masks were also required in all public areas of the hotel. During check-in, my temperature was taken before my registration was completed. After settling into my spacious room, I briefly explored the hotel facilities. Since the restaurant areas had social distancing between tables, I decided that I would eat all of my breakfasts and evening meals at the hotel.

I decided to spend Sunday, 25 April, resting up and checking out possible options for day trips from the hotel. Mardigi Tours had a tour desk in the hotel lobby and I consulted Diana, their representative, about tour options from the hotel. After discussing the various tours and options, because of the potential COVID-19 risks, I decided to book three Mardigi private day trip tours beginning the following day.

On Monday morning, 26 April 26, I met Gerardo Scriba, my private tour guide, for my Las Hornillas Miravalles Volcanic Mud Tour. Gerardo drove a small multi-person vehicle and provided a constant supply of hand sanitizer and water for the tour. We both wore face masks whenever we were in the car and/or public buildings with other people present. Gerardo had an extensive knowledge of the area, vegetation, and wildlife. He not only took special care to search out interesting vegetation and wildlife, but he was also interested in taking photos as well. This proved to be so beneficial that I contacted Diana and requested Gerardo to be my private guide for all of the subsequent day trips I had booked.

Our first stop of the tour was beside a standard cashew tree where he pointed out the red cashew flower and the dark cashew fruit (the cashew nut). We drove on and took the Catarata Lianos del Cortes Trail for a short hike to Catarata Lianos del Cortes, a very beautiful waterfall. We drove from here to Las Hornillas Miravalles in the foothills of Volcán Miravalles where we began hiking the Cataratas Cabro Muco Trails. We hiked the lower portion of the trails first to the Cataratas Cabro Muco waterfall. In order to arrive at the waterfall, we traversed a long suspended walkway over the river and above the waterfall. When we arrived at the viewpoint for the waterfall, there were metal stairs descending to a platform about half way down the height of the waterfall. This waterfall was stunning with turquoise water at the base of the falls and orange iron oxide deposits coating the rocks in and beside the river.

We returned from the lower trail to hike the upper trail. After entering the upper trail, we crossed another suspended walkway to hike along numerous other upstream waterfalls cascading down the mountainside. These were also spectacular with iron oxide deposits turning the rocks beside the waterfalls and along the river a brilliant orange color. Near the end point of this trail, I spotted and photographed some gorgeous grasshoppers. Hiking both of these trails through lush dense vegetation was exhilarating after more than a year of observing COVID-19 lockdowns in the USA.

Our next stop was at a nice restaurant for a wonderful lunch. After lunch, we continued on to visit the Las Hornillas Volcanic Activity Center. This center is situated at a live volcanic crater with hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles, openings in or near a volcano through which hot sulfurous gases emerge. Visitors here have options to not only walk around and through the crater but also may elect to bathe in a mud bath and/or hot spring. I elected to just walk through the crater where I was fascinated with sulphur crystals that had formed near some small fumaroles. Although nobody was in the mud baths while I was there, some people were bathing in the hot springs. Public lockers, dressing rooms, and open public showers were available for visitors. When we returned to the hotel, Diana confirmed that Gerardo would continue as my private tour guide for the duration of my day trips.

On Tuesday morning, 27 April, Gerardo and I departed the hotel in a twelve-person van to travel to Rincón de la Vieja National Park and hike the foothills of Volcán Rincón de la Vieja. En route to the park, we drove past a large geothermal power plant, one of many that provide a large portion of the electricity consumed by Costa Rica. After arriving at the park, Gerardo checked us in and we began hiking the 3.2 kilometer Sendaro Pailas Loop portion of the Rincón de la Vieja Trail. As we were about to begin the trail loop, Gerardo received information from another guide that spider monkeys were just seen near the other end of the loop. Gerardo told me we would hike the loop trail in reverse order to possibly see the spider monkeys. Sure enough, we soon came upon spider monkeys traveling high up through the enormous trees. We were able to take a few photos of them before they disappeared in the forest.

As we continued hiking through the forest, Gerardo pointed out many different species of vegetation before we arrived at the fumarolas where there was a slight change in the vegetation nearby. Since the hot bubbling mud was difficult to photograph, I took a short video clip at the fumarolas. We continued hiking and left the forest of tall trees and hiked to an area where there were bubbling mud pots. From there we had a spectacular view of Volcán Rincón de la Vieja. Continuing on, we passed an area with a fumarolic lagoon and another area of volcanic activity with “Do Not Enter” warning signs before ending the loop portion of the trail. This was a very interesting area that I would be happy to revisit on a future trip.

We ate a wonderful buffet lunch at the Hacienda Guachipelin restaurant before visiting Poza Roja (Red Pond). After lunch we hiked the one kilometer Poza Roja trail past the archaeological site of an ancient cemetery with large signs describing the site. Poza Roja, which is situated on the private property of Hacienda Guachipelin, was absolutely beautiful and well worth the hike.

On Wednesday morning, 28 April, Gerardo and I took the Waterfall Lovers tour. We returned to Hacienda Guachipelin where we hiked the Catarata Chorreras Trail to Catarata Chorreras. The entire hike is on the private property of Hacienda Guachipelin. During the hike, I took a video clip of large numbers of leaf-cutter ants that we passed along the trail. Gerardo told me that the ants carry the leaf portions back to the nest where a guard ant at the entrance passes judgment on whether to accept or reject the individual leaf portion. I took a photo of the entrance of the nest of some of the leaf-cutter ants.

Catarata Chorreras was very beautiful and consisted of two small rivers coming together near the top of the waterfalls and then forming a confluence of the two rivers where the rivers combine at the base of the waterfalls. The larger river produces turquoise colored water at the base of the falls while the smaller river produces dark colored water. During the hike, we passed a number of very interesting large trees.

From here we drove to the entrance of the Catarata Oropendola Trail. This trail and waterfall is also on the private property of Hacienda Guachipelin. This trail took us past some very large trees including a tree with a termite nest high above the ground. The trail to the waterfall was downhill most of the way, and we had to hike down a long set of suspended stairways that had a weight restriction of Max 2 persons/300 Kg. Gerardo descended the steps first and I followed after he reached the bottom. This was the first time that I had ever seen a suspended stairway. Catarata Oropendola was a very impressive waterfall with turquoise water at the base of the falls and crystal clear water flowing downstream. As we returned to the beginning of the trail, we spied and photographed several white tail deer in the forest.

Our next stop was at the entrance of the Cataratas Rio Negro Trail where we would hike upstream along Rio Negro to see the four Cataratas waterfalls. The trail wound through another forested area, and the views of the black river were beautiful. Each waterfall was unique, and this hike was delightful. We returned to the Hacienda Guachipelin restaurant for a buffet lunch before returning to the hotel.

After I returned to the hotel, the person at the front desk scheduled an appointment for a nurse to visit me at the hotel the following day to administer the COVID-19 test required for my return flight to the USA. Later the following night, I received an email with my antigen negative test result which the hotel printed out for me. I uploaded the test result to United Airlines which approved the test results and instructed me to take the copy of my test results to the airport for checking into my flight home.

On Thursday morning, 29 April, Gerardo and I drove to the Palo Verde National Park Boat Tour on Rio Tempisque. The 144-kilometer Río Tempisque flows from the Guanacaste Cordillera near the Orosí Volcano and empties into the Gulf of Nicoya. It passes through the Palo Verde National Park and is a habitat for various species of crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas, and birds. This river is highly silted and the Costa Rica Government only permits the manual extraction of sand from the river bottom by means of bucket, boat, shovel, cart, and oxen. The oxen take the loaded cart to an area where it is allowed to dry. This same sand has been used in the material to build many of the main roads in Guanacaste Province.

We drove past the area where people were in the process of manually extracting sand with the carts and oxen. The people wade into the river and load sand into a small boat to take it to be offloaded into the oxen carts. They only extract the sand from the river during the early morning while the crocodiles are inactive. This process was very interesting and I am grateful that Gerardo took me here on the way to the boat tour. After I returned home, I found this link to a video clip of the sand extraction process.  .

As we continued on the road to Ortega, we stopped near a bridge over a small stream where I photographed a basilisk lizard and some howler monkeys. After arriving in Ortega, we stopped at the Palo Verde Boat Tours headquarters to check-in for the tour. The boat tour headquarters is also a restaurant where we would eat lunch after the tour. Before continuing to the river, two employees demonstrated the process of making corn tortillas from scratch and cooking them on a wood fired stove. I was served the hand-made tortilla and a glass of yellow mango juice.

The section of Rio Tempisque that we visited on the tour is within the Refugio National de Vida Silvestre Cipanci. As we drove through the refuge to the river, we were able to photograph howler monkeys, a white-nosed coati, and a yellow hawk. We also saw two scarlet macaws flying across an open space.

At the river, Gerardo and I boarded a large tour boat and, since my tour was private, we were the only passengers. This tour was really special with close interaction with Gerardo and the boat driver. We were in no hurry and stopped many times to look at and photograph the wildlife. We saw crocodiles, a white ibis, capuchin monkeys, green iguanas, a basilisk lizard, howler monkeys, bare-throated tiger heron, great white egrets, a green heron, an Amazon kingfisher, proboscis bats, a water termite, and a small blue butterfly. When a tour boat stops, the capuchin monkeys frequently come down from the trees to the river to drink water because the tour boats provide a measure of safety from the crocodiles. The boat driver said that proboscis bats nest in a line along tree trunks because they may appear to be more like a snake. During the boat ride, I was able to take several wonderful photos of the wildlife. The Palo Verde Boat Tours restaurant served a wonderful lunch to us before we returned to the hotel.

Since Friday, 30 April, was my last full day in Costa Rica, I decided to book a private custom day trip with Gerardo. Before visiting several local Guanacaste beaches, we first took a short tour of the rather small town of Liberia including the Museo de Guanacaste, the central plaza, the cathedral, the Palicio Municipal, an old small church, and a small house where the Padre lived. The Museo de Guanacaste, which was originally a prison, is a magnificent structure from the outside, but the old prison portion on the inside was very rundown and disappointing. This museum should be skipped during any visit to Liberia. Our tour of the town convinced me that I had made the correct decision to stay at the Hilton Liberia Airport Hotel.

We drove from Liberia to visit Playa Penca, Playa Potero, Playa Flamingo, Playa Brasilito, Playa Conchal, and Playa Tamarindo. Gerardo told me that all beaches in Costa Rica are public beaches and that all private land holdings end a certain distance from the beach. I photographed some pelicans at both Playa Penca and Playa Potero. In addition, I photographed a frigate bird and some black vultures at Playa Potero. Playa Conchal was unique because the beach consisted of small sea shells instead of sand. Playa Conchal is surrounded by the Westin Conchal Golf Resort and Hotel. Since the Westin Hotel property encompasses the shoreline of Playa Conchal, the hotel provides direct access to the beach for paying guests. Public access to Playa Conchal is along the coastline where we hiked from Playa Brasilito.

We drove to the town of Tamarindo and visited Playa Tamarindo. I took close-up photos of black vultures beside the road. Tamarindo has many beach-front hotels. It is definitely a tourist beach town with extensive shopping and many restaurants. The beach was crowded with tourists, but the quality of the beach was not world class. Of all the beaches that I visited, only Playa Conchal appealed to me, but that would require a stay at the Westin Conchal Hotel.

Since lunch was not included in this tour, we headed back to the hotel where Gerardo and I parted ways. Gerardo was an exceptional tour guide and we became good friends during my time in Costa Rica. I would definitely contact Gerardo to be my private guide for any future visits to northern Costa Rica.

Saturday, 1 May, was my final partial day in Costa Rica. After securing a late checkout, I spent time beginning the process of editing and sequencing my photos for my website. The hotel shuttle bus took me to the airport where I boarded my return flight back to Los Angeles. This trip turned out to be wonderful. For a return trip to Liberia, Costa Rica, I would continue to take private volcanic mountain and rainforest hikes and the river boat tour. I would avoid the beaches and would return to the Hilton Liberia Airport Hotel.

See pictures from Costa Rica

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  February 2020

Travel Notes


I became intrigued by Puma Punku after watching the television series Ancient Aliens: Season 4 Episode 6 “The Mystery of Puma Punku.” I spent some time researching ancient archaeological sites in this area of Bolivia with an emphasis on Puma Punku and Tiwanaku. Puma Punku has massive precision-cut monolithic stonework fabricated with precise details that would require very specialized tools and techniques to replicate them today. The intricate shapes with such precision make Puma Punku one of the most unique sites on planet Earth. The origin of Puma Punku remains a mystery with some conjecture dating the site as far back as 14,000 years. Puma Punku was destroyed by some cataclysmic event which deposited a deep layer of mud and sea shells among the scattered and fragmented remains of Puma Punku. During 2000, an Italian team of divers discovered evidence of pre-Columbian constructions consisting of a huge temple, traces of a paved road, an 800 meter retaining wall, and terrace for crops and ceramic artifacts beneath Lake Titicaca. This discovery fueled speculation that this might be the lost underwater city of Wanaku and that it became submerged during a cataclysmic event that flooded the area forming Lake Titicaca and destroying Puma Punku.

The large archaeological site of Tiwanaku (also referred to as Tiahuanaco) is situated about one half mile from Puma Punku and is believed to have been constructed much later than Puma Punku by the ancient Tiwanaku culture. The Tiwanaku Archaeological Zone has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site administered by the Bolivian government.

The following two links provide additional insight for anyone interested in Puma Punku: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJMZyl6zbKU and www.history.com/shows/ancient-aliens/season-4/episode-6.

I finally decided to travel to Bolivia to visit the archaeological sites at Tiwanaku and Puma Punku. Since I would need a visa for Bolivia, I completed the necessary tourist visa application documentation on-line and delivered it with my passport to the Bolivia Consulate at Los Angeles, California. The consulate processed my visa and within two weeks I returned to retrieve my passport containing my Bolivia tourist visa. To my surprise, the visa was valid for multiple-entries for the next ten years.

I then prepared a tentative travel itinerary for Bolivia, and booked my airline flights and hotel reservations on-line. I would fly from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, Argentina, before flying on to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. I would spend three nights at Santa Cruz before taking an overnight bus to La Paz and a local bus to Tiwanaku, Bolivia. After visiting Tiwanaku, I would continue on to visit Copacabana on Lake Titicaca and then La Paz.

I arrived at Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, on the evening of 2 February 2020 and, after clearing immigration, I found the driver with my name on a sign to take me to the Marriott Santa Cruz de la Sierra Hotel. The hotel was wonderful and, with my elite status upgrades, made me feel special. Santa Cruz is situated on the Pirai River in the eastern Tropical Lowlands of Bolivia. It is Bolivia’s most populous city and produces nearly 35 per cent of Bolivia’s gross national product.

The following day, the hotel arranged for a private day tour of Santa Cruz with an English speaking driver. The driver took me to the old downtown area of the city, to an area alongside the Pirai River where local entertainment was available in the evenings, and to the new country club development that is currently being constructed. We drove past a demonstration in front of a Government taxation building en route to the downtown area. After arriving downtown, I visited the Unacruz Mercado before continuing on to the Plaza 24 de September. The buildings in the vicinity of the plaza were very picturesque. The Cathedral Basilica of San Lorenzo was situated across from one corner of the plaza.

On Tuesday, 4 February, I took a taxi back to the downtown area where I walked around the plaza, visited the cathedral, visited the Marzana (Grand Plaza) Uno Espacio de Arte, and explored the downtown area admiring the architecture. After returning to my hotel, I walked to a large shopping mall with high end shopping stores.

I had advance-purchased a reserved ticket on an overnight bus from Santa Cruz to La Paz. On Wednesday, 5 February, I took a taxi to the bus station where I located my bus and settled in for a long 18 hour bus ride to La Paz before transferring to a local bus to Tiwanaku. Tiwanaku has an elevation of 3,870 meters (12,700 feet) above sea level. Although I was hoping to be able to get some altitude acclimation at Santa Cruz, I was disappointed to find out that the elevation at Santa Cruz is only about 400 meters (1,300 feet) above sea level. Since the elevation of La Paz varies from 3,640 meters (11,942 feet) to 4,150 meters (13,615 feet) above sea level, my bus trip would do little to help with altitude acclimation.

After several hours, the bus stopped at a large roadside establishment where people could use toilet facilities and purchase hot meals and snacks. I opted for a hot meal before continuing on the bus to La Paz. It rained throughout the night and the highway was marginal, which made the bus ride an experience. The rain stopped and the sun appeared early morning as we drove through El Alto, the high city above La Paz. El Alto is adjacent to La Paz and has an average elevation of 4,150 meters. El Alto is the second largest metropolitan city in Bolivia.

La Paz is situated on a bowl-like canyon below El Alto, and the bus snaked its way down the canyon through La Paz to arrive at the bus station near the city center at approximately 8:00 AM on Thursday, 6 February. I ate breakfast at the bus station and took a taxi to the Cemetery where people gathered to take local buses to Tiwanaku. The local buses continue to wait for paying passengers until the bus is full before departing for their destination. While waiting for additional passengers, I offered to buy several empty seats in order to eliminate an unknown waiting time. The bus driver accepted my offer, and we departed for Tiwanaku.

We arrived at Tiwanaku village, and I checked into Hotel Akapana in the early afternoon. I could see the Tiwanaku Archaeological Site from my hotel window. Since the village of Tiwanaku is quite small, I opted for the hotel to cook dinner for me for the three nights that I would be staying there. After settling into my room, I decided to take a very slow walk around the village to visit the main plaza and see the church. The air was very thin at nearly 3,900 meters, and I wanted to take extra precautions not to become a victim of altitude sickness. Since I would have two more days here, I decided to visit Puma Punku one day and Tiwanaku the following day.

It rained during the night and was overcast when I left the hotel to walk to Puma Punku on the morning of 7 February. I stopped at the ticket office in the Tiwanaku train station and purchased my ticket to visit Puma Punku, Tiwanaku, and the Tiwanaku museum. My first stop was at the small museum that contained interesting artifacts and exhibits, including the original Bennett Monolith. Unfortunately, the museum did not allow any photographs to be taken.

I continued walking along the road that led to the site of Puma Punku. I was stopped at the entrance where the attendant punched the Puma Punku portion of my ticket. Since I had previously visited the ancient site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, I was excited to actually be among the massive stonework which could possibly date back more than 14,000 years. I marveled at the smooth surfaces with sharp 90 degree edges, the round holes in the corners of some pieces, and the intricate recessed areas with sharp edges and corners. In addition, the “H-blocks” were uniform and some recessed cutout portions were dovetailed. These were massive andesite and granite stones that had been quarried many miles away and transported by some means to this location. The site included several gateway-like structures more than 26 feet high and quite wide that were fabricated from one massive solid. While archaeologists are at a loss to explain how the civilization back then could have fabricated Puma Punku, many people believe that extraterrestrial aliens fabricated the site. In any event, I agree with the people that say that Puma Punku is one of the most unique places on the planet.

After I returned to the hotel, the rain and thunderstorms arrived and lasted most of the night. The morning of 8 February, remained overcast and I walked from the hotel to the entrance of Tiwanaku. After getting my ticket punched, I began walking within the four square kilometers that comprises Tiwanaku. The literature describes Tiwanaku as the capital of a powerful pre-Inca civilization that dominated the Andean region between 500 and 900 AD. This site includes several temples, a pyramid, symbolic gates, monoliths, and mysterious carvings of alien-like faces. Arriving later, the Incas regarded Tiwanaku as the site of creation by their god, Viracocha, who rose from the depths of Lake Titicaca.

I decided to walk past the western end of the Putuni Temple en route to the Gate of the Moon, Puerta de la Luna. I passed an area of underground ducts that were used to drain water from Putuni Temple. The Gate of the Moon was carved in andesite stone 2.23 meters high and 0.26 meters thick. The upper lintel has a frieze with decorations engraved in high relief. Its original location may have been at Puma Punku. After I photographed the Gate of the Moon, I took a panorama photo looking across Putuni Temple toward the Temple of Kalasasaya and the Pyramid of Akapana.

The Putuni Temple, sometimes referred to as the Sarcophagus Palace, is an enclosure with a rectangular floor that forms rooms around a patio. The outer wall built with andesite ashlars is approximately 68 meters by 52 meters and the patio is 52 meters by 40 meters. Burial chambers with sliding stone doors are contained within the walls. The entrance to the patio faces the western end of the Temple of Kalasasaya.

I walked along the southern edge of the Putuni Temple and through the entrance to the patio at the eastern end. I walked around the perimeter of the patio and was unable to find the monolith that the tourist sign said was located at the center of the patio. There were several large intricately shaped stones within the patio that appeared to have been transported from Puma Punku. After exiting the Putuni Temple, I climbed a metal stairway to enter the southwestern corner of Kalasasaya where I came upon the Estela Fraile. The Estela Fraile is a red sandstone monolith 2.45 meters high carved in high relief. Some people believe that it may represent a female idol dedicated to the lacustrine cult.

The Temple of Kalasasaya is a low platform mound with a large courtyard that is surrounded by high stone walls. Kalasasaya is about 120 meters by 130 meters and aligned in the cardinal directions. It has an opening at the eastern end with a monumental staircase that leads down toward the Subterranean Temple. Since the 1980s, the consensus of researchers state that the construction of Kalasasaya dates to 200 or 300 BC. After photographing the Estela Fraile, I walked across the Kalasasaya and exited it near the northwestern corner to hike over to the Gate of the Sun, Puerto del Sol.

The Gate of the Sun is one of the largest and most enigmatic representations of the Tiwanaku Culture. It measures 2.88 meters high, 3.84 meters long, and 0.50 meters thick, is fabricated from a single andesite stone, and weighs approximately 10 tons. The stone would have been brought from the Kapia volcanic hill in Peru. There are several interpretations of the mysterious carvings of alien-like faces that decorate the gate and are believed to possess astronomical and/or astrological significance. Some people believe the main images to represent Viracocha, the Inca creator god, surrounded by flying figures. Although this is the place where the Gate of the Sun was originally found, some people believe that this may not be the original location of this structure.

I returned to the Kalasasaya where a large group of people were conducting some sort of ceremony at a raised altar-like platform in the center of the large courtyard. As I continued walking toward the opening at the eastern end, I arrived at the Estela Ponce. It is a 3.05 meter high andesite stone monolith carved in high relief and discovered in 1957. It was placed at this location so that it would appear in the center of the opening on the eastern end of Kalasasaya when viewed from the Subterranean Temple.

I walked to the opening at the eastern end of Kalasasaya where the monumental staircase leads down toward the Subterranean Temple. This opening is like a deep gateway at the top of the stone stairs into the Kalasasaya main courtyard. Since both this opening and the stairway were closed to visitors, I took some photos of the subterranean Temple from here before walking back to the opening in the southern wall to go down to the level of the base of the outer wall. I walked along the southern wall and around the eastern end to the edge of the roped off stairway where I took some panorama photos looking at the Subterranean Temple. In order to get down to ground level at the base of the stairway and the top of the Subterranean Temple, I would need to walk back along the southern wall to a place where I could descend to ground level and then walk back westbound until I reached the eastern end of Kalasasaya.

I stopped to view the Estela Descabezado situated south of Kalasasaya en route to the eastern end. Estela Descabezado is a headless monolith with anthropomorphic features which include carvings of snakes, feline ears, and faces on the lower portion of the monolith. It is presumed to have been worshiped between 100 BC and 400 AD. After arriving at the eastern end of Kalasasaya, I took photos of the end of Kalasasaya and looking down into the Subterranean Temple.

The Subterranean Temple, Templete Semisubterraneo, is a semi-underground structure with a 28.5 meter by 26 meter rectangular floor that is 2.2 meters deep. A seven-step staircase carved in stone provided the original access. A metal staircase has been installed adjacent to the original roped-off stone staircase to provide access to visitors. The retaining walls consist of fifty-seven large monolithic, mainly red sandstone pillars arranged at irregular intervals interspersed with coarse ashlar red sandstone brickworks. In addition, 175 carved heads are inserted in the walls. An open canal along the base of the walls provides for drainage. This structure is presumed to have been built during the Early Tiwanaku IV Period.

The original Bennett Monolith was discovered in the central part of the Subterranean Temple during 1933. It was one of the largest anthropomorphic monoliths whose body was carved in high relief. Due to its iconographic richness, it was transferred to different places in the city of La Paz where it suffered deterioration. It was transferred back to the people of Tiwanaku in 2002 where it remains in the Tiwanaku Museum.

The Barbado Monolith, carved in red sandstone, shows an anthropomorphic bearded figure with crossed hands, open fingers, serpents adorning its sides, and a pair of felines on the shirt. It is currently situated in the center of the Subterranean Temple along with two smaller anthropomorphic monoliths standing next to it.

I descended into the Subterranean Temple and proceeded to walk around the perimeter walls admiring each of the 175 carved stone heads inserted into the walls. The heads are all different and, according to people in episodes of the Ancient Aliens series relating to Tiwanaku, they represent cultures from all over the world including extraterrestrial beings. They also assert that both the Bennett and Barbado Monoliths represent Viracocha, the Inca creator god. I had someone take my photo beside the Barbado Monolith while I was in the Subterranean Temple.

I continued on to a location above the eastern end of the Subterranean Temple. I took some panorama photos and the classic photo of the entrance gateway of Kalasasaya with the Estela Ponce in the center before heading north toward the Akapana Pyramid. As I followed the path around the eastern end of the Akapana Pyramid, I found the pathway closed to visitors at the eastern end of the pyramid. Undaunted, I backtracked and walked along the northern wall of Kalasasaya which provided some excellent photo opportunities of both Kalasasaya and the Akapana Pyramid. After reaching the western end of Kalasasaya, I took some additional panorama photos and continued walking along the western end of the Akapana Pyramid.

The Akapana Pyramid, Piramide Akapana, is an approximately cross-shaped structure 257 meters wide, 197 meters long at its maximum and 16.5 meters high. On a clear day, snow capped Illimani and Lake Titicaca, the sacred geographical features of Tiwanaka, can be seen from the summit. The central portion of the pyramid shows massive destruction caused by treasure hunters from Spanish colonial times. In 2009, state-sponsored restoration work on the Akapana Pyramid was halted due to a complaint from UNESCO.

As I arrived at a path adjacent to the stairway on the western end of the Akapana, the path up the end of the pyramid was roped off. Since I had observed visitors going up and down this path during the prior two days, I decided to continue hiking up to the summit. Although the weather had been mostly sunny during the day, by the time that I started ascending to the summit, it was overcast with dark clouds rapidly approaching. At the summit, I was able to take some wonderful panorama photos overlooking Kalasasaya and the adjacent sites. I backtracked to the roped-off entrance and, as I continued hiking back to my hotel, light rain showers began.

Back at the hotel, the staff told me how to take a taxi to El Alto where I would be able to catch a bus to Copacabana. They also told me that I would need to exit the bus at a river, pay 2 Bolivians for a boat ticket, and then rejoin the bus on the other side while the bus was ferried across to the Copacabana peninsula. The rain steadily increased and we had additional heavy rain throughout most of the night. I was fortunate that I had been able to visit both Puma Punku and Tiwanaku without being subjected to rain showers.

On Sunday morning, 9 February, I took a taxi to the bus stop at El Alto where I transferred to a minibus full of local people to continue on to Copacabana. Since I was one of the last passengers, I was seated at the back of the bus with limited outside visibility. After approximately one hour, we arrived at the town of San Pedro de Tiquina on the bank of the Strait of Tiquina on Lake Titicaca. This strait separates the two separate basins of Lake Titicaca and is 850 meters (2,790 feet) across at its narrowest point. This small town is actually on both sides of the strait and is also home to the Bolivian Navy flotilla and 4th Naval Service Area/Naval Military Police Battalion #1.

I exited the minibus and made my way along with other passengers to a small building where I paid the 2 Bolivians for my boat ticket to cross the strait. The vehicles, ranging from motorcycles and cars to trucks and buses, were ferried across the strait on wooden flat-bottom barge-like vessels propelled near the shore by people using long poles and across the lake by a single outboard motor. I was told that the people from the town have been operating these ferries for decades and I watched them bail water from them after each crossing. After I reached the other side of the strait, my next challenge was to remember which ferry my bus had boarded and exactly where to meet the bus containing my luggage. I had tried to keep an eye on my bus during the crossing and recognized it as the ferry approached the docking area. The docking area had several docking spaces and my ferry with my bus had to be poled by hand from one location to an adjacent location whereupon wooden planks were positioned between the ferry and the dock for the bus to drive on as it backed off of the ferry. The bus driver stopped nearby and allowed all of us to re-board and continue on for approximately 45 minutes to Copacabana.

Copacabana is the main Bolivian town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. It is known for its famous basilica, Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, for trout from the lake, and its quaint atmosphere. It is situated between Mount Calvario and Mount Nino Calvario, has an elevation of 3,841 meters (12,602 feet), and has a population of approximately 6,000 inhabitants. Copacabana’s religious celebrations, cultural patrimony, and festivals are well known throughout Bolivia.

When the minibus arrived at a bus station of sorts adjacent to Plaza Sucre in Copacabana a little before noon, the sky was clear with bright sunshine. After I left the bus, I found a taxi and, although I had a confirmed reservation for Hostel Los Olas, the taxi driver consulted with several people before actually getting me to the hotel. This hotel was situated part way up Mount Calvario and the climb from the shore to the hotel was both long and steep. Fortunately the proprietor of the hotel helped me transfer my luggage to my room, Suite 3. The room was amazing with an expansive spectacular panoramic view of the harbor area and Lake Titicaca. It had a kitchen area, a loft, a hammock, a small wood burning stove, two large beds, and modern en suite toilet facilities. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. The hotel was an eco-hotel and every cabin was architecturally different making it look like a fairyland of sorts. The hotel did not have a restaurant but recommended that I could eat next door at the Hostal La Cupula restaurant. Suddenly, I was sorry that I had only booked two nights at Copacabana.

After getting settled into the room, I went for a walk through the hotel gardens down to the street that would take me toward the center of the town. This property was simply fantastic with two hammocks in front of my room that overlooked the beautiful harbor area. I stopped at a small restaurant for several small caprese empanadas and a cappuccino for lunch before walking past Plaza Sucre and then on to Plaza 2 de Febrero where Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana is situated.

Construction of the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana began in 1668, was inaugurated in 1678, and was completed in 1805. When Bolivia gained independence in 1825, it was attributed to the faith of the population through the Virgin of Copacabana, its patron saint of Bolivia. In 1826, Marshal Antonio Jose de Sucre, the President of the Republic of Bolivia, expropriated all of the jewels and colonial treasures at the Shrine of the Virgin and used them to create the first coins from Bolivia. The basilica is both very large and picturesque. At first I thought there was a wedding celebration with people decorating vehicles in front of the basilica. I later learned that every day on the street in front of the Basilica, car owners decorate their cars with colorful banners and flowers while the vehicle is blessed by a priest and doused with champagne or Coca Cola. After visiting the basilica, I walked through Plaza 2 de Febrero and then through the town back to my hotel to rest up before going to dinner at Restaurant La Cupula.

It rained during the night and was partly overcast the following morning, 10 February. I decided to hike to the top of Mount Calvario, Cerro El Calvario, and sometimes referred to as Calvary Hill. Mount Calvario is not only the main viewpoint for Copacabana but also a sacred pilgrimage site. Since the weather was deteriorating, I donned protective rain gear and started walking from my hotel. Partway up the hill I came upon a series of monuments that represent the 14 Stations of the Cross. Pilgrims ascending the hill visit the Stations for prayer. The views of Copacabana were splendid and, as I reached the shrine at the summit, the rain began in earnest. I took shelter in a small building that acted as a storeroom for vendors normally selling souvenirs and food, until the rain subsided. The hike down the hill after the rain was slippery and challenging.

I returned to my hotel and spent the remainder of the day looking out my panoramic windows admiring the view. At one point, the intermittent sunshine and rain combined to form a beautiful rainbow that descended into the harbor area amid the boats anchored there. It was the first time in my life that I actually looked down on the end of a rainbow. It continued raining during the night and became intermittent in the morning.

I checked out of Hostel Los Olas that morning, 11 February, and took a taxi to Plaza Sucre where I negotiated for a minibus to take me all the way to my hotel in La Paz. Since I was the only passenger of the bus, I had room to spread out and to enjoy the views of the surroundings. When we came to the Strait of Tiquina, I gave the driver my 2 Bolivians and remained on the bus with the driver as we were ferried across the strait. The remainder of the drive was uneventful as we drove through El Alto. We then snaked our way down the winding steep 400 meter (1,300 feet) slope of La Paz to the Tourist Zone and past Plaza Juariste Eguino to Hotel Rosario, my hotel located near the famous Witches Market.

La Paz is officially known as Nuestra Senora de La Paz. It is the seat of government and the de facto capital of the Plurinational State of Bolivia (the constitutional capital of Bolivia is Sucre). La Paz is located in a canyon on the Choqueyapu River and El Alto is located on the Altiplano plateau. The metropolitan area formed by La Paz, El Alto, and Viacha is the highest metropolitan area in the world with a population of approximately 2.3 million people. Since La Paz is situated on a bowl-like canyon below El Alto, the elevation of La Paz varies from 3,640 meters (11,942 feet) to 4,150 meters (13,615 feet) above sea level. It is also the home of Mi Teleferico, the largest urban cable car network in the world.

Mi Teleferico is an aerial cable car urban transit system that was planned to address chaotic traffic and a precarious public transit system that could not cope with growing user demands. It was authorized in July 2012 and began operation on 30 May 2014 with three lines - Red, Yellow and Green - connecting La Paz with El Alto. An additional eight interconnecting lines were constructed and have become operational. These are the Blue, Orange, White, Sky Blue, Purple, Brown, Silver, and Gold lines. Mi Teleferico is the first system to use aerial cable cars as the backbone of an urban transit network.

After settling into my hotel, I briefly explored the neighborhood and quickly realized that La Paz had a unique charm and that I would thoroughly enjoy my visit. Since La Paz is in a canyon with steep slopes, it seemed like I had to hike up or down steep portions of the streets to go anywhere. At the high elevation of La Paz, I soon realized that I would need to walk slowly while I continued my altitude acclimation. I returned to the hotel and decided that I would walk several blocks to Restaurant 1700 for dinner. Although that relatively short walk consumed much of my available energy, the dinner at Restaurant 1700 was amazing.

The following morning, Wednesday, 12 February, a lady working at the hotel front desk who spoke very good English, gave me a large tourist map and recommended that I ride the Mi Teleferico to circumnavigate the city of La Paz. Following her advice, I had the hotel get a taxi for me to go to the Mi Teleferico Red Line station. It was located behind Central Cultural Museum, the old La Paz railway station with an outdoor museum. The Red Line station is Estacion Central and connects both the red and orange lines. After purchasing my ticket for the Red, Silver, Yellow, Blue, White, and Orange lines to circumnavigate La Paz, I boarded the Red Line to El Alto.

The weather was clear and views from the different cable cars were stunning. We passed over the large Cemeterio and the very colorful Challuma Neighborhood en route to El Alto. I transferred to the Silver Line at Estacion 16 de Julio and passed through Estacion Faro Murillo (Purple Line). I transferred to the Yellow Line at Estacion Mirador where I stopped in the passageway between the Silver Line and the Yellow Line at the viewpoint of La Paz for a photo. As the Yellow Line descended down the steep slope I passed through Estacion Sopocachi and transferred to the Blue Line at Estacion del Libertador.

As I rode the Blue Line, I passed through Estacion del Poeta where I was supposed to transfer to the White Line. After realizing my mistake, I made a U-turn at Estacion El Prada. While on the Blue Line, I saw the exposed portion of the Choqueyapu River. I also saw the Theatro de Aire Libre before I returned to Estacion del Poeta and transferred to the White Line. I passed over the Monumento a German Busch en route to Estscion Busch where I transferred to the Orange Line. I passed over the Cemeterio La Llama as I returned to Estacion Central where my Teleferico journey began. This was a wonderful way to see La Paz, and I recommend anyone who visits La Paz to circumnavigate the city via Mi Teleferico. I ate lunch at a nice restaurant in the Central Cultural Station before hiking back to my hotel.

One of the main reasons that I wanted to visit La Paz was to see the Fuente Magna of Pokotia Bolivia which currently resides at the Museum of Precious Metals, also referred to as the Museum of Gold, Museo del Oro. The Fuente Magna is a large stone vessel that resembles a libation bowl. A farmer working on a private estate owned by the Manjon family near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia discovered it by accident in 1958. It is often referred to as “the Rosetta Stone of the Americas” because it features beautifully engraved anthropomorphic characters, zoological motifs characteristic of the local culture, and, more surprisingly, two types of scripts – a proto-Sumerian ancient alphabet and a local language of the ancient Pukara, forerunner of the Tiahuanaco civilization. It is one of the most controversial artifacts in South America because it raises questions about whether there may have been a connection between the ancient inhabitants of the Andes and the ancient Sumerians located thousands of miles away.

On Thursday morning, 13 February, I decided to visit the Museum of Precious Metals, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Archaeological Museum. Once again, the lady at the front desk helped me map out the route and told me where I would need to go to purchase the ticket for entry to the precious metals museum and several museums nearby. After I took a taxi to Calle Apolinar Jaen and purchased the ticket, I visited the Museo del Litoral where I found out that no photos were permitted inside the museum.

I continued on to the Museum of Precious Metals where the security person spoke some English. I bemoaned the fact that I had come all the way to La Paz primarily to see the Fuente Magna and would not be allowed to take photos of it and the other unique artifacts in the museum while all of the museums in Peru allowed photos of exhibits. Since I was the only person in the museum, he must have felt sorry for me because he told me that I could take photos as long as nobody saw me taking photos. With that caveat in mind, I very discreetly took some photos of exhibits that I found to be most interesting, including the Fuente Magna, the elongated skulls, some gold items, and several stone and ceramic exhibits.

The Museo Casa de Murillo, dedicated to the patriot Pedro Domingo Murillo and the revolution of July 1809, was my next stop. It is a building from the beginning of the 19th century which has two floors with the following exhibition rooms: Furniture Room, Presidents Room, Crafts Room, and Baroque birth. The second floor comprises the Colonial Gallery, the Conspiracy Room, Oratory, and Bedroom. This museum had numerous wonderful exhibits that I was not permitted to photograph.

En route to Plaza Murillo and the Metropolitan Cathedral, I walked past Plaza Monroy, the La Paz Municipal Theater, and the Santa Domingo Church. Plaza Murillo is the central plaza of the city of La Paz and the plaza most connected to the political life of Bolivia. Prominent buildings on the plaza include the Legislative Palace, Government Palace, and the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace Metropolitan Cathedral, which is often referred to as the Metropolitan Cathedral.

The Metropolitan Cathedral was the first cathedral of La Paz and was completed in 1692 after 70 years of construction. The first building was made of stone, lime and brick. In 1831, it was demolished due to several cracks that threatened its collapse. The construction of the current cathedral began on March 24, 1835. It was inaugurated in 1925, marking the first centenary of the founding of the Republic of Bolivia. Although it opened that year, its interior ornamentation still continued until 1932.

As I continued walking along picturesque streets toward the National Archaeological Museum, I passed the Self-Government Department building, the Ministry of Cultural Tourism, and the San Juan de Dios Church before arriving at Plaza Camacho where the Mercado Camacho is located. Since it was already lunchtime and the museum was closed until later in the afternoon, I ate lunch at the food court in the Mercado. After lunch, as I was leaving the Mercado, light rain began followed by a very large hailstorm. I waited under a bus stop overhang with many local people until the rain subsided and I could continue walking to the archaeological museum. The walk to the museum was only a few blocks and it had already opened by the time I arrived.

The National Museum of Archaeology of Bolivia is operated by the National Institute of Archaeology, a specialized agency of the Deputy Minister of Culture. Although it is said to be the most prominent museum in Bolivia, the Museum of Precious Metals was more impressive. A member of the museum staff treated me to a virtual reality experience that the museum had recently completed. Although no photos were permitted, the staff member gave me a book and several leaflets describing many of the exhibits in the museum.

The hotel staff member and I had planned the route from Calle Apolinar Jaen to the archaeology museum so that it would be mostly walking downhill. Since the route from here back to my hotel would be a long uphill hike and the rain could begin any minute. I returned to my hotel by taxi.

Since Friday, 14 February, would be my last day in La Paz, I decided to walk from the hotel to the Coca Museum, then to the Plaza Mayor de San Francisco, and finish by visiting the Witches’ Market. My first stop was the Coca Museum which had a small area of cannabis exhibits. Their primary business is selling cannabis type candy, beverages and snacks at an upper level. I was disappointed and would not recommend this museum to tourists.

After leaving the Coca Museum, I walked to the Plaza Mayor de San Francisco. It is a large plaza in front of the San Francisco Cathedral, Iglesia de San Francisco, and is a frequent location for public gatherings and political protests. San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco), also known as the San Francisco Basilica (Basílica de San Francisco) is one of La Paz’s most important and historical landmarks. Construction of the original San Francisco Church began on this site in 1548, one year before the founding of La Paz. The church collapsed under the weight of snow in 1610 and was reconstructed in 1784. The church’s outer walls, built in the baroque-mestizo style, feature carvings of indigenous symbols, such as snakes, dragons, tropical birds, and masked figures. A contemporary statue of rock columns in the upper section of San Francisco Plaza is intended to honor the Tiwanaku, Inca, and modern cultures of Bolivia.

A celebration was in process when I arrived at the Plaza Mayor de San Francisco. A stage had been set up in front of steps on the uphill portion of the plaza with entertainment in progress. I walked up the steps on the side of the plaza adjacent to the Iglesia de San Francisco to photograph the church. I then crossed over in front of the church for additional photos before purchasing a ticket to enter the Iglesia de San Francisco Museum. Upon entering the museum, I was greeted by an English speaking tour guide who escorted me throughout accessible areas of the church. Photos were generally prohibited in the church but I obtained permission from my guide for the limited photos that I took. This museum is excellent, and I encourage everyone visiting La Paz to tour it.

The last place that I wanted to visit is the famous Witches’ Market of La Paz where vendors line the streets to sell a number of strange and fascinating products and raw ingredients used in rituals to call on the spirits that populate the Aymara world. Among the many items sold at the market are dried llama fetuses that are said to bring both prosperity and good luck, dried frogs used for Aymara rituals, soapstone figurines, aphrodisiac formulas, owl feathers, dried turtles and snakes, herbs, and folk remedies. Witch doctors in dark hats and dresses wander through the market offering fortune-telling services.

The dried llama fetuses are the most prominent produce available at the market. These animals are fairly large and are used throughout the country, buried in the foundations of new buildings as an offering to the goddess Pachamama. It is believed that the buried llama fetuses keep construction workers safe, but these are only used by poor Bolivians. Wealthy Bolivians usually sacrifice a living llama to Pachamama. I purchased a small soapstone monolithic sculpture of Viracocha at the Witches’ Market as a souvenir from Bolivia.

Since this was my last night in La Paz, I returned to Restaurant 1700 for another wonderful dinner. My flight the following morning was scheduled to depart La Paz at 5:40 AM. After I returned to the hotel, I paid my hotel bill and requested a wake-up call for 2:30 AM and scheduled a taxi to take me to the airport. The hotel opened the restaurant so that I could eat a continental breakfast before departing to the airport.

The taxi was right on time, and there was very little traffic on the way to the airport at that early hour. I had connecting flights on Boliviana de Aviacion from La Paz to Santa Cruz and then to Buenos Aires, Argentina. My flight to Santa Cruz was delayed. While waiting, my name was announced, and I was put on another flight to Santa Cruz in order to ensure my connection to Argentina. I made my connection at Santa Cruz and arrived in Buenos Aires mid-afternoon. I overnighted at Buenos Aires and flew back to Los Angeles on Tuesday, 18 February. As I flew back to Los Angeles, I reminisced about how wonderful my trip to Bolivia had been.

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  January 2020
Panama Canal Voyage

Travel Notes


Jan and I booked a 17 day Panama Canal Voyage from San Diego, California, aboard the Holland America cruise ship Rotterdam. We took the Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Diego on 6 January prior to boarding the ship at the Port of San Diego on 7 January.

After we boarded the Rotterdam, we settled into our cabin and explored the ship. We had two sea days before we arrived at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on 10 January. We took the Holland America “Marina Vallarta, Old Town, Cathedral and Tequila Distillery” shore excursion. The first stop was at the Hacienda Dona Engracia tequila factory where we toured a typical tequila distillery and were shown how tequila is made from the blue agave cactus plant. The guide described the process used to distill tequila, the difference between 100% tequila and 51% tequila, and the various grades of tequila. After touring the small distillery area, we were taken to a room to taste the four different grades of tequila as well as three flavored tequilas and their special hot sauce. Of course, all seven tequilas and the hot sauce were available for purchase. After the tour, we had an opportunity to purchase tacos for lunch before departing for the next stop on the tour.

We drove through the Marina Vallarta section of Puerto Vallarta en route to the Malecon. The Malecon is a waterfront promenade area of the Old Town section of Puerto Vallarta. The Malecon is charming and offers not only tourist shopping but also many wonderful photo opportunities of sculptures, the beach area, and beautiful architecture. We continued from the Malecon into the Old Town to visit the Cathedral of our Lady of Guadalupe. After walking through a portion of the Old Town, we stopped for a short visit for tourist shopping before returning to the ship.

We had another day at sea before arriving at Huatulco, Mexico, on 12 January. Here we took the Holland America “Copalita Archaeological Exploration” shore excursion. The first stop was at the Huatulco Viewpoint for a photo opportunity. We continued on to visit the Eco-Archaeological Park Copalita which covers more than 200 acres of diverse ecosystems. One area contains the archaeological remains of Copalito, referred to as the Archaeological Zone. This site is believed to be a mixture between a Mayan and an Olmec city more than 2,500 years old. Some archaeologists believe that this pre-Hispanic city was one of the largest on the Oaxacan coast.

Upon arrival at Copalito, we walked through portions of the Archaeological Zone where we saw the Serpent Temple, a ball court, and the Main Pyramid Temple. We continued walking to a large wetland pond where we saw many iguanas in the trees above the pond. The green iguanas were female and the orange iguanas were male. The tour also included a hike up to the Cliff Viewpoint where the Vigil of Copalito is situated and offers a 180-degree view of the coastline and Copalito River delta. We also visited the Zone Museum with many archaeological exhibits prior to returning to Huatulco. After strolling through the village of Huatulco, we walked along the pier to board the ship.

After sailing overnight, we arrived at Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, at 9:00 AM on Monday morning, 13 January. Here, we took the Holland America “Tikal, Mayan City of Voices” excursion which was our over-the-top excursion for this voyage. It consisted of a transfer to a nearby airport for a 90-minute flight by chartered aircraft to the airport at Flores in the northern region of Peten. After disembarking from the airplane, we were assigned a local tour guide for our visit to Tikal and boarded a small bus for a one-hour drive to Parque National Tikal. This site was previously known as the Ancient Mayan City of Mutul and is known today as Tikal in the New Mayan Era. According to the literature, Tikal National Park, along with other protected areas forms the largest natural reserve of Mesoamerica known as the Maya Biosphere, measures approximately 21,000 square kilometers. The Tikal forest is approximately 11,000 years old. Our guide informed us that Tikal was established as a National Park in 1955 and was the first site in the world to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Tikal is believed to have been founded around 600 BC and abandoned around the year 900 AD – a period of 1,500 years of continuous occupation.

We were given a wrist band as we passed through the entrance gate to Tikal. This is a rainforest and we encountered periodic rain showers during our visit. With the help of our guide, we were able to drive to a location near Temple 4, the Two-headed Snake Temple. This is the tallest temple at Tikal, standing an impressive 70 meters high and providing a spectacular view of Tikal from the top. This temple, as with all of the main temples at Tikal, has a stepped pyramidal base with a crested enclosure at the top. It was built by the twenty-seventh Ruler of Tikal, Yik’in, around the year 750 AD. Access to the top of this temple is provided by a wooden stairway from which the panoramic view of the tops of Temple 1, Temple 2, Temple 3, and Temple 5 can be seen towering above the forest.

We climbed the stairway to the top. Although entrance to the enclosure is not permitted, we were able to enjoy the panoramic view during intermittent misty rain showers. After descending from Temple 4, we hiked along a pathway past a low enclosure containing a stela and the circular Altar 5 stone carving. As we continued along the pathway, we passed the Palace of the Windows which is also referred to as the Palace of the Bats. A short distance farther along the path afforded a view of the top of the back of Temple 3. Continuing along the pathway, we approached Temple 2 from behind as we entered the Great Plaza. The Great Plaza is bounded by Temple 2 or the Mascarones Temple, the North Acropolis, Temple 1 or Temple of the Great Jaguar, and the Central Acropolis.

Temple 2 measures 57 meters in height and affords a panoramic view of the Great Plaza, the North Acropolis, Temple 1, and the Central Acropolis. Access to the top of Temple 2 is provided by a wooden stairway from behind the temple. Access to the enclosure is not permitted; however, some of the best photos of the Great Plaza area of Tikal Temple 1 can be taken from here. A brief interval of sunshine provided an opportunity for a couple of nice photos of Temple 1 which stands 47 meters high. After descending from Temple 2, I hiked to the North Acropolis to view a very large stone carved figure under a protective shelter and another protected stone carving.

We continued our tour by hiking through the Central Acropolis and passed the Maler Palace to another viewpoint of the Great Plaza area. We then continued through the Central Acropolis where we could view the top of Temple 5 which is the second highest temple at a height of 57 meters. After passing through several more structures in the Central Acropolis, we hiked to meet our bus for the drive to a restaurant where we ate lunch before returning to the airport. The restaurant featured a large model of Tikal and had a wooden musical instrument similar to a marimba.

We returned to the airport where we cleared immigration and airport security prior to boarding our flight from Flores back to the airport at Puerto Quetzal and another bus ride to the ship.

Once again we sailed overnight and arrived at Corinto, Nicaragua, on Tuesday morning, 14 January. We did not have an excursion booked at this port and, on the advice of Galih, our dining room waiter, we walked out of the port and hired a local person for a bicycle rickshaw-like tour of this small village. The village was very clean and colorful. We were able to see many sights including the main town square and the old train station, which now houses a one room museum and a tiny library. Other sights included a small boat harbor with a restaurant, Hollywood Street, the village baseball park, a soccer stadium, the central market, and various monuments.

After sailing overnight, we arrived at Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, on 15 January. We booked the Holland America excursion, “A Walk in the Clouds.” It consisted of a two hour bus ride across the continental divide of Costa Rica to the Canopy San Luis. This is a site situated at approximately 4,000 feet elevation on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Here, we visited a tiny butterfly farm and hiked through the rainforest, both across suspension bridges and along paths through the forest. As we exited the forest, we visited a site that attracts hummingbirds. We were served a traditional Costa Rican buffet lunch prior to re-boarding our bus. En route to the ship, we stopped at an overpriced souvenir shop that had several interesting murals painted on the exterior walls.

Thursday, 16 January, was a sea day prior to arriving at the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal early Friday morning. The Captain anchored the ship outside the entrance of the canal at 10:00 PM to join the queue of ships waiting to enter the canal. Since Holland America had a prearranged reservation for the Rotterdam, we were able to begin our entrance to the canal early in the morning of 17 January. We were able to see the skyline of Panama City off the starboard side of the ship as we entered the channel to the canal prior to passing under the Bridge of the Americas. This bridge is 5,425 feet long, and was completed in 1962, and cost the United States 20 million US dollars. It was a key part of the Pan American highway. It is interesting that the Panama Canal runs from the Southeast on the Pacific side to the Northwest on the Caribbean side, not from west to east.

We continued along the entrance past the new Cocoli Locks off of the port side of the ship. These new locks on the Pacific side were part of the Panama Canal expansion to add a third lane of canal transit and allow larger ships to transit the canal. They include three water-saving basins that reduce the water volume used during lock operation. The Rotterdam would use one side of the original Miraflores Locks, which are 110 feet wide, to begin our canal transit to the Caribbean Sea. Since the Rotterdam is 106 feet wide there isn’t much clearance on either side. Vessels ascend or descend 54 feet (16.5 meters) back to the Caribbean side. Due to the extreme variation of the Pacific tides, the lower chamber gates are the highest of any of the Panama Canal locks. Each lock chamber here, except the lower locks, has intermediate gates to conserve water by reducing the size of the chamber.

We transited the Miraflores Locks in the eastern-most lock chambers after arriving at the locks at approximately 8:22 AM. After transiting both chambers of the Miraflores Locks we entered Miraflores Lake at approximately 9:55 AM. This is a small freshwater body of water between the two sets of Pacific locks, Miraflores and Pedro Miguel. A tectonic fault beneath this fresh water lake led to these chambers being spread apart, unlike the chambers of the Gatun Locks which have remained in the same place.

As we continued sailing across the lake, we passed the enormous crane called “Titan.” This was described as being one of the four huge cranes obtained by Allied Forces from Germany after World War 2. This was the crane that the United States obtained and eventually ended up here at the Panama Canal.

We arrived at the Pedro Miguel locks at approximately 10:04 AM. The Pedro Miguel set of locks raises northbound ships 30.5 feet (9.3 meters) from Miraflores Lake to Gatun Lake. We exited the Pedro Miguel Locks into Gatun Lake at approximately 10:55 AM. and sailed under the Centennial Bridge. This bridge opened in 2004 with a goal to lessen traffic on the Bridge of the America that is located 9 miles (15 kilometers) south. It also replaced the Bridge of the Americas as carrier of the Pan American highway traffic.

Gatun Dam was constructed in 1908 to dam the Chagres River, provide all of the electricity for operation of the canal, and allow for the formation of Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake, encompassing 166 square miles (430 sq. km.), was formed in 1912, and the surface sits at an elevation of between 82 and 87 feet (23 and 27 meters) above sea level.

We sailed across Gatun Lake through the famous Culebra Cut and arrived near the Gatun Locks at approximately 2:00 PM. The Gatun Locks separate Gatun Lake from the Caribbean Sea and provide two transit channels for ships. Three sets of double-lock chambers raise to allow ships to ascend to Gatun Lake or descend back to the Caribbean side of the canal. As we got closer to the Gatun Locks, we could see several very large vessels off of our starboard side entering and utilizing the Auga Clara Locks that opened in 2016 as part of the Panama Canal expansion.

After waiting for a container ship to descend from the first chamber of the locks, we entered the west-most channel of the Gatun Locks at approximately 2:28 PM. Since another ship was coming up the east-most channel, these locks provided some wonderful photo opportunities of ships passing in opposite directions. After transiting all three chambers of the Gatun Locks at approximately 3:40 PM, we arrived in the Caribbean Sea and passed under the Atlantic Bridge which was designed for the passage of huge container ships. This road bridge in Colon, Panama, spans the entrance of the canal and was completed in 2019.

Once in the Caribbean Sea we encountered strong headwinds that produced very large sea swells. Reaching Aruba on schedule after one day at sea would require an average speed of about 19 knots. Due to the large sea swells, our speed during the night and next morning was between 9 and 11 knots. The Captain finally made an announcement that, in the interest of the safety of the passengers and crew, we would skip Aruba as a port of call and Sunday, 19 January, would become an additional day at sea.

We arrived at Willemstad, Curaçao, at 8:00 AM on Monday, 20 January. Since our Holland America “Discover Curaçao” shore excursion didn’t begin until 12:30 PM, we disembarked during the morning and walked around areas of Willemstad, the very colorful capital city of Curaçao. It has two districts, Otrobanda and Punda which are separated by the Sint Anna Bay. This bay is a natural deep harbor with much commercial shipping traffic. The Queen Emma Bridge is the oldest and longest floating bridge in the world and spans the entrance to Sint Anna Bay. It is a pedestrian bridge only, has operated since 1888, rests on 15 pontoons, and swings open 30 times a day to let oil tankers, container ships, and cruise ships in and out of the harbor. A second bridge, the Queen Juliana Bridge, is a very high bridge for highway traffic and also spans the entrance to Sint Anna Bay.

After disembarking from the ship in the picturesque Punda district, we walked to the Queen Emma Bridge to cross over to the Otrobanda district. The Otrobanda district is also very colorful and picturesque. While exploring the Otrobanda district, we photographed a bright yellow building that we later found out to be the Synagogue Mikve Israel Emanuel. It was built in 1632 and is the oldest operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.

After exploring the Otrobanda district, we also crossed back over the bridge to explore more of the Punta district. We visited the Rif Fort, originally built to protect the entrance to the port and which now contains a shopping mall, before returning to the ship where we ate a quick lunch prior to meeting up with our shore excursion.

Our excursion took us to the Curaçao Museum which was a former Dutch military hospital. We drove past the new hospital and through many sections of the city. We also drove across the Queen Juliana Bridge in both directions – one of the highest bridges in the Caribbean. Our next stop was at Chobolobo, the Dutch colonial mansion where the famous Curaçao liqueur is distilled. After a short tour of the distillery and a tasting of three of their liqueurs, we continued on to visit the side of the island en route to the Hato Caves.

Upon arrival at the Hato Caves, we were met by a guide for a walking tour of the cave. We climbed in excess of fifty rock steps to reach the entrance of the cave. The tour of the cave consisted of walking along a concrete pathway with some steps to visit two chambers of the cave. Small fruit bats could be seen in some areas within the cave. The written tourist description about this underground grotto over-promises and under-delivers; we never saw any underground waterfalls as described in the literature. After visiting the cave, we continued driving through additional sections of the city. We briefly stopped beside a lake for a photo opportunity of wild flamingos before returning to the ship.

We had two more days at sea en route to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We arrived at Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, 23 January, and disembarked from the ship. After a couple of days in Fort Lauderdale, we flew home to Los Angeles on Saturday, 25 January.

See pictures from the Panama Canal Voyage

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  October/November 2019
Atlantic Crossing Westbound

Travel Notes


Jan and I flew to Rome, Italy to spend several days in Naples and Civitavecchia, Italy, before boarding the 14-Day Holland America Passage to America Voyage. This voyage would travel westbound from Rome, Italy, to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, stopping at three ports of call in Spain and one port of call in the Azores, Portugal.

We checked out of our hotel in Civitavecchia, Italy, on Sunday morning, 27 October, and took a taxi to the cruise port to board the Holland America cruise ship, NEIUW STATTENDAM, for our voyage to Ft Lauderdale. This ship is the newest ship owned by Holland America and, for the most part, was a very nice ship. We were disappointed that the ship’s guest Internet for which Holland America charges fees to access, was not fully functional during the days that the ship was sailing at sea. As a result, we could not access our email accounts during the seven days that we were at sea from the Azores to Ft Lauderdale – this is unacceptable for a brand new ship.

Our first port of call was at Cartagena, Spain, on 29 October. Since we had been here on a previous voyage, we decided to hike from the ship to the Castillo de la Atalaya which is situated on top of a high hill overlooking Cartagena and the surrounding area. The person at the tourist information office at the port gave us a tourist map of the city but had no idea how to hike to the fortress. We resorted to Google maps, which directed us to an area near the fortress, and then asked local people for directions before finally finding a trail up to the fortress. The fortress was abandoned but the interior could be accessed by some rock climbing. The views from the fortress were stunning and the hike was well worth the effort. By the time we returned to the ship from the fortress, my pedometer registered more than 19,000 steps.

The following day we arrived at Malaga, Spain, where I took a Holland America excursion to hike the Caminito del Rey trail that crosses the beautiful Gaitanes Ravine and which was once called one of the world’s scariest hiking routes. This hike was about five miles long and, for much of that distance, continued along a pathway hanging on the rock faces of cliffs high above the ravine. The original trail was closed by the government while a new suspended pathway was constructed above the old one. The scenery from the trail was stunning.

On 31 October, we arrived at Cadiz, Spain. Since we had previously visited Cadiz, we took a Holland America small group excursion to Seville, Spain. We boarded a small bus at the port and were driven to Seville accompanied by an English speaking guide who provided entertaining information along the way. After arriving at Seville, we drove past the pavilions of several different countries that were erected for the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition and visited the Plaza de Espana where the 1929 Exhibition was held. Painted ceramic benches with murals representing all of the provinces in Spain are arranged around the square. We stopped at several of these beautiful ceramic benches and murals where our guide gave detailed descriptions of the specific province represented. The plaza is semicircular and dominated by two towers – one on each side of the enclosed area – that frame the central building where the main rooms are situated. We returned to our bus and were transported to the Jardines de Murillo (Murillo Gardens).

We exited the bus and walked through portions of the gardens and then through an entrance in the old city wall to the old Jewish Quarter. We admired the architecture as we walked through the old Jewish Quarter to visit the Real Alcazar, the palace built for King Filipe. It is the palace where Christopher Columbus met with Queen Isabella to secure funding for his first voyage to the New World. It is also the residence of the current King of Spain when he is in Seville. The architecture of the Alcazar is magnificent.

After touring the Alcazar, we walked to the impressive Cadiz Cathedral. The cathedral stands on the site of what was the Great Mosque during the 12th century. Today the only part of the old mosque that remains is the minaret, also known as the Giralda. The Abluciones courtyard and the Puerta del Perdon door are also parts of the old mosque. The mosque was converted into a Christian church in 1248 when the city was conquered by Ferdinand III of Castile. During our visit inside the cathedral, we saw the tomb that contains the remains of Christopher Columbus.

We continued walking from the church through the old Jewish Quarter and back to the Jardines de Murillo to meet up with our bus to go to a restaurant where we were served a very nice lunch. After lunch, we boarded our tour bus for the journey back to Cadiz. Seville was a very interesting, picturesque city that we would like to visit during a future trip to Spain.

After two days at sea, we arrived at Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores, Portugal, on 3 November. We disembarked from the ship and walked into town where we rented a car for the day to explore the main tourist sites of the island. Our first stop was at a viewpoint overlooking Lagoa do Fogo, a lake in the caldera of an extinct volcano near the center of the island. After taking some photos of the lake, we drove to Furnas where we visited Lagoa das Furnas, another lake in a caldera nearer to the eastern end of the island. From here we visited the Terra Nostra Garden in the town of Furnas. This botanical garden encompasses a large area and includes several hot spring pools where people were swimming, a stream with several cold water ponds, a topiary garden with many topiary animals, a flower garden, and hiking trails. We drove from Terra Nostra Garden up the side of the volcano to the Miradouro Pico do Ferro, a viewpoint overlooking Lagoa das Furnas and the surrounding countryside.

Our last destination was at the north end of the island, which was called Lagoas das Siete Cidades, another crater lake that is famous for two lakes, Lagoa Verde, a green lake, and Lagoa Azul, a blue lake. It was a long drive from Furnas to Sete Cidades, and we found signs for a secondary road which we took to Sete Cidades. The secondary road was a narrow road up the volcano to the Miradouro do Cerrado das Freiras overlooking Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul. From here we drove down into the caldera to the shores of both lakes.

We had a feeling of mission accomplished as we drove back to Ponta Delgada. Upon arriving at Ponta Delgada, we visited the Ponta Delgada Sao Bras Fort, which is now a military museum with a one (1) Euro admission charge. The fort was an interesting place to visit before returning the rental car and walking back to the ship.

We had six more days at sea before arriving at Ft Lauderdale on the morning of 10 November.

See pictures from the Atlantic Crossing

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  October 2019
Naples & Civitavecchia

Travel Notes


Jan and I flew to Rome, Italy, to spend several days in Naples and Civitavecchia, Italy, before boarding the 14-Day Passage to America Voyage. This voyage would travel from Rome, Italy, to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, stopping at three ports of call in Spain and one port of call in the Azores, Portugal.

We traveled by train from Rome Fiumicino Airport to Naples on 22 October 2019 and checked into the Renaissance Naples Hotel. The following morning, as we ate breakfast at the hotel, we were greeted by a panoramic view overlooking the Naples harbor with the sun rising behind Mount Vesuvius. We were able to enjoy the sunrise over Mount Vesuvius every morning that we were in Naples.

On the morning of 23 October, we were picked up at our hotel for a small group day trip to the island of Capri. This tour was split into two groups: one Italian speaking and the other English speaking. Since there were only four of us who spoke English, we essentially had our own private tour for our visit to Capri. After sailing to Capri from the Port of Naples, we disembarked at the Marina Grande, the main port of Capri, and traveled with our guide to board another smaller boat to go visit the famous Blue Grotto of Capri.

The entrance to the Blue Grotto is through a small cave that requires visitors to transfer to and lie down in small rowboats in order to clear the rocky, low cave entrance to the grotto. A rowboat operator uses a chain to quickly pull the boat through the mouth of the cave. Once inside, the grotto is very large and the vibrant blue color is spectacular. We were told that Tiberius Caesar loved to go swimming in this grotto. After spending some time in the grotto and trying to take a good photo with the boat bobbing in the waves while rowers sang “Volare,” we once again laid down so the rowboat operator could use the chain to quickly pull the boat out of the small cave entrance.

After transferring from the rowboat back to the other boat, we were taken back to Marina Grande. Our guide escorted us onto a bus that drove us to Anacapri, a town higher up in the mountains. We took a chairlift called the Seggiovia Monte Solaro from Anacapri up to the 589 meter summit of Mount Solaro, the highest point on Capri Island. The views from both the chairlift and from Mount Solaro were stunning. They included the Italian coastline and Mount Vesuvius as well as sweeping views of Capri Island.

We returned to Anacapri via the chairlift and walked to a restaurant where we had a very nice lunch. After lunch, we walked along the picturesque pedestrian street that goes beside the Villa San Michele Museum to the top of the Scala Fenecia (Phoenecian Steps). We were able to view the sculpture of the Egyptian Sphinx that is situated high above one corner of the museum overlooking the ocean in the direction of Mount Vesuvius.

After some free time to explore some of the tourist shopping stores, we continued along additional picturesque streets en route to the Piazza Armando Diaz and the Church of San Michele (Saint Michael Church). We paid the entrance fee to visit Saint Michael Church and see the magnificent mosaic floor depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We continued walking different streets back to the Anacapri main bus stop.

After boarding another tour bus, we continued down the winding mountain road from Anacapri to Capri town where we transferred to another bus to go to Piazza Umberto I. The Piazza Umberto I Clock and the San Stefano Church are located here. We continued walking past the famous Hotel La Palma to the other side of Capri where we visited the Garden of Augustus. We were treated to spectacular views of the Marina Picolla, the distinctive Faraglioni islands near Marina Picolla, and the Via Krupp pathway that curves down the mountain from the Garden of Augustus to Marina Picolla. The monastery, Charterhouse of St. James, was clearly visible from the Garden of Augustus. This essentially completed our sightseeing tour of Capri, and we returned to Marina Grande, where we boarded a ship that returned us to the Port of Naples.

We had visited Mount Vesuvius when we were in Naples in April 2019. Since the weather in April was so inclement that the views were totally obscured, we decided to return to Vesuvius. We booked a day trip at the hotel that was to include a trip to Vesuvius and a wine tasting. The tour company picked us up at our hotel on Thursday, 24 October, for our trip to Vesuvius. After leaving our hotel and picking up additional people, the guide introduced a person already on the bus who would be our guide for our visit to Pompeii. After arriving at Pompeii, which we had previously visited, I informed our guide that we had booked a trip to Mount Vesuvius and a wine tasting. When she said that the hotel must have made a mistake, I produced my receipt for the tour from the hotel. She made several phone calls and then asked if we would accept a free tour of Pompeii before going to Mount Vesuvius – we accepted her offer.

Although the guided tour of Pompeii was less than three hours in duration, our guide was very informative. Our first stop was at the Quadriporch where gladiators both lived and trained. We continued on to visit the Theatro Picccolo, a small amphitheater. Our next stop was at the House of Menender, which is one of the best excavated Roman villas at Pompeii. We walked along ancient streets where we observed holes in the rocks in front of buildings where people would tie up horses as well as lead water pipes and some street water fountains. We also visited a lupanare, one of many ancient brothels in Pompeii. The lupanare had a carved phallic symbol above the entrance and murals of the menu of services offered on the walls. There were carved phallic symbols on the walls at some street corners and in the street pavers to help direct prospective patrons to the lupanares. After a stop at the Forum and the Mensa Ponderia, we returned to the tour bus.

We were then transported to a restaurant for lunch where we met a family from France who had also booked a wine tasting. Lunch was very good. Afterward, we, along with the family from France and several other guests, were taken to Mount Vesuvius. The weather at Vesuvius was very good, with spectacular views of both the crater and the surrounding landscape. Despite our unexpected detour to Pompeii, all was well.

On 25 October, we took the train from Naples to Civitavecchia, Italy, the cruise ship port for Rome. We stayed at the hotel Porto di Roma in the old town area of the city. This location was within walking distance of the harbor, the fort, and downtown Civitavecchia. After exploring the neighborhood adjacent to the hotel, we ate at one of the upscale restaurants recommended by the hotel.

After breakfast the following morning, we obtained a tourist map and walked through the central farmers market which was very large and picturesque. We continued from the market to visit the fort that, according to Google was supposed to be open to visitors on the weekend, but which was closed to the public. The guards near the fort entrance had no information regarding visits by the general public. We continued walking southbound along the beach to a pier where some people were fishing. We then walked past an amusement park and some restaurants facing the ocean.

As we returned to the downtown area near the fort, we visited the small Museo Archeologico which offered free admission. The exhibits were small but interesting and well worth the visit. We continued to explore the city and walked past the cathedral and another church in the old area of the city. Later, we searched Google for a seafood restaurant and found the ocean-facing Restaurant di Delphino that had more than 600 reviews and an average score of 4.5 out of 5. We made a dinner reservation using Google and enjoyed one of the best Italian seafood meals that we have ever eaten.

We checked out of the hotel on Sunday morning, 27 October, and took a taxi to the cruise port to board the Holland America cruise ship, NEIUW STATTENDAM, for our Atlantic Crossing westbound voyage to Ft Lauderdale, Florida.

See pictures from Naples & Civitavecchia

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  October 2019

Travel Notes


I decided to return to Thailand for about a week in October 2019 to revisit Chiang Mai for several short day trips. I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on Saturday, 5 October, and took a taxi to the Holiday Inn Chiang Mai hotel. After checking into my hotel, I went for a walk to explore the nearby neighborhood.

On Sunday, 6 October, I took the hotel complimentary shuttle to downtown Chiang Mai and walked through the old city wall and around part of the downtown area. During my walk, I stopped at a travel office to book a day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park which is also referred to as “The Roof of Siam.” I visited Wat Muen Lan and Wat Phan On where I was able to take several very nice photographs. As I continued walking, I passed many small shops and stopped at one to enjoy a cappuccino before arriving at the plaza in front of the City Art and Culture Museum before returning to the hotel.

The following day, I requested a taxi to take me from the hotel to the Chiang Mai National Museum. The driver dropped me off at the City Art and Culture Museum instead of the National Museum. Admission was free here but the exhibits were very sparse and, after the museum staff explained to me that I was at the wrong museum, they called a taxi that took me to the National Museum.

After arriving at the Chiang Mai National Museum, I took photos of ancient kilns in front of the museum and spent several hours viewing the exhibits and reading the many English descriptions accompanying the exhibits. Of particular interest was the Phra Saenswae, the giant head of a Buddha image, which was originally found at Wat Yangkuang near the Chiang Mai Gate. In 1953, the Buddha image’s head was moved to an exhibit at the Bangkok National Museum. When the Chiang Mai National Museum was constructed in 1973, the Buddha image’s head was brought back to Chiang Mai to be housed and displayed in this museum.

A Buddha’s Footprint, made of teak wood and decorated with mother of pearl and glass, is another one of the very special artifacts on display. The remainder of the museum houses an extensive collection of beautiful exhibits. This museum should not be missed when visiting Chiang Mai.

On Tuesday, 8 October, I was picked up at the hotel to begin my day trip to the Doi Inthanon National Park. The park was a long distance from Chiang Mai and the bus ride was bumpy and somewhat cramped. After we arrived at the park and our tour guide paid the entrance fees, we continued a long uphill drive toward the summit of Doi Thanon, the highest point in Thailand. Our first stop along the way was to view the Sitirhan Waterfall. After a short hike, we came to a viewpoint where we had a nice view of the waterfall. With an abundant amount of water flowing, the view provided for some nice photos.

Our next stop was at the Baan Pa Mou Hilltribe Village to view the way of life of the inhabitants. They were producing both rice and coffee. We continued ascending the mountain to visit the Wachirathan Waterfall. We stopped at a visitor area where we could hike to various vantage points to view the waterfall. It was a very large waterfall with a lot of mist that made taking photos a little difficult. Fortunately, I hiked up to a higher elevation and was able to take some nice photos of the waterfall with a rainbow in the mist. While we were here, we were served lunch at a restaurant beside the river flowing from the waterfall.

Our next stop was near the summit, where we exited the bus to hike the Yod Doi Nature Trail. After a short uphill hike, I arrived at a sign denoting that I had indeed arrived at the highest point in Thailand. A small pedestal marked the spot of the highest point and a small temple-like shrine was situated nearby. Continuing on the trail downhill, past the summit, I returned to the road and then hiked the Angkha Nature Trail that looped through rainforest and ultimately returned to the road. We then reboarded the bus to continue our day trip.

Our final stop was to visit the spectacular Royal Stupas, the Phra Mahathat Naphamethanidon Stupa, and the Phra Mahathat Naphapholphumisiri Stupa, built by the Thai Royal Air Force in commemoration of Their Majesties the King and Queen’s Sixtieth Birthday Anniversaries in 1987 and 1992 respectively. These stupas were magnificent and provided beautiful gardens, sweeping panoramic views over the countryside, and superb carved murals. This stop was the highlight of this day trip for me. It would be another long, cramped bus ride back to Chiang Mai, but the day trip was wonderful.

I took a few more daytime hikes around Chiang Mai before taking my final day trip to visit the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Gardens. The Royal Flora Ratchaphruek was an international horticultural exposition in Chiang Mai that drew 3,781,624 visitors between 1 November 2006 to 31 January 2007. It is a wonderful garden area with gorgeous landscaping and many pavilions from different countries. The Royal Flora Ratchaphruek is the national flower of Thailand, and these expansive gardens are truly a must-see when visiting the Chiang Mai area. I took a shuttle bus ride around the gardens when I first arrived and then walked through the gardens to take spectacular photos.

I was scheduled to check out of the hotel and fly to Bangkok on Saturday afternoon, 12 October. After breakfast that morning, however, I received an SMS text message from United Airlines that my flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles on 13 October had been canceled due to the enormous cyclone that was approaching Japan. This was extremely bad news because I was booked on Al Nippon (ANA) from Bangkok to Tokyo and ANA had still showed my flight to Tokyo as being on schedule. I called ANA and was told by the agent that, since my flight was a code-share flight booked through United, that only United could revise or rewrite my ticket. I spent an eternity trying to contact United Airlines by phone but none of the United phone numbers were accessible to me in Chiang Mai. As I frantically searched the United website, I finally stumbled upon a phone number for a United Airlines office in Bangkok that was open on Saturday morning until noon. It was now 11:40 AM, and I called the number on my Thai mobile phone. A wonderful person answered my call and was able to rewrite my ticket for flights from Bangkok to Los Angeles for Tuesday, 15 October. This would mean a 48 hour delay for my return flights home.

I flew to Bangkok and spent an extra two days before finally boarding my ANA flight to Tokyo and connect with my United Airlines flight back to Los Angeles. All’s well that ends well.

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  August 2019

Travel Notes


Jan and I booked a 14-day Holland America Alaska Voyage from Seattle, Washington, onboard the Holland America cruise ship Amsterdam. We flew to Seattle on 22 August and visited with friends in Federal Way, Washington prior to boarding the ship at the Port of Seattle on 26 August. One of our objectives on this cruise was to book enough excursions to achieve 4 star Mariner status for subsequent Holland America cruises.

After we boarded the Amsterdam, we settled into our cabin and explored the ship. That evening we ran into two old friends, Bill and LaVonne, from our South America voyage. We would spend some time with them during this voyage. We had one sea day before we arrived at Ketchikan, Alaska, on 28 August. While at Ketchikan, we took the Eagles, Raptors & Rainforest Shore Excursion which included a nature hike through a rainforest, a visit to a raptor center with a raptor show in an enclosed theater, and a walk past a salmon hatchery to a location with an old sawmill and numerous totem poles. This excursion was very good with a guide who was both knowledgeable and entertaining.

The following day we enjoyed scenic cruising through Tracy Arm and viewed the wonderful mountains and glaciers. We continued on overnight and arrived at Juneau, Alaska, on the morning of 30 August. While at Juneau, we took the Mendenhall Glacier Guide’s Choice Hike Shore Excursion with a hike through another rainforest to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center. After viewing the glacier, we walked along a stream with Sockeye Salmon returning from their time in the open ocean. Some of them were a vibrant pink color before depositing their eggs and ending their life cycle.

We continued overnight to arrive at Icy Strait Point, Alaska, on 31 August. Although there appeared to be little to explore at the port, we took the Whales, Wildlife & Bear Search Shore Excursion. This excursion consisted of a boat ride for whale watching where we saw harbor seals and several humpback whales. After returning to the port, we were met by a guide and transported by bus to a trail near a river. This was the starting point for our hike through the habitat of the area to a couple of viewing platforms to hopefully see local wildlife, including bears and other mammals. We were able to see several bald eagles from one of the platforms but no mammals of any kind – just the luck of the day. I would not take another shore excursion at this port of call.

After another day at sea, we arrived at Anchorage, Alaska, on 2 September. The weather was overcast with some scattered rain showers and fog. We disembarked and took the 26-Glacier Cruise & Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center Shore Excursion. This was an all day excursion that included a bus ride to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which we had visited a couple of times before. The tour continued along the Turnagain Arm where we were able to see some beluga whales – a first for us – and then through the shared cruise/rail tunnel to Whittier. We boarded a high speed catamaran to explore Prince Edward Sound. The ride on the catamaran, where lunch was served, was wonderful, but the views of the glaciers were impaired due to the weather. Despite the weather, we still had impressive views of both the Harriman Glacier and the Surprise Glacier. This would be a world class excursion in clear weather with spectacular views of the glaciers.

Again, after sailing overnight, we arrived at Homer. Homer is a quaint location where we would have liked to have spent more time. We disembarked, met up with our guide for the Glacier Lake Interpretive Hike Shore Excursion and were given a box lunch for the hike. We were transported across the bay to the beach at the Kachemak Bay State Park where we began a guided hike from the beach on the Grewingk Glacier Trail to the bank of Grewingk Lake. This was a picturesque hike with an extremely knowledgeable guide who explained the flora in great detail. After we arrived at the very picturesque Grewingk Lake, with icebergs and unobstructed views of Grewingk Glacier, we ate lunch on the shore. After lunch and many photos, we continued hiking on the Saddle Trail to another Kachemak Bay State Park beach. Although this excursion was classified as moderate, the steep descent down to the beach and across many large rocks could better be classified as extreme. Several people had considerable difficulty completing the hike down to the boat that was waiting to take us back to the Port of Homer. This was a very good excursion but should be classified as much more difficult.

Following another night at sea, we arrived at Kodiak Island, Alaska, on the morning of 4 September. Although we had booked a 7:30 AM small group excursion months in advance of this cruise, the person at the Cruise Excursions Desk booked us on the 10:30 AM Kodiak Sightseeing & Wildlife Cruise. The later excursion meant we would not have any time to explore Kodiak after the excursion. Unfortunately, by the time I realized that we had been ticketed on the later excursion, we were unable to get ticketed on the excursion that we had originally pre-booked. The Holland America person from the excursion desk said that he just ticketed people as he came upon the reservations without regard to the pre-booked excursion times. We felt that we had been cheated out of proper shore time at Kodiak. That said, the later excursion was very good with wonderful viewing of harbor seals, puffins, sea otters, and a pod of Orcas feeding in the distance. We would like to return to Kodiak sometime in the future.

We continued sailing overnight and arrived mid-day on 5 September at the Hubbard Glacier. This glacier and the surrounding mountain scenery are magnificent, and the weather was picture perfect. We lingered near the glacier for more than an hour and then continued overnight to Sitka.

We arrived at Sitka, Alaska, on the morning of 6 September. Sitka is one of the most picturesque locations in Alaska. The cruise port of Sitka is situated some distance from the town of Sitka and complimentary shuttle bus service was provided between the port and downtown Sitka. We disembarked, met our tour guide, and took the Tongas Rainforest Nature Hike excursion. After a short bus ride, we hiked a portion of the Mosquito Cove Trail before transitioning to the Estuary Life Trail. We continued on via the Forest and Muskeg Trail and ended up at the beachfront site of Old Sitka where we met our tour bus. The bus took us to downtown Sitka where we opted to explore the town on foot. We headed to the Sitka National Historical Park, the Sheldon Jackson Museum, and the St. Michael’s Cathedral which serves as the seat of the Russian Orthodox Diocese. As we walked to the Sitka National Historical Park, we passed both the picturesque St. Peter’s by the Sea Church and the Russian Bishop’s house.

After we arrived at the Sitka National Historical Park, we hiked through the forest and saw many wonderful totem poles before stopping at the Sitka National Historical Park Visitor Center where I purchased a book on Alaska Totem Poles. On the way back to town, we visited the Sheldon Jackson Museum. This small museum had many wonderful exhibits, but a large tour group entered while we were there and the museum became very crowded. After walking back to town, we stopped for a reindeer hot dog en route to see St. Michael’s Cathedral. With our Sitka visit complete, we took the shuttle bus back to the ship.

We enjoyed two more sea days before arriving at Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, on 9 September. Although the cruise did not end until returning to the Port of Seattle, we had arranged to disembark at Victoria. After clearing Canadian customs, we took a taxi to our hotel where we met up with our friends, Tom and Leslie, who had taken the ferry from Orcas Island, Washington, to Victoria. We always enjoy any opportunity to connect with Tom and Leslie. This time we took several hikes around Victoria and went to Butchart Gardens for a lunch reservation that I had made several months in advance. The gardens are always spectacular and the lunch in the dining room was exquisite. We will do lunch there again whenever we visit Victoria.

On 10 September, we traveled with Tom and Leslie on the ferry back to Orcas Island where we enjoyed several more days visiting with them. During our stay, we enjoyed Leslie’s world class cooking and attended a wonderful play at a small theater on Orcas. On Friday, 13 September, we took the ferry from Orcas Island to Anacortes, Washington, where we connected to the Bellair Airporter Shuttle Bus. John and Diane met us at the Seattle Airport for another four day visit with them at Federal Way.

During our stay at Federal Way, we took a couple of local sightseeing trips that included Flaming Geyser State Park, Soos Creek Botanical Garden, and the Tacoma History Museum. The Soos Creek Garden was just ok – most of the colorful flowers and vegetation were out of season – but hiking the trails were very nice. Flaming Geyser was a day trip and it also had some good trails to hike, although the flaming geyser was not flaming. We were very surprised at how wonderful the Tacoma History Museum actually was. The exhibits there were world class and the model railroad was beyond belief.

On Wednesday, 18 September, we flew back home to Los Angeles and reflected on what a great trip we had just experienced.

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  June 2019
Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

Travel Notes


On 25 April 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, toppling multi-story buildings in Kathmandu and creating landslides and avalanches in the Himalaya Mountains. According to the literature, nearly 9,000 people died and more than 22,000 suffered injuries. It was the deadliest earthquake in the seismically active region in 81 years.The earthquake was followed by hundreds of aftershocks, and only 17 days later, there was another major quake, a magnitude 7.3 temblor. Thirty-nine of the nation’s 75 districts with a population of 8 million people were affected. More than 600,000 homes were destroyed and more than 288,000 were damaged in the 14 worst-hit districts.

Since I had previously visited Nepal in 2011 and 2013, I wanted to return to Nepal to assess the recovery and reconstruction efforts of the damaged temples and structures following the devastating 2015 earthquake.

I contacted my good friend Chiranjibi Kafle who, along with his brother, Ishwar, operates Smile Travel. I requested that he arrange for specific hotel accommodations and a car with an English speaking driver for nine days. I also provided him with a list of places that I wanted to visit so that he could arrange the most efficient travel itinerary. He agreed and said that he would meet me when I arrived at the Kathmandu International Airport.

I arrived at Kathmandu, Nepal, on Saturday, 1 June 2019, at about 12:30 PM. After obtaining my Visa on Arrival and clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and located Chiran from Smile Travel who was waiting for me. He introduced me to Bissal who would be my driver for the next nine days in Nepal. We went to the Fuji Hotel where I stayed during my previous trips to Kathmandu. It survived the earthquake and had been remodeled. It is located in the Thamel district of Kathmandu with wonderful streets for walking to local restaurants and shops. After checking into the hotel and meeting with Chiran to firm up my itinerary for the next eight days, I took the remainder of the day to rest up from my travels.

Chiran met me Sunday morning, 2 June, to make sure that Bissal and I were all set for my first day of sightseeing. Bissal, who had spent time driving in Dubai prior to returning to Nepal, spoke very good English, and we had a wonderful time together for the next eight days. There were many areas within Kathmandu city with buildings still collapsed or with major structural damage from the earthquake.

Our first stop was at Swayambhunath, an ancient complex on top of a hill in the Kathmandu Valley. A large stupa dominates the complex along with a number of shrines and temples. I was relieved that the reconstruction of the complex was either very good or the complex did not suffer extreme damage from the earthquake. I spend a lot of time walking around the complex and taking some very nice photographs.

We continued on to visit Kathmandu Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was astonished at the damage still remaining from the earthquake. In fact, the damage had been so extensive that I did not recognize it as I entered the square. After paying the fee to tour the area, I took photos of some of the temples which were destroyed and under reconstruction. I walked away convinced that the reconstruction effort there would never be able to match the detail of the original carved portions of the temples that existed before the earthquake.

On Monday morning, Bissal and I went to Patan Durbar Square, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. As I walked around the complex, I was intrigued by the reconstruction efforts underway. The reconstruction efforts were being funded by many different organizations and governments world-wide. Large posters were erected adjacent to many of the temples depicting photos of the temple before and after the earthquake along with renderings of the proposed reconstruction. Unfortunately, the detail in the reconstruction effort simply could not compare to pre-earthquake construction especially with regard to the erotic carvings on the temples.

While at Patan Durbar Square I was able to visit the Patan Museum that is located within a former palace. Since this museum was closed during my prior visits, this was an unexpected welcome opportunity. The museum was very nice with some fantastic exhibits that included a throne of the Patan Kings and a metalsmithing exhibit. While at Patan, I ate lunch at the same restaurant that I had eaten at during my 2013 visit to Patan.

After visiting Patan Durbar Square, we stopped for a short visit at the Sankhamul Ghats on our way back to the hotel. According to Bissal, these ghats are no longer being used for cremations.

On Tuesday, 4 June, Bissal and I set out to go to Dhulikhel where I would overnight for two nights at the Mirabel Resort hotel. It is a hotel situated on a hill with sweeping views on a clear day of the Himalaya Mountains across the valley. Unfortunately, the clear day views mostly occur during October so my sunrise views were obscured. I had stayed at the hotel during my 2013 visit, but the hotel recently had a change of ownership and the service was less than I was expecting.

We stopped at Bhaktapur, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, en route to Dhulikel. It is a very extensive site that was once the capital city of Nepal. Bhaktapur also suffered extensive damage with many buildings being shored up and braced from the outside. In addition, many buildings had collapsed and the reconstruction effort for many structures within the heritage site area was ongoing. Although there are no automobiles or buses allowed within the complex, there was a continuous flow of motorcycle and motorbikes dodging pedestrians on many of the very narrow streets. During my prior visit here, motorbikes and motorcycles were also restricted within the site.

While at the Durbar Square area of Bhaktapur, I noticed a temple that seemed to escape the carnage of the earthquake adjacent to a temple that had collapsed. The temple that survived still had the pre-earthquake erotic carvings on the roof struts which was a refreshing sight. The area around Pottery Square suffered extensive damage. It will take a long time to complete the restoration of Bhaktapur.

We continued on to visit Changu Naryan, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most ancient pilgrimage site in the Kathmandu Valley. This site dates back to the 3rd century AD and is considered to be the oldest temple in the history of Nepal. This was my first visit to this temple and I am very glad that I was able to see it. It contains, among other things, a historical stone pillar with a Sanskrit Language inscription engraved in Pre-Licchivi times. This is the oldest script in the Kathmandu Valley and the pillar was established by Licchivi King Mandev during 464 AD. The two story temple is famous for its erotic motifs that are depicted in the struts of the roof. This is a site that should not be missed during a visit to Nepal.

Our next stop was at the Kailashnath Mahadev Statue which sits high up on a hilltop overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. I had seen this statue from the highway during my prior visits to Nepal but this was the first time that I actually visited the statue. Measuring 44 meters (144 feet high), it is the tallest statue of Lord Shiva in the world. We continued on to the Mirabel Resort hotel where I spent the night.

Bissal picked me up at the hotel on Wednesday morning to drive to the Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery (also known as Namo Buddha). This is a very beautiful Tibetan Buddhist monastery and is situated on top of a mountain. It was founded by V.V. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche in 1978 and has grown to become home to more than 250 monks. I was relieved that it looked the same as it did during my pre-earthquake visit.

After spending a second night at Dhulikhel, I checked out after breakfast, and Bissal drove me to Old Town Dhulikhel to visit some temples there. I had visited here during 2011 but did not remember much about that visit. After comparing my pre-earthquake photos to my current photos, I realized that Dhulikhel Old Town either did not suffer extensive damage to the temples or the ongoing reconstruction effort was progressing very well.

Our next stop was at the Dhulikhel Kali Temple on top of a mountain overlooking Dhulikhel and the valley toward the Himalaya Mountains. According to the literature, it is a shrine dedicated to the goddess of time, change, power, and creation. It is also a manifestation of Durga. Shiva is her consort and you can see his trident in front of the shrine. Of course, this is another viewpoint for a clear day which might come next October. This temple is also called the Temple of One Thousand Steps because a person can walk up the side of the mountain on concrete steps. Since we were somewhat short on time we drove up an unimproved road to the temple. There were a couple of hotels near the temple complex. I noticed a huge rock in the shape of a giant frog overlooking the valley with many people climbing upon it.

About half way down the mountain, the unimproved road crosses the concrete steps. We stopped here and hiked to visit the Golden Buddha Statue that overlooks the valley. It is an impressive statue and well worth a visit in connection with a visit to the Kali Temple.

We continued on to Panauti which is in the process of being classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is often referred to as Panauti Heritage City because it is like an open-air museum itself. It is situated at the confluence of two rivers and has many wonderful ancient temples. Old Panauti seemed to be very much as I remembered from my pre-earthquake visit. I was excited to find that many of the temples appeared to have suffered very little earthquake damage and required only a relatively small restoration effort. I visited the Panauti Museum and was impressed with the collection of exhibits. After visiting Panauti, we returned to the Fuji hotel.

Bissal picked me up the morning of Friday, 7 June, to drive me to Boudhanath, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Boudhanath Stupa suffered extensive earthquake damage that cracked the spire. The entire structure above the dome and the religious relics it contained were required to be completely removed. The reconstruction began on 3 November 2015, with the ritual placement of a new central pole or “life tree” for the stupa at the top of the dome. The magnificent reconstruction of the stupa appeared to be complete.

After visiting Boudhanath, we continued on to visit the Pashupatinath Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a famous and sacred Hindu temple complex situated on the banks of the Bagmati River. This complex also has cremation ghats that are still in use with several cremations in process. This temple complex, which dates from the 5th century, encompasses 264 hectares of land and includes 518 temples and monuments. It was pretty much as I remembered from my pre-earthquake visit and either suffered minor damage or the reconstruction efforts were very well done. I was delighted to see one of the temples that had the pre-earthquake erotic carvings on the roof struts.

We went from Pashupatinath to the Garden of Dreams where Bissal dropped me off. The Garden of Dreams is like a small serene oasis beautifully landscaped in central Kathmandu. I admired the architecture and took some wonderful photos as I walked around the garden before walking back to the hotel.

Saturday, 8 June, was to be my last full day in Nepal. Bissal picked me up to drive to visit the Chobar Gorge, the Jal Binayak Temple, and Kirtipur. Chobar Gorge is where the Bagmati River cuts through Chobar Hill. Geological studies have shown that the Kathmandu valley was once a large lake that drained southwest through Chobar Gorge. According to the literature, the narrow suspension bridge that spans the gorge was imported from a manufacturer in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1903. The bridge was transported to Nepal in pieces over the mountains and assembled at Chobar Gorge. The bridge is accessible on foot and provides a stunning viewpoint for the gorge. The gorge was exactly as I remembered it from my pre-earthquake visit.

The Jal Binayak Temple is situated on the river bank beside the Bagmati River at the downstream end of Chobar Gorge. When I visited this temple pre-earthquake it was the most colorful and interesting temple that I had seen in Nepal. I was looking forward to seeing it once again. Alas that was not to be as the temple was demolished during the earthquake and the reconstruction effort appears to be painstakingly slow. Most of the original roof struts that had been intricately carved and painted, were nowhere to be found. Most of the lower portion of the temple had been partially reconstructed and some people were there praying and sacrificing chickens at the temple. This temple had some of the best erotic carvings on the roof struts. Although it appears there is an attempt to reconstruct new roof struts, they will never be able to replicate the originals. My visit to this temple was the most disappointing moment of my trip.

We continued on to visit the ancient city of Kirtipur, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, located southwest of Kathmandu city. After visiting the Jal Binayak Temple, I was expecting to see extensive damage at the main temple in Kirtipur. Even though many buildings in Kirtipur were extensively damaged, I was surprised to find that the temple complex appeared to have escaped large damage and was pretty much as it was when I was there during my earlier visit. After visiting Kirtipur, we returned to the hotel and I began packing up to depart Nepal the next morning.

Bissal picked me up one last time on Sunday morning, 10 June, to drive me to the Kathmandu International Airport for my flight to Bangkok. I would overnight at Bangkok before flying back home to Los Angeles.

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  April 2019
Mediterranean Cruise

Travel Notes


After Jan and I took a Holland America Voyage from Florida, USA, to Lisbon, Portugal, onboard the Holland America Prinsendam, we were booked to continue on another voyage from Lisbon to Rome, Italy, with our friends, Nancy and John. We arrived in Lisbon on Friday, 12 April 2019. Since we had visited Lisbon two times previously, we walked from the ship along the waterfront to the downtown area to purchase a local cappuccino and do some shopping before re-boarding to continue on to Rome.

The ship departed Lisbon at 11:00 PM and after one day at sea, we arrived at Cadiz, Spain, at 8:00 AM on Monday, 14 April, as the first port of call. Prior to disembarking at Cadiz, we decided that we wanted to visit Castle de San Sabastian, Castillo de Santa Catalina, Museo de Cadiz, and perhaps Parque Genoves. After disembarking, we took the Cadiz Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus through the old city wall, Puerta de Terra, and along the coast past the old Roman Theater ruins and the Cadiz Cathedral. We exited the bus at the Playa de La Caleta stop and walked past the La Palma Spa and through the gateway to Playa de La Caleta en route to Castle de San Sabastian. We walked along an embankment between the entrance gate to the beach and the castle. After walking past some local fishermen on the embankment, we arrived at Castle de San Sabastian which was closed to the public for some renovation. The embankment and the castle provided some excellent photo opportunities.

After visiting the castle, we continued walking to the Castillo de Santa Catalina, which was open and included an art exhibit contained within the castle. We continued walking to Parque Genoves, which is an authentic botanical garden, within the city center. The walk through the park was very interesting. We walked past the Church of Carmen en route to the Museo de Cadiz where photos were discouraged. The narrow streets were very picturesque as we continued to Plaza de Espana and the Constitution Monument. Continuing on, we walked past the San Agustin Church and a wall with signs discussing the Cadiz Meridian and its significance to early nautical navigation. We also visited the Plaza San Juan De Dios before walking back to the port. In retrospect, hiring a taxi to take us to the cathedral via Puerta de Terra would have been better than spending money on the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus.

The ship departed Cadiz at 11:00 PM and sailed overnight through the Strait of Gibraltar to arrive at Ceuta, Spain at 7:00 AM Ceuta is actually on the African Continent opposite the Rock of Gibraltar on the European Continent. A statue of Hercules pushing the continents apart stands at the Ceuta Harbor entrance. A second statue of Hercules is situated alongside the port at Plaza de la Constitution in the Ceuta city center. The Rock of Gibraltar is visible from Ceuta, and Hacho Mountain rises from the eastern end of the harbor with the Hacho Forterss dominating the summit of the mountain. After disembarking at Ceuta, we took a taxi to Castillo de Desnarigado on the northeastern slope of Hacho Mountain. This castle also houses the Desnarigado military museum, which was closed to the public during our brief visit. We continued on around the mountain to the Mirador de San Antonio viewpoint overlooking the Rock of Gibraltar.

The viewpoint provided spectacular panoramic views of Ceuta, the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Rock of Gibraltar. We continued on to Playa la Ribera and left the taxi at the Spanish Legion Museum. We walked through the Central Market and continued on to see the Dragon House, Plaza de Los Reyes, and the Church of San Francisco. After returning to Playa la Ribera, we walked past the Santa Maria Cathedral en route to the extensive Complex of Royal Walls which provided passage between the walls for Phoenician ships in ancient times. The Regiment 30 Monument is prominently placed adjacent to the royal walls. The royal walls are extensive, very photogenic, and worth an extended visit. As we were returning to the ship, we walked through the Plaza de Africa and past both the Al-Idrisi and Henry the Navigator statues. Prior to departing Ceuta, the Maritime Park with the lighthouse was clearly visible from the ship.

The ship departed Ceuta at 4:00 PM and sailed overnight to Cartagena, Spain, arriving at 8:00 AM on Tuesday, 16 April. Since we had been to Cartagena previously, we wanted to visit the Underwater Archaeological Museum and walk through the old city to visit a tapas restaurant. I had visited the Underwater Archaeological Museum previously but only had approximately 15 minutes before they closed the museum. This time we had ample time to explore the museum and the marvelous exhibits on display. This is a wonderful museum that should not be missed when visiting Cartagena. We continued walking through the old city and found a tapas restaurant where we enjoyed a light lunch before returning to the ship.

The ship departed Cartagena at 2:00 PM, sailed overnight, and arrived at Barcelona, Spain, at 8:00 AM. We had visited Barcelona previously and took a taxi to the Picasso Museum for which we had booked a reservation in advance on the Internet. The Picasso Museum was amazing and should not be missed if visiting Barcelona. After touring the Picasso museum, we walked through the picturesque streets to the Central Market which was very colorful and provided many photo opportunities. The Barcelona Erotic Museum is situated across the street from the central market and houses one of the most extensive erotic exhibit collections that I have ever seen. After visiting the erotic museum we walked back through the old quarter to the shuttle bus back to the ship.

The ship departed Barcelona at 11:00 PM and, after one day at sea, we arrived at Alghero, Sardinia, Italy, at 8:00 AM on Friday, 19 April. Alghero is a very picturesque city with a castle, city walls, and watch towers overlooking the port. We had booked the Sardinia Sights excursion and our first stop was to visit Palmavera, which is an ancient Nuraghi cultural site with round towers and huts. This site would have been much more interesting if I had seen the “Ancient Aliens” television show about the land of the giants before visiting Sardinia. After realizing that Sardinia is home to many wonderful archaeological sites, I will return to spend more time here with a rental car exploring ancient sights of the island. The tour continued through the National Park of Porto Conte and through the Sede del Parco en route to Capo Caccia where we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking Foradado Island. We were also able to view the lighthouse before driving past the ancient Roman Bridge and Torre del Buru as we drove back to the old Alghero city center. As we walked through the old town, we were able to see the Tower of Sulis, the Tower of San Giovanni, and get a glimpse of the top of the Church of San Michele. After stopping to visit the Church of San Francesco, we continued walking through the old town, past the Tower of Ports Terra and the old city walls, as we made our way back to the port.

The ship departed Alghero at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to arrive at Ajaccio, Corsica, France, at 8:00 AM on Saturday, 20 April. We decided to explore Ajaccio on our own and walked along the large Ajaccio Citadel, which is situated by the ocean between the port and the Plage St. Francis beach. We continued walking through the picturesque narrow streets and through the markets at Place Foch. I continued on to explore Place de Gaulle, a large square with a big statue of Napoleon on a horse, accompanied by his four brothers.

I continued on to Place du Telethon which is situated in front of the Cathedral where Napoleon was baptized. After passing the John the Baptist Church, I visited the Maison Bonaparte House Museum. It is the house where Napoleon was born and both the house and the exhibits on display were very impressive. As I walked back to the port, I walked through a narrow street with several quaint interesting restaurants and stopped to enjoy a wonderful local cappuccino.

The ship departed Ajaccio at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to arrive at Portoferraio, Elba, Italy, at 8:00 AM on Sunday, 21 April. Sailing into the port of Portoferraio is very picturesque. Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, had the Medicean Ramparts constructed to protect Portoferraio from Turkish attacks. These magnificent walls seem to rise up from the sea and include the Bastion Medici and the Torre del Martello. Since I had already booked the “Hiking the Slopes of Mt. Capanne” excursion, I did not have time to explore the ramparts and hope visit them on a future return visit to Elba.

The excursion that I had booked began with a bus trip to the village of Marciana. While en route to Marciana, the tour guide pointed to a valley where the residence of Napoleon was located during the time that he was sent into exile on the island of Elba. We drove along the coast to the beach town of Marciana Marina before driving up the slope of Mount Capanne to the town of Marciana. After hiking through very picturesque Marciana, we continued hiking along the slope of the mountain with stunning landscape and panoramic views. Our guide told us that many wild pigs inhabit the area and pointed out a wild pig trap as we hiked nearby it. We hiked under the Mt. Capanne Cableway which transports people the village of Marciana Marina to the top of Mount Capanne in yellow cages. Each cage will accommodate a maximum of two people who must stand in the cage during the entire twenty minute trip each way. We continued on to the old Church of San Cerbone and then to the village of Poggio.

Poggio is another very picturesque village and we stopped to have lunch at Restorante Publius, a very upscale restaurant where we had a marvelous four course lunch with wine. We walked from the restaurant to rejoin our tour bus for the drive back to the port.

The ship departed Portoferraio at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to arrive at Porto, Isla di Porto, Italy, about 7:00 AM on Monday, 22 April. This was a tender port and, since the sea conditions were too turbulent for us tender to the port, the Captain cancelled the visit to Porto and continued on to Naples, Italy. We were actually happy that Porto port of call visit was cancelled because we would arrive at Naples around noon one day ahead of schedule and give us an extra day at Naples. This would also allow us to visit the Naples Archaeological Museum on Monday afternoon, as this museum is closed on Tuesdays.

We arrived at Naples around noon and after disembarking, John, Nancy, Jan, and I shared a taxi to visit the archaeological museum which would be open until quite late that night. We spent several hours visiting the wonderful exhibits in the museum including the Secret Cabinet collection of erotic exhibits. The artifacts on display from Pompeii were very impressive.

Jan and I went on the small group “Mt. Vesuvius” tour on Tuesday, 23 April. We traveled by bus along the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius where we hiked up to the crater and walked around the rim of the crater. Unfortunately for us, the weather was inclement and we were hiking in the clouds with very limited visibility. While hiking around the rim of the crater with zero visibility both into the crater and down the side of the mountain toward Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the sea, I finally purchased a tour book with photos of the sights that we did not see. Based on the tour book photos, I would like to visit Mount Vesuvius on a clear day sometime in the future. Visibility had improved somewhat by the time we returned to the ship.

We departed Naples at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to arrive at Civitavecchia, Italy, the cruise port for Rome, Italy, at 7:00 AM on Wednesday, 24 April. Since this was the end of our voyage, we disembarked and took a local minibus to our hotel near the Fiumicino Airport where we stayed the night before flying back home to Los Angeles the following day.

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  March/April 2019
Atlantic Crossing

Travel Notes


Jan and I flew to Ft Lauderdale, Florida, to board the 18-Day Casablanca & Canary Islands Explorer Holland America Voyage. This voyage would go from Ft. Lauderdale to Madeira, Portugal; three ports of call in the Canary Islands; three ports of call in Morocco; and two ports of call in Portugal ending at Lisbon, Portugal.

We boarded the Holland America Prinsendam on Monday, 25 March 2019, to begin our journey. Later that day we met up with John and Nancy with whom we had sailed on two prior voyages. We were delighted to re-connect on this voyage and shared many meals and activities throughout the voyage.

After eight days at sea, we arrived at Funchal, Madeira, Portugal, on Wednesday morning, 3 April. Madeira is an island situated off the coast of Africa approximately 1,000 kilometers southwest of Lisbon, Portugal. We were scheduled to spend two days here before continuing on to the Canary Islands.

Since we had visited Madeira previously, we walked from the ship along the waterfront to the marina where we saw the galleon ship, Santa Maria de Colombo, a replica of the ship sailed by Christopher Columbus to the New World during 1492. After taking some photos of the ship, we walked past the Palacio de Sao Lourenco and Fort and followed Avenida Zarco toward the center of town. After passing a monument to Zarco, we continued along Rua das Pretas to visit the Natural History Museum. We went from the museum, past a Jesuit university and church, to the Funchal Municipal Plaza. Both the Jesuit church and Funchal City Hall face the plaza.

We visited City Hall where the “Weirdness” art exhibit was in progress. We observed some of the artwork on display and looked at the areas currently open to the public. We then continued walking through the city to the Funchal Cathedral and back to the marina where I noticed that the Santa Maria de Colombo also took passengers on short day trips. Although the ticket office was closed due to poor weather, a person on the ship said that it would sail the next day if the weather was acceptable. I decided to return early the following morning to try to purchase tickets for a voyage for us.

Back on board, John and Nancy said that they would like to join us if we could get tickets the following morning. Early on the morning of 4 April I walked back to the marina and, after waiting for the ticket office to open, I secured tickets for us to sail on the Santa Maria de Colombo. The trip took us several kilometers offshore and then northwest along the coast to a location near Faja dos Padres. Towering above us was Cabo Giro, a lookout area 550 meters high frequented by tourists. Cabo Giro is often referred to as the second-highest sea cliff in the world. We also got a good look at the Faja dos Padres Elevator that was installed in 1998. In addition, we also saw the Faja dos Padres Cable Car that was installed in 2016. Prior to the installation of the elevator and cable car, the only access to Faja dos Padres was by boat. On the way back to the marina, we sailed past the fishing village, Camara de Lobos. Since Jan and I had visited both Cabo Giro and Camara de Lobos on our prior trip to Madeira, we enjoyed viewing them from an offshore vantage point. Before returning to the Prinsendam, we took one last walk through portions of the downtown area.

We departed Funchal at 5:00 PM to sail overnight approximately 650 kilometers south to Santa Cruz (Tenerife), Canary Islands, Spain, arriving at 10:00 AM on 5 April. We decided to spend the day visiting the Santa Cruz Museum of Nature and Man, the Inglesia de La Concepción church, and the UNESCO Old Town Santa Cruz de la Palma. As we walked from the ship, we passed the Plaza de Espana with a beautiful pond that had been constructed above the ruins of Castillo de San Cristobal. As we continued on to the museum we walked past the Theatro Guiomer opera house and the Inglesia de La Concepción which is the only church in the Canary Islands that has five naves.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Nature and Man had superb exhibits. In addition to the history of the volcanic origin of the Canary Islands, models of ancient settlement archaeological sites found on the islands of Fuerteventura, Gran Canary, La Gomera, El Hierro, Lanzarote, and La Palma were on display. While visiting the island of La Palma, we drove past the same archaeology site that was on display here. The extensive museum anthropology exhibits included excavated skeletal displays and mummies. The mummies were some of the best preserved that I had ever seen.

After leaving the museum I walked to the nearest Line 1 Tram Stop and purchased a ticket to go to San Cristobal de La Laguna where the historic quarter was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Historical Site in 1999. My first stop was at the La Laguna Cathedral which was originally built in the 16th Century as the Parish of the Remedies. It was established as a Cathedral in 1819 and was rebuilt into its current form in the early 20th Century. I continued walking through the historic quarter and visited the Lercaro Palace which houses the Museum of History and Anthropology of Tenerife. The mansion architecture, courtyards, and museum exhibits made the visit very worthwhile. According to the legend of Catalina Lercaro, who killed herself, this mansion/museum is the most famous "haunted mansion" of the Canary Islands.

I continued walking among the wonderful old historic quarter and enjoyed a local burrito at the quaint Con Limon Taqueria restaurant. After lunch, with the help of Google Maps, I returned to the tram stop and returned to Santa Cruz de Tenerife. I walked back to Plaza de Espana to take some additional photos before returning to the ship.

We departed Santa Cruz de Tenerife at 11:00 PM and, after sailing overnight to La Palma Island, we arrived at Santa Cruz de La Palma on Saturday, 6 April. Jan and I went on the North Island Nature Walk excursion where the Mirador de San Bartolo de la Galga viewpoint was the first stop. In addition to the spectacular panoramic views, there was a platform with celestial information and the “lover’s jump statue” of a broken-hearted shepherd boy jumping from the mountain. The tour continued to the Los Tilos Forest where we walked along a deep gorge with lush vegetation to a waterfall with only a small amount of water dripping down the face of the cliff. The tour continued on along the San Andreas coast through the town of San Andreas y Sauces to the coast near the natural pools of Charcol Azul. From here, we walked along the San Andreas Coast to the town of San Andreas while admiring spectacular coastline views. After lunch in the Old Quarter of San Andreas, we went back to the port. Before reboarding the ship, we walked through a portion of Old Town Santa Cruz de La Palma and past the Town Hall to the Plaza de Espana. After a brief visit to the beach, we returned to the ship for a 5:00 PM departure to the Lanzarote Island where we arrived at Arrecife at 8:00 AM on Sunday, 7 April.

Lanzarote is sometimes referred to as “Isla de Fuego” since it has 300 volcanic peaks. I went on the Timanfaya Moonscape Trekking excursion to the Timanfaya National Park which encompasses the volcanic landscape surrounding the Fire Mountains. It stretches across 19 square miles of Lanzatote’s northwest coast. The fire Mountains resulted from dramatic volcanic eruptions between 1730 and 1736. After a bus ride to the park, we hiked to and through the volcanic crater of the first 1730 volcano eruption. The volcanic landscape was dramatic, and we hiked to view several lava gorges, volcanic canals, and lava tubes. The guide cut the hike short due to some older people on the hike and added a stop at a winery on the return to the ship.

We departed Arrecife at 5:00 PM and, after sailing overnight, we arrived at Agadir, Morocco, on Monday, 8 April. Agadir seems to be best known as a beach resort city for European visitors. Although Agadir has some interesting sightseeing destinations, since we had a 1:00 PM departure, we decided to walk in the vicinity of the beach area. After taking a shuttle bus from the port to a downtown adjacent popular beach area, we walked to the expansive public beach with several small sections reserved for guests of the hotels that were situated uphill from the beach. The beach was very clean and several people were offering rides on their camels. We walked uphill through the Berber market area before descending a stairway through a mini-souk leading back down to the beach and returned to the port.

After departing Agadir, we sailed overnight and arrived at Casablanca, Morocco, on Tuesday, 9 April. John, Nancy, Jan, and I had booked a private tour for sightseeing at both Casablanca and Rabat with a stop for lunch at Rick’s Café. We located our guide after disembarking and began our tour with the first stop at the Hassan II Mosque from which we could see the El Hank Lighthouse in the distance. The Hassan II Mosque is magnificent both inside and outside. Our next stop was at the Tropicana Beach Club for photos of the surrounding landscape and of a sign with a picture of the Morocco Royal Family. We drove past the Casablanca Cathedral en route to the Mohammed V Square. The cathedral is now open to the public as a museum. The new Casablanca Grand Theater is currently being constructed across the street from the square. The square is a popular tourist destination and features a beautiful fountain and people dressed up in traditional Moroccan attire.

The next stop was in the Jewish Quarter at the Temple Beth-El. We visited the temple where we were able to photograph the interior and the beautiful stained glass windows. We continued to the New Medina for a quick stop at a tourist shop and then to the Old Medina where we walked through a portion of the Central Market. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at Rick’s Café before driving to Rabat.

We drove past a Rabat lighthouse near the Kasbah of the Udayas where we walked downhill through the garden inside the Kasbah. Since we were time-limited, we were unable to visit within the main interior portion of the Kasbah. We continued on to the Hassan Tower, which is the minaret of an incomplete mosque. It was commissioned by Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, the third Calif of the Almohad Caliphate, in 1195. The tower was intended to be the world’s largest but construction on the mosque stopped when al-Mansur died in 1199. At 44 m (140 ft) high, the tower is approximately half of its intended 86 m (260 ft) height. The rest of the mosque was also left incomplete with only the beginnings of several walls and 348 columns being constructed. The Mausoleum of Mohammed V is situated on the opposite side of the Hassan Tower.

The next stop was at the Chellah, a fortified medieval Muslim necropolis. The Phoenicians established a trading emporium at the site and it was later the site of an ancient Roman colony. The Berber Almohads used the site as a burial ground and the Marinids, who rebuilt the site during the 13th century, built a complex that included a mosque, minaret, and royal tombs. Many of the remaining ruins are now the home to white storks that nest on top of the ruins.

The last stop at Rabat was at Dar al-Makhzen, the primary and official residence of the king of Morocco. We were able to view the main residence from a distance and take a couple of photos before driving back to Casablanca.

Since it was late in the afternoon, the traffic on the main highway in the vicinity of Casablanca was near gridlock. Our guide and driver decided to take an alternate route through the Old Quarter in hopes of making the travel time shorter. The traffic in the Old Quarter was some of the most congested that I have ever witnessed. When we finally returned to the port, our tour had lasted for more than ten hours.

We departed Casablanca at 9:00 PM and, after sailing overnight, arrived at Tangier, Morocco, on Wednesday, 10 April at 8:00 AM. Jan and I went on the Tangier Highlights excursion which began with a walking tour at the Bab Al Kasba entrance and continued through the Kasbah of Tangier to the Kasbah Museum. After visiting the Kasbah Museum, we exited the Kasbah and continued walking through the Tangier Medina which is also referred to as the Grand Socco. The Grand Socco was reminiscent of walking through portions of Old Jerusalem.

We were served a light snack at the Continental Hotel before exiting the medina to board a bus to continue driving through the diplomatic district and on to Cap Spartel. Cap Spartel is the geographical dividing point with the Atlantic Ocean to the west meeting the Mediterranean Sea to the east. Before departing Cap Spartel to return to the port, we also visited the Grotto of Hercules which has two openings, one to land and the other to the ocean.

We departed Tangier at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to Portimao, Portugal, arriving Portimao at 8:00 AM on Thursday, 11 April. Jan and I went on the Moorish City of Silves excursion with the first stop at a viewpoint overlooking Silves. The panoramic views were spectacular from the viewpoint with the Silves Cathedral and the Moorish Castle dominating the hilltop above the old city. We passed a Roman bridge as we entered Silves. We walked from the bus through the Central Market and continued uphill through the wall into the old city en route to the castle. We walked past the Cathedral just before arriving at the gate to the Moorish castle. The castle was a very impressive structure with many photo opportunities. After visiting the castle, we visited the Silves Archaeological Museum before returning to the port.

We departed Portimao at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to Lisbon, Portugal, arriving Lisbon on Friday, 12 April at 7:00 AM. Since this was the end of the Atlantic Ocean Crossing portion of a collector voyage to Rome, Italy, we disembarked to walk to downtown Lisbon to drink a cappuccino and did a bit of shopping. It had been a wonderful voyage across the Atlantic Ocean with wonderful ports of call to visit.

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  November 2018
Chengdu, China

Travel Notes


I wanted to return to Xinjiang Province, China, in November 2018. However, after I booked roundtrip travel from the USA to Chengdu, China, I determined that ten days in China would not allow sufficient time for an adequate return trip to Xinjiang. As a fallback position, I researched possible day trips from Chengdu and decided to stay in Chengdu. I also arranged for an early morning check in at the Chengdu Holiday Inn Chengdu Oriental Plaza hotel prior to departing for China.

I arrived at Chengdu, China, on Friday, 2 November 2018 at about 6:00 AM. After clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and took a local taxi to my hotel. The hotel front desk was expecting me and my room was ready for my immediate occupancy. I frequently stay at this hotel when I am in Chengdu, and its downtown location is very convenient. The entrance to the Dongmen Bridge Metro Station is less than 50 meters from the front door of the hotel. The popular Chunxi Street district is also only a short walk from the hotel.

I spent the first couple of days walking around the Chunxi Street district and researching possible daytrips and rail transportation to various destinations in and nearby Chengdu that I had not previously visited. I finally decided that I would take three high speed rail trips to three different UNESCO World Heritage Sites and used Ctrip on my computer to make my high speed train ticket reservations. The following day I took the metro to the Chengdu East Railway station and purchased my high speed train tickets. I was now ready to explore several local Chengdu sites as well as the three high speed rail day trips.

I chose the Jinsha Site Museum for my first day trip visit. This major archaeological site in Chengdu’s western suburbs was discovered in 2001 and contains ruins of the 3,000 year old Shu Kingdom. It covers an area of approximately 38,000 square meters (9 acres) and includes a Relics Hall, an Exhibition Hall, and an Ecological Garden. Altogether, 63 sacrificial spots, 6,000 pieces of precious relics, over 70 building sites, and 3 centralized cemeteries have been unearthed here. Compared to other sites of this same time period, it has the most concentrated ancient ivory, the most gold articles and the most jade. This museum is on the list of Important Monuments under Special Preservation by the State Council. The famous gold Jinsha Sunbirds Foil is exhibited here and has become the symbol of China’s cultural legacy.

On Tuesday, 6 November, I took the metro from the hotel to the station closest to the Jinsha Site. I arrived at the site and visited the Relics Hall first. It is an impressive open span structure with an area of 7,000 square meters (2 acres) with column-free space above the excavation site. There are walkways both around and through the site with photos and written descriptions at the locations of the most precious relic excavations. I continued on to the Exhibition Hall which consisted of a basement and three floors above ground. The enormous collection of exhibits is amazing and wonderfully displayed. This is a must-see Chengdu attraction.

The morning of Wednesday, 7 November, I took the high speed railway to Dujiangyan City to visit the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, the oldest and only surviving no-dam irrigation system in the world. This irrigation system was invented around 250 BC during the Warring States period by Li Bing. He gave up on the old ways of dam building, which were mainly directed at flood control, and devised a new method of channeling and dividing the water of the Min River. He accomplished this by separating the project into two main parts: the headwork and the irrigation system. This system has functioned for 2,000 years to prevent floods and to provide substantial irrigation. In 2000, Dujiangyan became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After arriving at Dijiangyan City, I first explored two of the ornate bridges over a portion of the Minjiang River before paying for admission and entering the Dijiangyan Irrigation Site. I hiked along the main picturesque path to a temple that was overlooking the river with one segment of the Anlan Suspension Bridge visible at some distance upstream. The literature describes this bridge as the most scenic place of the entire irrigation project. I continued hiking upstream along the artificial island to the Anlan Bridge. It was comprised of two segments that spanned the entire river from the island. Only one segment is open to pedestrians and I walked across that segment to the other side where I had the option of hiking along and over the mountains downstream or returning to the island and hiking back downstream. Since I was marginal on time to return to the train station, I opted to return the way that I had come to the bridge. After a short taxi ride to the railway station, I took the high speed train back to Chengdu.

On Thursday, 8 November, I took the metro to visit the Yongling Museum that is built on the foundations of the Yongling Mausoleum, the only known above ground imperial tomb in China. It is also known as the Tomb of Wang Jian, the founder of the Former Shu Regime during a chaotic period after the Tang Dynasty, who ruled as emperor of the Shu Kingdom.

The Yongling Mausoleum has a circular base 80 meters (262 feet) in diameter and stands 15 meters (48 feet) high with 14 archways made of gray bricks. Wooden doors partition the burial chamber into three sections. The first section serves as an aisle. The coffin platform of Wang Jian occupies the middle section and a platform with a stone statue of Wang Jian occupies the back section. The tomb interior is decorated with carvings of dancers, musicians, and murals. The tomb had been looted prior to its discovery during a 1942 archaeological excavation. The Exhibition Hall is a three story building with exhibits from the life and times of Wang Jiang. It also contains the remaining artifacts, including the jade belt, left behind when the tomb was looted. In addition, the area surrounding the mausoleum is known as Yongling Park which provides a wonderful tranquil environment with pavilions, statues, and enchanting landscapes.

I decided to walk from Yongling Park to the Sichuan Museum. I took a photo of the Diajiang Cottage and ate lunch at a wonderful small Chinese Halal restaurant. As I continued walking, I came upon a beautiful street with sculptures and a center median that divided wonderful ancient-like buildings on both sides. As I arrived at the river, I photographed a bridge and a beautiful pagoda. After I arrived at the Sichuan Museum, I realized that I had visited this museum on a previous trip to Chengdu. The museum has very nice exhibits of bronze, jade, and Buddhist statuary. Since it was already late afternoon, I walked to the closest metro station and returned to my hotel.

On Friday, 9 November, I took the high speed train to the Mount QingCheng UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mount QingCheng is also known as Qingchenshan. When I arrived at the Qingchenshan railway station, I found that I needed to take either a bus or taxi for the fourty minute drive to the Qingchengshan entrance. By the time I arrived at the entrance, I realized that I should have allowed at least two days for a visit to this site. After entering the site, I walked through the Tia’an Ancient City, which was very picturesque, and across the Weijiang Rope Bridge. I then rode the Jinli Ropeway up the mountain to the Upper Jinli Ropeway stop which was about midway up the mountain. From here I hiked a trail that went around the mountain to Jade-Green Lake until I had to turn back if I wanted to be able to keep my ticketed seat on the high speed train back to Chengdu. There is another ropeway called the White Cloud Ropeway which goes much higher to a station relatively close to the summit. Even though the weather was overcast, the scenery was spectacular, and I decided I would like to return during a future trip to China.

On Saturday, 10 November, I took the high speed train to the Mount Emei UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mount Emei is also known as Emeishan. The entrance to Emeishan is also a long bus ride from the Emeishan railway station. This site is another place that I should have allowed a minimum of two days to visit. I took a bus to the Wuxian Parking Lot entrance to Emeishan and determined that I only had enough time to explore a portion of the Qingyin Pavilion Scenic Area.

Since I had multiple hiking routes available, I decided to hike toward the wild monkey area. I hiked along the river past Qingyin Lake and crossed a stone bridge with monkey head sculptures along the side rails. I continued on to the twin bridges with a pavilion where a sign said that this was the best place to take photos at Emeishan. After taking some photos, I continued on to the Qingyin Pavilion where I made a quick visit before continuing on toward the wild monkey area. I passed an area with exquisite rock carved statuary and continued on the trail until my watch indicated that I needed to return to catch my train back to Chengdu. Since there are multiple places that provide lodging accommodations at various locations on Emeishan, I plan to spend some time here during a return trip to China.

Sunday, 11 November, was my last day at Chengdu, and I decided to take the metro to Tianfu Square to visit the Chengdu Museum. The Chengdu Museum is located adjacent to Tianfu Square in a relatively new building with multiple floors of exhibits. I was most impressed with the huge exhibitions of puppetry that included both shadow puppets and marionette puppets, as well as theatrical costumes. There were also exhibits of Chengdu Sichuan cuisine, early Chengdu street fast food vendors, and early Chengdu lifestyles. In addition to a Chengdu teahouse exhibit, there was a boat coffin from the Warring States Period. There were also many interesting bronze exhibits including a bronze chess set.

This museum concluded my sightseeing, and I departed Chengdu on Monday, 12 November, to fly back home to Los Angeles.

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  October 2018

Travel Notes


Jan and I arrived at Amman, Jordan on Wednesday, 10 October, and were met at the airport by a representative of Bridge Travel, the agency that we had contracted with for our tour of Jordan. He helped us navigate the immigration process into Jordan and escorted us to an area in front of the terminal where he introduced us to Kamel who would be our driver for the tour. Kamel drove us to our hotel and informed us that two ladies from Canada would also be accompanying us on the tour. After checking into the hotel, Kamel said that he would meet us in the hotel lobby at 8:00 AM the following morning to begin our five day sightseeing tour of Jordan.

We joined Kamel and the two Canadian ladies, Kathy and Sandy, to begin the first full day of our five day Jordan tour in the very comfortable small bus. Our first stop was at Mount Nebo which is located in the Madaba Governorate and has an elevation of 710 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level. This is mentioned in the Old Testament as the place where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land. The view from the summit provides a panorama of the Holy Land, and to the north, a more limited view of the valley of the River Jordan. The West Bank city of Jericho is usually visible, as is Jerusalem on a very clear day. Some scholars believe that Moses was buried here.

The remains of a Byzantine church and monastery were discovered on Mount Nebo in 1933. The church had been constructed during the second half of the 4th century AD to commemorate the place of Moses’ death. The church was enlarged in the late 5th century AD and rebuilt in AD 597. The church is first mentioned in an account of a pilgrimage made by a lady Aetheria in AD 394. Six tombs have been found hollowed from the natural rock beneath the mosaic-covered floor of the church. A modern chapel was built to protect the site and the remnants of the mosaic floors from different periods. This chapel was closed for renovation from 2007 until 2016.

A serpentine cross sculpture (the Brazen Serpent Monument) on the summit was created by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni in 2005. It is symbolic of the bronze serpent created by Moses in the wilderness and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

Pope John Paul II visited Mount Nebo in March 2000 and planted an olive tree beside the Byzantine chapel as a symbol of peace. Pope Benedict XVI visited the site in 2009, gave a speech, and looked from the summit in the direction of Jerusalem.

Our next stop was at the town of Madaba, the capital city of the Madaba Governorate and once a Moabite border city. During the rule of the Roman and Byzantine empires from the end of the 2nd to 7th centuries, the city formed part of the Provincia Arabia set up by Roman Emperor Trajan to replace the Nabathaean kingdom of Petra. Here we visited the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George to see the famous 4th century Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of the church. The map depicted many places including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Jericho, the Nile Delta, Kerak, St. Lot’s Monastery, and Hebron. We had seen a photo of this mosaic map when we visited the Roman agora in Old Jerusalem and it was very exciting to see the original mosaic map in person.

Our next stop was at the town of Al-Karak, the capital city of the Karak Governorate, and home to the Kerak Crusader castle. Al-Karak has been inhabited since at least the Iron Age and was an important city to the Moabites. It has an elevation of 930 meters (3,051 feet) above sea level and is surrounded on three sides by a valley. The town is built of a plateau with the castle at the narrow southern tip. The castle was originally built during 1132 and has been modified many times. The castle was in the hands of the Crusaders for 46 years. After being threatened by Saladin’s armies several times, it finally surrendered in 1188 following a siege that lasted more than a year. The main significance of the castle was its control over the caravan route between Damascus and Egypt.

As we continued en route to Petra, we stopped for a short visit at Shoubak village where we saw what is billed as the “World’s Smallest Hotel,” an old Volkswagen beetle that had been converted into a hotel room in front of a cave dwelling for a man who served tea to us. He gave me three ancient coins and an interesting fossil while we were there.

The Montreal Crusader castle (also referred to as Shoubak castle) was situated on the summit of a mountain overlooking this location. The Montreal castle was originally built during 1115 AD as a Crusader castle. It was strategically important because it also dominated the main passage between Egypt and Syria. After a siege lasting nearly two years, the castle fell to Saladin in 1189. We drove past the Montreal Crusader castle after departing Shoubak as we continued our journey to the town of Petra where we would spend the night.

Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Ma’an Governorate at an elevation of 810 meters (2,657 feet) above sea level. Petra is believed to have been settled as early as 9,000 BC, and was possibly established in the 4th century BC as Nabatea, the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom. The Nabataeans were nomadic Arabs who invested in Petra’s proximity to major trade routes. The Nabataeans established Petra as a major trading hub. In 106 AD, Petra fell to the Romans who annexed and renamed Nabatea to Arabia Petra. Petra’s importance declined as sea routes emerged and after a 363 AD earthquake destroyed many structures. By the early Islamic era, Petra became an abandoned place where only a few nomads lived. It remained unknown to the world until it was rediscovered in 1812 by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.

According to Arab tradition, Petra is the spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth. It is also the place where Moses’ brother, Aaron, is buried at Mount Hor, known today as Jabal Haroun or Mount Aaron. A mountaintop shrine to Moses’ sister, Miriam, was still shown to pilgrims at the time of Jerome in the 4th century, but its location has not been identified since.

On Friday morning, 12 October, Kamel introduced us to our guide for the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site of Petra. We walked from our hotel to the entrance of Pertra Archaeological Park where the guide purchased our admission tickets. We entered through the eastern entrance by walking past the Bab Al Siq monument, known as the the gateway to the Siq, and through the 1.2 kilometer long famous Al Siq, a deep narrow gorge passage in some places only 3 to 4 meters wide, to the main portion of Petra where Petra’s most impressive facade, Al Khazneh (popularly known as “the Treasury”), is hewn into the sandstone cliff. The Treasury is nearly 40 meters high and is believed to be the mausoleum of Nabataean King Aretas IV.

Our English speaking guide was wonderful and took great care to describe the various features and areas of Petra that we visited. We walked along the Street of Facades past the Theater which is unique in that it is carved completely into the sandstone rock. The Royal Tombs are located further along and across the Street of Facades from the Theater. We continued on to the Colonnaded Street which was a Roman shopping area and past the Great Temple Complex. Across from the Great Temple, I decided to ride a mule up the Al-Deir (Monastery) Trail with more than 730 ancient steps up a mountain gorge with steep cliffs while Jan, Kathy, and Sandy decided to visit The Church where floor mosaics have been preserved.

The Al-Deir Trail was 2.5 kilometers up to the Al-Dier (popularly known as “the Monastery”). The Monastery is Petra’s largest monument and dates from the 1st century BC. It is carved into a mountaintop and measures 47 meters wide and 48.3 meters high. According to information inscribed on the ruins of the Monastery, it was dedicated to Obodas I and is believed to be the symposium of Obodas the God. After visiting the Monastery, I rode the mule back down the Al-Dier Trail and then walked back to the main entrance where I met up with Jan, Kathy, Sandy, and Kamal.

After visiting Petra, we drove to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wadi Rum (also known as Valley of the Moon). In Arabic, “wadi” means valley and Wadi Rum is the largest wadi in Jordan. Wadi Rum is a desert with an elevation of 1,750 meters (5,741 feet) above sea level. It was featured in the 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia and is credited with kick-starting Jordan’s tourism industry. This portion of our tour should have been billed as an overnight Bedouin desert experience with a Bedouin dinner and breakfast along with a jeep tour.

After checking into our hotel, Desert Planet Camp, Kathy, Sandy, and I went on the jeep Safari Wadi Rum billed as one of the most impressive desert landscapes in the world with sand dunes and the Nabataen rock inscriptions. I must confess that, although the Nabataen rock petroglyphs were interesting, this tour was nothing special. I have seen better desert landscapes in other places during my worldwide travels.

While our other hotels were rated as four star hotels, this hotel would barely rate as a one star hotel. The Bedouin dinner was good but the morning breakfast was subpar. While other hotel camps at Wadi Rum got very good reviews, this hotel camp got many bad reviews. What could have been a wonderful unique desert experience turned out to be just so-so. My visit to the Tar Desert in western India was by far superior to this Wadi Rum experience.

Early Saturday morning, 13 October, we drove to the Wadi Rum Hejaz Train Station to see the refurbished locomotive complete with vintage rail cars. The Hejaz Railway train originally ran from Istanbul to Medina and Mecca via Damascus and Wadi Rum. It provided the main line of communication and supplies within the Ottoman Turkish Empire. During the Great Arab Revolt, the Arabs fought a guerilla-style war interrupting train passages on the Hejaz Railway. In the first three weeks of May 1918 alone, the Arabs destroyed railway tracks on 25 separate occasions, wreaking havoc on Turkish lines of communication, and were instrumental in defeating the Turks. On certain occasions, visitors may pay to board this train at Wadi Rum and partake in a mock battle during a show put on by the Jordan Heritage Revival Company.

After arriving at Aqaba to visit the Red Sea, we decided to take a glass bottom boat tour on the Red Sea and saw a military tank submerged in the sea and some very nice coral. Jan went snorkeling among the coral while Kathy and Sandy swam near the boat. Jan said that the coral was so good that she would like to include the Red Sea as a destination on any future Middle Eastern trips. After returning to the hotel, we relaxed and went for a walk around the market area of Aqaba.

On Sunday, 14 October, we drove to the Jordan resort hotel zone area at the Dead Sea and checked into our hotel. The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world at 394 meters (1,269 feet) below sea level and the water is too salty for marine inhabitation. It is naturally endorheic with the Jordan River being its only major source. Jan and I hiked down from the hotel to the beach area where Jan went floating in the sea and Dead Sea mud was available for tourists to cover their bodies for health benefits.

Kamel met us early Monday morning and drove Jan and me north to the town of Jerash, the capital city of Jerash Governorate with an elevation of 600 meters (1,968 feet) above sea level. We visited the ancient Roman city of Gerasa which was later named Jerash. Ancient Greek inscriptions from the city support that the city was founded by Alexander the Great and his General Perdiccas, who allegedly settled aged Macedonian soldiers there during the spring of 331 BC. Other sources point to a founding by King Antioch IV while other sources attribute the founding to Ptolemy II of Egypt. The Romans conquered the city in 63 BC. In AD 106, the Roman Emperor Trajan constructed roads throughout the province bringing more trade to Jerash. The Emperor Hadrian visited Jerash during AD 129-130 and the Arch of Hadrian was built to commemorate his visit. Jerash is considered to be one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world outside Italy.

Kamel introduced us to our English speaking guide, Mohammed, who led us through the archaeological site with wonderful descriptions of the ruins. Jerash included a hippodrome, two Roman amphitheaters, the oval Forum, a colonnaded street, the Arch of Hadrian, the Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Artemis, a Nymphaeum fed by an aquaduct, and a Hebrew-Aramaic mosaic. The city flourished until 749 AD when the Galilee earthquake destroyed large parts of it. The subsequent 847 Damascus earthquake contributed to additional destruction. Jerash was a marvelous site and should not be missed when visiting Jordan.

We continued to the town of Ajloun, the capital town of the Ajloun Govenornate with an elevation of 719 meters (2,508 feet) above sea level. We visited the Ajloun Castle which is located on the site of an old monastery at the summit of Auf Mountain. The castle was constructed as a fort in 1184 by Izz al-Din Usama, a general in Saladin’s army and was one of the very few Muslim fortresses built by the Ayyubids to protect their realm against Crusader incursions. After Kerak castle fell to the Saladin Ayyrubids in AD 1187, the Ajloun castle lost its military importance. The castle was renovated several times prior to a recent restoration program by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan. We hired an English speaking guide who provided us with a very informative tour of the castle.

After visiting the Ajloun Castle, Kamel drove us back to Amman and took us on what was described as a panorama tour of Amman. This tour drove us through the old section of Amman, the new section of Amman, and to the Amman Citadel before taking us to our Amman hotel for our last night in Jordan.

Kamel drove us to the Amman international Airport early on the morning of 16 October to catch our Royal Jordanian flight to Chicago where we connected for a flight home to Los Angeles. Although this was a short trip for us, it provided a wonderful and varied tour of Jordan.

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  September 2018
Colorado Revisited

Travel Notes


After hearing about my trip to Colorado in June, Sunny, my friend from Taiwan, came to Los Angeles to go hiking with me near Colorado Springs, Colorado, before continuing on to visit Mexico and Guatemala. While in Colorado for eight days, we revisited places from my prior trip and hiked at elevations from 6,000 to 14,000 feet.

On Monday, 3 September, we flew from Los Angeles to Denver, Colorado, where I rented a car and drove to Colorado Springs. Since Colorado Springs has an elevation of 6,035 feet above sea level, we walked around downtown Colorado Springs during the afternoon to begin the process of altitude acclimation.

After breakfast on Tuesday, 4 September, we drove to the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center to introduce Sunny to the Garden of the Gods park and get an overview of the Pikes Peak Region. We began our Garden of the Gods visit at the North Main Parking Lot and hiked both the Upper Loop Trail and the south extension loop trail. Once again, the red rock formations were magnificent against the clear blue sky. We then drove to the Scotsman Picnic Area Parking Lot and hiked along the Gateway Trail to the Siamese Twins Trail. After hiking the complete Siamese Twins trail and hiking back to the car, we stopped to visit the famous Balanced Rock. Upon returning to Colorado Springs, we once again walked throughout the downtown area and to show Sunny the Pioneer Museum.

On Wednesday, 5 September, we drove to the parking lot where the complimentary shuttle buses transport visitors to and from the Broadmoor Seven Waterfalls. We took the first bus of the day and, upon arriving at the entrance gate, hiked nearly a mile along South Cheyenne Creek to the base area of the Seven Waterfalls. Seven Waterfalls is where the South Cheyenne Canyon Creek cascades 181 feet down a granite cliff forming seven distinct waterfalls.

Before hiking the 224-step stairway along the falls, Sunny hiked the steep stairway to the Eagle’s Nest viewing platform which afforded wonderful panoramic views of the canyon and waterfalls. I opted to take the elevator up to the viewing platform, and we both took the elevator down from the platform. We continued hiking to the falls and then hiked the 224-step stairway to the top of the falls at an elevation of 6,800 feet.

After arriving at the top of the waterfalls, we decided to first hike the 1.5 mile round-trip trail to Inspiration Point. The trail passes Helen Hunt Jackson’s gravesite, and the views from along this trail were stunning. We also hiked the trail to Midnight Falls before descending the 224 steps to the bottom of the falls. The descent on the stairway alongside the falls was much faster than our initial climb to the top. After hiking back to the free shuttle bus, we drove to Cripple Creek with an elevation of 9,494 feet.

Cripple Creek and nearby Victor are located on the western slopes of Pikes Peak. A major gold strike was made in 1890 and 1891 in Cripple Creek and Victor. In prehistoric times, the area was volcanic which created the riches that made this mining district famous. The six square miles that make up the Cripple Creek & Victor Mining District are located in the caldera of an extinct volcano. The millions of dollars made from 1891 to the present time earned it the title of the World’s Greatest Gold Camp.

The gold rush brought lumber yards, hotels, 100 saloons, over 40 assay offices, an equal number of brokerage firms, 80 doctors, 91 lawyers, and 14 newspapers. Electricity lighted the streets in 1892 and in 1893 the city’s water system was completed. All of the buildings in Cripple Creek were wooden and during 1896 two fires destroyed the business district and many residences. After the fires, the city fathers ordained that the business district must be built in brick. Today many of the 1890’s brick buildings on Bennett Avenue are home to modern-day casinos, shops, and restaurants.

Our first stop on the drive to Cripple Creek was at a viewpoint overlooking the caldera where Cripple Creek is located. The next stop was at the Cripple Creek Heritage and Information Center overlooking the town of Cripple Creek. In addition to tourist information, it has wonderful exhibits of the gold mining era, geology, Colorado dinosaurs, and a wall of windows overlooking the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Across the road from the Heritage Center is an overlook viewpoint for Poverty Gulch.

After arriving in Cripple Creek and checking into the Century Casino Hotel on Bennett Street, we walked slowly, due to the higher altitude, along Bennett Street to the old Midland Terminal. The Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad operates from this Railway station. The train has a 15 ton locomotive of the 0-4-0 type typical of the early day steam engines. It belches smoke from a coal fired boiler, with sounds of steam, a piercing whistle, and the sound of working steel on steel during the four mile round-trip. The conductor narrates the journey as it passes many old gold mine sites en route to Echo Valley where it backs up, turns around, and returns to the old Midland Terminal. Since the train had ceased operations for the day, we decided that we might take a ride on it the following day if time permitted.

Thursday, 6 September, was another picture perfect day. We walked back to the old Midland Terminal and hiked the Gold Camp Trail from the station up through Poverty Gulch most of the way to the upper trailhead on Teller County Road (TCR) 82 across the road from the Hoosier Mine. It is nearly one mile long and begins at 9,528 feet altitude. Traveling the entire trail round-trip is 1.9 miles with a total elevation gain of 500 feet. This was a trail that I had not previously hiked and it was wonderful.

Upon returning to Cripple Creek, we drove to the Mollie Kathleen Mine to take the tour of the mine. The mine was started in 1891 on a mining claim staked by Mollie Kathleen Gortner, after whom the mine was named. Except for a suspension of mining during World War II that was ordered by the Government, the mine operated continuously until it was closed in 1961. It is a historic vertical shaft mine that descends 1,000 feet into the mountain, a depth roughly equal to the height of the Empire State Building in New York City. Visitors are crammed into a skip and lowered approximately 1,000 feet down the vertical mine shaft to an area with horizontal shafts for the tour.

Since we just missed a tour about to begin, we purchased our tickets and explored the exhibits above ground. These included an old steam shovel, a steam engine tractor, a belt driven saw mill, and various other mining artifacts. When it was time for our tour, we were instructed to put on hard hats and were crammed into a skip. The skip was lowered by a steel cable from the headframe down a vertical shaft to a depth of 1,000 feet below the surface. Electric lights illuminated the horizontal mining shafts where we were escorted by our tour guide who had spent his entire working career in the vertical hard rock mines. He stopped at several different stations where he demonstrated the evolution of the techniques and equipment through the years of this mine. He actually demonstrated various types of drills used for blasting the hard rock shafts. In addition, he took us for a short ride on an air driven locomotive in one of the horizontal shafts. I had not been here before and it was an exceptionally wonderful tour!

After this tour, the guide directed us to Teller County Road (TCR) 82 where we drove to the Hoosier Mine for some photos and continued on TCR 82 to the Grassy Valley Mining Overlook. This overlook features a CAT 793 Haul Truck Bed that has been converted to an observation deck. The 360-degree view from here takes in the historic Grassy Valley, Pikes Peak, and one of Newmont Mining historic preservation sites known as Hoosier Mine, an open pit mine. We drove to TCR 83 and continued to Victor Pass before returning to Cripple Creek.

Back in Cripple Creek, we returned to the old Midland Terminal where we rode the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. Sunny sat at the very back of the open sided car so she could take unobstructed photos from the rear of the train.

On Friday morning, 7 September, we stopped en route to Victor, Colorado, and hiked the Little Grouse Mountain Trail. It was another beautiful morning and this trail is another trail that I had not hiked previously. It is approximately one mile long and passes by the relocated American Eagles Mine above the Eagles Historic Overlook. The view from the overlook features the Sangre de Cristo mountain range to the south, the Collegiate Mountain peaks to the west, and Cripple Creek to the north. The view from the overlook was very good in the morning sunlight. The Sangre de Cristo range forms the state border with New Mexico.

We continued on to the town of Victor. After walking around this historic mining town, we drove along Highway 83 to the lower trailhead for the Vindicator Mine Trail, which I had hiked during my trip in June. After hiking the Vindicator Mine Trail, Sunny wanted to return to the Grassy Valley Overlook for a final farewell look at the area before driving to Manitou Springs.

After arriving in Manitou Springs, we walked around the city and sampled some of the water from the seven naturally carbonated mineral springs that once made Manitou Springs famous.

On Saturday, 8 September, we drove the Pikes Peak Highway to the summit of Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet elevation. It was a beautiful day with bright sunshine, and it was very crowded because of the “Pikes Peak Challenge,” a special hiking event. The Challenge consists of a 13 mile hike from Manitou Springs to the summit of Pikes Peak along the Barr Trail with a 7,500 feet increase in elevation. Medals are presented to everyone who completes the Challenge. There were remnants of fresh snowfall from a rain two days before which made our photos more interesting. We enjoyed looking at the places that we had visited several days before from the summit.

On Sunday, 9 September, we decided to hike the Manitou Incline. It is classified as an extreme hike with many cautionary signs at the trailhead. This trail was once the railway for the historic Manitou Incline. The rails have been removed from the railroad ties which now become stepping areas to climb the 2,744 steps straight up the side of the mountain. The trail begins at an elevation of 6,600 feet and ascends 2,000 feet to the summit at approximately 8,600 feet elevation.

Sunny had already reached the top well in advance of me. However, after a long slow hike, I finally reached the summit where I ate the snack that I had brought with me. We took a short hike around the summit before descending. The descent back to Manitou Springs was a four mile winding portion of a connector trail and the Barr Trail. After reaching the lower trailhead, my fitbit showed a total of 18,094 steps for the incline hike.

Before driving to the Denver airport on Monday morning, 10 September, we returned for one last visit to the Garden of the Gods. It was another picture perfect day and the colors were magnificent in the early morning sunshine. The flight back to Los Angeles was uneventful, and Sunny departed for Mexico on Tuesday morning, 11 September. It was another wonderful hiking trip to Colorado.

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  July 2018
Polar Ice Voyage

Travel Notes


Jan and I flew to Amsterdam, Holland, to board the Spitsbergen & Arctic Circle Explorer Holland America Voyage. We arrived at Amsterdam on Saturday, 14 July 2018, and checked into our hotel. That evening we walked around a portion of downtown Amsterdam and ate dinner at the Tibet Sichuan Restaurant where the food was very good. The following morning we visited the National Maritime Museum which is situated in a former naval storehouse built in 1656. The museum has a large collection of artifacts and many exhibits related to sailing and shipping. One such exhibit is the extensive map collection from the works of cartographers Willem Blaen and his son, Joan Blaen. The museum also has a first edition copy of “De Moluccis Insulis,” which is the first book to describe Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the world.

We viewed the Royal Barge built for King William I of the Netherlands between 1816 and 1818. It is currently on display in a specially designed boathouse. In addition, we toured the replica Dutch East Indies Company 18th century cargo ship, Amsterdam, which is moored adjacent to the museum.

The original ship, Amsterdam, was built in 1748 for the Dutch East Indies Trading Company. During its third attempt for a maiden voyage to transport cargo from Texel to Batavia, East Indies, it sank in the English Channel during a storm on 8 January 1749. The replica ship, Amsterdam, was built between 1985 and 1990 and towed to the museum.

While waiting in the cruise ship terminal to board the Prinsendam, we saw John and Nancy with whom we had sailed before. We were all surprised and delighted to reconnect on this voyage and shared many meals and activities throughout the voyage.

We boarded the Holland America Prinsendam on Monday, 16 July, to begin our Arctic Circle Explorer Voyage. After one sea day, we arrived at Alesund, Norway, on the morning of 18 July. We had booked the Holland America EXC Excursion “Romsdal & The Troll Path.” We were assigned to tour bus “White 6.” This excursion turned out to be very disappointing because the English Guide hired by EXC Excursions had such bad English that we could only understand every fifth or sixth word during her descriptive narrative which she had to read from a script. After we returned to the ship and complained about the quality of the excursion to Guest Services, they arranged for us to meet with the EXC Excursion manager who essentially just “blew us off.” Needless to say, we will have a much diminished view toward EXC Excursions on any future voyages with Holland America. Unfortunately, other people who paid for a future EXC Excursions tour will likely be subjected to this same incompetent tour guide. That said, the scenery was beautiful although I needed to spend several hours reviewing data on Google after I returned home, in order to properly caption my photos from this tour.

The tour began by following the shoreline of a couple of fjords to the village of Sjoholt. It continued on to drive by the Stordal Old Church en route to the Valldola River. The tour continued along the river for a photo stop at the Gudbrandsjuvet Gorge. The next stop was at the Troll Path Viewpoint which provided spectacular panorama views of the mountains, waterfalls, the large valley below, and a very winding road – the Trollstigen (Troll Path) – descending down to the valley floor. The bus slowly descended the Trollstigen and we stopped at Trollstigen Camping and ate at the Gjestegard restaurant for lunch. The tour continued through the valley to stop at the Troll Wall Visitor Center to view the Trollveggen (Troll Wall), which was completely obscured by clouds. The tour followed the Romsdals Fjord for a portion of the journey back to the ship. Prior to returning to the ship, I took several photos of the picturesque town of Alesund.

We spent the next two days at sea en route to Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The islands of the Svalbard group range from 74° to 81° north latitude, and from 10° to 35° east longitude. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 recognized Norway’s sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement on Spitzbergen and is situated on the Isfjorden at 78° degrees north latitude. Both whaling and coal mining were once flourishing industries but currently only Mine 7 remains operational. Remnants of the mining operations remain in and around Longyearbyen including portions of an aerial tramway that once transported coal from the mines to the ships.

The ship docked for several hours at Longyearbyen, and we walked around the settlement. There were signs to warn people of polar bears and not to go beyond certain limits without a rifle. Although the post office claimed to be the northern-most post office in the world, the post office at Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen, is farther north – it is amazing that I will have been to both the highest elevation post office at Everest Base Camp and at the northernmost post office at Spitsbergen within one calendar month. The northern-most ATM in the world is located here. Longyearbyen afforded travelers good photographic opportunities. The World Seed Bank is also located nearby Longyearbyen and was undergoing repairs.

The ship conducted scenic cruising in the Isfjord to allow views of the coastline, the World Seed Bank, Coal Harbor, and the glacier at the southern end of the fjord. The ship continued north along the coast of Spitsbergen arriving at Liefdefjorden to begin scenic cruising of the fjord to view several glaciers along the fjord including Erikbreen, Emmabreen, Seligerbreen, and the spectacular Monacobreen. After leaving Liefdefjorden, the ship continued farther north to Moffen Island where a walrus colony both on the beach and in the water was visible at a distance.

The original itinerary for the voyage called for the ship to continue farther north to the polar ice cap. Since the current satellite images for the ice cap showed the ice to be both much farther north and also to the west of Spitsbergen, the Captain decided to go the polar ice to the west. He also added scenic cruising of the Smeerenburg Fjord at the northwestern end of Spitsbergen en route to see the polar ice. The ship traveled into the Smeerenburg Fjord and continued into the Bjornfjord past Amsterdam Island, where another walrus colony was visible both in the water and on the beach. The ship cruised past numerous glaciers as we went to visit the Smeerenburg Glacier before continuing west to the polar ice.

We arrived at the portion of the polar ice cap to the west of Spitsbergen at a position of Latitude: 80°08.68’ N and Longitude: 007°28.29’ E. After slowing for a photo opportunity, the ship began a southeasterly course toward Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen.

Currently, Ny Alesund is a research station situated on the Kongsfjord where several arctic explorers launched expeditions to try to reach the North Pole. Both Admiral Byrd of the USA and Roald Amundsun of Norway launched their successful North Pole expeditions from Ny Alesund. The ship made a short duration stop at Ny Alesund on Monday, 23 July. Upon arrival, each passenger was given a map of the research station with a path on which tourists were instructed to remain while walking at Ny Alesund. Personnel from the ship were stationed along the tourist path to ensure that nobody strayed from the path. It was a very picturesque settlement with great landscape photo opportunities. Polar bear hazard signs were conspicuous. In addition to a wonderful museum with exhibits and relics from past arctic explorations, there was the post office which also laid claim to being the northernmost post office.

After departing from the Ny Alesund port, the ship continued with scenic cruising along the Kross Fjord and past the King Hook Peninsula into the Lilliehook Fjord to the Lilliehook Glacier which was approximately 7 kilometers wide. This glacier was spectacular and, while the ship navigated relatively close to the glacier, some crewmembers took a tender from the ship and brought a large piece of glacier ice aboard to display on the Lido Deck.

The ship charted a course toward Iceland and sailed past Jan Mayen Island early in the morning on Wednesday, 25 July. The island is volcanic with the last eruption in 1980. The Breerenberg Volcano is 2,277 meters high. Since the weather was very foggy as the ship approached Jan Mayen Island, the main portion of the island was totally obscured during the scheduled scenic cruising. A portion of the small southern tip of the island became recognizable as land after we had cruised past most of the island.

The ship arrived at Akureyri, Iceland, on 26 July. Akureyri is situated on the Eyjafjordur, which is Iceland’s longest fjord. After disembarking, we took a shore excursion from the ship that went along Eyjafjordur, across Vikurskard Pass, to the Fnjoskadalur Valley to the Lake Myvatn Region. The first stop of the tour was at Namafjall Hverir, which was a large region of high-temperature geothermal fumaroles and mud pots. The temperature at a depth of 1,000 meters is above 200° C. The steam contains fumarole gas such as hydrogen sulphide, and the hot springs produce considerable sulphur deposits.

The next stop was at Dimmuborgir, which was an area of lava labyrinths that formed during a volcanic eruption 2,000 years ago. There were extensive hiking trails within Dimmuborgir including lava castles, lava arches, and many lava grottoes. We took a short hike along a portion of a couple of the trails.

The tour continued to a viewpoint above Lake Myvatin for a panoramic view of the lake and the Skutusadir Craters. The restaurant where we ate lunch was across the road from this viewpoint. This region is also within the intersection of the North American and Euroasian tectonic plates, which are separating and leaving visible fissures in some of the mountains that we drove past.

After lunch, the tour proceeded to the Godafoss Waterfalls where we hiked along the river to view the falls both from the overview area and from alongside the river below the falls. The Godafoss Waterfalls is fed by the glacier river Skjalfandafjlot and is considerd to be one of the great waterfalls in Iceland. The Skajlfandafljot River is 180 km long and flows from the Vatnajokull Glacier. This was the last stop of the tour, and we returned to the ship via the same route we’d taken from the ship.

The ship conducted scenic cruising of Eyafjordur after departing Akureyri, en route to Isafjordur, Iceland, which is situated on the Isafjardardjup. We arrived at Isafjordur early in the morning on Friday, 27 July. After disembarking, we took a shore excursion to visit Thingeyri, Dynjandi Waterfalls, and Sudureyri Village. The first stop of the tour was at the small village of Thingeyri on the Dyrafjordur en route to the Dynandi Waterfall. A national monument, the Dynjandi Waterfall is situated at one end of the Arnarfjordur and is fed by the Dynjandis River. It is quite impressive as it consists of several waterfalls cascading down the mountain to the fjord. During the stop at Dynjandi, we were able to hike alongside the individual waterfalls as high as we wanted to go. After hiking past several waterfalls, I determined that the best photo opportunities were from the lower elevations. A lunch for the tour was provided here.

The next stop was at Sudureyri, a small fishing village where the guide showed us how fish are dried for future consumption. We were offered samples of the dried fish and fresh cod cakes as a snack and given hot beverages before boarding the bus to return to the ship. I took some photos of Isafjordur from the ship before departure. I also took several photos during scenic cruising of Isafjardardjup as we departed for a sea day en route to Reykjavik, Iceland.

We arrived at Reykjavik, Iceland, on the Sunday morning, 29 July, and were moored some distance from the main cruise ship terminal area. Since we were scheduled to spend two days in Reykjavik, we took a Golden Circle shore excursion on the first day to visit the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant, Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park. The first stop was at the geothermal power plant, with educational exhibits about Iceland’s geothermal electricity generation. We continued on to visit Gullfoss Waterfall, which is located in the canyon of the Hvita river. It is spectacular and is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. We hiked along the area above the falls to several viewing locations and then part-way down to a lower viewing area which was being deluged with mist from the falls. The Langjokull Glacier, the second largest glacier in Iceland, was visible in the distance from an upper viewing area.

The next stop was at the Geysir Geothermal Area, which is located in the Haukadalur Valley. It had many hot springs and at least one active geyser which erupted with some regularity. We watched two eruptions and went to have lunch in a new hotel across the road from Geysir. During lunch, additional eruptions could be seen through panoramic windows facing the geyser.

The final stop was at Thingvellir National Park, where we encountered rain. There was a large fissure which people could walk through to get to a valley below. The separation was purportedly caused by the continuing slow separation of the two tectonic plates that bisect Iceland. I took photos from above the separation and hiked in the rain part way down through the separation before returning to the tour bus. The bus drove to a parking lot in the valley below the separation to pick up members of our tour that hiked through the fissure in the rain down to the valley. The tour returned to the ship where we spent the night.

The following morning we planned to take the Hop On Hop Off bus to get an overview of Reykjavik but, since there were two other large cruise ships in port, the line for the bus was much too long. We ended up walking from the port along the water to the city center. Along the way, we passed the Recycled House, home to film director of the legendary feature The Raven Flies. It was very interesting and loaded with photo opportunities. We also passed the Partnership Sculpture, a duplicate of which is located in Miami, Florida, and finally took a street up the hill toward the city center. As we arrived at Laugavegur Street, we noticed the Icelandic Phallological Museum and since it was a Monday, we doubted that it would be open. We walked to the front door and discovered that it was open. What an amazing museum! It describes itself as the only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in a single country. It is definitely not to be missed when visiting Reykjavik.

Since Laugavegur Street is listed as one of Reykjavik’s main shopping streets, we walked along it to the intersection of Skolavordustigur Street. We took Skolavordustigur Street to the iconic Hallgrims Church. There were many wonderful photo opportunities as we walked around Reykjavik before walking back to the ship. Since the ship was moored at a remote location with no signage indicating the way to the ship, we encountered several missed approaches to the ship which added additional distance to our already lengthy hike into Reyjavik.

The Prinsendam departed Reykjavik on an overnight course to Heimay, Iceland, which is part of the Westman islands. Upon arriving at Heimay, the sea conditions were so unfavorable that the Captain opted to skip landing at Heimay and instead charted a course directly to Seydisfjordur, Iceland.

We arrived at Seydisfjordur Village on Wednesday, 1 August. Seydisfjordur Village is situated on Seydisfjordur fjord and was a quaint village with some interesting photo opportunities including the famous Blue Church. During the afternoon, the ship began cruising Seydisfjordur fjord en route to Rosyth, Scotland, which is situated on the Firth of Forth and serves as the port for Edinburgh, Scotland.

After another sea day, the radar mast on the Prinsendam was lowered to allow the ship to sail under the three bridges spanning the Firth of Forth. Sailing under the Forth Rail Bridge, the Forth Car Bridge, and the Queensferry Crossing Bridge provided a wonderful photo opportunity. We arrived at Rosyth, Scotland, on 3 August. After disembarking at Rosyth, we took a train to Waverly Station in downtown Edinburgh. August 3rd was the first day of not only the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo but also the first day of the Fringe Festival. The Fringe Festival has performances all over Edinburgh, and a portion of the Royal Mile was closed to vehicular traffic for some Fringe performance stages. Since our granddaughter performed at Fringe during the summer of 2017, we opted to join the masses to see part of the Fringe street performances. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon in Edinburgh.

In order to accommodate the passengers who took shore excursions to the Tattoo performance, the ship departed Edinburgh at approximately 1:00 AM on 4 August on a course back to Amsterdam, Holland. After another sea day, the ship arrived at Amsterdam early in the morning on Sunday, 5 August.

After disembarking from the ship, we took a taxi to a hotel near Schipol Airport to be positioned for flights back to Los Angeles. We flew home to Los Angeles on 6 August after a wonderful excursion above the Arctic Circle.

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  June 2018
Tibet, China & Mount Everest Base Camp

Travel Notes


Although I have been traveling to mainland China for several years, it is impossible as a foreigner to independently travel in the Tibet Autonomous Region unless traveling as part of a Chinese Government Approved Tour Group. After finally reconciling myself to the fact that I could only travel to Tibet as part of an approved tour group, I began researching tour groups and soliciting word-of-mouth recommendations from people who had traveled to Tibet or had friends who had traveled to Tibet. A good friend in Los Angeles, California, recommended Explore Tibet, an approved travel company in Lhasa, Tibet, that offers small group tours that include traveling to Mt. Everest Base Camp at an elevation of 5,200 meters (17,060 feet) above sea level.

Before I decided to book a trip to Tibet and Everest Base Camp, I took a trip to the Salta and JuJuay Provinces of northwest Argentina in January 2018 to determine if I would be able to physically acclimate to the very high altitudes of Tibet. The trip to Argentina was successful, and I seriously researched several Tibet travel organizations upon my return home. I finally decided that Explore Tibet offered the best small group package for me and booked their 8 Days Everest Base Camp Small Group Tour beginning 14 June 2018 at Lhasa, Tibet.

I would fly to Chengdu, China, and then Explore Tibet would obtain my Chinese Government Tibet Travel Permit, book round-trip Air China flights from Chengdu to Lhasa, and conduct my Tibet tour. After I sent the payment for the tour along with copies of my USA Passport and China Tourist Visa to Explore Tibet, I received full confirmation for my Tibet travel. Later, I received my e-ticket for the Air China Chengdu/Lhasa flights.

Since my home in Los Angeles is at sea level, I decided to travel to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for some high altitude mountain hiking to acclimate to higher altitudes before flying to Chengdu. While in Colorado for eight days, I hiked at elevations from 6,000 to 14,000 feet.

I arrived at Chengdu on 11 June and picked up my China Government issued Tibet Travel Permit which was waiting for me at my Chengdu hotel. Since all of my Tibet travel details were complete, I took a day trip to re-visit the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base on 12 June and the Leshan Giant Buddha on 13 June. The Leshan Giant Buddha is the largest stone carved Buddha image in the world.

On Thursday, 14 June, I flew from Chengdu to Lhasa. I was required to show my Tibet Travel Permit when I checked in for my flight, when I went through airport security, when I boarded the flight, and when I exited the baggage claim area at the Lhasa airport. Upon exiting the terminal, I saw a lady holding up a sign with my name on it. Her name was Migmar, and she would be my guide for the duration of my Tibetan travels. The elevation at Lhasa is approximately 3,600 meters (11,995 feet), and I could immediately feel the altitude with the thin dry air. Migmar immediately gave me a bottle of water to help with the altitude, and her driver drove me to Lhasa Tashi Takgye hotel in a ten passenger minibus which would be the vehicle that our small group would use during the entire Tibet tour.

After checking into the hotel, I continued to drink a lot of water and rested for several hours before venturing outside. The hotel was located in the old part of Lhasa within a couple of short blocks from the famous Bakhor Street. After going through a Government security checkpoint, I walked around Bakhor Street on a clear afternoon and marveled at the unique architecture and the local people of Lhasa. There are ubiquitous Government security checkpoints within the old part of Lhasa and at most popular attractions. Later I went out for dinner and had a Nepal set dinner at one of the local restaurants.

After breakfast on the morning of 15 June, I met the remainder of my small group which would total six people for the first two days of local Lhasa sightseeing and then five people for the subsequent travel days from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp and back to Lhasa. Traveling with five people in a ten person minibus was quite comfortable for the long road trips. In addition, our driver kept both the minibus interior and the windows very clean during the entire trip.

Our first sightseeing stop was to visit the Drepung Monastery located about 10 kilometers from Lhasa. It was built in 1416 and more than ten thousand monks resided here prior to the 1951 Liberation making it the largest monastery in Tibet. It has six main temples in addition to three monastic colleges for the study of philosophy and one for the practice of Tantric Buddhism. The monastery covers an area over 200 thousand square meters. This monastery was very impressive and no photographs were allowed within the monastery.

We continued on to visit the Sera Monastery, which was founded in 1419. It has an assembly hall, three colleges, and thirty-three houses. The monastery covers an area of 114,964 square meters and is the second largest monastery in Tibet. After visiting the monasteries, we had free time to explore Lhasa for the remainder of the day.

On the morning of 16 June, we visited the Potala Palace which is across from the Potala Plaza where, during 2001, the Chinese Government erected the Monument to Tibet's Peaceful Liberation marking the 50th Anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibet by Chinese troops in 1951.

Although the Potala Palace was originally built during the time of the Songtsan Gampo in the 7th century, it was reconstructed by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century. It was the residence of the successive Dalai Lamas and the center of Tibet local government. The main palace construction is divided into two sections: the White Palace and the Red Palace. It has 13 stories and is 115.7 meters high. It mainly consists of living quarters, chapels, tomb stupa chapels, and monk dormitories. It is listed as a World Heritage Site and was an incredible place to visit.

During the afternoon we went to Bakhor Street in old Lhasa to visit the beautiful Jokhang Temple. Construction of this temple began in 647 AD during the time of the Tibet King Songtsan Gampo. The four-storied temple faces west and, after extensions in later years, occupies an area of 25,100 square meters. An alloy statue of the twelve year old Sakyamini, brought by the Princess WenChang, sits in the central hall on the first floor. It was also a very interesting temple to visit.

After visiting Jokhang Temple, we walked around Bakhor Street and then returned to our hotel to pack up for our upcoming road trip to Everest Base Camp the following morning.

We checked out of our Lhasa hotel on Sunday, 17 June, to begin our two day journey to Everest Base Camp. Our driver would follow the China-Nepal Highway, also known as the Friendship Highway, from Lhasa most of the way to Everest Base Camp. It would cross several high mountain passes before arriving at Tingri where we would take another road to the base camp. We would stop along the way at interesting places to visit.

Our first stop was beside the Brahmaputura River, also known as the Yarlung River in Tibet. This was a scenic area where many tourist groups stop and the photos were wonderful. As we continued on, we arrived near the top of the Gambala Pass where many Tibetans had yaks, Mastiff dogs, and other animals for tourist photos in addition to many tables with Tibetan items for sale. I bought a Tibetan singing bowl here.

We continued along the Gambala Pass to a viewpoint at an elevation of 4,998 meters (16,398 feet) with views of both the Brahmaputura River Scenic Area and the Yamdrok Lake Scenic Area. We descended from here to Yamdrok Lake at an elevation of 4,441 meters (14,570 feet) where we stopped for photos. Tibetans had yaks along the shore for photos with tourists as well as a couple of Mastiff dogs. There were also the ubiquitous tourist souvenirs for sale. I walked down to the shore of the lake to take some photos of a yak standing in the crystal clear water.

We stopped for lunch at Nagarze before continuing on to the Kharola Glacier viewpoint. This glacier was stunning against the clear blue sky and is within 300 meters of the highway. We stopped at the viewpoint parking area across the highway from the glacier. There is a Kharola Glacier Stupa at a viewing area in front of the glacier which provides an interesting backdrop for photos of the glacier. A stone marker indicated the elevation of this mountain location to be 5,020 meters (16,470 feet).

Our next stop was at a colorful viewpoint above the Manak Reservoir. The elevation at the viewpoint was 4,354 meters (14,285 feet) with a wonderful view of the reservoir amid an abundance of so many beautiful Tibetan prayer flags. Prior to departing this viewpoint, I observed several Tibetan goats crossing the road and climbing up the hillside.

We continued on to Gyantse where we saw the Gyantse Dzong, also known as Gyantse Fortress, before visiting the Palcho Monastery where the Kumbum Stupa is located. The original fortress dates back to 840 AD, and the present walls were supposedly built in 1268. The fortress was overrun by a British invasion during 1904. Although the walls were dynamited by the Chinese in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, it has gradually been restored.

The Palcho Chode Monastery is the main monastery in the Nyangchu River Valley. It was built in 1418. According to the literature, it is a non-sectarian Buddhist center where Gelugpa, Sakyapa, and Butompa co-exist in harmony and peace. In 1427, the Great Stupa Kumbum was erected in the pattern of the Multi-door Stupa (Tashi Gomang), one of the eight prototype stupas of Buddhism. Kumbum is 32.4 meters high and includes 108 altars where a hundred thousand Buddhist images are enshrined as statues and murals.

We stopped at the Mananarovar Gesar hotel in Shigatse to spend the night and rest up for the final leg to Everest Base Camp the following day. The elevation of Shigatse is 3,800 meters (12,467 feet). While in Shigatse, Migmar obtained the Aliens’ Travel Permit that was required for our small group to travel to Everest Base Camp. This was in addition to the Tibet Travel Permit that was issued to me prior to entering Tibet. By this time, we had become accustomed to multiple police checkpoints all along the Friendship Highway.

We departed Shigatse on Monday morning, 18 June, to continue on the Friendship Highway (China-Nepal) toward Shelkar (New Tingri) where we would turn onto another road that is the gateway to Everest Base Camp. Our first stop was at place with a large marker as the location of the 5,000 kilometer point from Shanghai on the Friendship Highway.

Our next stop was at Gyatso La mountain pass, the entrance to the Mount Qomolangma National Nature Reserve (QNNR). Mount Everest is known as Mount Qomolangma in Tibet, China. The elevation of Gyatso La Pass is 5,260 meters (17,257 feet) – the highest mountain pass on the Friendship Highway. It was another checkpoint along the way and another photo opportunity. We would continue within the Qomolangma National Nature Reserve until we arrived at Everest Base Camp.

We continued on to the Mount Qomolangma North Gate, which was another checkpoint along the way, then from the north gate to the Kya Wu Lha Pass, which has an elevation 5,198 meters (17,054 feet). This pass afforded spectacular views of the Himalayan Mountains from the China side. Four peaks above 8,201 meters were visible from here: Mt. Everest at 8,844.43 meters, the highest mountain on Earth; Mt. Lotse at 8,516 meters, the fourth highest; Mt. Makalho at 8,463 meters, the fifth highest; and Mt. Chopya at 8,201 meters, the tenth highest. The pass also afforded a dramatic view of the road with more switchbacks than I could count leading down the valley toward Everest Base Camp. I purchased two sets of Tibetan prayer flags here.

We descended down the valley and then ascended up to Mount Everest Base Camp, which is known in Tibet as Mount Qomolangma Base Camp and has an elevation of 5,200 meters (17,060 feet). We would spend the night in a traditional Tibetan tent guesthouse. The tent had two sections separated by a tent curtain down the middle. Each side could sleep ten people and had a Tibetan stove for boiling water and heat during the day and evening. The stove, which was bare metal and burned cow dung for fuel, was manned by a Tibetan caretaker who boiled water on it for green tea and oversaw the activities within the tent. The tent had a carpeted floor and hard platforms to sit and to sleep. Although there were heavy quilts for sleeping, we rented sleeping bags when we were at Shigatse for what we perceived would provide better sanitation for sleeping in the tent. The ground outside the tent was small rocks that surrounded the base camp. A group of about ten young Chinese men and women moved into the other side of the tent and wanted a group photo with some of us after they arrived. They invited us to join them later to share some wine with them but we politely declined since alcohol and high altitude are a bad combination.

The toilet facilities consisted of a public pit toilet located some distance from the tents with a concrete floor above the open pit with rectangular slots in the floor. The left side was for men and the right side was for women. Each side had two rectangular slots in the floor, no lighting and no water. The floor of the toilets appeared to have never been washed or cleaned. A Tibetan man was stationed nearby the toilet building to collect 2 Yuan from each person every time someone used the facility.

The air was thin and very dry which required us to consume extra large quantities of water and green tea during our time at base camp. After we settled into the tent and rested for a while, we hiked to the Mt. Qomolangma Base Camp rock marker for a photo opportunity. Since it was warm when we started out, I didn’t wear a jacket. Although it was windy and became colder, the photo opportunity was wonderful. Because I didn’t wear a jacket, I opted not to continue on to the visit the nearby Rongbuk Monastery – a decision that I will probably regret later since it is reportedly the highest monastery in the world. Within the base camp is a post office which is also the highest post office in the world.

As we took photos of Mount Everest as the sun was setting the wind increased and it was becoming much colder. I had a bowl of noodles and cabbage with a fried egg on top and green tea for dinner while our caretaker kept the fire in the stove going. By the time we decided to try to go to sleep, the temperature in the tent was quite hot. The electrical generators are turned off at midnight and the entire complex was plunged into total darkness. When the caretaker went to bed, the fire in the stove died out and the tent began to get cold, colder, and much colder. In addition, the moisture from our breath made the tent damp, then damper, and much damper. Government officials performed a bed check of our tent during the night by shining a flashlight on each of us and checking some paperwork.

The noise from people walking and talking outside the tent en route to the public toilet continued to interrupt my attempts at sleeping. As the night wore on, the minutes turned into hours as I attempted to sleep. The worst parts of the night were the decisions to get up and attempt to find the gross public toilet by the light of my mobile phone. Outside the sky was clear and the stars appeared to be very close. I had never seen the Big Dipper constellation to be so enormous.

We planned to get up and leave by 6:00 AM to go back to Kya Wu Lha Pass to watch the sunrise over Himalayas. I was up and dressed well before 5:00 AM wishing that we could leave early. In retrospect, I might have gotten about one hour of sleep during the night but it was a genuine Tibetan tent experience at a very high elevation that I can talk about for years to come.

Migmar and our driver came at a little before 6:00 AM on Tuesday, 19 June, and we departed to go see the sunrise over the Himalayas. We arrived at Kya Wu Lha Pass a little bit late for the initial sunrise but in time to see most of the beautiful sunrise on Mount Everest and the Himalayas before continuing back to Shigatse to spend the night. Back at the hotel in Shigatse, the hot shower felt so wonderful followed by a very good sleep that night.

Prior to departing Shigatse on Wednesday, 20 June, we visited the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery which was one of the six “Yellow Hat Sects” monasteries. It was founded by Gedun Drupa, the first Dalai Lama, in 1447 and occupies 700,000 square meters. It contains the highest sitting Maltreya Buddha Statue in the world. The statue was made of gold and copper alloy.

After a long drive, we arrived back at Lhasa and had some free time to explore Lhasa after dark. I ate dinner at the Lhasa Burger King restaurant where I enjoyed a flame grilled double whopper. I walked to the Potala Plaza where I took photos of the fountain in front of the Liberation Monument and photos of the reflection of the Potala Palace on the pools of water at the plaza. I also took photos of the palace at night. By chance, all five of our small group tour met at the plaza and we had someone take several group photos of us in front of the palace – those would be the last group photos of us.

The following morning, we were driven to the airport to take flights home. I flew back to Chengdu to overnight and then flew back to Los Angeles on Friday, 21 June.

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  June 2018
Colorado Springs

Travel Notes


Since my home in Los Angeles is at sea level, I decided to travel to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for some high altitude mountain hiking to acclimate to higher altitudes before flying to China for my upcoming trip to Tibet, China, and Mount Everest Base Camp. While in Colorado for eight days, I hiked at elevations from 6,000 to 14,000 feet.

On Thursday, 31 May 31, I flew from Los Angeles to Denver, Colorado, where I rented a car and drove to Colorado Springs, Colorado. After checking into my hotel, I walked around downtown Colorado Springs which has an elevation of 6,035 feet above sea level. While walking, I finally arrived at the Colorado Springs Visitor Center where I obtained tourist sightseeing information for Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Region. The Pioneer Museum was closed by the time I arrived so I decided to return the following day for a visit.

After breakfast on Friday,1 June, I drove to the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center where I obtained a map and recommended hikes from a park ranger. Armed with my map, I drove to the North Main Parking Lot and proceeded to hike the Upper Loop Trail and the south extension loop trail. The red rock formations were magnificent against the clear blue sky. I then drove to the Scotsman Picnic Area Parking Lot and hiked along the Gateway Trail to the Siamese Twins Trail. After hiking the complete Siamese Twins Trail, I hiked back to my car. Before leaving the park, I stopped to visit the famous Balanced Rock. According to my pedometer, I had hiked 11,357 steps at the Garden of the Gods.

Upon returning to Colorado Springs, I once again walked throughout the downtown area and returned to the Pioneer Museum located within the historic Colorado Springs Courthouse building. It was a very interesting museum that I was glad to have visited. My pedometer registered 19,000 steps at the end of the day.

After receiving a late checkout from my hotel on Saturday, 2 June, I drove to the Broadmoor Hotel to take a shuttle bus to the entrance to Broadmoor Seven Falls. While waiting for the first shuttle bus of the day, I walked around the historic Broadmoor Hotel and admired the lobby area.

Upon arriving at the entrance gate, I hiked nearly a mile along South Cheyenne Creek to the base area of the Seven Waterfalls. Seven Waterfalls is where the South Cheyenne Canyon Creek cascades 181 feet down a granite cliff forming seven distinct waterfalls. Before climbing the 224-step stairway along the falls, I hiked the steep stairway up to the Eagle’s Nest viewing platform, which afforded wonderful panoramic views of the canyon and waterfalls. I took an elevator down from the viewing platform – I didn’t notice the elevator prior to taking the stairs to the platform. I continued hiking to the falls and then hiked the 224-step stairway to the top of the falls at an elevation of 6,800 feet. After arriving at the top of the waterfalls, I decided to hike the 1.5 mile round-trip trail to Inspiration Point. The trail passes the Helen Hunt Jackson gravesite, and the views from along this trail were stunning. The descent on the stairway alongside the falls was much faster than my initial climb to the top. I took the elevator back to the Eagle’s Nest platform to capture photos of the falls with a better sun pattern than my photos earlier in the morning. After hiking back to the free shuttle bus, I returned to check out of my Colorado Springs hotel and drive to Cripple Creek with an elevation of 9,494 feet.

Cripple Creek and nearby Victor are located on the western slopes of Pikes Peak. A major gold strike was made in 1890 and 1891 in Cripple Creek and Victor. In prehistoric times, the area was volcanic which created the riches that made this mining district famous. The six square miles that make up the Cripple Creek & Victor Mining District are located in the caldera of an extinct volcano. The millions made from 1891 to the present time earned it the title of the World’s Greatest Gold Camp.

The gold rush brought lumber yards, hotels, 100 saloons, over 40 assay offices, an equal number of brokerage firms, 80 doctors, 91 lawyers, and 14 newspapers. Electricity lighted the streets in 1892, and the city’s water system was completed in 1893. Originally, all of the buildings in Cripple Creek were wooden. However, after two fires in 1896 destroyed the business district and many residences, the city fathers ordained that the business district must be built in brick. Today many of the 1890’s brick buildings on Bennett Avenue are home to modern-day casinos, shops, and restaurants.

My first stop on the drive to Cripple Creek was at a viewpoint overlooking the caldera where Cripple Creek is located. The next stop was at the Cripple Creek Heritage and Information Center overlooking the town of Cripple Creek. In addition to tourist information, it has wonderful exhibits of the gold mining era, geology, Colorado dinosaurs, and a wall of windows overlooking the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Across the road from the Heritage Center is an overlook viewpoint of Poverty Gulch.

After arriving in Cripple Creek and checking into the Century Casino Hotel on Bennett Street, I walked slowly due to the high altitude along Bennett Street to the old Midland terminal. The Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad operates from this Railway station. Since the train was still operating, I bought a ticket and took a seat at the back end of the train to maximize my photo opportunities. The train has a 15 ton locomotive of the 0-4-0 type typical of the early day steam engines. It belches smoke from a coal fired boiler, with sounds of steam, a piercing whistle, and the sound of working steel on steel during the four mile round-trip. The conductor narrates the journey as it passes many old gold mine sites en route to Echo Valley where it backs up, turns around, and returns to the old Midland Terminal. It was a wonderful way to see the Cripple Creek area while beginning to acclimate to the 9,500 feet elevation.

Although it was overcast with occasional misting rain on Sunday morning, I walked to the Cripple Creek District Museum. The main museum building, with three floors of fascinating exhibits, is the Midland Depot Terminal which was built in 1895. At one time, it had three railroads passing through—the Midland Terminal Railroad, the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District (Short Line), and the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad—with an average of ten passenger trains daily. It was in continual operation from 1895 to 1949 and survived the fires of 1896 making it one of the oldest buildings in Cripple Creek. There are different exhibits in each of the rooms of the museum. The cantilevered staircase is a double spiral staircase supported by the exterior wall and is an example of late Victorian craftsmanship.

The museum also has additional outside exhibits including an assay office, a train waiting station, the Colorado Trading & Transfer Company building, a miner’s cabin, the French Blanche LeCroix’ cabin, and the Pinnacle Mine headframe. This museum is a “must see” destination in Cripple Creek.

I walked from the District Museum to the Mt. Pisgah Cemetery which was a 40-acre cemetery donated on March 21, 1895, to the Mount Pisgah Cemetery Association. The donors retained the mineral rights but noted that any mining would be done “without injury to the surface.” The earliest marked burial is 1892, which indicates the land was in use as a cemetery before 1895. The grave for Pearl DeVere, a famous madam of Cripple Creek, is located here with a large white marble heart tombstone.

As I walked back to town, I stopped at the Outlaws & Lawmen Jail Museum. This was interesting in that men were housed in metal cages on the ground level within the main structure and women were housed in metal cages on the upper level. For more than 90 years, the people incarcerated here had to tolerate some very grim conditions – the jail was in use from 1901 to 1992.

My last stop of the day was at the Old Homestead House museum on Meyers Avenue. It was Cripple Creek’s finest parlor house and was operated by Pearl DeVere. Pearl required a bank account certification for every prospective client. She died at a very young age from a morphine overdose and was buried in the town cemetery with a lavish celebration where nearly everyone in the town attended her funeral procession. The museum remains furnished much as it was in the day of Pearl DeVere. The rooms are furnished with priceless artifacts from all over the world donated to her by wealthy clients. This is another “must see” destination.

After checking out of my hotel on Monday, 4 June, I decided to drive Highway 67 to Victor. Along the way, I stopped at a roadside turnout at the trailhead of the Little Grouse Mountain Trail. The trail looked interesting, and I decided that I would hike it after visiting Victor. I also passed the site of the old Mary McKinney Mine and headframes for numerous other mines. Upon arrival at Victor, with an elevation of 9,708 feet, I observed the headframes of the Ajax Mine (est. 1895), Portland Mine (est. 1892), Independence Mine (est. 1891), and Strong Mine (est. 1891) situated along the mountain above Diamond Avenue and Teller County Road 81. After walking around much of downtown Victor, I passed the relocated Cresson Mine Headframe en route to the old Relocated Alta Vista Railroad Station that is now a small museum. The museum caretaker was very interesting; he gave me a map and suggested that I drive to Goldfield and hike to some of the old mine sites. I decided to forgo the Little Grouse Mountain Trail and embark on hiking around the old gold mines near Goldfield that the caretaker recommended. The drive along SR 81 to Goldfield was short, and I missed the initial turnoff for the trail and ended up at the Victor Pass with an elevation of 10,201 feet. After making a U-turn, I located the lower parking area for the Vindicator Valley Trail. I hiked along the trail to the Teresa Mine and continued on past old powder magazines, the Anna J. Mine, the Christmas Mine, and past a Pikes Peak Viewpoint. Continuing uphill, I passed the Bebee House, the Lillie (G.G.) Gold Mining Company, and the Vindicator Consolidated Mining Company. The Bebee House is adjacent to the upper parking area for the Vindicator Valley Trail. I hiked back down to the parking lot without taking the trail out through the valley. I continued driving to Manitou Springs.

I arrived at Manitou Springs during the late afternoon and, after checking into my hotel, I walked along the main street of Manitou Springs. Manitou Springs is a small laid back tourist town with many restaurants and shops. It is home to the famous Manitou Incline Trail, which is a hike along the right-of-way for the original Manitou Incline after closure of the powered incline and removal of the metal rails. Hikers climb up the mountain to approximately 8,000 feet elevation and then return to Manitou Springs via a lower portion of the Barr Trail between Manitou Springs and Pikes Peak. It was also the starting point for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway which ceased operations during the spring of 2018.

On Tuesday, 5 June, I drove to the summit of Pikes Peak via the Pikes Peak Highway. The elevation at the gateway to the park is 7,800 feet. My first stop along the highway was at Crystal Reservoir, with an elevation of 9,160 feet, where I took some spectacular photos of Pikes Peak. As I continued to drive higher, I photographed some mountain goats on the roadside. In addition, I occasionally stopped for some panoramic photos as well. While I was at the summit, my pedometer showed that I hiked around the summit area for approximately 6,000 steps at 14,000 feet elevation without any ill effects from the high altitude. I now felt confident that I had become somewhat acclimated to the altitude.

After returning to Manitou Springs, I walked around the main street before having dinner. That evening, I decided that for my last full day in Colorado, I would forgo attempting to hike the Manitou Incline Trail, as it would only take me to an elevation of 8,000 feet. Instead, I would return to the gold mines trails near Victor at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet.

On Wednesday morning, 6 June, I returned to Victor and again hiked the complete Vindicator Valley Trail loop from the lower parking area. It was a beautiful day and the photo opportunities were superb. As I returned to Manitou Springs, I stopped at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings on the outskirts of Manitou Springs. The cliff dwellings were interesting but not spectacular.

On Thursday morning, 7 June, I attempted to get a late checkout from my Manitou Springs hotel but my request was denied. Since my flight from Denver to Los Angeles was at night, I decided to return to the Garden of the Gods for several hours of hiking the same routes that I had hiked several days earlier. The early morning light was wonderful for photos at Balanced Rock and several other monuments.

I returned to my hotel, checked out, and drove to the Denver International Airport where I returned my rental car. I was able to get an earlier flight home to Los Angeles and returned home that evening. I now felt that I was acclimated enough to travel to China in a couple of days to continue on to Lhasa, Tibet, China, with an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet before continuing to Mount Everest Base Camp with an elevation of more than 17,000 feet.

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  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.

See pictures from Chongqing

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  June 2017

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.

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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

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

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.

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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.

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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

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.

See pictures from Taiwan

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  May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

See pictures from Datong

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  May 2013

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.

See pictures from Alaska

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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.

See pictures from Dazu County, China

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  March 2013

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.

See pictures from Vietnam

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  January 2013

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

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

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. 

See pictures from Seattle & Orcas Island

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  April 2012

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.

See pictures from Java

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  February 2012

Travel Notes