Tag Archives: Sights

EUROPEAN SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Italy (#1B)

Venice, along with many other Italian cities, are rethinking their tourist program and how they often inundate and devastate their environments. It’s a very tough call-between economic vitality and sustainability for its residents. Italy’s attempt to address these major issues was evident in our trip to Matera (last week’s post), where the local authority is trying to convert an overlooked, crumbling historic area to zero impact tourism.

Puccini’s Lucca

Lucca is one of those uniquely protected walled cities, that tells you to go away. Unless you’re inside, of course. It took a bit of battling to get in, with a car (restricted) to an albergo with private parking privileges. You are acutely aware of harming the environment when you drive a car in this remarkable city. We were thrilled at how we were able to drive through one-lane paths and found out later…with a whopping huge parking ticket. (I am learning to read Italian now).

Everyone moves at a slower pace, tourists and residents alike. Bikes have their place, although scooters are allowed. You wish life could be this way in your part of the world. Everything seems magical–the ice cream shops, the antiquaries, the magnificently preserved churches. Maybe it wasn’t Disney who spread gold dust here, but he must have visited and discovered the qualities that gave him ideas for his magic kingdom.

Elba Island, Napoleon’s Island Exile

We were on Elba Island for a wedding, the purpose of our trip to Italy. After connecting flights in Paris from Yerevan, Armenia, we spent a couple of days in a luxurious villa as our base. Getting to and from the island was another story, but we made it to the wedding in plenty of time.

We treated ourselves to dinner at the hotel’s well appointed facilities, including the original villa’s main house. Needless to say, food here as in everywhere in Italy is a major undertaking and form of entertainment. Here are just a few dishes that refreshingly attacked our palettes:

As mentioned earlier, this European Series is an extension of the Silk Road Adventures. As we ply through Central Asia via Uzbekistan, Iran, the Caucasus, and Turkey from China, I decided to include European as part of the string of countries beyond the Silk Road. I did not travel them in this order, but they have been reordered so you can get a sense of the huge breadth of cultures along the route. These countries made use of and benefitted enormously from the ancient route of the Silk Road.

We are heading over the Alps toward Switzerland and Austria next, as if we were traveling overland. I hope you follow and enjoy this route as we head deep into the German-speaking countries and my favorites.

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Italy (#1A)

Marco Polo’s father and brother set off from Italy in 1260 on their first adventure through the massive conjoined continents of Europe and Asia most likely along the Silk Road, then a common highway overland. They traveled through Bokhara, one of my Silk Road stops described earlier. Later, on return to Italy, they organized a second trip with Nicolo’s son, Marco.

The second trip took a different course through Persia to join Kublai Khan’s court in Beijing. Marco Polo was gone from Italy for 26 years, and when he returned, he was barely recognizable or believed to be Marco Polo himself. His clothes were worn and tattered, and he barely could speak his native language.

Before March 17 this year, we were able to go to Italy much easier without having to devote half a lifetime to getting there. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long as Marco did! While the COVID-19 Pandemic still rests heavily on our minds, these reposts hopefully inspire us to look to future travels and savor the past.

In early 2019, we took advantage of Pastry Chef/daughter Melissa’s winter work break and hit the food scene in Italy. We stayed in the Testaccio neighborhood in Rome as our base and traveled to Matera and Naples from there. Here are two posts in case you missed it last year, condensed into one.

Sassi di Matera Hill Town

An inexpensive flight to Bari at the heel of Italy enabled us to visit Matera in a dawn-to-dusk trip. After a one-hour drive from Bari, we reached Sassi, two ancient hill towns straddling a deep valley. This UNESCO area was designated a major destination in 2019, to showcase sustainable tourism and environmental protection of treasured and not-to-be forgotten settlements.

A World UNESCO site dedicated to restoring hill towns with little or no environmental impact

Elena Ferrante’s Napoli

Famous Pizza and the Opera House drove us to Naples, but we couldn’t help but think about the stories written by Elena Ferrante in her four book series about scrappy Neapolitan life. (She has a new book out!)

We stopped at the Archaeological Museum, one of the country’s top sites holding treasures from Ercolano and Pompeii. Porn was thriving in Pompeii, as witnessed in this museum, along with other artifacts that are no longer available at the sites. Between the museum and a Nutcracker at the historic Teatro di San Carlo, the local food won hands down. (See below)

Famous Pizzeria da Attilio, Napoli: Pure, straight, and to the Oven

High Renaissance Rome

The food and the architecture are self-explanatory, right?!?

St. Peter’s Baldacchino by Bernini and Michelangelo’s Dome,
in the most magnificent interior space in the world

Grand opera is closed during the Christmas season, but we were able to catch holiday favorites Swan Lake Ballet in Rome, and the Nutcracker in Naples at the local opera houses.

Delightful Swan Lake Ballet at the Opera Theater of Rome
First Night in Rome with Daughter Melissa at Trappazino, Rome

Next week we will continue this European Series, linking Europe to the transcontinental Silk Road from Asia. It’s a compilation of travels with myself and others from the last six years. I hope you will enjoy revisiting these treasured moments with me! There will be another post on Lucca and Elba in the next post, followed by trips to German-speaking countries. Don’t forget to send your thoughts and comments!

Two posts are consolidated here and were originally posted in January 2019.

Silk Road Adventure #7: Turkey

Turkey may seem like the end of the line for the Silk Road, but it certainly was a crossroads between the Near East and Europe. Traders probably traveled from city to city along the route, rather than along the entire length of the Silk Road. The Turkic people came from the steppes of Central Asia and settled in this part of the world after traveling westwards, so their links eastwards were often refreshed and renewed.

We came to Istanbul twice, and stayed in a great Air BNB near the Pedestrian shopping street, Istikal Caddesi, where we could find plenty of restaurants. One of our favorites was a simple schwerma fast food hangout. We knew something was afoot when we saw savvy Asians making their way to this establishment, toting the insider guide “Istanbul Eats”.

For the price of a Macdonald’s burger, you could get freshly grilled meet, chopped to fit each bite in your mouth perfectly, with sensations of cabbage and lettuce lightly sprinkled with spiced sauce and evenly distributed into a grilled pocket. Perfect taste and texture to delight the tongue and the palette!

The food is so delicious and inspiring that it overshadows tourist attractions like the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia. Each meal is a discovery of familiar foods cooked with alot of creative flair. The Baklava may seem too sweet, but when it is made with fresh honey it does not have the dry intensive sugary taste as much as it is a saucy complement to the fresh flaky pastry and nuts.

One evening, we indulged in a performance of whirling dervishes that at first seemed a bit touristy but it was totally fascinating. The ancient Sufi religion promoted this form of spiritual cleansing and aspires those to reach the ultimate. You can read more about them here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufi_whirling

Cappodocia

Cappodocia was so captivating that I came here twice. A UNESCO World Heritage site in the middle of the country and a couple hours’ flight from Istanbul, Cappodocia has some of the most unique and bizarre land formations anywhere in the world. The fairy tale cave dwellings have been occupied since early Christian times when believers fled the cities to be able to worship and escape persecution. They lived in the tufa cave dwellings and prayed in the mountain hideaways.

We discovered from our trip to Georgia that Nino was born in Cappodocia around 320, so the secret churches we first saw in Goreme suddenly became relevant and inspiring. You can read further about her here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nino. You can see the entire area in a hot air balloon, providing you are willing to get up at 5am in the morning and brave the traffic jam of baskets.

Goreme is the small town that is used as the base camp for travelers to this area. It includes an outdoor national park that houses many of the cave dwellings. Hotels are in the park so you can wander around the neighborhood easily yourself.

We stayed in the boutique cave hotels Kolubek, or Butterfly Hotel. The tufa rooms have pitched roofs and other buildings are built of stone organically around the sloping hillsides. You can’t help but wonder in the back of your mind whether the dust particles from the tufa might affect your lungs, but it was still worth the short-term risk.

The food in the hotel was delightful–a refreshing spread of fruit, nuts, cheese, bread and vegetables. We were inspired to take a cooking class in town. The hotel helped us to arrange a guide to take us shopping before joining a mature woman, who taught us how to prepare a Turkish meal in her own home. We then ate the food that we prepared with her for lunch and invited the guides to join us.

Ismir and Ephesus on the Western Coast

Our visit to the ancient city of Ephesus in January, 2020 required an overnight stay in Izmir. Although we had a chance to get acclimated, we immediately took to the streets in search of lunch. Thanks to Pastry Chef and Daughter Melissa, her intrepid search for the tastiest food in any country and her Googling skills, we traipsed through the town’s nearby grand bazaar and after numerous twists and turns, tracked down a renowned locanta populated by Turkish locals.

Izmir Locanta
Izmir Bazaar Favorite among locals

Locals dine regularly here on some of the heartiest meals made with the freshest ingredients. We savored the sardine soup recommended by the gentleman sitting across from us. It’s one of those diners where you point to the big vats of steaming concoctions or decorated casseroles in order to get your meal put in front of you quickly!


Stewed Eggplant
Ephesus

The short 40 minute drive from Izmir to Ephesus jolted us into realizing how ancient the land in which we were traveling is. From biblical figures like John the Baptist, Mother Mary, and their pilgrim followers, to the largest civilization outside of Rome at its peak, it was hard not to be impressed by the significance and grandeur of Ephesus.

Once inhabited by 250,000, Ephesus is a UNESCO world heritage site and was carefully restored and brought to life. It is a relatively late-bake on the list, as its discovery is fairly recent and only a fraction of it has been uncovered.

The library at Ephesus

Highlights include the odeon, a theatre; an amphitheater, an agora, terrace houses, and a library. You can download Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app for free and use it as you walk the site. All the details of what we saw were based on his excellent instructions. I highly recommend trying it out, and he certainly covers the major features. This fascinating site was once a thriving port city before the Persians, Alexander the Great, and the Goths each had their go at destroying it!

We decided to hire a car for a day to get from Izmir to Ephesus and Ephesus to Bodrum, our final destination. The only catch was making certain that we could call the driver after he dropped us off at the carpark at the top of the entrance to Ephesus. He was to meet us at the bottom of the hill at the exit 90 minutes later. Minor details: he had our bags in the boot!!

We needed a backup just in case we could not find the driver. After a bit of cell phone finagling, conversations with hotel personnel, and a lot of good faith—we managed. Where we spent on the driver, we saved on time and the cost of a tour and guide. Just a reminder on how you can travel the way you want, with just a few creative tricks and determination to be a traveler and not a tourist.

Boviera

Known as “Boviera”, sparkling Aegean resort towns along the Western Turkish coast include Bodrum. It’s off-peak and chilly presently, but well worth the quiet solitude and even threats of rain to avoid the throngs of English-speaking tourists.

As close as you can get to the creatures being served at your table before they are caught!
Anchovies, artichokes with pineapple, cheese and walnuts, and squash in yogurt

Note: due to traveling light and leaving my Macbook at home for this brief trip, I am using my Iphone to compose and post photos. The capabilities are limited, but I hope you will still enjoy the material the same as regular posts!

More Turkish Food! Food! Glorious Food!

Delicate bits of chopped morsels are packed with texture, flavor, and color to delight the senses. You swear you could eat like this every day, convinced of the variety and healthy ingredients.

Dolmas, eggplant spread with pomegranate and pumpkin seeds, and artichoke with mustard sauce
Bodrum to Izmir

The four hour public bus from to Izmir to Bodrum followed the coast, was a safe and comfortable trip, and cost us each a hefty $6. In true Turkish hospitality, they even served tea and cookies! We gazed at the stark countryside, lit by the low winter sun behind turbulent clouds, as olive and tangerine groves slid past.

View of Mountains and farmland from bus
Bizim Lokanta

On arrival back in Izmir, we couldn‘t resist returning to the lokanta in the Bazaar where we had eaten earlier in the week.

Tongue soup, bulgar with fava beans, and cabbage rolls with thick, creamy yogurt
Kudos on two walls of this vest-pocket diner were self-explanatory
Bazaar Fun
It‘s a Wrap!
(Meatless) Kale and Cheese Wraps for a pittance

It‘s always bittersweet leaving a country, especially after such a short visit. But the food focus, imperial demands, abundance of land, and Mediterranean climate requires one to succumb to Turkey‘s finest features.

As this Silk Road Series draws to a close, look for the Fall Series, which will feature Italy, Germany, and the U.K. in the final paths of the Silk Road! Let me know your thoughts and comments about both series!

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #6C: Armenia

We have been traveling through the Caucasus —with stops in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and now Armenia.

The Haghartsin Monastery and Churches range from the 10th-13th Centuries, and are a fascinating example of early medieval/late Byzantine architecture. The heavy basalt walls protected the churches from earthquakes, but a considerable amount of renovation and restoration work was still needed.

The thick walls supported small chapels with heavy domes made of stone. Nevertheless, the simplicity of the structures provided a timeless quality and soothing relief to the 90+ degree weather. The main church is dedicated to St. Gregory. You can read more about it here: https://www.advantour.com/armenia/tavush/agartsin-monastery.htm

Along Lake Sevan, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, the Sevanarank Monastery was built in 874. It’s surprising to find these early examples of Christian architecture that never made it into the art history lectures. Our Eurocentric focus has neglected the early beginnings of ecumenical architecture.

I am now customizing my own studies of architectural history and history. By visiting the trans-Caucasus countries, I realize how little we have learned about these countries and the significant roles they played during the “Dark Ages” in feudal and medieval Europe. We could have been learning about what was developing in other parts of the world, especially where it was not “dark”.

Want people?

Followers have noted that my photos are strangely absent of people. I’m not sure whether it is a blessing or a curse, but I do tend to avoid inadvertent passers-by to preserve my architectural shots. It takes some patience but basically a stealth-bomber approach as soon as the coast is clear. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get distracted by interesting people who are the subject matter themselves. And don’t be misled. There are plenty of tourists wandering around everywhere, so I may in fact be distorting the scene. The good news: we have run into very few Americans along our route.

Groups of Tourists descend from the Cascade Monument, Yerevan, Armenia

You will notice in one of the above photos our guide, Agii, from Mongolia. This was three years later and an unplanned encounter! Agii was visiting the Caucasus with her S. African husband to investigate potential countries for a permanent residence. They chose this part of the world over the U.S. or Europe, so it says alot about the stability, inexpensive living, and relatively reasonable standard of living. We found their mission for visiting the Caucasus fascinating, and even more enthralling that we met them completely by accident!

Food for Thought

With a bit of effort, delicious healthy food such as vegetable plates with presentation flair are inexpensive and available.

Cafesjian Center for the Arts

As part of the “Cascade”, an outdoor stairway system that ascends halfway up a steep hill in the middle of the city, an art museum is located adjacent to the escalator system serving the stairs. Sculpture is placed in layers as one moves along the escalators and views artwork at an enjoyable pace. The Cascade Monument was erected to commemorate the 2780th anniversary of the founding of Yerevan with an equal number of stairs.

Genocide Museum, Yerevan, Armenia

No visit would be complete without learning about the Armenian Genocide in 1915-20. An estim 600,000 and 1.5 million people were systemmatically killed by Turks in three phases: first by forcing men into labor groups without means of survival; next, by decapitating intellectuals and leaders of Armenia; and third, by rounding up women and children and sending them into the desert. The Turkish government has yet to acknowledge its responsibility in causing so many deaths.

All Armenians (3 million) and the Armenian diaspora (approx. 8 million) know about this tragedy. Funds for public and private projects such as the Cafesjian Center are sponsored by Armenians living outside of Armenia to help support the country today.

Armenia was the first countries to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Unless you majored in Religion or Theological Studies, you probably would not be familiar with the numerous stories fron the Old and New Testament quoted when visiting the early Armenian Christian churches. They helped to shed light on the activities of about 1100 years between the 3rd C CE and the 13th C. CE of devout Christian belief and that continues today.

Coincidentally, Gregory “the Illuminator” had a lot to do with the designating of sites or inspiring a number of them.

The Holy See of Armenia was the residence of the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a monastery, and cathedral. It contained a museum in which the hierarchical aspects of the Catholica, archbishop and bishop, such as vestments, decorative items and tapestries were preserved. One of the most interesting was a reliquary covered by a piece of petrified wood purported to be from Noah’s ark.

Zvartnots Cathedral

What appeared from a distance to look like a version of Stonehenge, the ruins of this round cathedral served as the holy see, until an earthquake collapsed the stone dome above it. Only the arches and columns remain, as well as remains of the dormitories for monks and communal spaces.

Geghard Monastery

This UNESCO listed monastery and church complex was started in the 3rd C CE and was partly carved into the mountain. Many small caves behind the monastery were used by the monks for individual meditation.

We’re very sad to leave this part of the world behind. The wealth of UNESCO world sites speak for its significance in the development of mankind and societies. Politics reign above all and challenge our knowledge of these misunderstood countries. While we were only able to digest a few statistics and a small portion of its legacy, we are inspired to pursue further studies about the Caucasus.

Our next and final stop along the Silk Road will be Turkey. Although it is not normally thought of as part of the Silk Road, it certainly has over various stages in time been a destination point at the end of a very long journey westward from China.

originally posted 6/29/19

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #6B: Georgia

Sandwiched between Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Russian Federation lies the country of Georgia. We nearly crossed the entire country in a day trip east to west, stopping in a couple of significant Georgian Orthodox churches and towns along the way.

Gelati Academy

Built by King David the Builder in the 12th Century, this UNESCO protected pilgrimage site served as a scientific and spiritual life in Georgia. The church has been rebuilt with private funds after the earthquake.

Mtskheta Cathedral

The robe of Christ is purported to be buried here, after a Jewish monk purchased the garment and brought it to Georgia. Many pilgrims come here to worship and consider this 12th Century Cathedral a sacred place. The impressive Byzantine frescoes told the story of Jesus and his disciples on the walls of the main apse. The Mtskheta religious buildings are designated a UNESCO world heritage site.

Kudaishi Market

Sandwiched between a visit to the local food market, we were able to stop along the highway to try Georgian homemade bread and cheese. Earlier, we tasted wine in the famous Georgian wine at Khareba Winery in the massive valley that bisects the country.

Soviet era mural outside the market

Our car slammed its brakes to stop in time for bread and cheese being sold along the highway. Bread stuck on the sides of concrete ovens took about 15 minutes to cook. Wheels of fresh sheep’s cheese were wrapped in plastic bags ready for purchase. Our second roadside stop was another version brushed with honey and egg before it was covered with an old coat and blanket and cooked.

Georgian Dishes may leave the culinary skills behind flowery English descriptions. Our order for “Mushrooms in Clay Pan” was….mushrooms in clay pan. Fruit plates are….fruit plates. No inflated language necessary.

Master Cooking Class in Tbilisi

Our master cooking class at the Tabla Restaurant introduced us to a few classic Georgian dishes that we had already tried. Starters with walnut paste rolled in red pepper and eggplant were supplemented by walnut paste patties mixed with beet leaves, leeks, and spinach

Architecture and the Streets of Tbilisi

The huge time expanse transcends everthing from the 4th C. BC to the present-day, so many buildings appear to be dilapidated, neglected, or poorly maintained. There are a healthy addition of modern buldings that are flamboyant and daring to contrast with the crumbling old ones.

It didn’t help that there was a major earthquake of about 7.0 in 2003, leaving many of the cracked brick structures in the Old City crumbling and in dire need of attention. Owners and their descendants hold out for the big hotel developer to make them an offer to make them rich for the rest of their lives. In the mean time, the neighborhood suffers with blight and tenants who continue to risk their lives for cheap rent.

With over 1 million people, Tbilisi is home to nearly one quarter of the country’s population of 4 million people. There’s much work to be done to develop the city, and I remind myself not to expect all the conveniences and solutions of more well-developed countries.

We are able to see the country before major developments take over. And yes, there are still many evident flaws and cracks in the system such as broken sidewalks, collapsed structures, and traffic accidents. The Georgians have suffered from failed and impovershed governments.

Georgia has been bombarded with invasions and systemmatic loss of its borders at the whim of leaders inside and outside the country. It is a small country that has been used as a political football for its neighbors. The capital city of Tbilisi has been sacked 27 times since it was moved from Mtskheti. Despite that, its people look to its future and hope that Georgia can soon join the EU and NATO. You can read more about this fascinating country in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia.

Addendum: We had been hearing about the active protests against the government after the Chairman of Georgia’s Parliament allowed a Russian MP to sit in his seat and deliver a message in Russian. Georgians were protesting the government for succumbing to Russian influence.

originally posted 6/25/19

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #6A: AZERBAIJIAN

Tracing the steps along the Silk Road– Samarkand, Bokhara, Isfahan–the namesakes of Oriental carpets–has formed the basis for my travels through Central Asia. Throughout Azerbaijan, the trail of the ancient route is evident, as traders plied the same track we are traveling, between Dagestan (part of Russia) and Iran.

We traveled through the baby Caucasus mountains northwesterly towards Georgia. Because of border disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, neither jurisdiction will allow direct access across their border. Tourists must transit through “neutral” Georgia to the other country. What’s bad for Armenia and Azerbaijan is good for Georgia.

Silk Road Caravansary

Similar to those in Iran and Uzbekistan, the caravansaries were stopping points for traders along the Silk Road. Camels were housed on the lower floor and provided heat for travelers who lived above. The central water fountain was used for cooling the space and was connected to the ventilation system. Traders could set up instant pop-ups to sell and barter their wares, before moving onto the next station.

In the nearby town of Lahij, local items made of wool, herbs, and copperware are sold similar to those traded along the Silk Road in the 5th Century.

Petroglyphs, Gobustan National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site)

from the Neolithic period, these petroglyphs may not be as elegant as those in Alta Mira or Lascaux, but the 6,000 petroglyphs in this area certainly were evidence of man’s need to communicate. Animals being hunted, a focus on females for child bearing and men hunting were typical images carved into the sandstone rocks where they lived.. I was excited by the chance to see these markings by our ancient artists, carved en plein air in a spectacular setting.

Yanardag Mountains

For several hundred years, natural gas burned openly and continuously in the Yanardag Mountains. It’s not surprising that religious rites sprung from man’s early encounter with these unexplainable phenomenon. In the town of Surakhany, the Ateshgah Temple was used for fire worshippers. Zorastrians and HIndus travel from India to visit the temple. You can read more about it below.

This temple reminded us of our first introduction to the Zorastrian religion in Iran (Thus Spake Zarasthustra!) as well as the Fire Temple in Yasd.

Juma Mosque

Considered the largest mosque in Azerbaijan, its sandstone walls were a contrast to the blue mosaic decorations more commonly used in mosques I visited in Iran and Uzbekistan. The mosque was rebuilt after earthquakes and fire damaged the building.

Miscellany

originally posted 6/23/19

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #4: SAMARQAND, BOKHARA, AND KIVA

image
Map of Uzbekistan. My route is Tashkent-Samarqand-Bokhara-Khiva-Tashkent
Samarkand

From Northwest China you can take the high-speed train from Dunhuang through Hami and on to Urumqi. From there, you can fly direct to Tashkent. My real Time travel comments are included below, along with newly added site descriptions.

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The first day of this segment has overwhelmed me with history, jogging my brain and challenging all of those connections between Alexander the Great, the Mongols, and Tamir. Some of you may know this better, but for me, it’s learning on the job.

Lets start with Tamir and work back. Tamir was from Samarqand and made a campaign to conquer India. His grandson was the scientist and developed an observatory and promoted a lot of concepts developed by the Arabs and and the Chinese. I now can connect the mythical opera “Turandot” to its history, where the Chinese iron princess met and fell in love with Timur’s son, Calef who sang “Nessun Dorma” to her.

When the Mongols struck in the 13th Century, they basically burned every town and village they encountered to the ground. Many of the relics predates this period, but the buildings are no longer standing. Alexander the Great conquered this area, but there is still some debate where and how long he ruled. He was physically here in the area with his army.

There are magnificent, UNESCO World Heritage sites completely restored but unnoticed. Only the curious and far-flung will seek out these treasures that defy architectural history. It’s shocking how little we in the Western world know about the treasures of the Non-Christian world. Islamic architecture had its interpretations of religion and certainly rivals the European and Asian counterparts in grandeur, functionality, and organization.

I trained myself to differentiate the three M’s: madrassah (an educational institution), mosque (for religious purposes), and the mausoleum (monuments to the prominent).Registan Square-Monument to Medieval Architecture

The most impressive buildings in Samarkand are the complex of educational institutions in Registan Square. The three separate buildings surround a courtyard and each included a library, classrooms and a place of worship (the “Mosque” is included in the madrassah complexes.)

The madrassahs were built in two different periods: the Ulugbek Madrassah, with the two towers, was completed in 1420 and the Sher-Dor and Tilla-Kori Madrassahs from around 1660. The two later buildings were intended to form a symmetrical triad of buildings, but the domes are not symmetrically placed. Architects during this period played alot with balancing symmetrical and asymmetrical elements. The visual site elements are much more interesting and challenging to deciper that way.

During that time, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Judaic religions parallel-played. Sayings in Arabic on the entries to the building welcome all religions but only believers. These were sacred places of education held in high regard, and the eight major faculties each had their own rooms. And believe it or not, in those days women were encouraged to learn in these institutions.

Extensive reconstruction of the tile work and buildings were made in the last few years to enhance its UNESCO classification. A bazaar that used to be in the courtyard has been relocated to preserve the structures.

The Shakhi Zinda Necropolis

The steps leading to a series of mausoleum complex helped to increase the drama and anticipation of peeking into each prominent family’s tribute to one of their dearly departed. Separate buildings align either side of the stepped pathway. While much more harmonious and magnificent, these buildings reminded me of mini-monuments I remember seeing in a Catholic Philippine graveyard, where families could spend the day while displaying the family’s wealth and prominence.

Needless to say, the architecture and mosaic work were intricately designed and worth marveling over the skill and craftsmanship.

Afro-Sayib Museum

You can read about the Sogdians, the original inhabitants that helped to form the Silk Road as traders, and the history of Samarkand here:

The museum was contained an original mural of the Silk Road traders who came from China through Sogdiana. This treasure is in the process of being further restored. It outlined the figures as a guide and was a moving display of travelers and traders plying the Silk Road.

Paper-Making
Bokhara

So what am I thinking? It’s hard to squeeze it out when (traveling solo) you can keep your thoughts to yourself, private and without judgment. Since we are social animals, we have the need to share and communicate, so here are a few of my thoughts:

Looking back, I regret not taking the History of Architecture class on Islamic Architecture. There are so many things to learn–not just the types of buildings (madrasah, mosque, and mausoleums) and their functions, but many of the basic universal design principles come from this part of the world: presence and soothing effect of water, gardens for life, and patterns for texture and interest.
On top of that, you get the confluence of all religions here–an encyclopedic understanding of Islamic, Judaic, Christian, and Buddhist principles, not to mention the sub-religions such as Sufi (remember the Whirling Dervishes), Zorastrian, Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sunni, Shi’ite, etc. need to be readily available for this type of travel.

The Sufis had a major center here and while they professed to not ever promote religion for material gain, they were highly intellectual and sought to purge themselves of all materialism. They strived to reach the point of connection with God analogous to becoming a drop of water sprayed into the ocean, as my guide informed me. At that point of annihilation, they become one with God.
All the battles, campaigns and failed attempts are enough to remind you how interconnected the world has been. The winners and losers needed to visit the Dresden Military History Museum to be reminded that everyone loses in war. Keeping track of the huge expanse of time is disorienting, so I am concentrating on three periods to keep myself straight: Alexander the Great, around 300 AD; the Mongol Invasions that swept through and destroyed everything in its path around the 12-13th Centuries, and the Timur Reign around 1400. That is helping me to put events and building design in perspective.
I am satisfying my curiosity, and if anything it has raised a huge list of further reading and to-do lists. If anyone is interested or knows something about any of the above, let’s talk!
On money changing: no need to count your Soums( the local currency, called that for a reason); the locals will automatically calculate it for you in USD. If you don’t trust them do the math: (1 Soum=0.00043USD). I had to bring a briefcase in the local currency to pay for lunch today.

Dinner Bill


Weather is manageable, but need all of the following before stepping out of the hotel:
A. Sunscreen 50 count, thanks to good German biotechnology. I hate the stuff as Gee Kin will attest on my behalf, but it’s needed for the scorching heat that hit over 100 deg. F. Midday).
B. Shawl for mosque but also needed for Early and late evening Mistral-like breezes)
C. Sunhat for low angle sun in early morning
D. Sunglasses
E. Umbrella for unshaded walks–despite my black umbrella not to be found elsewhere on the street, it was a lifesaver. Needed to contend with gusty winds.
F. Lots of band aids for blisters, again compliments to the German supply system.
G. Map
Once I was prepared, fumbling around with all of this paraphernalia was the next challenge. Had to think hard to avoid a Bridget Jones moment.
oh, and of course I had to take pictures on top of it all!
The people of Bokhara are known to be warm and friendly. Best of all, everyone has black hair! No bleached hair in sight. Girls like wearing their hair long, straight, and shiny or tied up in buns. The young women look very svelt and have beautiful dark eyes. Seeing swarms of students in uniform at their first day of school on Tuesday after the National Holiday reminded me what Russians brought to this country: education for all.

As for languages, if you speak a second language, it’s probably Russki. English was for the Colonials, remember?
Food service: when ordering a pizza, step back. They will roll it out, let the yeast rise, and fire up the oven. It’s fresh, you just gotta wait.

Samanids Mausoleum

This tiny gem of a building was built at the end of the Ninth Century as a crypt to the Samani family. Islam did not allow later monuments to be built over Muslim tombs, but the caliph at the time made a special exception to the rule so others followed suit. Fired brickwork was just introduced to the building industry so the designer went wild experimenting with different methods of shape and form.

Kiva

Kiva is an ancient fortress city surrounded by walls that is now part of the open air State Historical Archaeological museum. About 300 families live there to promote local crafts. One of the more intriguing experiences was a group of tourists from the Ferghana Valley near the narrow passage between Uzbekistan an Tajikistan. They still wore their traditional dress and are a Persian tribe distinct from local residents in Uzbekistan.

Uzbeki Food

Very refreshingly simple but tasty would be my description of Uzbeki food. As the bread basket of Europe, Uzbekistan grows fruits and vegetables in a Mediterranean climate similar to California’s Central Valley. The Tashkent Market was one of the largest in the world.

After my travels to Uzbekistan, I discovered an Uzbeki restaurant perched on the outskirts of New York City. I couldn’t resist going and even enticed world traveler and NYC resident David Craig to follow our find in Brooklyn. It is probably the only Uzbeki restaurant in the U.S. He and his family agreed it was unique and delicious! You can find his guest review of the restaurant here:

ihttps://travelswithmyselfandothers.com/2017/02/27/cafe-lily-uzbeki-korean-crossover/

Rail Travel between Cities

Rail travel is really ramping up, with deluxe and tourist level accommodations along the route of the Silk Road

There were far more sights visited, but too numerous to include in this post. If you are interested in exploring this wonderful country, please by all means get in touch with me for details.

This post is revised and culled from Uzbekistan travels in 2014.

We’ll be moving onto the highight of the Silk Road, Iran next.

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #3: NORTHWESTERN CHINA

Today is a travel day, so I am getting ahead of the pack by sharing some information about the Silk Road. I read the book “the Silk Road, a New History” by Valerie Hansen and I want to cite some interesting points from it. The book covers three key chapters of my selected cities: Turpan, Dunhuang, and Samarkand.

Dunhuang, while known for its Buddhist cave paintings, has a treasure trove of over 35,000 documents that recorded official edicts, announcements, and private letters. These were found in a garrison outside of Dunhuang. The dry desert air helped to preserve these documents from the 1st Century BCE to the 1st Century CE.

Agreements were written on bamboo strips and wood before paper, originally used for wrapping, became the material for writing. Paper did not become widely used for writing until the 2nd Century. All envoys passed through this garrison at Xuanquan outside Dunhuang in either direction to control movement.

Turpan, a walled city further west from Dunhuang, was known for its foreign community dating back to the Tang Dynasty. It was only the halfway point between Samarkand and Chang An (current day Xian). One of the most significant groups living in Turfan, believe it or not, was the Sogdians, who originated from Samarkand! They settled in Turfan to farm, run rest stops, take care of animals, and trade.

Thing for Thina
image

In case you were ever wondering, the name “China” is derived from a reference to “Thina”, by a merchant in the 1st C. CE with a description of China as “a great inland city from which silk floss, yarn and cloth are shipped by land…” Since Ancient Greek did not have a letter for “ch”, the letter theta was used. In Sanskrit, where the English word for China is derived, China was pronounced Chee-na. This word came into use around 221-207 BCE during the Qin Dynasty.
As far as the “Silk Road” is concerned, it is a relatively recent concept from 19th C. explorers. The Silk Road consisted mainly of clusters of cultures that lived and traded among each other. The paths were unmarked and did not provide the big saga event romanticized by the Marco Polo story. Silk was only one among other goods traded that included chemicals, spices, horses, glass and paper.

The Dunhuang Museum


The Dunhuang Museum was an exciting experience, because the museum provided the history and the context for what we were seeing in the ruins the previous couple of days. Most of the development of Dunhuang occurred during the Han Dynasty, when the emperor sent troops and their generals to protect the frontier of China. At that time, Dunhuang and the area around it was the outer edge of the country. The Han general finally defeated the Hsiung Nu raiders from the North.

Following this major victory, trade needed to be controlled and taxes charged. So it stood to reason that Dunhuang occupied a very strategic position in the future success of China. As a matter of fact, the heavy control over the trade and passage through the Silk Road allowed the Han Dynasty relative peace and prosperity. The country advanced in many areas during that time.

After a period of turmoil and disorganization, the Tang Dynasty continued to maintain strong control over the passages. We visited the Mogao Grottoes in the afternoon, and while there are no photos to share the experience, the Buddha sculpture, paintings, and architecture were a clear expression of the flourishing of encounters with the outside world. Trade, language, art, and religion were being introduced, explored, challenged, and absorbed between many cultures during this time (600AD-900AD).

I am posting a few pieces from the museum that I particularly liked and found quite unusual. They seemed to be very robust and expressive, similar to the style of the better known horses of the Tang period. The Photos of Han and Tang (200BC-900AD) Museum pieces are above.

The new museum itself was surprisingly beautiful and excellent in its presentation of material. It was very thoughtfully and clearly laid out, and spanned everything from early neolithic implements to planning for the future generations. I am inserting a couple of photos to show you how the new building interior courtyard looks. I would highly recommend this museum to anyone intending to visit this area.

The Northern Silk Road
Over and Out

The camels could pack enough food for 2 months and water for 2 weeks. Other animals and men could go for 4 days, so the caravans timed their journeys so they would have enough provisions and wouldn’t get caught in between. From Dunhuang, on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, there were two basic routes to the next watering hole: one took seven days and was easier, and another took four days but was riskier. Doing the hop-skip made so much sense!

Both Turpan and Dunhuang were major Silk Road trading points. Turpan contained one of the early walls from the 1st C. BC that preceded the Great Wall outside Beijing. And both the ruins of Gaocheng, a Han Dynasty city, and Jaio He, a fortress, were worth seeing but very remote from the current day town of Turpan.

The Han emperor sent the generals to fight the Hsiung Nu invaders from the North. When they finally won, a period of stability and civil order allowed the Han Dynasty to flourish. Trade and intercourse between the Chinese and the Sogdians, who were settling and trading in China, developed during this time. The Sogdians inhabited Bokhara and Samarkand! This period of prosperity lasted through the Tang Dynasty until the Mongols came down again from the dreaded north and ruined everything for the Tangs.

Gaochang

The Ancient City of Gaochang was an essential passageway between the East and West during the Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasties and was an important section of the ancient Silk Road. The foundation of the Wall was laid in the first century BC. The total area of this city is about two million square meters.

As soon as a sea route was discovered by Chang He in the Ming Dynasty, the party was over. It was better, faster, cheaper to go by sea to all the Middle East points. And sadly, the Silk Route diminished in its importance. While trade continued, the difficulty in going between desert and mountains became impractical and the cities like Dunhuang lost their significance.

It was amazing that amidst the Turpan desert were extensive grape vineyards. They really gave the lush impression of the oasis. It was a little bit of Napa Valley in the middle of the Gobi! The wells and water sources were precious and more important than gold. To this day, they are maintained carefully as a national resource. The government has big plans to harness the desert’s solar and electrical power capabilities. A high-speed train is under construction and will be in operation next year. That’s when development and tourism will be inevitable, and will kick in big-time.

Food! Food! Glorious Vegetables!

In addition to items one might expect from a typical Chinese breakfast buffet in Turpan, we were treated to an array of dishes, all cold, and mostly vegetarian. These locally produced vegetables were lightly flavored with oil and a hint of garlic or chili pepper and proved to be not only a visual delight, but very appealing to the palette for an energetic wake up. Dishes included the following:

  1. Fresh broccoli
  2. Lotus roots with ginkgo nuts, fungus strips, celery strips, red cabbage clips, red pepper, and straw mushrooms
  3. Fresh steamed yellow and orange carrots (a contribution to China from the West)
  4. Clouds Ears with onions, red and green pepper strips, bean sprouts and green onions
  5. Shaved Gourd strips with Green onions and red peppers
  6. Green beans (also likely a Silk Road vegetable imported from the West) with carrots, leeks and red pepper
  7. Chinese Greens
  8. Marinated cabbage with deep-fried pork strips
  9. Deep-fried pulled noodles
  10. Mini tschung and corn on the cob (another item from the New World) sections
  11. Mung beans and pickled cabbage
Onward to the Southern Silk Road

The missing link between the two major urban areas of Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Urumqi, China is very perplexing. With a flight time of just less than 2 hours, the distance over the Ferghana Valley and the Tian Shan mountains was indeed very short. Google maps had no discoverable routes between the two cities. Even Kashgar, the far outer reaches of Xinjiang Province accessible by train, had no published routes between these two cities in Google. You can go to Kashgar but there was no train to go beyond into Uzbekistan, and there were no flights from Tashkent to Kashgar. This was a Catch-22 for me. The cities we are going to visit are only within a few degrees’ latitude of each other: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara, Kiva, Turpan, and Dunhuang were nearly on the same latitude by a range of only 5 degrees. Amazingly, San Francisco lies in this zone of 38-42 degrees. There must have been something in the air or water that made me feel so at home in all of these locations. Maybe the wind direction had something to do with why the ancients chose to move eastward, or the water flow below fed the streams and wells in one horizontal line….

Training the Trainers

Our non-highspeed rail travels between Turpan and Urumqi involved harrowing late night transfers and crowded trains. We were rewarded with endless entertainment and an opportunity to chat with train interns.

Do’s and Don’ts

1. Organize your bag according to rooms in your house and how you use things in them: BR, bath, kitchen, etc. I use a lot of kitchen implements like a set of plastic fork, spoon, and knife to do most in-room dining for those unexpected, can’t be bothered moments to avoid eating out. Plus the knife comes in handy and passes security control.
2. Pack a box of tissue flat as a pad for your Ipad or computer.Use it as you go.
3. I use a nail clipper to cut and make my own band aids. They cost pennies if you buy them uncut and in sheets and you can make them any shape you need. The nail clipper also gets you around the scissor-weapon issue at airport security.
4. Be careful when taking trams and trains. Check to make sure that you know the end destination of the line, or you may end up in a completely different part of town!
5. Never be in a hurry when checking the next train or bus schedule.
6. Never, never, never take shortcuts near train tracks.
7. Don’t be without a cell phone.
8. Never have the batteries die or be close to dead before or after you take a train in the wrong direction.
9. Never be too sure you can meet someone even after you have just confirmed that you are meeting them in an hour.
11. Do not be in a remote location where there is no cell phone coverage.
12. Do not travel when it is getting dark.
13. Never trust your own judgment.

Minor point: in having executed 4-13 above in the span of 2 hours (between 7:30 and 9:30pm at an undisclosed location), I can vouch for the necessity to avoid these incidents at any cost, particularly when they are combined. Fortunately, one additional “do”: Do trust that your friend will be patient and wait for you, even if you are a complete flake and end up being over an hour late just because you were stupid enough to think that you knew what you were doing and didn’t.

This post is a compilation of several posts from August, 2014.

Our next major adventure will be from Urumqi to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara, and Kiva, the classic cities along the Southern Silk Road.

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE 1: MONGOLIA, THE START OF THE TRAIL

POP-UP ZOOM MEETING!! If you are interested in joining a Zoom Party to share a conversation on Mongolia with me and a fellow Mongolian Traveler on Sunday, July 5, at 8:45am (PST), send me an email at vifongit@gmail.com by 6:00pm today, July 4th (PST) and I will send you the meeting invite!!

Mongolia is not technically on the Silk Road, except it was indicated on one of the Silk Road Maps connecting to Karkourum, the capital city of Genghis Khan’s empire. We revisit the sites previewed in the video last week with the magnificent expanses of land, the natural living, and fascinating history.

You might find some of the order of information a bit confusing, as I am cutting and pasting several days’ travel into one posting. On top of that, I am going backwards in some instances so the general direction is eastward! These trips may have been taken in reverse order, so please ignore references to Days. In any event, the Polo brothers did alot of traipsing backwards and forwards with Marco and two Franciscan friars to meet Kublai Khan, so I don’t feel so bad about giving you misleading directions.

Mongolian Herder Family

The afternoon we spent with a Mongolian herder family was alive with activity, including milking cows and horses (for mare’s milk), corralling animals, racing with boys, tasting fermented mare’s milk and curd dessert, and playing with the family’s newborn baby.

The family included an award-winning horse racer (30 years old), his wife (29 years old), his two boys (8 and 6), and the newborn (1 month old).

Yurt Living

We experienced five days of ger living. Despite its challenges, the variety of gers has allowed us to get a full flavor of what it’s like to live in a ger. Our last ger included a stay along one of the largest fresh-water lakes in Mongolia. While rudimentary, it gave us a feeling of staying at Lake Tahoe, Mongolian style. The itinerary through Central Mongolia was on and off-road, to ger camps without internet access. It was both a blessing and a curse.

Erdene Zuu Monastery

The Erdene Zuu Monastery was founded in 1586 and is the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The religion came from India and Tibet in the 12th Century. The grounds of the Monastery are preserved as a museum. The adjacent complex is a working temple. The temple was built over the palace built by Ugudei Khan, and materials were taken from the ruins.

The Kharkhorin Museum

The Kharkhorin Museum presented a fascinating series of maps showing the the history of Mongolia. If you are curious, please click on these to see more; if not, skip this section.

The Chinese Han Dynasty successfully fought back the Xiong Nu empire in Northwest China, and early portions of the Great Wall were built to deter the Xiong Nu from advancing further. (Remember Mu Lan? She was fighting the Xiong Nu!) You can read more about the ruins of the early Great Wall in my posts from Turpan in August 2014.

In the following series, you will learn more about the history of the great Chinggis Khan (1162-1227), one of his sons Ugudei Khan (1186-1241), and his grandson Kubilai (1215-1294). The maps attached are in some ways easier to read than the ones above, as they show the flow of conquests. Take a look at the arrows and dates on the maps and the extent of their conquests in the span of a century! The influence of the Mongols reached as far west as Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

A little background on the vast country of Mongolia. It is a flat, diamond shaped country the size of Western Europe. It is sandwiched between Russia and China and therefore must maintain good relations with these giants.

The growing season is only four months during the summer, and the entire country is shrouded in snow in the winter. Its harsh environment requires the mere 3 million people to rely heavily on family, community and each other. The limited good weather impacts all development, repairs and activity to a very short season.

Why come to Mongolia? Here are three reasons: to learn about the past, present, and future. The history of Genghis Khan, the first ruler who united the tribes, is a fascinating one. His descendants, including Kublai Khan continued to rule during the Mongolian Dynasty for two hundred years, from 1200-1400.

Most of the expansionist period was during the first fifty years, when the grandsons who were posted to the outer reasons conquered as far west as Hungary and beyond. 1 in 200 men in the world have the DNA directly attributed to this prolific ruler Genghis and his descendants.

Following the Yuan or Mongol Dynasty that ruled most of Eurasia and China, the Ming defeated the Yuan at their capital in Beijing, and then the Manchurians (Ching Dynasty) ruled over China and Mongolia. With Russian help, Mongolia defeated the Ching Dynasty and became an independent country in 1921.

The second reason for coming to Mongolia is the environment. Mongolia, unlike China today, is still a pristine and pure environment. Nothing can be more contrasted than flying from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar (the correct spelling). The pollution and stifling heat of Beijing disappears and the crystal clear skies and bright sun of Mongolia appear. Ecotourism is being promoted here today and the Mongolians are very proud of their country. They know that the world is their oyster and they have every intention of protecting it.

The future is the third reason. Mongolia has huge mineral resources. Mining is one of its biggest industries, and tourism is growing despite its short season. With such a small population, Mongolia’s GDP has been growing at a rate of 10-15% over the past several years, twice the pace of China. While Mongolia is still considered a basically agricultural, nomadic land, it will experience phenomenal change.

Many people are still nomadic herdsmen, and they still live in the traditional ger, or round huts. They are constructed of wooden supports, felt padded walls, and can be easily assembled. A pot belly stove in the middle heats the room, and all the basics of living are contained within the ger: cooking, eating, sitting, sleeping, and storing. Oops, except for the toilet.

Everything has been hunky-dory in the ger camps where we have been staying for the past few days (we’re in No. 2 of 5). Toilets in the first ger were banked below the dining hall, not unlike those you would find at the UC Blue and Gold Camp in Pinecrest, CA. The second ger ratcheted up the ante to an outhouse, with a tastefully decorated Mongolian tent over the pair for easy identification. You could use the sawdust at free will. I was getting into the flow, with one minor detail. It rained this morning.

Imagine the scene for dressing (everything was set in place in advance the night before inside the ger), with even an umbrella. Contending with Mother Nature in order to let Mother Nature contend with you was a challenge. In the end, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. You just felt all thumbs and big toes in the execution. When in Rome, do as the Romans, as they say. The steamed towels looked good enough to eat!

But I digress. Back to Mongolia. The first afternoon of our private tour was devoted to the National History Museum in the middle of Ulaan Baatar. The museum traced the beginnings in the Fourth Century BC to the present day. Photographs are not allowed there or during the performance of traditional Mongolian singers and dancers. The main display I wanted to capture was the map of the conquests by Genghis Khan and his grandsons. They occurred over a very short time span of fifty years, and mostly in a ten year period between 1215-1225.

In the morning of Day 2, we visited the largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Mongolia is 98% Buddhist, so the religion plays an important part in daily life as well as its history. Buddhism came to Mongolia via the Tibetan monks. Today’s monks come from all over the country to study and chant at this monastery.

Later in the morning, we left the capital city to visit a shaman. Shamanism, or contact with the spirits through a medium, is also practiced in Mongolia. If an individual wanted to send a message to the gods, he or she went to a shaman. The shaman did not give advice but only transferred the information back and forth.

IMG_3561 3

This shaman explained to us that she was “struck” by both a desire and calling only after being confronted a number of times. After her husband died and she was sick, she eventually consented. She very patiently and proudly explained her roots and the people she served.

Her room was laden with offerings to the gods and spirits, both good and bad. Offerings included cheese, curd, dried nuts, fruits and dishes of food. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the answer to a question I had in mind. Her next appointment was already waiting and time ran out.

The many incredible, pristine pastoral landscapes we encountered traveling off-road by Land Cruiser included frequent herds of sheep, goats, horses and cattle. These are free-range animals, owned by herders who live in nearby gers, and have no fences. The animals get rounded up at the end of the day and know who and where their friends and family are. We had a full court press of the domestic animal world with a few wild ones and migrating birds for flavor.

In the afternoon the driver and our guide took us on and off road in search of the Przewalski horses. They run wild and are the ancestor to today’s domesticated horses. They are shorter, stockier and more muscular than the Arabian horses we are accustomed to seeing. They are named after the Russian who discovered them and helped to return them to their native land. They were an endangered species, but due to good management, they can now be allowed to proliferate in a protected environment. It felt a little bit like whale watching, but we were able to find a pack of six in the distance.

The vast green virgin landscape stretches literally for miles and as far as the eye can see. Occasionally there are pigs, and sheep dotted throughout the landscape. The herdsmen know where their herds are located and round them up at the end of the day. They are branded and the larger animals are used for milk and transportation.

The next day, the landscape suddenly rose in elevation, with mountains in the background to nearly 4,000 meters (12,000 ft!). Eventually a sandy desert mixed with small grass emerged. There are many small, Gobi-like deserts throughout Mongolia, and we headed for one of them. The camels that reside here are two-humped, and can carry up to 800 lbs. They can travel without water for a month and without food for up to two months. (See featured photo above)

The distances between sites are vast in this huge country, and few roads are sealed. It takes nearly three hours to travel 100 miles, due to hazardous pits in the road or sandy roads. We were surprised that the driver only had to refuel once in the three days we were driving. While we weren’t used to sitting in the car for such long hours, we were grateful that the Land Cruiser was very sturdy and capable of handling bumps, muddy pits, and stream crossings.

The Orkhorn Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Today’s drive took three hours off-road to a beautiful valley known as the Orkhorn Valley. Rain and inclement weather has deterred our camel and horse back riding, but we have been able to see the beautiful lush green, unspoiled countryside in its natural state.

While we basked in the luxury of a “free range day” where we explored the wide open countryside at a leisurely pace, we still had time to take in another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Orkhon River Valley was a prime location for burials that grouped together large flat steles in round or rectangular shapes. Another spot showed exposed granite stones weathered over time with petroglyphs still evident.

The Land Cruiser allowed us to enjoy the off-road traveling comfortably. Otherwise, it would have been a Russian van that was just as sturdy but a rough ride. Along the way we encountered herds of free-range sheep, cattle, goats, and horses. Many birds also migrate to Mongolia over the summer and travel as far as South Africa.

The photos don’t do any justice to the huge 360 degree views that take your breath away. The clean air is also hard to swallow, especially after Beijing!

Here’s last week’s video that was posted about Mongolia. It captures a day with the herder family, irresistible 360 degree views, and some of the incredible landscape and sights we experienced.

from travelswithmyselfandothers MONGOLIA, JULY 2016

Postscript: Thoughts on Mongolia

Coming to Mongolia has been a philosophy class. What is “progress”? What is a “fulfilling life”? What should be the relationship of humans to the rest of the earth?

Thousands of years ago, much of the world was like present-day Mongolia: a few humans herding livestock from one location to another pursuing better pastures and decent weather. Then came the development of intensive agriculture; people stopped moving around and started living closer to each other. And we are now where we are.

Obviously, Mongolia is not thousands of years behind the rest of the world. But there ARE very few people, only 3 million living in an area the size of Western Europe. And as many as 30% of the population are still herders, living in “gers” that they move with the seasons. There are no fences. Their animals are allowed to roam and graze on lands naturally covered with native plants. Their livestock provide much of their food: meat and dairy. Their days are regulated by the hours of daylight, and their year is regulated by the seasons. The land and their animals provide life. This is their mantra.

All this is going to change. But Mongolia has a chance to do development right. It’s as if God is giving humans another chance – to not screw it all up this time round.

I don’t know what Mongolia is going to be like in 20 years. But as the population increases, there will be more constraints on the herding, nomadic way of life. Massive factory farms and open-pit mines already are fencing off areas from grazing.

A law that was passed a few years ago that entitled every adult Mongolian to 0.7 hectare of land will eventually have to end. Mongolians don’t write wills; the descendants decide among themselves how to divide up any inheritance. As Mongolians become wealthier and family members live further apart, lawyers are going to come into their own.

I like modern living. This past week in Mongolia has reinforced my appreciation of indoor plumbing, being able to eat foods other than meat and dairy, and security from wind, rain, bugs and wild animals. But there are other things I could do without.

If I had a chance to start human development all again, I would make choices. Mongolians have a chance to make theirs.

Gee Kin Chou, June 29, 2016

12 Tricks for Mongolian Ger Survival

I just realize that my posts have been pretty dry and humorless in the past few months. It’s hard to laugh with yourself unless you are reminded at times. Now that I have a traveling partner, we share the perspective on how we travel–the good, the bad, the fun, the pain. Laughter is the best medicine to get you through all situations.

Here are a few pointers for those contemplating a stay in a ger. There’s nothing like creating a list from real life experience.

  1. Duck your head when entering the low door opening. Oops, didn’t someone already warn me about that!?!
  2. Ask for extra blankets regardless of 90 degree weather in the daytime. Temperatures changes dramatically at night. ( hey, I thought I asked earlier?)
  3. Have the stove heated twice a day. Once before bedtime around 8 pm and once around 7 am before (thinking about it then is too late) you get up. The guide or staff will ask, but make sure it is customized to your waking and sleeping hours! It needs to be timed to when you are undressing and dressing. Notify staff or guide in advance if they don’t ask. This is your only option as there is no other thermostat in the room.(where ARE they?)
  4. Wear hiking boots , not just for hiking but for getting to the outdoor loos in knee high wet grass in the middle of the night and 6″ deep puddles during rain (Damn, I thought this was going to be a walk in the park?)
  5.  Use the futon or comforter as a sleeping bag and roll the edges around your body to eliminate air gaps (and bugs…or am I getting paranoid?)
  6. Use the long tongs for wood  from the stove for removing large black beetles from the sides of tent
  7. Do not be deterred by rain snow sleet or hail. Use garbage cans, trays, and water bottles during the time you are inside to catch any of the above that may inadvertently enter your ger.
  8. Fondle the felt when you first enter the ger. It will reassure you that you will be kept warm, away from most bugs except those that crawl under the gaps through the ground or fly in through the door or opening at the roof plastic. Don’t be disheartened by silly rodents that run over the tops of the ger roof or the moths that cluster outside the skylight plastic. They provide a sweet symphony to lull you to sleep. The felt also protects you from heat and inclement weather. (If you want to know what direction you are facing, the ger doors always face south.)
  9. Decide if you want light by leaving the door open or bugs flying around  the ger before bed. You get both if you leave the door open. Remember that if bugs have a hard time getting out if they manage to get in.
  10. Keep your voice down. If you hear others in the next ger, they can hear you.(Oops ! Have I been shouting? Remember whatever you say comes back to you in a round chamber)
  11. Avoid spending any brain power on the dung being used in the stove as the material contrary to common thought does not smell. If firewood is used, appreciate how far it has come to a neighborhood near you. The smell is only temporary as the stove will not be burning except when you are dressing. (unless you are crazy enough to come outside of the tourist season).
  12. Should you not find any hooks mounted in the walls, simply drape your clothing over any surface areas. Use the chair seats or backs, headboards or beds, and tables in the room. Avoid stuffing clothing between the cross slats in walls or structural ribs in the ceiling as they may cause the ger to collapse.

Above all, remember that Mongolians have been living in gers for centuries and the ger camps are providing you with this experience. They don’t need our advice on advancing civilization. They ruled it for over 200 years and have survival in their DNA.

from Travels with Myself and Others, June 2016

ADVENTURE 2 will be in Beijing, China, Kublai Khan’s great conquest, and a stop in the direction of the Great Silk Road.

A note to the newbies: This was part of my third, around-the-world, live (except for technical glitches), real time journey. As an architect, my interests are in Planning, Design, and Architecture professionally; archaeology, anthropology, and art history, Silk Road history, opera, culture and food emotionally; UNESCO-focused, independent travel; and everything in between.

A REPOST FROM 2016 WORLD TRAVELS: Day 59: Vladivostok, Russia

Here are some first views of Vladivostok coming from the north by train on arrival at sunset the night before:

Dinner at Three Brothers across from the hotel, complete with live American jazz music for $30 for both of us with wine

Evening Entertainment: Portugal vs. Wales with Rinaldo scoring 1 of 2 goals

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If you were visiting Vladivostok for the first time like we were, you could start an early morning walk at the Friday morning Central food market:

You can take a minibus to the new Mariinskiy Opera and Ballet Theatre. It is hosting the first International Piano Competition at the end of this month. I predict that it will be a great draw for concerts, ballet and opera in the future. You might consider taking a trip to attend this magnificent new venue and the emerging new productions and stars that will perform here!

After that, you can catch a bus back to the city and stop at the Lookout Point over the new Golden Bridge completed in 2012. Does the design look familiar to you?

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Later in the day, get your cultural brains in gear and visit the Primorie Art Gallery. When we attended, it was showing an exhibition of Russian Art from 1700-1900. We were intrigued with the very personal touches of each painting, that may have reflected or imitated more famous Western paintings of the same era. Sargent, Picasso, and Matisse came to mind.

There were also a number of startling paintings that represented new subjects seldom seen in paintings of the same era. Chinese or Muslim figures were represented in historical settings that required more context and explanation. Unfortunately, all paintings were titled in Russian or limited English.

At the end of the day, kick back and have dinner at the Three Brothers for evening meal. This was our return visit from the night before. The outdoor dining was perfect for the cool balmy weather of Vladivostok. The city is very similar to San Francisco, with hills, coastal fog, city views everywhere, and a lively ambience. We’re in love with this city of 2 Million!! This city is destined to be a big tourist destination in the next 10 years, so come soon.