Monday, December 8, 2014

GARP 2014 in Jordan

This was the ninth and last year of  the Great Arab Revolt Project.   Originally projected to be a ten year study, the Directors closed out the field work this year.  Several  articles had been  recently published about the operation, both in  popular and professional media, principally discussing finds at  T E Lawrence's camp at Tooth Hill in southern Jordan.  We returned there this year and then, behind the Hill  to check for further evidence of British/Ottoman presence. 

I was assigned to field walks there and later,  excavations at Ramala  - the usual  scraping, digging, toting and, bless Allah, very little sieving. But tent rings, ah yes,always  tent rings.  And working on them with the same mentor with whom  I had  begun seven years before.  

There were twenty of us, professional and amateur, wandering about with  trowel in hand.  As always, several were former military:  British, American and Australian. Others were  archaeologists, history buffs, and TEL devotees.  Our usual lot, always a compatible bunch.  Three were new to the Project.

Stayed at the Edom Hotel at Wadi Mousa, again returning to my roots, for I had  stayed there when I first came to Jordan with an Explore group, in 2004.  Little changed.  And as I wandered about Petra particularly, the thought occurred more than once, I shall not pass this way again. The day there makes the entire trip worthwhile.  Awesome!

A most memorable event:  the opportunity to ride one of the small working units down the Hejaz Railway from Ma"an to Wadi Rtm, about an hour and a half.   A look at the landscape as the Ottomans saw it during WW1.  A look up at sites we'd worked on in years past.  A opportunity I never thought I'd have.  To be on the tracks whose existence was such a thorn in the side of the British.  That was blown up by the Arabs and friends, time and again. 

Another highlight: The chance to see Desi, the air field used by Squadron X.  Rather plowed up at present, but  one can imagine - or rather, look at old photos.  The beginning of what countries now rely on:  aerial warfare.  A sadness that such a beautiful experience, flying, gets used in such a  destructive way.  Now bombing used in lieu of Boots on the Ground!  Starting with the Brits in Iraq, post WW1.  Bummer!

Not only did we have several days off - with options for Petra and Aqaba - but there was time to visit past sites, ride the railroad, and walk about the ancient Roman and more contemporary Ottoman   lands.  And for the archaeologists, there were the finds which confirmed - or not -  various hypotheses. 

Aqaba is a resort city, much built up recent years, but with few tourists this year.  For that matter, Wadi Mousa/Petra have also suffered.  Stores were shuttered  and maintenance was raggedy.  More locals than visitors - which may be as it should be.  One ship was docked for the day with its passengers out and about to the delight of local vendors.  The city is much more than when I first visited; doubtful the WW1 cast of characters would recognize it. 

In the time I have spent in Jordan, I have gotten to many notable places:  Allenby Bridge,Jerash, Umm Qais/Al-Himma, the Dead Sea, Azraq, Karak, Shobak, Wadi Rum, Little Petra as well as Petra proper.  That is in addition, to many spots in the desert, used offensively and defensively by Ottomans and Arabs and Brits during WW1.  One of our directors commented that we GARPies were more familiar with the desert than the locals

N.B.: Not only  almost didn't get there but had problems returning:  going, my shuttle never appeared - found a neighbor to take me to the airport.  Returning, held over 24 hours in Amman as the pilot bashed his head entering the cockpit for four stitches worth - then, United came to the rescue in Frankfort, seeing me home as the Lufthansa pilots were on strike. 

Interestingly, one of my fellow passengers in Amman was a former military man who had been visiting at the Embassy - told me the Jordanians plan a big Arab Revolt celebration in June 2016.  So I may be back after all!

(For details, check, the ongoing project's blog with outstanding photos.)

  4 Attached Images

  4 Attached Images

Thursday, October 2, 2014

London-Oxford Sep 2014

It was 1986 that I first went overseas and that was London.  Twenty eight years ago.  London has changed and so have I.  But I enjoyed my week there as much as I did at the start.  Stayed in Russell Square. Walked from Sadler's Wells to Marble Arch to Picadilly.  Managed seven shows, one concert,  one museum and several meals with friends.  I could have kept busy another week.

As I have in recent years, stayed at The Celtic Hotel, a delightful bed and breakfast, costing £61 a night with facilities down the stairs.  I was housed in a smalll but  immaculately clean room on the top floor - good exercise climbing up. There was a choice of hot and cold dishes at breakfast, prepared  to order.  And a comfortable lobby with reading material and brochures for the visitor.  Last time I was there, I was with my niece and we splurged for insuite facilities. 

Two of the plays I saw were  concerning current England.  One a projection of the future with Prince Charles as monarch; the other a commentary on the Murdoch hacking.  Both well done.  I finally got to Book of Morman, which I missed here - and well worth it.  Clever musical comedy without demeaning  the religion. 

I did get to the Sunday morning concert at the Wigmore.  I had chanced picking up tickets and nearly missed out.  But half an hour in the returns line and I lucked out.  In fact, other than two dance events, I hadn't arranged for any tickets.  A friend had purchased a ticket for Balletboyz performancei in the small theatre at the Royal Opera House (they  sold out, on line) and I had called for a seat for Ladysmith Mombassa and the accompanying dance company. Those two movement events were a contrast with an acrobatic performance I attended Sunday afternoon, along with a passle of youngsters:  Nutcracker matinee atmosphere. 

A nearby University museum had an excellent exhibiton on the Sikhs during WW1, the UK being in the midst of celebrating  the 100th anniversary of The Great War.  More Sikhs in attendance than Westerners, which is as it should be?

Got together with several friends from  traveling days. Some  of us have been able to get together  regularly for various trips.  Through them, I always discover new and interesting restaurants. 

London continues to be one of my favorites cities.  More and more, a mix of nationalities, both with residents and tourists.  A lot of restoration and building going on.  Resulting numerous Diversions.    I suspect I could get around quicker than than taxis. 

Always, I do one of the London Walks.  I redid the Spy Walk, same guide from five years ago, and his spiel hadn't changed that much.  The only difference was I was somewhat more knowledgeable.  I also had in hand, Roy Berkeley's A Spy's London - a much more extension review of the where's of the intelligence world. 

Then it was the Oxford Tube (really, an express bus) from Victoria Station to Oxford, where I stayed in quarters at St John's College where the TE Lawrence Symposium took place. With nothing planned for the night of arrival, I scooted off to the local playhouse and saw a nice production of She Stoops to Conquer.  As I walked about Oxford, kept looking for Inspectors Morse and Lewis - no success. 

The next several days were filled with gathering of the devoted: those fixating on Lawrence and his activities.    Surprising number of Americans and few from other European countries.  Half a dozen from the Great Arab Revolt crew. Ah, several wars later, we still dissect TEL, this  idiosyncratic figure from WW 1 Middle East days.

The presentations ranged from excellent or awful.Topics ranged from  the Arab view of the WW1 conflict, TEL's relationships with Thomas Hardy (author) and Lady Kathleen Scott (sculpturess and widow of the Arctic explorer), Lawrence in his early days as an archaeologist, TEL and Lowell Thomas (reporter), private printing presses and lecture circuits. 

Because of acoustics an evening lecture was totally incomprehensible for me.  But the food was excellent.  Accommodations spacious though again, with shared  plumbing.  But remember, for a weekend you are an Oxford student. 

Got to Heathrow via another express bus, early enough for an earlier flight home.  But, no room at the inn!  Full up, so waited four hours for my scheduled flight.  Serendipitiously, had the same two seatmates on the return trip as did going out.  They ad hiked along the Cornwall coast since I last talked with them. 

Not as exhilarating as the first time in London; good enough to keep returning.
No camera this trip around - a real feeling of freedom as I didn't have to consider photo shoots.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Helsinki to Berlin and the Baltics Inbetween: August 1014

On its face, it looked like an If-Its-Tuesday-It-Must-Be-Riga tour.  Two nights in half a dozen places:  five cities and two parks.  Well, one was really a combination:  Klaipeda was an interesting city at the entry to the Curonian Split, shared with Russia.  And that's another story.

Our tour group consisted of three plus the Intrepid leader.  All guys but me.  A obnoxious  Aussie, a  delightful  German and a knowledgeable  Brit as  guide. As is the practice on Intrepid tours, local transport and budget accommodation is used.  So  ferry, bus, and train.  Only once were we in a private van. We stayed at two to three star hotels, guesthouses and a home stay.

Starting in Helsinki, we went to Tallinn, then to Riga followed by  the Curonian Split which included Klaipedia, then  Vilnius and onto   the Aukstaitija National Park homestay, then Warsaw, ending  in East Berlin. Sounds more overwhelming that it actually was though several days were spent more traveling than sightseeing.

You could track the tour  by the graffeti:  Little in Helsinki and Tallinn, then an increase in Riga, Klaipeda and Vilnius,  moving right along in Warsaw and then, the mother of all graffeti in East Berlin.  In Latvia and Lithuania, I was told it was related to soccer but not in Poland and Germany.  Most of it was meaningless though there a a few bits of creativity in Warsaw.  The old Berlin  Wall was decorated with  art work,  then marred with  taggers' scrawls. 

 Helsinki seemed a bit different:  I couldn't find my way about town and didn't find the cafes and other landmarks I remembered.  But everything was pristine clean throughout the Baltics. 
Tallinn hadn't changed that much since I was there in 1995, nearly twenty years ago. More people but the same ancient buildings. Tallinn was the smallest and most medieval - full of charm.  Also full of tourists who ferry over from Helsinki for the day, as I had years before.

Riga was a bit larger and very middle Europe.  Old Town  was more spread out .  Here there was a local guide who had served in the Forces for seven years, including a year at language school in Texas - proudly wearing the Western style belt purchased while there.  A real charmer. I spent one evening at the local ballet, a sad version of Othello, very bad Russian styling.  But a lovely Opera House and an appreciative audience. 

Next was Klaipeda and the Curonian Split:  Klaipedia, once Prussian,  had been one of the Hanseatic Ports in the old days. Port was still active.   A five minute ferry ride took us over to the Split, where, with a local guide lead us, via local bus, to two of the resort villages along the way.  The Split was formed over centuries and encloses a large lagoon.  It ends at just above Kaliningrad.
A delightful and scenic area. It was our guide on this excursion who offered the most unique solution to the possibility of Russian incursion:  Latvia should declare war on Sweden and then promptly, surrender.  

Villnuis was larger and more modern with a good sized Old Town of churches and shops.  Maybe, my favorite city.  Watched the  change of flags before the main government building:  three flagpoles which normally  had flown   three Lithuanian flags, now flying the European Union banner and NATO's emblem in addtiton to the National flag.  Had time here to walk into the main part of the city.  Sat in a plush hotel to listen to the pianist.  Good restaurants.  Great ice cream.

Off then to the unpronounceable Aukstaitija National Park where we slept and ate in a local guesthouse.  The guys did a Kayak ride about the streams and lakes.  Three of us did  several serious walks the following day, necessary to work off the  marvelous meals.  A glorious peaceful break in the in the schedule.  Grandparents, helped by daughter and granddaughter from Vilnius, ran the homestay and were gracious hosts.

From here,  a long trip to Warsaw, an newly built city done in the old style.  For it had been decimated by WW2 damage from the Uprising, when the Poles fought the Germans while the Russians waited.    The Uprising Museum was extraordinary:  you felt you were in the midst of the conflict.  I was teary eyed, watching the films from that era.  That particular museum gave you a feel for the time, more than most.  The Ghetto Museum was large rand more modern but not as griping.  That last night in Warsaw, three of us enjoyed a jazz quartet - really great!

Finally was an evening in East Berlin before an early morning flight.  Wandered down to the old Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, neither as authentic as when I last saw them.  A rather rough but safe neighborhood.  Had a good dinner several blocks up the way - would like to return.

One of my interests was the reaction of residents to the tensions with Russia as I had been in the Ukraine rather recently.  The Estonians and Latvians seemed more concerned about their internal Russian speakers, some
of whom had power within the existing government.  One guide commented on a ethnic Polish representative  who  identified with Russian policy.  Lithuanians seemed more concerned with possible external moves, feeling quite secure internally and supportive of their Prime Minister. 

Everyone I talked with was apprehensive of any Russian involvement: they had enough of them in the past.  All three cities had KGB Museums of one sort or another, testaments to past Russian  rule.  In Tallinn, it was the bugging system at the main hotel; in Riga a building used by Russians - and Germans - for interrogation and detention, in Vilnuis a combination of KGB with the Genocide Museum and finally, the outstanding Uprising Museum.  Berlin had the Wall.           

As always, as I become familiar with a city and can find my way around, I leave!

Accommodations  All very comfortable and well located -  some better than others.  But mainly 3* and several with superb breakfast buffets. Some computer access.  Ones I would choose to stay in were I traveling independently.  The Tallinn hotel was combined with a gym facility, available to hotel guests.  In Riga, the hotel was part of a good sized office complex and served not only breakfast, but lunch. 

Food:  Cafes were excellent and reasonably priced.  And with atmosphere!  Our tour leader did                 well by us.  

Costs:  Fifteen Day Intrepid Tour, inclusive of breakfasts and homestay meals,  was $2236 which                 included extra hotel night in Helsinki and transfers, including a no show in Berlin. Food and             extras ran about $350.
            Airfare:   SFO to Helsinki; Berlin to SFO.  $1655.  And I should comment I was upgraded for             the final leg of the fight from NY to SF.

               Local shuttle from Airport to Home:  $55.

                Sam/house care:  $620.

Next trip:  London and Oxford in September 2014.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eight Days in the Uraine: 3-13 July 2014

The original plan had been to go to Russia, but that cancelled.  Political Tours then offered a week-plus  in the Ukraine and I signed on.  There were both internal concerns  which led   to changes in government, and  external conflicts involving  Russia, who had manipulated the separation of Crimea.  Investigating  whys and wherefores  looked interesting, if not from Russia,  then the Ukraine. 

There were six participants:     three  Brits -  a former NY Times correspondent who operated  Political Tours,  a  mental health  expert and sometime consultant to the World Health organization and a  former banker and now researcher in the funding of terrorist/extremist groups - a Belgium international lawyer, a South African doctor affiliated with the tour company,  and me, once active in US criminal justice system  and now a curious traveler.  Our facilitator  was a Russian specializing in the Ukraine who had worked with CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and researched/wrote Lonely Planet guides to Ukraine and Moscow. 

Impressive travel companions.

Originally, we were to go to Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk but as  they were too close to  conflict zones we settled for Kyiv and Odessa.  Coming into Kyiv, I was impressed by the conventional tidiness of an urban middle/eastern European city.  Excepting for tents,  barricades and motley military folk in the Central Square (Maidan), there was little evidence of the recent uprising.  An uprising that certainly left its mark on the country. and led to a change in the government.   The time in Kyiv was divided by four nights i n Odessa, a seaport city normally favored by tourists.  Superficially, Odessa seemed peaceful and  over their upset - crowds in the streets and at the cafes.  Street musicians wailed away.

Both cities were interesting and safe places to wander about -  nineteenth century buildings, well kept.  Cobblestone streets.  Upscale stores. A totally incongruous glass Hyatt Hotel in downtown Kyiv,  totally at odds with surrounding architecture,  which, unfortunately, was not trashed by demonstrators.   Operating tram systems and, in Kyiv, a efficient  subway system.  Museums, opera  and ballet theatres.  We did a lot of walking in both cities and used the Kyiv subway.  Occasionally, a taxi.   

Several months prior to my trip, there had been peaceful demonstrations against the then government's actions vis a vis the West - not signing on with the European Union - and a lurch toward Russia's big tent.  Crimea went to the Russians; agitation in the East led to rebellion there.  The Kyiv demonstration turned violent when the then  government sent in troops, leading to casualties. At which point the then President,  Viktor Yanukovych, found it wise to pack up his mistress and take off. A subsequent election has brought in  a new leader, trying to to put the pieces together.  But there is an endemic problem of corruption - seemingly similar to Afghanistan - which could retard progress as much, if not more so, than the Russian interference. 

We met with at least twenty people, ranging from journalists, activists, politicians, business people, academics, diplomats,to   a grade school principal. and a former collective farm director. A varied bunch. Occasionally, I felt like a college freshman in a Ph.D seminar. 

Kyiv is really a lovely place, with the glorious St Sophia Cathedral complex the center of downtown.  There are also several museums:  we visited the National Art Museum, which had the the loot from Yanukovych's estate - expensive  items he had acquired during his stay(s) in office.  At the end of our tour, we went to Mezhygorye, his  palatial  estate - unbelievable  opulence..  The extensive collection of ill gotten gains:  houses, auto collections, boat - all of which was enjoyed by Ukrainians on a lovely weekend.  And with a collection of  commercial enterprises by the ambitious.

It was enroute to Odessa that we stopped at our driver's village and talked with a locall farmer, who thought  the current President  understood agricultural needs better than past leaders.  The nearby school , wile basic, was being painted and refurbished; the principal commented that parental alcoholism was a sometime problem.

At Odessa, we went out to the underused Port.  Also viewed the office building torched in the uprising.  Normally, opposing sides in Odessa managed to get along, to reach a modis operadi, but everything  got out of control, what with Molotov Cocktails being thrown and thirty dead. 

Then there was the trip to the covered market, most vendors  outgoing  but one who felt her thoughts about Ukraine, the EU and Russians were nobody's business but her own! 

Coming back from Odessa, we stopped at nuclear missile museum with retired Army officers as docents.  Besides seeing all sorts and sizes of missile, into the silo we went.  Three interesting bits:  the docent commented on the similarity between Russian and American  equipment; photos of Hiroshima/Nagaska concluded the museum tour; if Urkraine had kept their nuclear weapons, Russia wouldn't have Crimea.  (Note:  Ukraine gave up their nukes when the UK, the US and Russia agreed to the Ukraine's territorial boundaries!)

While at the museum, I talked with a college Engliish professor from Donets'k region who was on holiday with her husband and son.  She was most concerned about their future, her mother having advised her not to return home.  Later in Kyiv, we listened to a TV reporter review her expperiece as a detainee in Donbass, not a pleasant experience. 

Several  of the individuals I met were memorable:  the Kyiv University professor, a Mowarked asprant  to fighting forces, a former Ministry of Defense guy now an Odessa blogger, an anti Maiden activist with legal ambitions,and  a Maiden leader who wants all public servants to be vetted.  Most memorable besides the English Professor, was a woman working at the Hotel Urkaine who tried to help Maiden participants only to be rebuffed by attackers; she ended up working while   lobby became an ER facility. 

Conclusions:  Urkraine has a hard row to hoe.  It's  a complicated situation with no simple answers: that I learned during my stay there.  Like Afghanistan, there are many young enthusiastic  people willing to work for change, but it is a rough path ahead, what with an entrenched  bureaucracy.  And if that weren't enough to resolve, there are the Russians who do not want too lose influence and keep agitating - successfully?  unsuccessfully? -  where ever possible. 

Food:  Outstanding.  Managed to  sample all kinds of ethnic cuisine. 

Accommodations:  Excellent.  The Kyiv hotel staff were good:  I arrived mid night and theyallowed me to crash on the couch until my room ws ready later in the day, feeding me tea and a sandwich.  A boutique hotel, serving breakfast to order, in the room.  Located in a courtyard, walking distance to most meetings.  The Odessa hotel was also very cozy, with small rooms but a superb breakfast.  Again, well located.

Cost:  Tour:  5551.36 (inclusive of all meals).  Airfare: 2105.70.  Cat care: 380.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Oregon Shakespeare Festival June 2014

This year's Shakespeare Festival actually started the night before when a play originating at the Ashland, Oregon, event  two years ago won Broadway's Tony award.  And with all sorts of plaudits for the play's director - also the Festival's Artistic Director - and the organization itself.  A long way from when I first attended in the fifties, sitting outdoors on plank seats to view performances. 

With that send off, I caught Shawns RideShare at 4:15 AM the next morning for a day long trek through the Bay Area and up into Ashland by 3 PM.  Lots of Bay area pickups and drop offs:  going and coming we crossed all the main bridges.  Fifteen of us plus one dog going  fourteen plus three  dogs coming.  Way to go.

Ashland is that charming mountain town, not only home to the Festival but to a state university.  Absolutely  gorgeous park.  So seems a combination of young folk with retired people, escapees from California, and a few hippy types,  in a well maintained community.  Plus the tourists who show up for the plays - all ages and sizes.  This was a place I've given - and continue to give - serious consideration to  moving since University of Oregon days.

I stayed at  at the Columbia Hotel, upstairs on the main street  in a back room with shared facilities.    Works for me.  A short walk to the theatres on one side and to the library and its computers on the other.

As I arrived on Monday, a dark night for the Shakespeare theatres, I did get a ticket for the Oregon Cabaret Theatre's production of Aint Misbehavin', a Fats Waller based revue.  A fun way to begin the stay. 

The plays were all good, always,  My only objection was the use of audio assists in the outdoor presentations, particularly the Shakeapeare.  Either you have the chops to   carry it off or you don't.  And if you don't, think of another occupation.  The outdoor Shakespeare was Richard III, the story of mendacity incarnate.  The downfall of that villain  of all time, if not in real life, certainly in Shakespeare's drama.  The other Shakespeare was Comedy of Errors, based in 1920s Harlem - well done in the Thomas Theatre. 

The two contemporary presentations were  Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brusteins Window and  Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods - both excellent.  The Hansberry play I was familiar with but had never seen so it was a new experience. Enjoyed it.

 And I love Sondheim - he hasn't written a bummer that I know of.  This was my third time around with Into the Woods- this  somewhere  between a concert and fully staged version.  Singing and acting conquered the outdoor theatre.   It was a fitting way to end my time in southern Oregon.

Other than play going, I slept, ate, used the library's computer  and wandered about town and park.  Not much of a change  from life in Palo Alto where I do the above plus the minutiae of every day living.  But in a different environment.

Total cost for the excursion was $700, including $160 for transportation and another $150 for cat care.

I will return.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Chengdu-Tibet-Nepal April 2014

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I traveled with Peregrine, an Australian tour company,  before - to Vietnam and to Burma - so I knew it would be interesting with comfortable accommodations. It's above my usual. I had wanted to return to Tibet and see what changes had occurred in  twelve years.  And we were to spend most of the two weeks in Tibet.  Several days in China and, as it turned out, several days in Kathmandu.

Chengdu is a modern city, full of worker bees and high rises, existent or in the making. No laundry hanging from the terrace windows as in the past.   Cars, push bikes, two and three wheelers mostly electrically powered, autos and trucks crowded the streets and sidewalks,  leaving little space for the pedestrian. Buses full up.  Designer stores dotted the downtown area. From all appearances, it was a prosperous city. 

We - eight of us - were scheduled to visit the Panda Research Center one day and the Leshan Buddha the next.  A large area has been assigned for the pandas with staff photographing and recording their behavior.  It is very well organized for the visitor, who can observe but not touch. The young pandas were a delight to watch as they wrestled with each other, aiming for ascendency.  The older guys just slept and ate.   According to staff, few if any pandas are left in the wild.

It was a long ride to see the Giant Buddha, carved into  a cliff face at the river's edge.  Some 71 meters high - likely the biggest Buddha  in the world.  Choice was walk up and around or to  take a boat and view the carving in better perspective:  we did the latter.  On subsequent consideration, most of us felt we would rather  skip the Buddha and have an extra day in Tibet.

We flew from  Chengdu to Lhasa.  I had been aware of the  high altitude when I was there before, but it affected me even more this time despite taking meds.  I huffed and puffed the entire eight  day stay.  Bummer!  Though I did manage Potala Palace and the other monasteries and temples. 

As before, Lhasa impressed me as being two communities:  the Chinese with their finished and unfinished high rises along the city's perimeter, and the Old Town with the colorful  and vital Tibetan population. Buildings, even private homes,  all flaunted the Chinese flag.  To get into Barkhor area, Security checked you and your backpacks, a new arrangement for me.  Per our guide, this was to insure flammables were not brought in as a monk had  set himself afire on the square.  Once inside, the area was crowded with  locals, most in national dress. 

Not only did we spent time at the Jokhang Temple but participated in the Mantra Prayer Festival, a gathering of oldsters muttering mantras aloud.  We did miss the Summer Palace, which I had visited before, though did get to the Sera Monastery.  Often there were few monks  about, those tending to the artifacts: much less than I recall from before. But we did watch  a fair sized group  go through their debating exercises. 

All in all, we were in and out of over half a dozen religious establishments, in and out of Lhasa.  At one point, it seemed similar to viewing   European cathedrals -  if you've seen one, you've seen them all.   Only one monastery, at Shigatse,  seemed to be a teaching facility  with some young acolytes about.  Religious treasure - Buddhas and pictures of past Lamas - none of the present Dalai Lama - had been rescued from the Cultural Revolution. (Note: leaving Tibet, the Chinese searched us for contraband eg: Dalai Lama material!

Even in a private farmer's home, there was the ubiquitous Chinese flag flying plus a picture of Mao.  I had heard stories of families hiding  Dalai  Lama's likeness  in back of Mao's photo, but didn't see this.  When last here, I had climbed up  to a nun's cave back of one of monasteries:  along with her kitten, she had a picture of the Dalai  Lama stashed away.

Spent two nights in a hotel unlisted in my old LP, in a town - Shegar -  also unlisted in my old LP. Was on a map, however.  Colder than hell!  Drove out to Tourist base camp and then, bussed to actual base camp. first used by the 1924 British expedition. Cold and windy!   We went through some half dozen checkpoints enroute. The Chinese keep close track of who is where. (It is the Nepal Base Camp that generates the publicity. On the north side of Everest,  sixteen Sherpas were killed in an avalanche while I was in Tibet, leading to the cancellation of the 2014 climbing season.)

Tibetans don't have much freedom to move about.   They must have job offer and permit.  Tibetans can go onto the college and get MDs and PhDs but to work, must cooperate  with the regime.  While the "real" government is that in exile, it is unlikely it can successfully stage any coup.  To me, it appeared that the Chinese dragon had firmly sat down on the Tibetans.  The freedom that they may have, is  likely due to the success in bringing in tourist trade, not only Western but Chinese.  In a sense, the Tibetans are similar to the Pandas under close observation by their Chinese masters.

Our last Tibetan city was Zhangmu, a trading town, a work in progress built along a mountainside.  Trucks from India, China and Nepal crawled along the narrow city streets.  From there, our next stop was the border where we left China's orderly scuntiny to  walk into the more chaotic freedom that was Nepal.   Another guide, another bus and we continued down to Kathmandu.

Kathmandu impressed me as a large building site, a city in making., at least out where we stayed.  Before I had been either in the bustling hotel-restaurant area of Thamel or out by the airport   near Pushupatinath.  This time it was the northern area, which impressed me as a large building site.  Nice hotel, but a difficult area to navigate on foot.  I was there a day more than desired, as I had screwed up my return flight, but did manage to get out - a problem what with the Everest climbing cancellation.

Similarities between the three areas:  Face masks, most likely due to the smog.  Two and three wheeler traffic.  Minimum of smoking.  Picked up trash,  excepting some  rural areas of Tibet. Relatively good asphalted roads most of the time with lots of camelback curves.  Cell phones.  Friendliness of locals. Blockage of Facebook  in China & Tibet. 

Guides:  All three were excellent though I rate the Tibetan guide as outstanding.  He was familiar with the history, has a delightful sense of humor and managed to walk a tight rope in commenting on current Tibetan-Chinese history.

Food:  Mostly, we ate as a group, in small local restaurants.  It ws a combination of Chinese, Tibetan and/or Indian food.  More atmospheric than epicurean. 

Accommodations:  From semi-luxurious to semi-basic.  In Lhasa, we were at the Yak Hotel, a backpackers special but with some updated rooms.  Great  place in the midst of the old town.
Elsewhere, very comfortable rooms but one place sans heat and another, sans hot water.  The last Tibetan hotel I stayed at was replete with construction material - a work in progress.  Both the Chengdu and Kathmandu hotels were at the top end of the scale. 

Costs:  The tour, with discount, cost $3240 plus two extra days.  But the air transport, that's another story:  Originally,  round trip cost:  $1593 with insurance.  As I miscalculated the length of the tour, had a reschedule the return flight - could not manage a change iin existing  arrangemens as flights out of Kathmandu were full up (cancellation of Everest climbing season) so had to start from scratch with a one way flight, two days later than planned:  $1794.  And was lucky to get that!  Add-on:  $150 to upgrade to Business class Kathmandu-Abu Dhabi and $75 to switch to an earlier flight JFK-SFO.  (There is nothing like trying to rearrange fights on a hotel computer under time constraints!.  Fortunately my niece had my  back!)

Conclusion:  Even with the air transport mess-up, it was a worthwhile trip, even allowing for the cold and breathlessness.  As a Free Tibet contributor, I don't see that happening -  China has her paws too firmly entrenched in Tibet.  It was well worth taking a look at the here and now. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

February 2014: Two weeks in India with Intrepid

It's my seventh time in India but first time in the south and first Intrepid tour.  It's interesting - the UK, Jordan and India are where I keep returning.  UK is understandable - common language and customs, good music and theatre.  I've gone into Jordan eight times:  once with a tour and then as a volunteer on an archaeological project.  India?  Ah, the history, vitality,  color,  variety - all keep me coming back.  I've been to both the northwest and northeast, Sikkim and  central portions -   touristy and non touristy.  But until now, not ever to the South.

And it is another aspect of the Indian landscape.  Tropical and full of temples and churches and scenic beauty. And I was not the only westerner  there. Tourists were event throughout.   When I went to book, several of my favorite budget tours  were full up.   While I had not traveled with Intrepid before, I had heard good things about it and knew their reputation of using local transport whenever possible.  And so they did:  Buses, trains,  tuk-tuks, motorbike, boats! 

And we covered a lot of territory:  From one coast to another, into the Hill country and  a couple of parks,  several cities, Kerala Backwaters and finishing up where we started - Kochi. Three two night stays and the rest for a night only.  A grand circle of sorts.  Kochi to Ooty to Mysore; then over to Mamaliapuram, Pondicherry down to Maduai and over to the Backwaters and Kochi.

The group had  a full complement of  twelve plus a local leader.  From the UK, Australia, Germany, South Africa, Vietnam, Canada and the US.  And I again was fortunate in having a sympathico roommate who was on her third consecutive Intrepid Indian tour -several others were doing two back-to-back trips.  We had a really capable and delightful tour leader, one of the best I've run into.

There was the "Toy Train" ride into the Nilgiris Hills and onto Oooty, where in the old days,   Brits had summered during the scorching heat of the lowlands. A little less trashy than elsewhere.  Though India has discouraged  plastic bags,  banned public smoking and most lighting was solar, plastic bottles floated about the lovely Kerala Backwaters  though  our host insisted the lakes were not used for garbage.  However, I did see women doing the family wash at waters' edge and tossing out the kitchen waste.. 

Poverty was less evident in the South than in the North.  Western influence - the Portuegese and the  French were about in the early days -  was more evident, as witness the number of churches and autos/tuk-tuks with Christian signs on the windshields.  Both are crowded, noisy and grubby.  I did miss the colorfully painted trucks of the North -  only saw two and they were a bit long in the tooth.

At one point, we drove through an Army cantonment, most unlikely in any other country to have public roads going through an army base.  It was a large area, home of the Madras Regiment, an army group predating the partition. 

And speaking of driving:  Indian driving is still as it was when I first visited in 2002: frightening!  Even when it's a four lane road, which is rare, passing occurs on the wrong side with vehicles doing a face-to-face confrontation.  And consider that everyone and everything uses the roadway:  trucks, buses, cars, motorcyclists, bicycles, donkey carts, animals and pedestrians.    
With mostly  one to two lane roads, it can be terrifying,  Particularly in the hilly country with the tight curves  where  buses and trucks  have to take several stabs at getting around.

The temples were impressive, with interesting  art work and extensive sculpturing.  The elaborate palace at Mysore was a bit overwhelming; a member of the once Royal family still lives in an apartment there!
Two of us went to Madurai's  Gandhi Memorial Museum, with well presented artifacts of his life and deathThere were several performances:  one an Indian classical dance   presentation and another,  a marital art exhibition which incorporated some yoga and gymnastic moves.  Both were exceptional.

Despite wanderings, both by jeep and on foot, in two parks,  we were not successful in finding the elusive tiger though  an elephant and child were spotted.  I was not impressed at the Elephant Sanctury for the animals, though apparently well fed, had front legs chained.  I also saw several elephants at the temples:  chained and painted. 

Accommodation: We were  in 3-star hotels, at a home stay and in a dormitory (one of the better and most clean of all the places).  All quite comfortable and most with hot water.  One place, I heated water in an electric coffee pot and used the Hindu bath technique.  Another I found hot water in the lower faucet but not with the shower, so again, a Hindu bath. 

Transportation:  We did use private minibuses and taxis but were on the train three times, one  an overnight journey in the 3-tiered AC carriage.  I don't think much had been done to refurbish the trains since their inception.  But the sheets were clean on the overnighter.  An improvement over Chinese "hard seat". There was a five hour and a subsequent two hour public bus ride  - driving was a little hairy and the brakes on the second bus squealed in agony whenever used.  Which was most of the time.  And a boat was the transport from the home stay in the Backwaters to the local bus stop.

Food:  Mostly Indian, almost all at restaurants that also served  beer, in deference of our ten beer drinkers.  Remarkable for me was the Indian-Western meals served at the Mudunalai Park accommodation and a lunch at Auuroville, an ashram housing 80 rural settlements.  Our final meal in Kochi was exceptional.

Glitch:  Minor only.  After we settled in one hotel, Intrepid decided we should be in another which was a bit inconvenient.

Cost: Tour with a 20% discount plus an extra day's stay and an arrival transfer:  $1126.  Airfare:  $1551 via Emirates.  (One can see why tours get combined, with the cost of transport to and fro!)

Conclusion:  I would book with Intrepid again; they really make an effort to do more than just arrange sightseeing opportunities but encourage local cultural involvement.  (Though I must say,  it's easy to  end up knowing more about your companions than the country visited.)  I'll probably return to India - my visa doesn't run out until Dec 2015.

India 2014-Pondicherry.jpg
India 2014-Local Bus.jpg
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India 2014-The Cow Reigns!.jpg
India 2014-Wating for my train to come in!.jpg

Jo Rawlins Gilbert
Palo Alto CA  94303

Friday, January 17, 2014

Chad-Asher-Holidays 2014!

Chad - At the End of the Day! .jpg
Chad - Scenery 2.jpg

Chad = the all but covered military vehicleR2-06944-006A.jpg

This trip began when a  friend encouraged me to visit Chad - magnificent, nothing like it! So I had started researching  when Michael Asher mentioned he was planning a camel trek in the Ennedi plateau.  This would be for sixteen days, half with the camel and the rest via 4x4s, sleeping out except for the final night.  Impulsively, I invited myself along.  Afterwards, reality hit and I wondered if I could still do this kind of travel.  Turned out OK.

Camel treks are wonderful  ways to travel and be at peace with the natural world.  A meditative time.  Moving slowly, walking or on camel, you become part of the experience.  Not the way to go for  tourists/sightseers.  I can do both,  though I always want to go beneath the surface to understand a country and its culture.   Anyway,  I paid up and put doubts aside.

The group consisted of  MA, twelve participants, seven camel men including guide,  and

a cook and helper, The participants were an assorted lot -  from Mexico, Scotland, Kenya, Australia, Belgium, South Korea and the US. Half were  women.  Three had traveled with MA before.   All were enthusiastic  curious and positive.  MA, as always, was an excellent teacher of the ways and wherefores of the desert and the nomads. 

The actual camel trek was some 100 miles through desert dunes and scrub, sandstone rock formations, cliffs and buttes - going into hidden valleys that weaved through the landscape.  Gazelles occasionally darted across our path.  While there were some vehicle tracks  and nomads' dwellings about,  mostly, we were a solitary band trudging through countryside of unbelieveable beauty and contrast.  . 

Excitement came with the watering of camels at a local village, whose inhabitants  were friendly but reluctant to be photographed.  I did get a shot of a vintage military vehicle well covered with sand, a relic of someone's past war, that was in the midst of the village. The contemporary world had, at one point, invaded this peaceful nomad village. 

Rock drawings were discovered in several of the caves.  While one site was known by the cook, the other was a completely new find.  Awesome to be where years ago, Ancestors had lived.  There were also  pottery shards scattered about;  great discussion about their possible uses.  . 

I found walking on soft sand difficult and did more riding then previously.  I had a rather young camel, who I called Henry; he was good though he did like to suddenly sit down.  I now can get off a camel fairly gracefully but my boarding techniques are pretty gross:  clamber and climb, usually with someone  pushing!

The ending of the camel portion of the trek was a bit dramatic: a whirl of wind and we were in a mini sandstorm as we came into a sheltered oasis.  Not only hard on the camels but difficult for the walkers.  I could hardly see where Henry was going -  and hoped he was  as confident as he seemed.  But camping near a pond, filled with warm water from the nearby spring - marvelous!

On the return ride back to N'Djamena, we stopped to watch some 100 camels, grouped in queue, waiting for their turn at watering troughs.  A solo camel was pulling the water container from the well, a deep one.  Seeing the old ways, still working, was a moving experience for me. 

The travel to and from N'Djamena, was a transition from the old world to a newer one.  Also a change in terrain:  more scrub and acacias and less striking cliffs.  More vehicles and people.  Though one had be close to N'Djamena before finding anything resembling a road.  Lots of cross country driving.

Desert towns are a series of sheds with shops operating from them.  One gas station was a collection of drums of gasoline with a hose and nozzle on the side.  Dwellings are often mud brick/adobe and thatch with structure for animals and feed storage nearby. 

The final night was a chance to clean up at a charming Chinese-French hotel in N'Djamena after over two weeks  camping out.  Some used a tent; I didn't though one might have helped on several chilly breezy nights when I wish I had brought fleece pants in addition to my t-shirt. But it felt great to shower and sleep in a bed. 

I did  have several hours to look around N'Djamena the following morning: some large government buildings, an uncompleted religious building and lots of small shops and a large souk.  A work in progress. 

I always get asked about the food:  the food was good, excellent considering  circumstances.  Often, hard cooked eggs for breakfast, salad for lunch and pasta in the evening.   Sardines, tuna and goat.  Good cook.

Tour:  a five star success!  To be repeated next year (by MA though probably not me).   Cost was £3200  and worth every farthing.

Airfare:  $2400 via United, Ethiopian and Virgin America.  Almost missed the VA flight from Washington  DC home as the Addis Ababa flight was delayed.  FYI, VA is quite comfortable - their Economy seats are better than United's Economy-plus. Appearance is  high tech but there are charges for everything.  Very Steve Jobs.

Still getting the sand out of shoes and duffle!