Thursday, December 23, 2010

Five Ladies of a Certain Age - Traveling in Oman December 2010

Several years ago, I came to Oman, stayed in Muscat, toured to Nizwa and the Sands. Then and there, I decided to return and see more of the country, A to Z, Khasab to Salalah. A good share of what I’d knew about Oman came from military writings concerning the 1950s Jebels conflict between the Sultan and the Imam who was aided by Saudis, and the 1970s Dhofar War involving the Yemen communists and Omani rebels with the government aided by the British.

The current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, came into power during the Dhofar War; His positive policies made it possible for the government forces to win over the rebels and chase the Yemenis home, As a result, Oman appears the most stable and peaceful country in the Middle East. So. with the help of a former military man who had been stationed in Oman and a local travel agent I put together a three week tour. I then contacted a number of people I’d traveled with and found five volunteers, several of whom were virgins to the Middle East. By the time we left, one had dropped out due to illness, leaving a total of five women, ages ranging from sixty to eighty: swimmers, shoppers, sightseers, hikers - experienced travelers all! The Gang of Five!

We gathered in Dubai, then into Khasab on the Musandam Peninsula where we got a feel of the area with a drive into the mountains and a dhow cruise with swimming and dolphin watching - a beginning of the variety of landscapes that make up Oman. the people were also a variety - mix of Indian and Arab, the women covered and uncovered. But even the totally veiled ones moved with a degree of freedom and authority not always present in the Arab world.

We then drove through the Emirates to Muscat, Oman's capital. It was a comfortable ride on asphalted roads with time to get a feel of the local scenery, both man made and natural. We ended at a hotel on on the Corniche in the Muttrah district of Muscat, with a view of the harbour including the Sultan’s dhow. Oman was celebrating the Fortieth Year of his rule with a vengeance. Visitors were from all over the World, including Queen Elizabeth of England. The television was full of impressive ceremonies including bagpipers riding camels!

As for us, we did a sightseeing tour which included the Grand Mosque, which must be one of the most beautifully designed buildings in the world, and the old walled city. I managed to wrangle a return to the Armed Forces Museum, which I think does an excellent job of presenting Oman’s history over the centuries. Behind our hotel, there was another small charming museum, Bait Al Baranda, a restored home with exhibits about Omani culture in photos and handicraft.

Then to Sur noted for its boat building plus walks in a series of scenic wadis, before and after. Onto the fabled Wahiba Sands. Then came the old Forts, the Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar - where the 50s conflict occurred. We hiked along mountain paths into deserted villages which were balanced with stops at souks, produce and meat/fish markets.

Most interesting was the walk about Al-Hamra, one of the oldest mud-brick villages in Oman, very similar to Yemen villages. It is to be an UNESCO Heritage project. A local family keeps their home in the old style and as an interactive museum, making bread and serving coffee/tea in the old style.

For two nights, we were housed in established camps as we checked out the back country. Then as we headed south, it was basic camping on the beach for three nights, using facilities at the local hospitals and eating at nearby cafes. While we missed the flamingos, there was other wildlife around. The landscape’s variety continued from lush greenery to volcanic desert.

We ended in Salalah, the old capital and home of the Sultans and the frankincense trade of yore. Important to me was nearby Mirbat, where the Fort was the scene of one of the significant battles of the Dhofer War. We were taken by Bedu to Ubar, the Queen of Sheba’s reported lost city and the Rub’ al Khali (The Empty Quarter) where we camped - only for one night unfortunately. A magnificent experience: sleeping under the stars, endless sand dunes and perfect silence. For me, Mirbat, Ubar and Rub al Khali were the piéce de résistance of the journey.

The people were warm and friendly. While walking in the Old City, a uniformed guy presented me with a beautifully smelling rose; when cheering a parade in honor of the Sultan’s rule, one of the participants ran out to toss his scarf to me. We never had a untoward moment. In fact, on several occasions people wanted their photos taken with us.

The women, often fully or partially veiled, were responsive. Sometimes quite aggressive; other times more decorous. Women are as educated as the men and are active in government and business. There is nothing like a woman in black, fully veiled - face and gloves - cashiering at the grocery store. Others would have face exposed with colorful clothing. In Muscat, western dress was more evident.

Camels were all around, often free ranging along the highways. Three memorable sights: a camel couched in the back of a pickup - I have a photo of this; two camels loosely tied to a pickup, trotting behind their mechanized leader along the highway; a string of, say thirty camels, walking along in the Rub’ al Khali, with a pickup herding them.

Accommodations were good. When sleeping out, tents and sleeping bags were provided. Three of us slept outside under stars, enjoying the solar activity. The set camps were comfortable, one elaborately furnished Bedouin-style with rugs on floor, walls and ceilings. The hotels were most comfortable.

I think the Indians control the food industry in Oman. We consistently ate Indian, whether it was at some what beat up roadside cafe or a more elegant hotel dining room. It was all good, very good.

Ali, the guide for the trip’s central region was outstanding. He and the driver, went out of their way to insure that we understood Oman and its people and that we had a good experience. I’ve traveled a bit and rarely felt that I was in such capable care. We all voted him #1!

I managed to lose two out of three caps this time around. Lost the Clive Cussler NUMA cap early on and then the newly purchased Armed Forces Museum cap half way through. Ended up with a red Oman flagged cap.

And yes, I would return again!

The trip, all told, cost about what most companies charge for their much less extensive tours: $2829 which included about half the meals. Emirates airfare from San Francisco to Dubai: $1553.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

GARP 2010 : 24 Oct-7 Nov

GARP 2010 : 24 Oct-7 Nov

Besides love of the desert, TE Lawrence and I have another thing in common - love of a soak in a hot bath. Though on this excursion, I settled for a hot shower. beating on my back.

This was my third time out with the Great Arab Revolt Project (and my fourth time in Jordan), the yearly trip to the Hejaz Railroad area where two weeks were spent digging for artifacts from the WW1 conflict between Arabs and Ottomans. The so-called TE Lawrence war. This year’s explorations occurred south of Ma’an in the Tel al-Shalm. area where I worked on tent rings, a gun emplacement and a structure of unknown usage. -- guesses ranged from a cookhouse to a brothel, the latter a not too serious suggestion. Not only were WW1 items found, but a probable Nabataen site was uncovered. My personal find was a Mauser 1916 cartridge and some bits and pieces of fabric. Much better than the first year when I was digging for mule pucky!

This year’s activity was enlivened by a day’s loan of a Royal Jordanian Air Force helicopter which was used for aerial surveys. Concurrently, the National Geographic filmed for several days - second time around for BBC filmed the first year I was with GARP. Apparently I was caught on camera, beavering away, for I was asked to sign a waiver. Check me out on the Discovery channel, if and when.

An exciting moment: a Jordanian solder came up to several of us, digging away at some sort of encampment, and asked to see my fellow excavator's book, TEL's Seven Pillars, as I recall. The solder thumbed through and then pointed out a bearded Bedouin: my grandfather, he grinned. "My grandfather" was Auda Abu Tayi, TEL's left hand during the Arab Revolt, assuming Prince Feisal was the right hand.

To add to the fun, our co-director was interviewed on Jordanian television one morning and both directors did a presentation at the local University. We stayed in Wadi Mousa, near Petra, where I went on one of our two days off. Been there before, but there are always new sights - I think it’s one of the most fantastic and awesome places on earth.

As always, the digging, scraping and sifting was time consuming and dusty. But had to be done. Possibilities had to ruled in or out. This year, more than others, a goodly share of us were attacked by a severe cold - several stayed back a day to recuperate. I conked out with a brief intestinal reaction one morning, but otherwise, was able to keep working.

Ten professionals directed sixteen volunteers,two of which were professional archaeologists and others were quite experienced, several having been with GARP since the beginning. Four Americans, a Swiss, a Belgian and a Jordanian were the foreigners in the bunch. The project is sponsored by the University of Bristol and the Jordanian Ministry of Antiquities. The last day, we a Turkish scholar joined us. As I’m sure I’ve commented before, this is a egalitarian bunch - I feel like f an extended family member.

The second day off, I went with others to Tafila- the site of the one significant Arab-Ottoman battle, an area that may be explored next year - and Karak - . which reminds me of Scotland’s Sterling Castle in that both totally dominate the landscape. And as with Petra there were busloads of tourists, completely inappropriately dressed for a Islamic country. For other than Amman and the tourist hotels, women in Jordan tend to dress conservatively - long coat and headscarf.

It was election time and I saw numerous candidates’ posters, all males, and the tented gathering places for campaign speeches in the several towns we passed driving from to the sites.

At the end of my tour, I headed home via British Airways and LHR - which meant a night in Terminal 1, the cache for all overnighters at the airport. There were about a dozen of us, including two non-too-sober Russian sailors, not terribly conversant in English who were totally confused by BA’s arrangements and decided I could be their leader.

Cost: SFO to LHR: $1000. GARP, inclusive of room and board plus airfare LHR-Amman: £2450. Well worth it and I will return!

NB: To see some fabulous photos and learn more about the dig, latch onto where Roger Ward has done a terrific job putting the tour together.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Buchercon 2010 or Travels to SF

This has been the year I’ve attended writers’ conferences: In March it was the Colby Military Writers and now, in October, the Bouchercon Mystery Writers. The first in Vermont and the second in San Francisco.

The Bouchercon began in l970 and is named for a SF Chronicle book critic and author, Anthony Boucher, active in the mid-forties. The organization awards new writers and recognizes those who have been around a bit. But it isn’t just writers who show up: agents, publishers, vendors, editors, librarians, would-be writers and people like me - readers. There were 1350 attendees signed on for the full four days with an average of eighty coming in for a day’s session, per the event’s organizer.

I’m familiar with the writings of probably two or three dozen crime/mystery/ adventure authors, particularly over the past twenty five years of serious travel. As I’m not a TV/film watcher aboard flights, I’ve managed to read my way to and fro where ever. Which means I’ve picked up paperbacks, allowing me into virtual reality - figuring out the good and the bad guys - in LA or Edinburgh or London or Amman, rather than the harsh reality of sausaged into some airline’s economy seat.

I’ve always been a mystery reader starting with Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and PD James. I trained, in time gone by, as a journalist . I vividly remember sitting nights in The Shack, a quonset hut, housing The Emerald, the University of Oregon’s student newspaper, reaching for the inspiration to type out a decent short story for a creative writing class. Nada! Though I did get through the class, I realized I should stick to the facts, just the facts.

So in another life, I wrote reports about offenders and offenses for Judges and prison staff to read and use in their decisions about the care and feeding of various violators, from minor to major. In many ways, writing was the fun part of the job fro me,where it was a tedious bore for most of the others. Which is why I do a blog. Which is why I was delighted to spend time at a writers conference. To see and hear people who are able to create fascinating characters in challenging landscapes.

The conference was at the Hyatt Regency, a massive building, very modern with hanging light, an atrium and many meeting spaces. There were at least sixty panel discussions about various bits and pieces involved in the craft of writing: there were some seven interviews of authors by other authors; ongoing conversations with authors along with the milling about and socializing that comes with such a gathering.

I happily sat in on five of the interviews, three with authors whose work I do enjoy - David Baldaccio, Michael Connelly and Lee Child. The fourth was with a couple of Scots women who were really a kick: Val Dermid and Denise Mars. And one was with Bill Link, a TV series man, creator of Columbo among others.

Other than a Dashiell Hammett Walk around downtown San Francisco, the rest of my time was spent in the panels, which covered about everything one could imagine. Panelists ranged from totally unknown (though published) writers to top drawer authors. To me, E J Ellroy stood out - a Brit, very clear and confident about his writing.

Another panelist whose work I like was James Rollins of the Delta Force series, a ex- Sacramento veterinarian, who lived up to expectation. I really enjoyed a discussion involving US and UK cop authors - listening to them talk about the differences between US and UK policing was fun for me.

One panel with Bret Battles - I had just finished his latest - and Walter Mosley, whose now deceased detective character was named Easy Rawlins (Mosley says the name was made up!) was part of a discussion of East Coast, really New York, and West Coast, really LA, influences.

There were two other panels I attended: one about San Francisco Noir and another a theatrical effort from a SF based work. I was intrigued with a local author,Eddie Muller, a very articulate and enthusiastic guy, who I hadn’t heard of and whose works I will look up. I may be alone in my ignorance for there was an hour interview with him and is a page long appreciation of him the event’s program.

It was interesting to see how many authors had morphed from lawyer, journalist and cop into a writing career. Once successful, few stayed with their day job but moved onto full time author-hood, as it were. I couldn't help but remember what Khaled Hosseini, who has moved on from his day job as a physician, said: Medicine was the girl I liked and respected , but writing was the love of my life.

There were several dozen vendors about. Books, t-shirts, bags, jewelry!. Even a table with L. Ron Hubbard’s old science fiction stuff for sale. II did not succumb.

There were evening activities: an awards ceremony and reception, Lee Child hosted a Reacher’s Creatures event that really tempted me, a go-go party - I missed them all, racing to catch my bus/train back to Menlo Park. I commuted up, catching my transport at 7AM and trying to get home by 8 PM. Long days. I also missed the final morning’s events which included the Anthony awards.

But all in all, I got my money’s worth: a couple of hundred for the conference and fifty for transportation and meals - I picked up sandwiches from Starbucks across the street. and caged bites from the Hospitality Room, including a welcomed Hagen daz bar one afternoon.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

September 2010: Eight Days in North Korea aka DPRK

Eight Days in North Korea aka DPRK

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that the original Axis of Evil was Iraq, Iran and Syria. When it was pointed out that all were Moslem, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea aka North Korea, was substituted for Syria. So it was to North Korea that I went in September 2010, traveling with Global Exchange/Realty tours. I had gone with them before: to Kabul and to Palestine/Israel and liked their approach, more educational than most.

There were eight of us in the group, plus the South Korea tour manager. Three were PhDs, one a Fullbright scholar, another a soon-to-be medical student, a ex-Navy guy, a would-be priest, our Italian Global Exchange representative and me, a retired civil servant. Ages ranged from mid-twenties to mid-eighties. Good group though the ex-Navy guy had health issues.

The Juche Idea is DPRK’s guiding philosophy, teaching that “man is the master of everything and decides everything”. This was first articulated by Kim Il-sung in 1955 and is what distinguishes the Korean approach from that of the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. Kim Il-sung is the first and Eternal President, despite his death in 1994. His son and successor, Kim Jong-il, is listed as the Supreme Leader, Chairman of the Presidium and Chairman of the National Defense commission. It is his third son who is soon to be designated heir.

And there is a Kim cult. Portraits of the Eternal Leader are in the foyers of all the buildings I entered, the guides began all their explanations with praises of Kim 1 and 2, people bow before a facsimile of Kim 1 - occasionally Kim 2 is part of the picture but always, Kim 1. Bookstores had a plethora of Kim-written books; almost impossible to find much else.

We had two nights in Pyongyang, a night in Kaesang and the DMZ, returned to Pyongyang for two nights and then a night at Wonsan and back to Pyongyang for the final two nights. The Yanggakdo hotel was some 40+ floors with a revolving restaurant on top - quite classy. You could see the new, even taller, hotel that was being built, a triangular shaped structure. It seemed North Korea was expecting/encouraging visitors. There were other tourists: Germans, Austrians, Canadians, Malaysians, Americans, all with guides. I talked with a Canadian who was part of a group of American teachers who came yearly to consult and advise on educational matters.

But visitors were segregated from the average Korean. We had a tour guide and two assistants. Our guide had studied and traveled in Europe worked for an international organization in North Korea before becoming a guide some four years ago. He was very good. His assistants were pleasant, less facile in English, and filmed us throughout the tour.

We. and the other visitors, not only ate apart from the local people - two dining rooms in the hotel - and were forbidden from taking photos of people. Certainly we could not wander abut on our own - our passports were taken from us upon arrival and returned only as we left the country. As we were ending our trip, an international film festival had begun which meant the hotel was well occupied. I saw two men, probably Eastern Europeans from their accents, waiting around for a minder so they could go on a morning run.

Driving about Pyongyang, I saw lots of statues and monuments but few people walking about. I did see individuals, mainly women, cleaning and clipping for the forthcoming October 10 celebration. Grass clipping was done with both sheers and scissors. And buses and subway were jam packed. We did ride the subway, in a car with only one other passenger, who seemed a bit bemused by us foreigners and quickly ran out at the first opportunity. The North Koreans live in rent-free assigned high rise apartments. Everyone I saw, in and out of the City, seemed reasonably well fed.

Sunday morning was spent at the Bongsu Christian Church where a very professional choir performed. A visiting minister from the US received much applause when she mentioned reunification. The resident minister’s sermon was more about ethics than religion. The members were primarily female and quite well dressed, as opposed to us in our tourist grubs.

In Pyongyang, we visited two hospitals: one was the Maternity Hospital and the other, the Academy of Koryo Medical Science. Equipment in the maternity hospital seemed modern enough. We were told medical care was available to all. The mothers and babies seemed well cared for but quiet; no babies crying. The Academy works with alternate medical care; I was shown acupuncture, accupressive and cupping techniques.

Along with various statues and monuments, we were visited the alleged native house of Kim Il-sung, the Kim Il-sung University, the library (Grand People’s Study House), and the Liberation Museum (which had a lot of captured US equipment from the Korean War US/War of Liberation(DPRK). I didn’t see a lot of students at the University except at the new Aquatic Center. The library seemed well used; I walked by an active English class among others. Both facilities have records extensively computerized (though no Internet available to us!).

A biggie was the visit to the captured US spy ship, Pueblo, where a video was screened, presenting the DPRK point of view. Not a high point of US Foreign policy.

We stopped by several art galleries and a embroidery studio. The embroidery work was exquisite. I watched the workers taking small stitches on thin silk material that would eventually be a figure or a scene. Very Impressive.

The Mangyondae Student and Children’s Palace had an active after school arts program in Western and Korean music and dance. They put on one of the three performances we saw and it was very professional. From drumming to dance to violin solos. The other performances were the Mass Gymnastic and Art Performance Arirang which was a combination of the Olympic opening ceremonies and Cirque du Soliel with a touch of the Edinburgh Tattoo. The third was the Circus where the performers were, I was told, all Army people, even the daring trapeze artists.

A cooperative farm was on the itinerary. Along the highway, there and elsewhere, corn and peppers were set out to dry. At the farm, I observed dried corn being loaded into new sacks with the US flag printed on them. Also, we were invited into a local home, they called it two room but I thought it three (Kitchen, living room and bedroom areas) with refrigerator, washer and dryer. However, facilities are VIPL: very improved pit latrine.

There were two trips out of town: one to Kaesung and the DMZ where the Armistice was signed. The Sinchon Museum,a pean to the atrocities of Americans, was on the agenda. Another video presented with the DPRK point of view. Overnight was at the Kaesung Korean Inn, where sleeping mats with mesquito nets substituted for beds; it was immaculate with TV and modern plumbing. Meals were served on low tables with consumers seated on the floor - hard for some of our crew.

The second out of town trip was to Wonsan. Enroute we stopped by the King Tongmyong Mausoleum, a magnificent spectacle, and the Children's International Camp, where kids spend several weeks in a natural setting (a light weight Adventure-bound?). Overnight, we were on the coast of the Sea of Japan where several of the guys swam - I settled for barefoot walking along the private Foreigners’ beach. The hotel was quite comfortable though not many were staying there.

A day trip was to Mt Myohyang, a tourist attraction, reportedly crowded year round with people, wildlife and hiking trails. There is the International Friendship House, a 200 room marble building with a Korean tiled roof full of gifts sent over the years to the two Kims; nearby is the 50 room annex. It’s as if all the Presidents’ gifts over the years were housed in one rather than the many Presidential libraries across the US. Also in this lovely mountain area was one of the two Buddhist temples we visited, all lovingly restored.

The tour ended with a stop at a souvenir shop, some karaoke after dinner and we were done!

And the good news was I made a tight connection in Beijing so, having left Pyongyang Saturday @ 9AM, I arrived in SFO @ 8 AM Saturday and was in the house, greeted by Sam, the cat, @ 10AM.

The bad news was the computer crashed and I had to put in a new hard drive. .

Impression: This continues to be a closed society, wedded to its philosophical base, the Juche Idea. (I found an excellent discussion of it on Wikipedia.) But there is a tourist infrastructure which seems t indicate the North Koreans are interested in contact with the rest of the world. It may be they want to show off what they have, which they feel is unique to them with little input from the outside. I don’t know.

But people seemed friendly though most of my contact was with the apartatchiks. Our South Korean companion said you could question anything but Kim Il-sung and the Juche Idea. Reunification is a goal but the United States is seen as standing in the way - we are the boogieman, a convenient scape goat. Our guide said he thought perhaps the military and the foreign services could combine in his lifetime but it would be his son’s lifetime before any reunification.

The tour cost $2750 inclusive meals and Beijing-Pyongyang air fare. SFO-Bejing via United was $1184.90.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Ladakh - Two weeks later!

This morning's SF Chronicle headline: Deluge in desert engulfs tourist spot, killing 112.

A cloudburst followed by flash flood hit a Himalayan desert region in Indian-controlled Kashmir, sending rivers of mud down mountainsides and killing at least 12 people, officials said today.

Nearly 2000 foreign tourist were in the remote area of Ladakh, a popular destination for adventure sports enthusiasts, when the calamity struck, . . . there were no immediate reports of any foreigners being killed or injured in the floods that started early Friday. . . . At least 400 people were injured, as gushing waters swept away housing, cars and buses in a 60-square-mile swath in and around Leh, the main town in Ladakh.

The airport in Leh was hit, most communications were cut and Leh's state-run civil hospital was damaged as torrents of water flooded large parts of the town. . . . Ladakh, about 260 miles east of Srinagar . . . is a high altitude desert, with a stark moonscape-like terrain, about 11,500 feet above sea level.

The main highway linking Leh to the nearby holiday resort of Manali was blocked by landslides. The only other highway linking Ladakh was partially open and vericles waiting to cross had backed up for miles. Poor weather has made it impossible for even helicopters to fly into Ladakh with relief supplies.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Leh to Manali Plus - July 2010

Lee Child's protagonist, Jack Reacher, is an interesting guy: ex-Army, travels around the US with only a toothbrush, an ATM card and an expired passport. I haven’t quite achieved that: ex-civil service, I travel around the world with a carry-on sized backpack, an ATM card and a valid passport. It is a goal,though, to be as unencumbered as the fictional Reacher. But it was with my normal bits and pieces that I returned to India, my fourth trip and again in the north - I must get to the South one of these days.

This trip was with Explore, one of several small British budget tour groups, booked through Adventure Center. I’ve traveled with them before and never been disappointed. Labeled Little Tibet, the tour began in Ladakh; then Leh to Manali, on to Dharmasala and Armritsar with individual time in Delhi at the beginning and end. I did have a bit of difficulty signing on as Explore isn’t enthused about the solo Senior traveler, aged eighty or over. But with the help of my Adventure Center agent and assurances I could deal with the altitude and long drives on essentially unimproved roadways full of melting snow runoff and falling rocks, I was squeezed in. Actually, I more than held my own, only huffing and puffing when it came to step climbing up to several temples and monasteries. And I would have huffed and puffed on those steps ten, twenty years ago. And I was one of the four who didn’t have intestinal problems. .

The group of sixteen included seven Seniors, one couple, one Scot with ukulele, an Irishman, several Malaysians now Brits, a Canadian, four guys, the Brits and me, the lone American. Most were well traveled - good companions, all! The four single women rotated roommates so we became well acquainted.

I got into Delhi early and caught up on sleep, missed on the two night flight from San Francisco. When the rest arrived, there was the tour of New and Old Delhi - Old Delhi via pedal rickshaw. This was probably my third tour of the City; the sights, sounds, smells and colors of Delhi continue to fascinate me. I could park myself at a curb and just stay there indefinitely, losing myself in the entire scene,

Then we took off to Leh, a hill town, starting point for various tours and treks, There was combinations of Westerners, local Indians and Tibetan refugees. Throughout, there was a large Army and Air Force contingent for The Great Game lives on in this part of India bordered with China and Pakistan. And if Americans are concerned with AlQueda, the Indians and Pakistanis have played their game since Partition, particularly with nearby Kashmir claimed by both sides.

The time in Leh was spent at several monasteries and gompas, including Seville hours at a Buddhist Festival, the performance reminiscent of a similar event I attended in Bhutan several years ago. Here however, we were able to be up close and personal. The grotesquely masked dancers moved in repetitious rhythm to the beat of drums and the sound of wailing horns, augmented by stringed instruments of ancient vintage. The dancers movements appeared to be roughly choreographed but presented no competition to the Rockettes.

Enroute to Alchi, there was a rafting opportunity - no takers. So a long dusty drive. Again, we climbed to gompas and monasteries. I ran into two California women who were marking time to rejoin their trekking group - they dropped out early on with problems climbing in high altitude. At Likir, there was a striking Golden Buddha that caught my attention. Next a lovely morning walk over wet and soggy meadows marked with streams to reach the Saspol caves, two of which were beautifully decorated. Then off to Leh and the Leh-Manali Road which is the second highest motorable road - it had been closed due to rock slides and snow run off as I left California and was barely open, now. But the scenery was awesome, on a par with that along the Karakoram Highway.

It was a two night ride to Manali. The first night was spent in Sarchu, a tent city for travelers, where I managed icey fingers and toes. I slept with every piece of clothing on me - cold, cold! High mountain passes, snow and a rocky, rocky road, nearly indecipherable at times. Road crews were hard at work to open up areas. At best a one lane road, trucks, cars motor cycles and goats navigated past one another. Always a bit exciting to look out your window and see straight down into the valley. The drivers and the Toyota Qualis’ performed magnificently.

As we went from one jurisdiction to another, there were check points where police laboriously wrote down every bit of information from passports - no computers there. In fact, electricity was a bit iffy at times.

The second night was in a comfortable lodge, similar to one I had stayed at in Georgia along the Military Highway. And then a long days drive got us into Manali. where there were a dozen or so Enfield motor bikes parked at the hotel, readying themselves for the ride to Leh. Brits, Kiwis and Aussies, including several women were confident their ride would be less arduous than ours.

There is Old Manali and New Manali, both appearing rather old and tattered. With MJ growing along the road, it was not surprising there were hippies with the Marley-braided hair, wandering about, along with the backpackers and tourists. There were several good restaurants, a bookstore and various shops. Some people hiked and others shopped. All of us got caught up in a morning’s Hindu temple celebration.

The rest of the trip was in a big bus, which bounded and bounced its way down to Mandi, Dharamsala and Armritsar. The view to and above Dharmasala was spectacular - through mist and fog up to McLeod and the old Cantonments to our hotel in Bagsu about 3 km from McLeod and the Dalai Lama’s compound. The rains let up to allow for a wander about the Dalai Lama’s compound - he was leaving the next morning for Leh! Despite intermittent rains the next day, the determined shoppers added to the locals’ economy. while others checked out a museum and returned to the compound.

The last day was spent driving to Armritsar and with time for Jallianwala Bagh where in 1919, Brits had slaughtered peacefully demonstrating Indians. Then to the The Golden Temple, holy place for Sikhs. One of our group was of Sikh heritage; I followed her around, having a much more participatory experience than the last time I was here. I went into the temple and then to the Langar where free food was served: chapatis and lentils.

Thus concluded the tour. I flew to Delhi and stayed in a very nice, reasonably price hotel in Old Delhi, less than half the cost of the New Delhi Hotel where I started this trip. And the restaurant at there was superb, the best food I had in India. There was a mosque in back so I had prayer calls throughout the day. Down the street from the hotel, was half a dozen men/women with portable tables and typewriters, providing business services to the locals. A product market and a book store were further down the street. Though damp and hot, I did walk around, absorbing the sights and sounds of India to hold me until I return.

Then the two night flight home!

Recommendations: Ah, The Broadway Hotel and restaurant in Delhi. I had stayed there on a earlier trip and remembered them fondly. In this case, both were even better than remembered.

The Lazy Dog in Old Manali, an exceptional restaurant.

Costs: Tour ran $1611(allowing for a 10% discount); extra meals probably ran about several hundred dollars. The New Delhi Hotel was $156 for the extra night while The Broadway was $66 for the last night. Airfare was $1700.

Screw-ups: There were a couple of problems. First, I didn’t have a voucher for the extra night at the start and had to make arrangements through the local agent - for a bit, I thought I might sleep a night in the hotel lobby for I arrived at 2AM and sat in the lobby until 10 AM when arrangements were worked out. And $156 is the most I’ve ever spent for a hotel room, anywhere, any time.

The second problem had to do with the tour. Originally listed as a Delhi-Dehli tour - which was one of the reasons I booked this specific itinerary. It turned out the trip ended in Armritsar. Fortunately I found out before I left so transportation to Delhi could be booked. Overall a good experience and I got my 2010 Himalaya fix.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Philip Beck's Monglian trip May 2010

Philip Beck was on the Moroccan camel trek with me last year. A Canadian, he took off for Mongolia a month ago. Following is his report of the experience:

Mongolian Yak Safari May 2010
Geckos GCYS

In mid-May 2010 I was fortunate enough to go to one of my dream countries: Mongolia.

Yes Mongolia – the appeal of the country to me has always been the fact that I have heard there is a lot of space with deserts, rolling pastures, taiga, and mountains. I saw almost all of on the two week Gecko’s trip that I was on.

Mongolia is the world’s second largest landlocked country. It is also the least populated country by area in the world. Mongolia has two neighbours: Russia to the north & China to the south. Mongolia’s classic continental climate means it has 250 sunny days per year, cold winters & changeable summers with very dry conditions.

Ulaanbaatar (henceforth known as UB) is the country’s capital & largest centre. The population of UB is just over 1 million in a country of almost 3 million people. Just so you know 60 % of the population is under 30. UB is roughly in the centre of the country. There are regular (but certainly not daily flights to Seoul, Beijing, Moscow, & Frankfurt).

A visa for the country is required and it must be obtained in advance.

I arrived in UB and met my group at my Soviet era style hotel called Hotel Zaluuchuud. For a 3 * hotel it was very comfortable and really well located. All the rooms had huge windows that opened and nice rooms. The hotel was our UB base – we stayed here 3 separate times. The staff there made everyone feel really welcome. Our group had a get together dinner at a typical Mongolian style restaurant.

The next morning we started early for a 9:00 AM train that headed S.E. to an area called Ikh Nart Nature Reserve on the edge of the Gobi Desert. That morning in UB was a very cold, grey, windy, and snowy morning. The train journey is part of the Trans Mongolian Railway in part of the larger Trans Siberian Railway that starts in Beijing and ends in St. Petersburg or vv. For the whole route one could see herds of sheep / goats / horses & a few cattle. After a 6 hour journey with multiple stops we were met by our small bus transport / all terrain vehicle to take us the further 2 hours over tracks & dirt roads to our first Ger Camp at Ikh Nart. We arrived in sunshine and 21 °.

The trains ran very smoothly. Trains are the preferred mode of travel for a lot of people. Two cars away from us was a family travelling together and they were enjoying the ride and singing most of the way. The carriages are large & very clean. The windows opened and we were very comfortable.

At our camp at Ikh Nart we stayed in gers. Gers are the traditional housing stock in Mongolia and they are even preferred in UB wherever possible. A local ger would house an entire family with a kitchen, a stove, and a storage area. Our gers were quite spacious. They were usually set up with 2 twin beds, a small table & benches, a wash basin and a wood stove. The even had linoleum lining over the earth floor. Word of caution one really has to be careful upon entries and exits. It is very easy to scrape one’s head or hit your temple as the entries are quite low.. (think round hobbit houses). At our camp there were 13 gers. The camp also had a kitchen ger, a dining ger, a library ger, and a shower ger. Washrooms were spic & span outhouses.

Ikh Nart Reserve is at the edge of the Gobi Desert. The reserve was set up to protect Ibex and Argali sheep. We spent a full morning one day tracking the sheep and exploring the area. Of course there was lots of other desert fauna to seek out and the area had magnificent granite formations scattered all over. We were fortunate to see at least 15 Argali sheep. After a long morning in the sun and a 28 ° day we went back to our camp to the cool comfort of the library where some of us read, others learned Mongolian bone games, and the more adventurous went on an afternoon bike ride.

The ger camp had riding access to Bactrian (2 hump) camels. I can tell you that I was very keen to get on one of these as I have been in India & Morocco on Arabian (1 hump) camels so I said what the heck try something new. I can tell you honesty that these Bactrian camels are a lot more comfortable than the latter camels. Our afternoon adventure was a 1 hour drive to a former dinosaur dig area and a rock hound’s treasure chest. On the way back we stopped at some springs for some water tasting and we managed to see 5 Ibex in about 250 meters away from us.

Spring had just started in Ikh Nart. We saw a lot of different crocuses & irises. The winter of 2009 – 2010 was the coldest on record in Mongolia so we also saw a lot of dead sheep and goats around. Mongolia lost 17 % of their livestock due to malnutrition and disease brought on by a very harsh winter.

We may have had 28 ° days but the nights were very cold. It went down to 8 ° at night. We were very thankful for a polite knock at the ger door at 6:30 AM to light the stoves by a camp attendant.

On the last morning the ger camp was woken up by a herdsman and about 500 + goats and sheep that bleated and bayed and neighed and clanged bells at 4 AM. Our laughs just about drowned out the sounds. Good thing they served us breakfast early that morning.

We ate 3 hearty meals per day at the camp. Lunches were usually served hot and dinners were really great with at least 4 courses. Vegetarians were easily accommodated. We had the opportunity to purchase wine, beer, pop and extra chips or chocolate bars if we needed them.

I really appreciated the huge almost endless blue sky and fresh warm breezes scented with desert plants. I have not seen such huge and blue skies like that since my teen years in SE Alberta.

After breakfast on the last day at Ikh Nart we drove back to UB – a 7 hour drive. We got back to the city in time for some of us to check out the National Museum.

I had time to do that plus I had time go to the post office gift shop for cards. I also found a really great bookstore for a friend’s son who just happened to working a grade 7 Social Studies project on Chinggis Khan and the Mongolian empire of 1206 – 1368.

The next day was another full day. We started at 10 AM at the Gandantegghenling Monastery. This Buddhist monastery is the largest in the country and one of the few not to be completely destroyed by the Russians when Mongolia was part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Perhaps 85 - 100 monks live & study here.
We stayed her about 3 hours.

After Gandantegghenling we drove north then east to Khan Khentii Nature reserve about 150 kms from the border with Russia. We had a surprise along the way. Just 40 kms outside of UB out of nowhere appeared a gleaming 43 meter statue of Chinngis Khan: He is the hero of modern day Mongolia. His gleaming statue had him astride a horse, protected by his generals at a gate. The site will soon be part of an almost completed village for travellers to visit. You can visit on line This statue will soon be for Mongolia what the Taj is for India, The Eiffel Tower for France, and the Statue of Liberty for the USA.

After a picnic lunch and out of the watchful eyes of Chinggis we went on to our second ger camp at Khan Khentii. This area is at a relatively high elevation with snow-capped mountains to the north perhaps 15 kms away. Our camp was set in the Jalman meadows about a 15 minute walk up from the bank of the Tuul River. We stayed at these gers for 3 nights. The meadows were surrounded by hills of tamarack forests. We were just a week if not days away from the greening of the hills. The tamaracks however did have really pretty small new pine cones on them. Parts of these hills were covered in blooming deciduous azalea shrubs and more irises and more crocuses. It was so beautiful. In that area the livestock did well. The horses & foals were healthy. Of course there were goats and sheep were everywhere.

A few of the activities at that ger camp were of course great walks, learning Mongolian archery techniques, and fishing. I brushed up on my archery. I signed up for a full day of horseback riding with a fellow traveller. Mongolian horses are quite a bit smaller than the horses we are used to seeing. They are fitted with smaller saddles and they do not really respond to kicks in the flanks. These horses responded well to a good whack of your reign and some nice words (of course this coaxing was in Mongolian no “giddy up” here! Our horse leader was the same local man who taught us archery. His name is Turmbree. While on the ride we learned Mongolian words for streams, nests, goats, trees, and whatever else we pointed at. In return we gave taught Tumbree the English words. When we ran out of out nests & grass to point at Tumbree started to sing. He had a really strong & melodic voice. You just knew the songs were about love of the land and songs from pastoral traditions hundreds of years old. The songs brought tears to our eyes. Tumbree took us by river banks, up hills, and we forded the Tuul river twice after Tumbree made 100 % certain that is was safe to do so. Because these horses are so small, the river was in full spring run off, and I am 6’ tall I did get wet up to my shins wet but the day was a lot of fun.

The second part of our venture in this region was the yak part of the trip. Yaks loaded down with full carts can walk about 3 to 3.5 hours. We had 3 yaks each tethered to a cart. One cart was for our portable gear, one cart was for the kitchen, and the third was for all the supplies and tools.

Our group followed they yaks for a short while then we could venture off for 6 – 7 hour hikes in the hills or stay with the yaks. We met at our temporary camp. We slept in tents and we set up a kitchen ger each day. The toilets at our camps were pit toilets with a privacy canvas. Each camp was near a river or stream, our water was boiled stream water, and food was again superb as we had our own camp-cook for the 3 full days.

This really made us feel nomadic. We really didn’t have a specific goal in mind, we just set up the ger where is was relatively flat and close enough to the river for water. We would meet horseman and herders all through the day. There were always smiles all around and everything was shared. We all enjoyed these wandering days with the yaks. The ger set up took our camp guides about 15 minutes (we assisted when we felt we would not be in the way)

Toward the end of the trip the weather took a turn for the worse. One night as the wind was howling and the rain was falling my tent roomie & I snuck up to fellow traveller’s tent & shook it for all it was worth. The ensuing laughter drowned out the storm. The last night however we knew we’d get it back. Sure enough at 2 AM they pulled the pegs out of our tent and collapsed it on top of us. It was all in good fun.

The next day we drove back to UB past the giant Chinngis again. We had enough time back in UB to clean up and take in either a last museum (some of the group was glad they went to the Winter Palace others went to the State Department store. I hunted for music so I could find a CD or two of music similar to the songs I heard from Tumbree. I had time to chat with the staff at The Zaluuchuud Hotel, show them our travel pictures, talk about the music, and share fantastic stories.

In the early evening we walked to a theatre to see this show: The Blue Sky Melody of Great Mongolia. This ensemble consists of the creative professional artists of song and dance representing the wonderful beauty of Mongolian national art. They present the special features of the Mongolian life and customs.

The Moon Stone Ensemble was formed in 2002 in UB. The mission of the ensemble is to promote and build international awareness of Mongolian folk art that dates back to ancient times and pass on the rich cultural heritage to future generations. The Moon Stone Ensemble has achieved broad local and international recognition thanks to its successful performances at a variety of cultural events.

We really enjoyed the presentation of throat singing, folk dancing, acting out interpretations of legends, a Mongolian contortionist, and a choir. We were all in awe.

Our farewell dinner was held at a local lively restaurant. We toasted each other and our great tour guide Oso with “tuktoys’ & “suktoys” with Mongolian beer & Mongolian vodka.

The next morning came to fast for my flight home via Beijing. I had to get a window seat for the UB to Beijing leg. For the most part at 35.000 feet we followed the rail line. I found it very hard to leave. I really appreciated the raw beauty of the land and the warmth of the people. I got to experience a spring all over again. We had snow and rain, hot days & stormy days; this is pretty much all what I expected of Mongolian weather.

Mongolia has raw materials the ‘modern’ world wants such as copper & coal and gold. The time to go Mongolia is now before super highways, chain stores, and chain coffee shops take over. In UB a Zara’s is being built a Burberry’s and an Armani Exchange already exist. If you do go plan on a 2012 trip That years will be 250th anniversary of Pax Mongolia. So I say tuktoy to Mongolia and thank you. I will go back.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Vertical Challenge June 2010

I went two years ago: it’s a helicopter show at nearby San Carlos Airport with about every kind of imaginable vertical flying machine. Police, military and civilian. Big ones and little ones. One day with an air show and the other, just to gaze over the stationery machinery.

Before, I was so enthused by the experience, I not only joined the Hiller Museum, the event’s sponsor, but enrolled in Simulator classes and then flew about the Bay area, first time I had been at the controls of an aircraft since college days.

And I had the same feeling this time. Wanting to be part of this world. I was ready to sign up for flight instruction, enlist in the Marines, apply to the Highway Patrol, whatever it took.

Along with cops and volunteers, Civil Air Patrol cadets patrolled the perimeters, which took me to back to WW2 when I too, was a CAP cadet; I still remember some Morse code.

At the entry, the two woman at the door were dressed in old time airline attendant uniforms, which put you in the proper mood. The aircraft on display in the Museum set the tone even before you got outside to the air field.

The crowd was a mix: all ethnicities and all ages. From wee ones, literally at their mother’s breast, to a sari and sandal clad lady wearing a ball cap. From a forty-ish hunk who demonstrated his chin-up technique (“not bad for the Old Man!”) to young girls in their tank tops and shorts. There were ex-service personnel from WW2, some in their motorized wheelchairs, to the tattooed Iraqi vets.

The show: Several demonstrations by the Coast Guard and the California Highway Patrol and the PGE. their uses of the helicopter plus a model aeronautics show, a flag show, some stunt flying and then: fly bys by several Harriers, fast, fast Marine aircraft, and a C-5, a huge machine, largest one aloft.

II was most impressed by the Osprey, a good sized aircraft which combines aspects of the helicopter with those of more conventional machines. There had been difficulties getting them operational, but all was well now days, per the Marine mechanic I talked with. Other aircraft on display were Cobras, Apaches, Hueys and Blackhawks.

A moving moment was the swearing into the Marine Corps of some 20 or so men and women, who then dog trotted along the field’s edge to the applause of the crowd. All in all, a good show and a great way to spend Saturday.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Theatre in May 2010

As it turned out, I did get to all the plays I wanted to - plus a rather groovin’ Hamlet. When I originally called in, it looked like I would get to two of the four, but once in Ashland, I was able to manipulate the entire palate: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, She Loves Me, Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet and Well. Well turned out to be the least of the bunch: well directed and acted but incomplete in the writing. The rest were superb.

Since the fifties and my college days - and that does date me - I have been going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, more or less regularly. I did miss a few years in the sixties when I moved to California. Used to drive, then flew up more recently. Several years ago, I took the Greyhound, just as the Ashland stop was discontinued.

So this year, I tried Amtrak. Less than half the price of flying ($193 San Jose to Ashland as compared to $450 SFO to nearby Medford). Cal train to San Jose, Amtrak to Klamath Falls and the shuttle to Ashland. Even with layovers in Klamath Falls it worked. Seniors and students get discounts so no surprise that they were in the majority. Also families that had more time than money for travel.

On the Seattle-bound train, were a clan of Quakers - females with white winged head coverings similar to the old nurses’ caps, loose cotton dresses and practical tennies; men in basic jeans, blue work shirts with suspenders. Returning were a large group coming from Sacramento-Davis into Emerybille (San Francisco), for the Memorial Day weekend - the ball game and shopping being the big draws.

Since I haven’t ridden American trains since my teens, it was interesting: certainly comparable to European and Asian trains, which I have used in recent times. And much more spacious than the airlines’ economy class. Clean toilets with dressing rooms. A game room. Cafe plus a dining car. And lounges. Over night, time consuming travel (twelve hours) but comfortable. Even with a teenager sprawled out, sleeping, on the seat next to mine.

I had a two to four hour wait for the connecting shuttle; this bus would hold about thirty people. Going over to the Coast, there were seven of us. Only one other stopping at Ashland for the Festival. Coming back, there were four of us - all but me coming from the Coast. An outstanding drive through mountains and trees and lakes with remaining bits and pieces of snow: close to Crater Lake.

Ashland, as always, is enticing. I have been so close to moving there over the years, most particularly five or so years ago when I was doing an agonizing reappraisal of my present and future lives. Lawns, cut and uncut, old Victorian houses, restored and not - styles and placement of buildings without city planning interference; lush greenery after a wet winter and spring. Despite becoming a tourist attraction, it has managed to keep its small town character. Very similar to Stratford, Ontario or Niagara-on-the-Lake,Canadian homes to Shakespeare and Shaw.

I returned to the Columbia Hotel in the middle of town, upstairs above various shops. It’s a place with a Victorian ambiance, under $100 with shared facilities. The owner, a Welshman, is turning over the management to a younger generation, who have modernized a few things but promise not to make any basic changes.

The four days there were spent at the theatre, including a a tour of the three venues, and wandering about town. Not just shops, but around the park and up and down various paths and streets. Chilly and wet, the sun finally came out tha last morning when I walked out to the memorable Morning Glory cafe on Siskiyou Avenue for a final meal before returning home.

You’ll hear from me next year on this one. Oh, and Sam, the cat, managed alright with catsitter and FOS (Friends of Sam) stopping by to play and pet. He forgave me readily for being gone - and that he has to get used to for I’m going into my traveling season.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Volcanic Ash and the Tuaregs!

Coming home from Algeria via Casablanca and New York to San Francisco on Wednesday-Thursday April 21-22 was Plan C. Plan A was Frankfort to San Francisco which was not possible until Friday, maybe. Plan B was Montreal to Chicago to San Francisco on Wednesday but that meant cash payment, which wasn’t immediately possible. While I did enjoy several extra days in Algiers courtesy the Icelandic volcano debris, when Tuesday came, I was ready to go.

So Plan C it was, with a long Wednesday night at JFK’s terminal 4. For I was able to purchase tickets via my booking agent in the States, bless her! I thought I would miss the connection at Casablanca but the flight was held for a passel of Africans financial experts flying into Washington DC for an economic summit. I lucked out. While it wasn’t a full flight, there were passengers from various parts of Africa, remnants from a tour group and a man from Brussels, trying to get home to New York, the really long way around.

So before noon Thursday, I walked in my front door, a little worse for wear. And thoroughly pissed at my shuttle service, which refused to honor my voucher as I had not given them a required three hours notice of any change in arrival plans. So it was the original $22 plus $35 to get from SFO to my place. They have heard from me.

Initially, it didn’t look too bad. I’d been in Southern Algeria, traveling in Tuareg country and finished up in Tamanrasset when news of the volcanic outburst and its affect on worldwide flights came through. I ws able to get to Algiers on April 18, but obviously, my immediate flight home via Frankfort was canceled until maybe, two days hence.

Comfortably housed the first few nights in a very French hotel in the center of Algiers, I and a fellow traveling companion took advantage of the situation and went on a long day’s tour of Algiers, the Casbah and the Roman ruins at Tipaza.

Algiers impressed me as very French with an Islamic flavor. Abut half of the women were covered but few of the men were in Muslim grab. French and Arabic were the languages of choice. English was a poor third. There was a mix of various nationalities. Several women who ran a nearby internet service were over joyed to talk with an American; they would have adopted me.

The Casbah showed the results of years’ conflict in the area. In fact, we had not only a guide but three plain clothes cops accompanying us. One I would liked to have photographed: a typical Parisian flic: tanned lined face, dark hair, small boned wearing a black t-shirt and pants with a blue jean jacket and tennis shoes.

The drive to Tipaza made you realize why the French fought so hard to keep Algeria - the fertile green fields were very enticing. The ruins at Tipaza are a World Heritage sight, located beautifully on the coast. They are not kept up and you can freely roam about, as the locals happily do. As I crawled up several areas, I knew that in the US, there would be warning signs and fenced off areas. Not here.

The next day, no flight, so a move to another hotel, and serious consideration of how to get home before I ran out of money - my Mastercard didn’t work in Algeria - and May rolled around. But frankly, I do thank Iceland for several unexpected days in Algiers.

This started with a two week trek - via Land Cruiser - in Southern Algeria, the land of the Tuaregs, the Sahara, the volcanic peaks, the ancient paintings and carvings: the Hoggar Massif and Atakor Mountains. Gorgeous, ever changing landscape. Starting in Djanet, returning to Djanet after a week for a day to restock and clean up before taking off again, to end up in Tamanrasset. a week later.

There were three of us: a Brit and two Americans, two guys and me! Plus the four Tuaregs: two drivers, a cook and our guide. It took them and the two vehicles to tote us and supplies. The Tuaregs were the feared fighting veiled tribesmen of yore, who had held off the French incursion until early 1900. No quarter given Like the Kurds, their territory has little to do with the Western imposed boundaries - they still inhabit parts of Niger, Mali and Algeria. According to our guide, southern Algeria receives little from the northern government. The Tuareg now manage with tourism, showing strangers the treasures of their desert and mountains and caves.

Djanet was a desert town; Tamenarsset the same though larger and more of a regional center. It was what was in between that made the trip spectacular. We camped out. Nights, I was rolled in a blanket, having neglected to bring a sleeping bag. There was a tent, but I chose to sleep under the stars. Glorious!

The routine was to have a leisurely breakfast of tea, bread and cheese. Pack up and travel with stops at various sites, unpack a lunch of a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, tuna and whatever else was about, all presented in style. A several hour respite to escape the hot sun before we took off again until evening, when we bedded down, with a hot supper of soup and stew.

We stopped to view exceptionally shaped sandstone/volcanic rocks and peaks and to photograph the drawings, paintings and carvings of years past. We traversed ergs, wadis, and oueds. We visited a Tuareg village, stopped at various wells, drove over non existent roads - in fact, our driver had a sixth sense directing him to where we needed to go, for there was no GPS.

I saw other tourists, maybe a dozen groups, riding, walking and cameling, during the first week, but only desert people the second week, until we got to Assekreme and the Father Foucault Hermitage, the last night on the road. .

Enroute, there were some two dozen bicyclists on the tough and hard road going to one of the highest peaks of the Atakor Mountains. We stayed in a basic dorm room at the hermitage with an evening in the main facility where we talked and danced with other guests, including a French-Algerian couple, two young professional Algerian women and various guides and locals. The hermitage cook played a mean oud with our guide providing rhythm on a jerrycan. A wonderful ending to the trek.

I spent a day wandering about Tamanrasset, visiting the Africans Market, checking out the local scene at a local cafe, stopping by our guide’s uncle’s home, and enjoying the atmosphere of the town.

Despite all, it was an exciting and marvelous trip. And I must admit, sans Iceland, I would not have had the several days in Algiers. Let me say, I found Algeria to be unique and safe place to explore. There was a fair amount of Security about in the Northern part but nothing on the level of Israel or other places I’ve visited. And no Blackwater/Cie types!

Three good books to read: William Langewiesche’s Sahara Unveiled and Michael Asher’s Sands of Death (about the Flatters expeditions) and Two Against the Sahara (story of a honeymoon trek).

Expenses The tour cost $3950, booked through Journeys International, Inc, plus 400 Euros local fee. In additional I probably paid an additional $250 for three nights hotel in Algiers. Also add another $150 for local tour services: the local guys, Cheche tours,who were our backup throughout the ash crisis. Extra meals were likely $60 - I ate cheap. Add to that extra airfare: $1459 (Royal Air Maroc) and$ 516 (United). Hopefully, I will get a refund for half fare from Luthansa.

Cheche tours was unbelievably helpful in finding us accommodations. Both Journeys and Cheche tours were superb in coming to the fore and helping with the travel problems. It was Journeys that finally got me home after it was clear neither Plan A or B was working. What more can I say?

Oh, I can say more: the day after I arrived home, I acquired a 20 pound, eight year old Blue Point to replace Tiffany, my twenty-plus year old Chocolate point-mix who died last year. Sam is now in charge!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Vermont and the Colby in March 2010

There were two local (that is, in the US) symposiums set for March: one on spies and targeted assignations and the other involving military writers and Iraq/Afghanistan. The spies were postponed but the military writers’ met as scheduled. And I attended it at Norwich University, the only significant activity in Northfield, Vermont.

It was the 15th Annual William E. Colby Military Writers’ Symposium entitled America at the Crossroads: the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since I had been in both countries last year, I was interested in the military viewpoint. The panel included four author-speakers, colonels all, who had been involved with Forces’ planning and operations, past and present, three from the US and one from the UK. A fifth author-speaker, who endeared himself to the cadets, was a former Staff Sergeant less concerned about theory, and more about practicalities. More of a Hurt Locker type.

Integral in the discussion of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was Counterinsurgency (COIN) philosophy . The major participants had been advocates/practitioners of COIN techniques. Admittedly, there is disagreement among the military between preparations for more conventional warfare (“shock and awe”) as opposed to the COIN approach necessary in Iraq-Afghanistan. Problem: can you do both at once?

Where was it I heard that the Army was always fighting one war ago? And several times at this gathering, I heard: while we may have gotten into Iraq stupidly, that doesn't mean we have to get out stupidly!

All the major speakers believed that committing to a withdrawal date is a mistake, that the locals have to feel secure that combat forces will be supportive until a stable political process is in place, however long that takes. Otherwise, it’s a waiting game for the opposition who can move in at the time and date given.

(To some extent, I believe, that’s what happened in Afghanistan after the US’s original efforts. Following the original effort, the US promptly moved out to deal with the ongoing Iraqi conflict, which had precedence in the planners’ minds.)

it seemed clear that an Iraqi solution was not necessarily an Afghan one. But Western involvement was necessary given the Pakistan-Indian situation. Geopolitically, a somewhat stable Afghanistan is a must. Implied were concerns about the central government’s ability (understandable: many Afghans I talked with were doubtful of Karsai and Afghanistan has a long history of local, rather than central, rule.)

I was impressed that several participants had earned doctorates; all were bright, articulate men, military scholars and published authors. One, a retired LtColonel, has written over half a dozen books including several biographies. Another, West Point graduate, PhD and retired Colonel, has several books and the editorship of a military history magazine under his belt (and I do subscribe to Armchair General).

A two day event with few outsiders attending; most nonmilitary attendees seemed to be donors, It was a close knit group. In addition to various presentations and book signings, the participants spent time in classes, meeting with students. Norwich is a military school headed up by a retired Coast Guard admiral although about half of its student body is civilian. The architecture, engineering and nursing schools bring in the nonmilitary element. A good share of the cadets are from Service families and have made a commitment to the Forces upon graduation. As a result, they benefit from financial aid for attendance at Norwich is not cheap.

The university is located on the outskirts of Northfield, a New England village that is centered around a cross road maybe a mile from the school. “Town” consists of several cafes, a bank, a library, a church with numerous white frame farm houses scattered about. I stayed in one of these, morphed into a comfortable Bed/Breakfast across from Norwich. With snow on the ground, very picturesque New England. Sunny days though a bit “fresh” as the Brits say.

I found myself in a different culture, both in terms of being in New England and the exposure to the military. I’m glad I went and given another stimulating topic, I may return next year.

And yes, Jet Blue turned out to be an excellent airline not only comfortable and reasonably priced but with staff that was courteous and helpful. The shuttle service was prompt and reliable. However, at Burlington Airport, I had the most thorough body search I’ve ever experienced, just one step from a strip search. And I’ve been searched in many venues and countries over the past years.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

January 2010: Twenty Days in the Antarctric!

It was the best of trips, it was the worst of trips!

The cruise itself was a good as they get - I say this as a land lubber. This was my tenth boat trip and I would rather be ashore any day. I’ve traveled on the Rhine, Yangtze and Volga rivers, spent a week on a a Maine Windjammer, was overnight on a Stockholm-Helsinki ferry, spent time coming and going with a bunch of drunken Swedes on a Stockholm-St Petersburg Baltic cruise, did the Norwegian Coastal trip over the Arctic Circle one Christmas, and then there were several cruises in and about Washington-Vancouver Island -Island Passage. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed them, but I do get restless.

This Quark expedition was aboard the 110 passenger Lyubov Orlova, a retrofitted Russian ship, which was very comfortable. Since the cruise was entitled, Explorers’ Route, time was spent learning about various Antarctic expeditions. The itinerary included a number of trips ashore, limited only by the weather conditions.

The accommodations were comfortable, more so than most of the vessels I’ve been on. The food was great, too much so. My roommate was a joy. Staff was outstanding, both the Russian crew and the Quark staff. There were ongoing presentations about the flora, fauna, geology, birds, seals, whales and history of the region. And several good movies in the evening: I finally saw The Queen with Helen Mirran. and an excellent documentary on Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer who didn’t succeed in reaching his goal, but did succeed in saving his men. .

Everyone aboard had a camera and some, two. Several were professional photographers.
There were a plethora of birders who were snapping shots of various sizes and kinds of the winged set. Binoculars abounded. There were many opportunities to view the wildlife - up close and personal! And the passengers were from all over: US. UK, Portugal, Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Russia, Israel - you name it.

My main interest was in the history and politics of the area though I did marvel at the diversity of wildlife. The stops at Stanley in the Falklands and Grytviken in South Georgia - where Shackleton is buried - were of most interest to me. I had West’s book on the Falklands war with me and had read both Asher and Geraghty on the SAS’ difficulties there plus Keegan on Intelligence mishaps.

Stanley was as English as Victoria BC, which outdoes the homeland. There was a small museum with momentos from the Falklands War. Also bullet holes in buildings were among the left overs. Grytviken was full of rusted, beached ships from the whaling era along with the wreckage of the Argentine submarine, Santa Fe (ex-US Starfish) which couldn’t be scuttled by the Brits for legal technicalities in the undeclared conflict with Argentina.

One of the staff aboard the Orlova was a real gem: a diver, naturalist and historian who had been in South Georgia during the Falklands War and aboard The Explorer, the GAP ship that sunk in the Antarctic several years ago. He had been around the area for at least twenty years; I found him extraordinarily interesting. But all the staff, with their varied backgrounds, were impressively knowledgeable.

My favorite time were the rides in the zodiacs. Sometimes, paced by whales. Often wet and occasionally, a bit hairy, the rides provided a change from the ship’s routine. When near land, there were usually two trips ashore per day where the penguins, seals and birds held forth for their audience of photographers. I did find my snow walking ability had gone down the tubes: the effort to climb up to a volcano with rubber boots was spectacularly unsuccessful. I was down more than up.

I was able to move about some aboard ship. There was an exercie bike and some weights in a room with space enough to stretch out. The deck railings were at such a height I could use them for an abbreviated ballet barre albeit a bit “fresh”outside as the Brits would say.

I had enough time in Ushuaia to visit their local museum, housed in an old time penitentiary. It was quite unique and included several art galleries as well as material on sea and ships. One block was left in the orginal condition while another block had material posted about the facility and former prisoners.

So the tour itself was a real plus. And I would recommend it!

But then there was the Santiago Aeroporto and the delay at LAX!

In twenty five years of traveling, I have never had such trouble as I had connecting flights in Santiago. both coming and going. Great confusion when I arrived at the International section as to where I was to go to connect with my Ushuaia (Argentina) flight and no system for connecting flights - you go through immigration and passport and security and pay $131 (as the US now charges $131 for Chileans to obtain a visa) and are left adrift. I missed my twice weekly flight to Ushuaia.

I was flying LAN Air, code share with American Airlines. Initially, LAN people assumed no responsibility for my plight, since AA had booked the flight. However, after AA was absent at the airport and incapable of assisting via phone and the Quark emergency number was non responsive, LAN kindly put me on their overbooked flight to Buenos Aires where there was an early AM flight to Ushuaia which allowed me more than enough time to make the boat.

Returning was just as bad, though I didn’t miss the flight. There was the same confusion in finding where I was to be to catch my LAN flight to the US. Again, through immigration and the like - during that procedure, I lost a sack with my medical records. trip notes and gifts and was not allowed to go back to pick it up though a bit later, the LAN representative arranged for look-see with negative results. At the Gate, I was informed I needed to pay $30 to bail myself out and as I left the Gate, my nicely packaged bottles per TSA, were confiscated, with the sniffer dog following me to the aircraft door.

The final frosting: I was held up several hours at LAX as there was a fog overlay at SFO, including an hour on the tarmac!

Ok, the tab: the twenty day Quark trip, booked through Adventure Center, cost $9075 for a double room but note that I had a $5000 discount. Airfare cost $1641. and I did pay an extra $84 for CO2 offset. That was it other than Airport fees in Santiago and Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires charges $100 per American as we now charge their citizens that amount for visas).

The next jaunt is in 10 days or so, out of San Jose via Jet Blue to Vermont - I’ll report back on that one.