Monday, August 22, 2016

Adventure Travel Commentary


I could be labeled an "adventure traveler" having wandered into various far corners of the globe, many against the advice of the US State Department and the British Foreign Office..  I'm not as bad as one traveler I knew, who headed out to a country immediately after he saw it listed as a no-go.  But I have stuck my neck out, including three trips into Afghanistan within the last eight years.  One trip was with Hinterland Travels, the group that was ambushed by Taliban while enroute to Herat earlier this month. 

I've gotten  a lot of feed back from  special forces types, past and present, about these "thrill seekers" and  how they put Security forces  at risk if, and when, they have to be rescued.  In fact, I was really critical, some years back, when a newsman, in search of a good story, went down into tribal country for an exclusive with a local chief, only to be taken hostage:  He was recovered  but  at the expense of an interpreter and some of the rescuers.  So I weigh the consequences, try to cover  my six (as they say) and make the decision.  I do go with a reputable tour company familiar with the territory.

And I go because of  the history, the politics, the scenery, the people - all pique my curiosity.  I do stay out of active conflict areas, really I do.  But I have ended up in some where there have been   difficulties eg: Ukraine and Libya for two.  And others that have been just way off the beaten track eg Chad and Kosovo for two.  For whatever reason, I've done little south of the border travel, just Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela. 

When I first considered trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, I decided there was a need to prepare myself for ultimately, I would be responsible for my own safety.  So I ended up in a five-day Hostile Environment and First Aid training course  with a British security group.   This group contracted  with press and NGOs going into various problem areas.  It was worth it, for even though I really haven't needed use some of the  information, it did give me a mind set. 

One thing I have concluded:  stay away from Security people.  It only targets you.  In both Iraq (I was there during the "surge" and it was relatively  quiet) and Afghanistan, I only felt threatened when well meaning police insisted on "protecting" us.  Or when we were held up at various checkpoints. 

Traveling on the ground in Afghanistan, our Fearless Leader would hire transportation in the morning for the day's travel, then we  spent the night at a local teahouse (no reservations!) with another vehicle hired for the next day's travel.  Hard to get a handle on us when there was no set pattern. Doesn't work with escorts.

My belief is that the police presence possibly endangered the Hinterland bunch more than it helped, though admittedly I have no first hand knowledge.  All I know, I read in the papers.  Which is why I go in the first place.



Sunday, July 17, 2016

Murmansk-Arctic-North Pole: June-July 2018

It was the Murmansk stop that sold me.  Both Quark expeditions and Peregrine had sent information about a North Pole trip aboard a Russian Nuclear icebreaker but it was Murmansk that did it.  That sometime closed Russian  port that I remembered from World War II.  The merchant mariners who took chances  sailing in the Arctic, delivering supplies to our then Russian ally.  Poseidon also had a similar trip but I chose Quark; I had a good experience with them in the Antarctic.  I don't know if it was the cheapest, though I took their least expensive  fare.  Did get upgraded so that roommate and I were not atop each other. 

It was a fourteen day trip:  beginning and ending with a  night at a Helsinki Hilton and twelve nights aboard the 50 Days of Victory.  With a several  hour tour of Murmansk including walking about the center of town.  Central town  had shared  the St Petersburg architect;  had kept up park and nicely designed buildings.  Otherwise, grounds were unkept and the buildings were basic Soviet. And deteriorating.  

The harbour was large: one area appeared to be for civilian use while another  was more military, including where our ship was anchored - near several other nuclear ships.  And warships.  Our bus load of passengers were checked and double checked while held in a sally port.   I was a bit concerned for I was using a visa obtained a year ago for the Siberian Rail trip:  while I had been assured it was good, didn't trust until I finally passed muster. (Turns out it is also good next year as is my last  Chinese visa - now two places on next year's agenda.)

So, the chartered flight from Helsinki to Murmansk where we toured and then boarded our ship, looking froward to the educational talks,  helicopter flights and zodiac rides. Quark has always been a traveling seminar of the polar regions.   And then there was the day at the North Pole, the place explorers suffered to find while we arrived  in comfort.  What a contrast!.

Russia has made the major claim and investment  to the arctic area.  What with an ice breaker fleet and scientists spending summers on Franz Joseph Land, the Russians are the major players in the development of the area.  We had Park rangers and scientists aboard, to be dropped off at a Franz Joseph Land summer station.  Couldn't land them by heli or zodiac at the first spot but did succeed in settling them in at the second.  We went on shore at  Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, once a meteorological station, now a summer only biological station - unloaded supplies for the summer staff.  Some of the ladies aboard were delighted when told there was a shop at the Post Office, only to find little more than post cards.  Lovely, old weathered buildings on a rocky shore. 

The earlier zodiac ride was a cruise about Camp? Island, flocked with birds and sea life.One of the best parts of the trip.  Along with a short helicopter ride above our ice breaking ship at work.  Missed out on much more:  winds and fog.  No hot air balloon at the Pole.  But at  least four presentations daily, about the glaciers, the wildlife, the history, the politics - all well done and  interesting.  And considering we had groups of Chinese, Japanese, Russian and German speakers in addition  to the  English speaking. Quark managed to keep all involved.   Outstanding  staff!  Multi-lingual.  Expedition leader was superb.

For the most part, passengers had the run of the ship.  With  arrangements  made for below decks tours. While I didn't spend much time on the bow, I did hang out on the bridge, where I was impressed with the modern equipment.  And had a great view of the ship cutting over and down on the ice. 

The piece d' resistance for most was the day at the magnetic  North Pole.  Photos, hikes .a barbeque and polar plunges.  I had problems  staying upright  in the snow/ice wearing the Quark-issued boots so did little wandering about.   I was joined by another member of the white haired set who had even more serious mobility issues - she retired back to the ship early on.  I hung about on the ship's stern, watching the polar plungers shiver their way out of the jumps (few righteous dives).  I avoided this in the Antarctic; I am not a water, either warm or cold, person.

Aboard ship was a small bar, a first rate dining room, a library, a small gym and swimming pool.  Luxurious, really., certainly in comparison to my last expedition with Quark.  A fair mount of organized and unorganized evening gatherings,.  Not my cuppa tea though my roommate, an Australian working in Hong King, took advantage of all opportunities, even getting up at 2AM to view polar bears.  And we did see polar bears, a walrus and all sorts of arctic birds.

Photographers abounded.  Some with minimum three cameras plus lap top.  Either snapping   or downloading.  One man had a at least eight foot "selfie" pole to attached his camera and caught some really awesome shots.  Quark staff put together  a combination of the shots and showed them to us.  Impressive!  Especially compared to my Walgreen's throw-a-way film camera. picture taking not being a big part of my activities.   

Coming home, I had time to kill in Helsinki.  I spent some in town with two  Bay area guys, one of whom was most proficient with his Ipad, getting us on trams here and there, checking out a bar  a book store and a excellent restaurant serving reindeer meat - there,  I had the best salmon ever. 

Then to sleeping at the airport.  About a B-/C+ on my rating scale.  With my boarding pass, I got past Security and to my Gate.  Padded bench without arm rests, no PA announcements until five-ish.  Nearby vending machines for food and drink.  And, had I looked, chaise lounges up the corridor.  However, lights and AC were on all night.  I did sleep but also, did get a cold. Win some, lose some! 

Cost:    Airfare:  United Airlines:  $410.  (Used ff miles)
            Quark Expedition:  $26745. inclusive from Helsinki ff.
                                            $400 gratuity.








Friday, April 29, 2016

Iran the Second Time Around: 10 days in April 2016









I missed out on the February Pakistan trip:  visas for US citizens required a personal interview and their nearest offices were in Los Angeles.  So cancelled out. And thus on  to Iran with Political Tours.  (Ironically, got the Iranian visa via the Pakistan embassy in Washington DC  through my visa service with little hassle.)

I had been in Iran for ten days in May 2005, visiting Tehran, Shiraz, Persepolis, Yazd and Esfahan.  This had been a budget, sightseeing tour which I greatly enjoyed.  So PT's ten days in Isfahan (same as Esfahan), Shahrekord, Qom and Tehran was tempting, particularly given their approach to travel - essentially an inquiry into the political and economic scene.  More interesting given the easing of sanctions imposed by the West.  I remembered the friendliness and courtesy of the Iranians.  But necessarily had  seen it through the eyes of our guide, a professional class young man who was an IT man who  avoided serving in the Iraq-Iran war.  But who was knowledgeable about the history, current and ancient, of his country..  But still, a sight seeing tour.  Though a good one.

So going with Nicholas Woods' group was cutting through the frosting and into the cake.  Guiding us was Christopher de Bellaigne,  author and Iranian expert extraordinaire.  There was also a local guide plus Nick and Karen, his wife.  Top notch!  We were a gang of nine:  mostly from the UK, but myself, two Australians and a Russian to flavor the mix. Several  retired.  Backgrounds were varied:  business,  academic,  linguist,  criminal justice, NGO.  All were serious travelers. 

We started in that most lovely of cities, Isfahan, Easy evening, walking about town,  getting oriented and acquainted  for the next day we took off via  private bus to Shahrekord (Shahr-e Kord per Lonely Planet and Wikipedia) where we spend time visiting two businesses:  an appliance factory and a cement firm.  Both had survived sanctions by business domestically and with Iraq, Turkey and China. 

The owner of the appliance business had an MBA from the US and had his son following the same path.  Wandering about the factory, I found it noisy and dusty, somewhat automated but without safety features  required in the US.  Updating it would disemploy a number of workers - always, the unintended consequences.  The cement firm was neater:  a gardener was working outside the main office, we were issued hat hats and safety vests; followed by an ambulance as we were escorted around.  Immaculate, considering the product.  Seemed more up to date than the appliance factory.

Returning to Isfahan,  we stopped at a village, Yaseh Chah (I think).  Wandered about crumbling homes which hopefully will be restored as a model village for tourist viewing.  We had tea with a village elder and picnic lunch along the river back of his home.  Interestingly, the men of the house  met with us with woman seen only upstairs as we left. 

One of the most memorable experiences  was at the martyrs cemetery, where soldiers who had fought in the Iran-Iraq war (a big deal to the True Believers) were buried.  Several of our group chatted  briefly with a brother of one of the buried as a covey  of grade school girls came by led by several adult women, chanting "Death to America"!  When I was identified to them as American, there were apologies and assurances by both the supervising Imman and the  woman in charge  that this was not directed at me, personally.  Subsequently, the girls - and our group - were presented with faux medals  by Revolutionary Guards, picturing one of the heroes of the war.  Apparently, this is a yearly excursion for the girls; boys have the same opportunity, just not with the girls. 

The contrast to this was time spent at a Music Museum of Iranian Instruments.  Not only did we see the various instruments, but were treated to a concert by the two owners.  They discounted  my earlier  experience at the cemetery, saying things were changing.  At one point music was forbidden and now there were numerous studios and teachers.  This experience certainly balanced  the earlier experience. The other side of the coin.

We did make a stop at the Armenian Church which reminded me that Iran hosts a number of people of varying religions including the largest number of Jews outside Israel.  We also  spent an evening  observing a Zurkhaneh session, an ancient, aerobic men's exercise routine with drumming and chanting - this was not as good as I remembered from before.

There is always Naqsh-e Jahan  (Eman Khomeini) Square, the UNESCO world heritage site, a magnificent place featuring the gloriously tiled Jamen Mosque.  Shops and restaurants are in the buildings surrounding the square.  Horse driven carriages are available for rides about the area.  It is a central point for the city.  And we did some wandering about Isfahan:  I remember lovely bridges across the river. And a jump across I didn't try.

On to Qom, the religious capital of the country.  and the meeting with the mullahs. The first we met by chance, on the street, a rather cheerful man from Pakistan; he had been here for ten years, returning  home come Ramadan. 

Another with whom we had a scheduled appointment, saw  himself as quite liberal, willing to see changes in th
e penalties for not wearing the hejab - which all women were required to wear,  .  Moslem or no.  He still retained the  "company" view when it came to the international scene though he explained there were even more "traditional" thinking among the religious.

When we visited what I assume was the Hazrat-e Masumeh, burial place of Fatemeh, there was a funeral of some six Afghans who had been killed in Syria, fighting ISIS.  The women of tour group were loaned oversized flowered figured abelas so we could accompany the males into a meeting with another, and more conservative, Imman.  

Then to the smog and traffic of Tehran, with its convoluted and uncompleted freeways.  We visited Laleh, a private hospital.  Doctors often work at both the public and private facilities, Care varies greatly. with  IAMAT not listing Iran.  But worth mentioning or no:  male docs are the only males who still wear ties - apparently they were discarded following the Revolution. Out with the ties and on with the hejab! 

In the park area in northern Tehran, two of us met a lady who was determined we come home with her for lunch.  And there is another man who discounted the clerics and determinedly shook my hand, not common between men and women.  At an art gallery/cafe, off an alley, , I ran into several from California. 

There were several meetings with business people.  One problem is the transfer of monies via the banking system, which may explain why credit cards are not used - or it may be the Islamic attitude toward usury.  These representatives were hopeful problems could be resolved.  While it appeared they had done well, the businessmen thought the lifting in sanctions would see them more active in the world markets.  Tourism was a plus.

One of the high points, for me, was the visit to the girls' school.  An exclusive private facility, it provided about everything for the students:   Besides the basics (including computers from China), music, dance, swimming, ice skating - you name it.  The students were highly motivated: medicine, dentistry, engineering, architecture were some of their goals. 

Then there was the time at the newspaper office with a glimpse into the newsroom.  Apparently,    the budget balanced with the printing of books.  The editor, who was secular, apparently is secondary to the advisor, a cleric.  Anything like Investigative Journalism is non existent.  As our New York Times guy found out.

One evening was spent with the family of our Iranian tour manager.  She and her husband had a large apartment - the living-dining room was larger than my  entire apartment .  But living with them are members of her husband's family, including the patriarch, suffering from MS.  Most all spoke English and were most hospitable.

We did the tour of the Shah's palaces.  Been there, done that!  Yes, he lived high.  I do wish we could have checked out the former US Embassy but that wasn't possible.  I skipped the bazaar.

Most Unforgettable:  1.  The student-interpreter at the girls' school who was so facile in English with great body movements, I thought she had lived overseas.  I was assured she had learned her English via television and film.  She hoped to be a politician so she could help people.    2.  The suave Iranian, now a Swedish national, who worked out of Dubai that I chatted with in the Tehran hotel lobby.  We talked of the layers one must go through to understand Iran and Iranians.  3.  My  fellow traveler, a former British  government executive, who asked the most interesting and hard questions. 

Difference between then and now:  Ten years ago, the people I talked with were at beat, middle class:  shopkeepers and those staying at our modest hotels.  This time, we were often talking with some of the movers and shakers.  I saw a more prosperous bit of Iran though there was an effort for us to see and chat with average citizens.  Lots of new buildings and buildings in progress, the latter  a result of the sanctions?  Also, there was loosening of the women's dress code - some color along with the prescribed black and hair showing.  There was no change in the friendliness and hospitality of the Iranians.  We were offered tea and pastries at almost every meeting.

Accommodations:  From a three star in Shakrekord to  four star Abbasi in Isfahan (a remarkable hotel based on an old caravanserai) to the would be five star Espinas in Tehran.  All excellent and way above my usual.  They provided great people watching, particularly  checking out the Western women's efforts to adhere to the Iranian dress code. 

Food:  Great. Ranging from the pizza parlor to a picnic to  lying on a bed while eating.  Good food; good restaurants. 

Cost:  Political Tours:  $5204 inclusive.  Turkish Airlines: $964 (very good except for long layover in Istanbul) .  Tips and gifts: $250.

Impression: 
Christopher  talked of the duality. The  Iranian-Swede talked of the layers. What you see is not necessarily what you get.  The ultimate authority is religious and while   they have softened some as the secular pushed  to move ahead  and reengage the west.  Rather than have another demonstration, the Mullahs loosened the apron strings.  But I suspect some would be  delighted if the West, ie the US, gave them any excuse to pull back.  One of the unintended consequences of the sanctions is that the Iranians found they could survive in an alternate world, sans the West.  So they don't  feel in a one-down position vis a vis the West.  What would be interesting is if the US ceases to be their Number One Enemy - what that would do to the religious' power! It's a love-hate relationship with the US, depending on who is speaking.  Europe seems to be more active in entering the Iranian market, sans sanctions.. Little was asked or  said about Hezbollah, allegedly  sanctioned/supported by  the religious sector.

Regardless, it is a lovely place to visit, it is safe, the people are friendly and they do want tourists. 








Monday, December 21, 2015

Cambodia-Laos: Nov-Dec 2015

















Four of us. two Brits and two Americans, took off for a Fall trip to southeast Asia; the tour was  planned by one of the Brits with the help of Trailfinders and Exotissmo, British and SE Asian travel specialist. It was at least the sixth time three of us had traveled together.   (Incidentally, Exotissmo got a bad rap on TripAdvisor:  we found them to be outstanding with drivers and guides knowledgeable and more than on time!)

The tour started in Siem Reap and ended at Chiang Mai: nine days in Cambodia,  eleven days in Laos and one night in Thailand.  I met up with the group on the fourth day in Phnom Penh,  having chosen not to repeat an earlier visit to Siem Reap.  We stopped in three major cities:  Phnom Penh, Vientianne and Luang Pr
abang.  The rest of time we traveled in out of the way villages/towns or in the countryside.  Both Cambodia and Laos are communist countries but ones that seem to have made their peace with a capitalist society.  Though Cambodia  had ever present photos of the ruling party members and  Laos flew as many hammer-and-sickle flags as national ones.  But I had little feeling of repression in either country.

Like other French influenced cities from the old IndoChina days,  PP has wide boulevards which   mixed with narrow back streets.  And traffic:  Trucks, buses, autos, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, scooters - if it had wheels, it was there.  Probably  there, even without  wheels.  Buildings new and old,  French influenced and "Moderne".  Sheds and shacks. A noisy,  developing city.   A combination of old looking new and new looking old.  PP was more modern than I expected. But still   with  Buddhist  influences.
 

My roommate and I spent time in Phnom Penh looking for her checked luggage, which had gone walk-about (or more accurately, fly-about) when   Air France responded to  a terrorist threat which meant itinerary changes  which then found her in Siem Reap a day late and a  duffel short. The missing was found, the day before we left PP. 

Missed a dance performance but did tour about PP, courtesy of a local tuk-tuk driver.  (The other two did their sightseeing walk: in fact, we putted by them as they stood on the street corner,  Lonely Planet to the fore!) We all spent sometime a the local market, busy and bustling, as these markets tend to be.

Vientiane seemed a bit less brash. Happily, they were celebrating the  county's forty-th anniversary.  Fireworks!  It was a charming, active city with a small night market near the river.  Lots of  shops, including a bookstore.  Not as large or overwhelming as PP.  We went to a hotel-restaurant mentioned by Lonely Planet for indigenous dancing - mistake!  Not-a-mistake:  the two hour and a half hour  massage.

Luang Prabang was the most touristy of all.  Considered the spiritual center  of Laos, it is a colorful Buddhist place with several Wats, museums,and a  large night market
. I was surprised at the number of Westerners around - not only here but throughout the journey.  Young and old.  Straight and "hippy".

There was a  film festival:  I attended six offerings:  two graphic and  four standard. 
From Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia.  All with subtitles.  All well done.  In various locales, from a 5* hotel to the Lao Friends Hospital for Children  -  transportation  provided between venues.

Also, wandered into a small 
Unexploded Ordinance Museum where I saw a film of the US bombing of the area and a film warning local youngsters  regarding UXOs.  I hadn't realized the US had done so much damage to this area - Cambodia and Laos as well as Vietnam.  In fact, the locals call it the American war rather than the Vietnam war.

In between, got a foot massage!! 

We traveled between these three major  cities via auto and airplane, staying at small river towns, where we took tuk-tuk, elephant and boat to explore the areas along the Mekong.  The boats?  L
ong tailed banana shaped,  wooden ones with diesel engine and lengthy rudder (I had first run into them in Thailand ).  At Kratie, we took the local ferry, a long tailed one,  across the river to Koh Trong Island, to haul ourselves onto a  motor bike  for the trip up the island to the hotel, one of our more interesting ways to an accommodation.    A beautiful area.  We navigated  back to the mainland the next day for another boat trip and dolphin watching.

Moving onto Stung Treng, located on the Laos border, a small town with  silk factory and small villages nearby, we did a sunset cruise  among the boat people and bridges. Housing was of various materials:  thatch, corrugated metal,  wood - often on stilts.  Often, uncollected trash.

The next day we crossed the border into Laos and were driven into Champasak.  A World heritage Wat, temple ruins, French colonial architecture, wet lands and unspoiled,  forest areas. And a picturesque  elephant  ride   into a Protected Area.  And triangle (motorcycle with  side car for two)  and boat rides  -   water falls, bridges and railroads.We observed the local people settled in boat communities, in or along the edges of the Mekong. 

From here, we flew to Vientiane and after time there, onto the magnificent  unexplicable Plain of Jars:  where thirty sites house hundreds of ancient sandstone jars of all shapes and sizes.  We were able to access three sites, with paths marked to protect visitors from UXOs as this area had been heavily bombed during the Vietnam/American war.  Unique and mysterious, it was   well worth the hikes onto the sites.   Missed out on a hot air balloon ride:  rain!

We ended the trip with a two day cruise on the Mekong toward Thailand and the flights home.  Along with our foursome, there was only one other traveler aboard so it was close to a private expedition.  There were several stops to visit local villages - weavers mostly all.  And an exploration of  local Buddhist caves.  Overnight was at lodge near a small riverside settlement - unique but comfortable. 

Conclusion was a ride to Chiang Rai for the night; the next morning, it was Chiang Mai and the flights home. 

Accommodations:  Outstanding.  All  with both comfort and character and wi-fi.  One lacked breakfast facilities which left us with a bit sub par  local cafe. Almost all recommended with Trip Advisor.

Food:  A mix from really excellent hotel restaurants to French influenced cafes to  make shift local eateries.  The Mekong cruise  lodge had the best food of the lot, both supper and breakfast. 

Cost:  Airfare round trip from SFO:  $1057 - had three seats to myself on the ride home:  can't beat that!  Tour : $2900.  The remaining expenses are estimated:  Meals:  $200.  Tips: $150 .  Gifts:  $400. ( I took one thousand cash with me and came home with $250.)

Cat Care:  $840 plus the kindness of Sam's friends, whose friendship is beyond payment.  

Impression:  This was a great trip: well planned and executed. Weather  a bit toasty at the start but cooler  on the river.   I was surprised that as an American, I was  so welcomed in countries where the US had done so much damage.  But then, same was true in Vietnam.  Amazing! 










  6 Attached Images

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Road Scholar: Washington DC 14-22 Oct 2015


I'm back from  eight days in DC, attending two Road Scholar sessions:  One was on Intelligence and Spies  and the other was on    Foreign Service diplomacy  in  currently conflicted areas. The first session was okay but the second was superb!  I was familiar with the material presented in both sessions but really was hooked in the second one, for I had visited most of the countries under discussion. 

I should start with what Road Scholar is:  for Seniors, it used to be called Elderhostel;   they sponsor    tours emphasizing learning about a subject or area.  I did a Cambridge Spy bit with them in London, a  trip to Sedona and the Grand Canyon and several local sessions on Islam at a local mosque - formerly an H-P administrative building.   RS does cycling trips, hiking tours and cruises.  Most of the people at  the DC sessions had traveled extensively with them.   There were 32 attending the Spy talks and forty
at  the Foreign Service segments.  About half a dozen of us were there for both sessions. RS put together the Intel sessions while the Foreign Service planned the diplomacy symposium. 

The first series consisted of seven talks with five speakers combined with trips  to the International Spy Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and National Cryptologic Museum.  The final speaker, formerly an assistant director of the CIA, was by far the best:  he not only  discussed the Snowden controversy but reviewed  developing technology. He was both knowledgeable and professional  in his presentations.  Others told of polygraph use, "Cold War" intelligence gathering, development of the CIA and woman's role in Espionage.

And the developing technology is really scary, say I who was hacked while in DC!

Moving on, the Foreign Service  program started as the Spies attendees wandered off.  There were twelve lectures covering general information about the Foreign Service, global terrorism, politics and conflict  involving   Saudi Arabia, Israel- Palestine, Iran, Turkey, Yemen, Afghanistan, Central Asia,  Pakistan, India and Columbia. Additionally we visited the Foreign Service Institute where efforts were made to teach us Swahili, a tour down Embassy Row, a stop at the Turkish Embassy and lunch at DACOR Bacon House, an 18th Century home now owned by an association of diplomats.  Two Frontline Television programs were shown:  Yemen and ISIS.

I came out of these sessions  being more aware than ever of the need to have  intelligence, good intelligence, as a basis of any  decision making. And to appreciate the intensive work involved in training  US representatives.  The caliber of speakers, including   ambassadors, was awesome.  The countries' histories were at their fingertips and made me appreciate some of the US's present activities. Past implusive   actions  led  to destructive   unintended consequences, eg: our foray into Iraq. 

There was spare time  We stayed in Upper Georgetown, near the Naval Observatory and Vice President's residence, so I did some wandering about in  a very nice neighborhood.   While I had  been to the Spy Museum last time I was in Washington,  I was interested by all the equipment augmented by an   able docent's explanations at the Cryptologic Museum.  The Cyber age is scary, say I who was hacked while in DC! 

Accommodation:The hotel,  Savoy Suites, was fine.  Really large  bedrooms and beds.  I was solo for the first session but had a roommate for the second. 

Food:  Almost all meals were included.  Nothing to write home about but acceptable.  
Ate out several times:   I ended up with several others eating at Whole Foods one evening.    And at a old time German restaurant during the second session. 

Cost:  Airfare was $$53 plus another $75 to change to an earlier flight to SFO.  RD sessions:  $890 and $1088  inclusive. 


Overall:  Glad I went.  Met a some interesting people, particularly a retired Florida cop  who was there for both sessions and really on top of the discussions.  I like DC and enjoyed both the drives and walks about town.  
And really benefited from the sessions.  All in all: worthwhile. And didn't fuss with a camera! 




















Tuesday, October 6, 2015

September 2015 on the Silk Road















Interest in this trip began when I read Charles Blackmore"s book about crossing the Taklamakan desert.  I began a search of ways to travel in that part of China.  I had been at the beginning of the trail: Xi'an - and at the  end, Kashgar -  on separate trips, some years earlier.  But ne'er the between, a significant part of the old Silk Road, which included the Taklamakan  And  that segment would complete the whole for me:  India, Pakistan, China and the other Stans.

Not a lot of companies feature that particular area.  I was cautious of a local company that did the Taklamakan sans recommendation.
I did find several  western outfits that included the Taklamakan as part of a Silk Road tour but chose Wild Frontiers' 20 days tour  - I had traveled with them before into the Pamirs and thought they would have the basic kind of travel I prefer. Expensive but inclusive!

It was not an auspicious start:  China Air had problems with their flight out of SF and left several hours late which meant I missed the connection to Xi'an connection at Beijing.  With the help of an IT guy's cell, I was able to notify the local tour  people of the change so was met when I arrived a flight  late.

Things had changed since I was last there, over ten years ago.  More hustle and bustle - all   the signs of a prosperous city.  And the Terracotta Army had increased:  more excavations and additional viewing areas.  China treats its relics with respect. 

From there began the first of the three overnight train rides:  soft seat.  Four to a compartment.  I had top bunk once and bottomed out twice.  Squat toilet at one end and Western toilet at the other. 
A convenient way to cover distances - but tiring for we charged about during the day, from one photo op to another.   It was only at Turpan a bus was used to deal with the distances between the various Buddhist and Uiyghur and Chinese sights - for this was a sight seeing tour more than a experiential one.  

Group:  eleven including the Italian tour leader.  An Austrian  couple who marched to the tune of their own drummer; a Scot, an Irishman, three Brits, a Kiwi working in Kuala Lampur, an American-Brit of the old Hippie days and me.  Three men and eight women. Most of a certain age.  My roommate, one of the Brits, was a joy - here I was ahead of the game.  I couldn't ask for a better.  Plus she was knowledgeable about I-pads!  What more could one want!

Our stops were at Lanzhou, off the beaten track to Xiahe, then Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan, Korla, Kuq, Aksu, Khotan and ending at Kashgar. A flight  to Bejing and the final fight home.  Along the way, it was the  Labrang Tibetan Buddhism Monastery with its photos of the Dalai Lama, the Binlingshi caves with its ancient carvings, relics of the old Wall, wall paintings  and sculptures in caves from 220 AD ff.  And sand dunes, a bit reminiscent of the Empty  Quarter but on a much smaller scale.  And the Chinese really go out of their way to showcase  the restorations.

One  thing China and Iran have in common is their irrigation system:  the Karez system of underground channels.  Starting in Xiahe,  start seeing notices in Arabic coexisting with the Chinese; Minarets were evident.  But no  Calls to Prayer.  I think once in the entire trip, I heard a weak afternoon Call.  While the buildings are restored, it is for historical purposes not for practical use.  Practice of the Faith is discouraged though most women are covered in the Moslem regions,.

Towns along the Road were some,  majority  Han Chinese and others, mostly Uighur.  It was at Aksu, the road began along the Taklamakan desert.  A awesome but  desolate sight - I ached to get out and walk or camel my way on.  Too civilized to ride a bus in this area. No big deal was made of it.   An interesting stop along the way was at Yorkent, a Uighur craft center.  And then there was the livestock market at Khotan - an authentic experience.

But as we continued  into the Xinjian  region,   the Chinese check points increased.  By the time we arrived at  Chairman Mao in Kashgar's city centre, there were at least a dozen police vehicles en garde. And I was disappointed in the Old City which had been well "sanitized" as one of my companions put it.  As at earlier stops, a collection of Chinese Soviet style apartment houses throughout the city.  Progress?  Ah, the Chinese paws were well established all over the area. All the same Tibet! 

Along  with visiting historical sights:  mosques and caves, we were taken to museums, rug and jade shops,  night markets and   bazaars. the latter packed with patrons.     For some of our group, this was a shopping trip par excellence.  It was really    more of a conventional sightseeing tour than the adventure trek I had expected.   Interestingly, several of us brought along copies of Judy Bonavia's reference  of the Silk Road from  Xi'an to Kashgar, with its magnificent photos.  In  high hopes!

Accommodations: Over the top, garish Chinese 4*+ hotels with one exception:  at Dunhuang, the tasteful  Silk Road Hotel. congruent with the theme of our tour and the landscape.  Reminiscent   of Dwarka's in Kathmandu.  Overlooking the Gobi desert. I could have remained there an extra day.  The other place that impressed me though we didn't stay but did eat there:  Nirvana Hotel  at Xiahe, a charming small inn near the Monastery.  I think Wild Frontiers really missed the boat here. 

Food:  Ranged from hotel meals to local restaurants to street cafes.  A wide and appreciated  variety.  And I certainly developed my chop stick skills.  (Had tea at Kashgar's old Russian Embassy, where I stayed on the previous trip). 

Cost:  Tour:  $6143 inclusive all meals, flights Kashgar-Beijing,  and airport pickup up and delivery,  International flight:  SFO-Xi'an; Beijng-SFO.:  $1045.  Tips:  $400?

Conclusion:  Back to the simple life.  Also, sending tis out sans photos, which are caught up on CVS' developer - I am moving on to a digital!  Anyway, photos to follow!





Jo Rawlins Gilbert

Palo Alto CA  94303
USA


http://jos-travel-blog.blogspot.com




  1 Attached Images

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Highlands and Iceland plus Places Between: 20 May-19 June 2015

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My interest began when I read of The Travel Insider's Highland  tour several years ago.  My grandmother was a Kerr, low lands Scot,  and my grandfather was a Canadian Scot, one of those whose family fled  the homeland after Culloden, probably  part of  a  Highland clan that had to disguise itself and thus, became a Brown. (Per our Scots driver on the tour,   originally,  a McKenzie.)

Anyway, I was fascinated by the opportunity to travel in the Highlands and onto the Islands, parts of the country I had missed on previous trips.  Along the way, I was co-opted onto an earlier  cruise on MS Sea Spirit, with stops at the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes and various Icelandic coastal areas.

So it was twelve days aboard with a four day intermission in Reykjavik and Glasgow, then a two day pre-tour before the twelve day bus tour.  A month, all told.  The second time I've been gone from home that long - the other was a Silk Road tour into India, Pakistan, China and several of the 'Stans. 

For me, the Proseiden expedition  - rightly described as a "soft" adventure cruise - started in Edinburgh though most had boarded several days earlier in Hamburg.  There were half a dozen shore excursions, starting with one to Edinburgh Castle and moving onto the Scottish and Danish islands before  stops at various settlements along the Icelandic coast.  Ancient structures, glorious scenery, interesting wildlife plus sheep - lots of sheep.  Some places were very isolated, maybe two families  there year-round, with others arriving for the summer season -  holiday visitors and service providers.  The final excursion was a tour of Reykjavik and environs.

Additionally, there were Zodiac landings at some spots where docking was not possible.  Bundled up in red Poseidon-issued  water resistant coats and knee high rubberized boots, participants sloshed ashore, usually, returning to the ship damper than when they left.    I did several of the Zodiac landings - though had problems walking with the  awkward fitting boots. 

There were maybe, ninety passengers -  about a third German speaking, so presentations were bi lingual.  Programming was not as extensive as on my previous Quark expedition in the Antarctic though  several of the expedition staff had worked with Quark.  The ship was just short of luxurious - my shared "cabin" was double? triple?  the size of any on the several  earlier cruises I had experienced.  The food was outstanding and the service excellent. 

Fourteen of us had booked through The Travel Insider (David Rowell0 - turned out he bailed on this trip with crew having no knowledge of him.  As it turned out, it was okay,  for I found friends in others both in and outside his particular group.  And again, was fortunate in my roommate - a really interesting Houston resident who had also traveled on the Siberian Railroad. She helped me manage  my newly purchased I pad, despite the shop's unoperative wi fi.    Oh yes, I continue to  surrender to the electronic age.

Cost for the cruise:  $4545 plus $650 optional tours.  Gratuities:  $200. 

The intermission was two nights in Reykjavik (4th Street Hotel:  $195), Icelandic Air to Glasgow ($293). two nights in Glasgow  (Alexander Thomson Hotel:  $175) and two pre tour nights:  New Lanark Mill Hotel @ $213 and Culcreuck Castle @$154.

In both Reykjavik and Glasgow, I walked about the city, browsing about shops and streets and churches.  Reykjavik has the most impressive concert and conference hall - unfortunately, couldn't connect with any performances.  Architecture is varied, using stucco, wood and corrugated metal. Great use of color.  Glasgow buildings combine the Olde English with  modern  glass and metal/concrete - little congruous  I blew $28.50 for an evening of Spamalot - great fun!

The New Lanark Mill Hotel is part of a National World Heritage site which houses a restored  18th Century spinning mill and village.  Culereuch Castle,  once the home of the Barons of Culereuchs, sports both a tower and a ghost - I can confirm the tower for I slept in the tower room but can't confirm the ghost.  Along the way,  stopped at Sterling Castle, which was more "restored" than  I remembered from the past.  But the commanding view of the country side continues to be Impressive!

Now came the piéce de résistance: the Highlands tour.  There were twenty-five of us, plus our Fearless Leader and his ten year old daughter.  Mostly upper middle class, a grey haired bunch - or would be if not dyed/bleached.   The tour included several ferry trips, from ten minutes to  two and  half hours,  several distilleries, varied scenic and historical landmarks.  We got to  Islay, Mull, Skye.  and Harris/Lewis before heading back down to Edinburgh via Inverness and Culloden  - weren't able to spend much time there, damn, for that was high on my bucket list and I certainly would have traded  the distillery stops for  more time to wander about the auld battlefield. Seeing the history made one appreciate the Scots' need for an individual identity apart from the Brits, against whom they fought so long and so hard. as impractical as that may be. 

Fascinating and interesting bits:  Finlaggen, once home of the "Lords of the Isles"; the mini Stonegenge circle at Kilmartin; Iona and Fingal's Cave; the Loch Ness cruise, the mini-train ride between Ft  Williams-Mailaig, the several castles along the way - and the scenery!  Ah, the scenery!  Again, I missed sighting of  the Loch Ness monster though our boat did a good search of the waters. 

Our leader was well organized  and knowledgeable.  But even more so was our driver, a Scotsman and  raconteur par excellence. Others also found him helpful as he kept getting calls from lost and strayed drivers throughout Scotland.  And aboard  were two like minded   companions   who added to my joy of this tour, which cost    $3000 including  bed and breakfast.  Hard to estimate meals for I both paid cash and charged - would guess  under $500 for the trip.  Airfare via Aer Lingus, SFO-Edinburgh; Glasgow-SFO:   $1500.  Cat care: $1200.

All told, somewhat more upscale than usual.  So I'm now  looking at a three week (when one considers date of departure/return SFO) Taklamakan desert  tour that will run $5800 and  includes meals.