Monday, December 21, 2015

Cambodia-Laos: Nov-Dec 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In between, got a foot massage!! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Road Scholar: Washington DC 14-22 Oct 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

September 2015 on the Silk Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jo Rawlins Gilbert

Palo Alto CA  94303

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

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

Highlands 2015-Overlooking Reykjavik.jpg
Highlands 2015-Zodiac embarking.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

Babes in the Woods - and Snows: Siberian Railroad 2015

Somehow, the subject of a Trans Siberian Railroad journey came up - so I found myself booking a three week trip with Sundowners  for early spring 2015. - Sundowners is an Australian tour company specializing in overland travel and  I had done an India, China-Pakistan-'Stans trip with them awhile back.  I went with a friend with whom I've traveled half a dozen times - in fact, she initiated the project.  Three weeks:  from St Petersburg to Vladivostok with five stops inbetween, including  a night  at Lake Baikal,  the world's oldest and deepest fresh water lake, an UNESCO site. 

Suzanne had not been in Russia before; I had briefly experienced St Petersburg and Moscow ten-fifteen years before and certainly could use all the help I could get in finding my way around.  We had arranged to be met upon arrival  and to have time with a host/guide in each city to get us started.  That worked well.  In fact, so well that we should have arranged for departure transport,  though  with everyone's help, we managed that.   I had not realize how difficult things could be  with neither of us  Russian speakers.  I had expected a bit more English, particularly as we learned it was part of the school curriculum.  Fortunately, we were bailed out with some frequency.  Including a restaurant manager from Malta. 

Memories of early days in South Dakota had me toting four layers when at best, I only needed three. For it not as cold as I expected. Even so, the old LLBean convoy coat felt good. Throughout, there was sun - and rain and snow - and sun!

In St. Petersburg, we ran into sunbathers along the Neva River.  St. Petersburg is a good city for walkers - you pass contrasting architecture, interesting sites and  refurbished churches wherever you go.  We only had an hour at the Hermitage Museum, for it was closed over the weekend.  Had to rush there before train time on Monday.  However, Suzanne had tickets for the Kirov Ballet at the old Mariinsky for Sunday night:  La Bayadere with a Paris Opera Ballet soloist guesting - a young Korean dancer, she was magnificent.

It was a four hour day train ride to Moscow, a much more energetic city that St. Petersburg.  We stayed in the Arbat area, walking distance to Red Square and the Kremlin - which does not  mean we weren't lost a few times.  The Kremlin with the government buildings and churches, was most impressive.  We caught up with our guide the second day - she had classes earlier - and discovered places missed int he earlier exploration. One was the bridge where Boris Nemtsov had been murdered - overwhelmed with bouquets of all sizes and kind. 

 An evening was spent at the Bolshoi Theatre for a performance by the Rostov Ballet - had no idea what the ballet was about but eventually, it got sorted out. The Theatre was impressive, gilt and gold trimmed.

 It was in St. Petersburg and Moscow, we first saw an interesting tradition,  padlocks on various railings, sporting  the initials of the couple for all to see.   We continued to run into them throughout the trip.

From here, started serious train travel: overnight to Yekaterinburg, leaving European Russia for Eastern Russia.  We traveled two to a compartment - first class?! Each car had a conductress in charge who made up the beds, cleaned the toilets, took out the trash  and made sure we were on the right car.  The trains all ran on Moscow time which was posted along with the oncoming stop - in Cryllic. As were our tickets.  Guides and transporters were most helpful.  We kept my watch on Moscow time and Suzanne's I-phone kept us righteous with "real" time. 

While we did go to the dining carriage, lack of Russian precluded much socialization.  We did well to figure out the menu, which did have some English sub titles  which helped in ordering with servers who didn't make it through any of those English classes.  Food was good - not exceptional, but good.  We had meals included on several segments, which were brought to the compartment.  It was interesting, making known our choice of either "Chicken" and "Fish". Hot water was always available in the carriage for tea or coffee.  Both of us had packed energy bars or one kind or another.  On several of the trains, we were given chips and an apple.

For historical reasons, I really wanted to go to Yekerinburg for that was where the Czar and his family were held by the Soviets and assassinated.  It is also, according to our host, the third-capital- city-in-waiting.  Moscow was first.  If out of commission, St. Petersburg.  Then, Yekerinburg. There was a tourist track marked on the sidewalk which helped in finding places of interest.  We did get to the Church of  the Blood, built over the cellar where the Romanovs were killed.  On our own we spent time in the Fine Arts Museum, after a lack of success in locating the Natural History museum.  Also took a look at the Photography Museum.   And another ballet performance, newly choreographed but dated stylistically.  Nice city, third largest in Russia.

Back on the train and onto Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. While we walked about the city - and got home via the metro (last stop, you can't miss it!) -  much of the time was spent with the host in Akaderngorodock, a city built for scientific research with a prestigious university.. Half an hour bus ride from Novosikirsk at most, we walked about the snowy.icey grounds with relatively new bulldings including  an  elegant arts center. and various museums.  The Russians take good care of their scholars. 

After an overnight on the train, we came to Irkutsk for a couple of nights, before heading off the Listvyanka, a village  at Lake Baikal.  We had two young man as hosts, showing us around their City.  Memorials. statutes and churches were near where we stayed.  From Irkutsk, we were driven to Lake Bailkal, Mostly still well frozen though we were able to take a glass bottomed boat in a thawed postion of the lake, to see the undersea flower and fauna. On the frozen portion, we did a Hovercraft ride, scooting and  pirouetting atop the ice.  Others were fishing and walking.  Didn't see any skaters.  We hiked down to the area's Museum.

Back to the Railroad and onto Kharbarovsk where they claim 300 days of sunshine yearly.  We spent time walking about the city, down to the Amur River and its banks.  Information for the City suggested we ride a hydrofoil and enjoy the city's sights:  not possible with ice over river.  But one could see how the river's bank would be a lively recreational area. I purchased  souvenirs at the Arts Museum from a delightful gentleman speaking fluent English.  Our host was put to work, translating information at the  History Museum for the labeling was not bilingual.  A rather interesting and active city. 

Now for the three night, two day train ride into Vladivostok, the one time closed city.  And on the most basic of the several trains we'd experienced.  Scenery was   birches and snow covered ground - not particularly exciting.  Fortunately, Suzanne was not  only equipped with an Iphone but an I-pad and tablet.  I was/am considering purchasing a tablet so this gve me  a change to check it out.  I read half a dozen of the books she had stored on it, including David Greene's Midnight in Siberia, quite appropriate for he wrote of his travels on Russian trains, only third class - but he spoke some Russian.  Regardless,  a night or so third class might have been worth it- next time!

Arrival in Vladivostok!  The San Francisco of Russian Siberia!  Again, we wandered about for a day before meeting with the host.  I had wanted to see the submarine cum museum; we managed with the help of the hotel staff who worked out a map for us.  It turned out to be on one of the main streets.  Also wandered through the open air food market and generally, got a feel for the City.  The host introduced us to a walking street down to the beach, which, given it was a weekend, had a lot of activity.  We also explored a collection of artillery near what may have been an old fort. 
The day ended with a round trip bus ride to Russky Island, home to a new University and an old Fort.  Couldn't get to the Fort but did see the University, riding across a magnificent suspension bridge. 

Then, off to the airport where we parted company:  Suzanne to Moscow, Heathrow and DC.  I to Seoul and San Francisco.

Accommodations:  Four hotels, two Home Stays, an apartment and  the Guesthouse.  The hotels were all excellent and  well located.  In my opinion, the ones in Moscow and Vladivostok approached 4* quality.  All provided  good breakfasts.  The apartment in Yekaterinburg was unique:  in an old Soviet building above a grocery story, I really felt like I belonged.  It helped that our host owned the apartment and was so knowledgeable. 

The Home Stays were totally different. In Novosibirsh it as with a young couple;  she was a very outgoing English speaker.  We all ate together.  It was delightful.  The second Home Stay in inIrkusk was with an older couple and an even older woman who was not introduced and stayed abed in her room the entire time. The couple spoke no English.  Breakfast was served in our room; I took the tray back to the kitchen.  The husband did show me photos of a family holiday in Italy.  But it was clear they didn't know what their role was - and the same was true for us.  We smiled a lot!

The Guesthouse was like a Ski Lodge.  Very informal and very cheerful and very comfortable.  Good breakfast and great manager? Owner? English spoken.

Food:  Considering that neither of us are meat eaters, we did well. We  often found pictures of the entrees subtitles in English on menus.  Ate at several pick up places - quiche on several occas ions -  to an elegant Mona's in Khabarovsk. Several of the hotels had good restaurants - both in St. Petersburg and Vladivostok.  Hosts pointed us to reasonably priced places with good hot food.  On occasion, we picked up bits and pieces at grocery stores,  which were well stocked.

Impression:  Both of us commented on the affluence, much different than my past impression.
Stores were full of goods, people dressed well, and a surprisingly number of them had traveled out of the country. It wasn't that different from the US.  I tried to ask about the Ukraine situation but got little response other than, we know only what we read in the papers!  There seems to be acceptance of  Putin for p eople just want to be left alone and make their way without conflict.  But remember, we were meeting with urbanites, talking with English speakers. 

Cost:  Sundowners Overland Tour;;$14077.  Airfare: $1336.  Ballet tickets: $463.  Visa:  $519.

Glitch:  Someone always doesn't get the word:  No pick up at St. Petersburg airport.  Fortunately an English speaker at the Information desk helped out.  Not unusual for me:  I'm always pleasantly surprised when the pickup comes through.

Jo Rawlins Gilbert
Palo Alto CA  94303

  7 Attached Images

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

February 7-26,2015: Ethiopia: the Danakil and Omo Valley, plus Somaliland and Zanzibar!

Subject: February 7-26 2015: Ethiopia: the Danakil and Omo Valley, plus Somaliland and Zanzibar.
Date: Tue, Mar 3, 2015 3:38 pm

Since I first wandered into Ethiopia in 2007, the Danakil depression, that place of  fascination and desolation, had been high on my bucket list.  I had touched on the Afar Triangle  on my  last trip in the region. That and  Wilfred Thesinger's writing only intensified my interest in the region.  But security concerns - British consulate employes had been taken hostage during that first trip into Ethiopia - kept me away for a time.  But when I understood the government was planning to develop the area's mineral resources, I sure wanted to get there before that happened.  While it was still pristine. 

A British company had recently began tours into the area but there was a fair amount of trekking involved, too much for me.   Then, this year, Spiekermann Travels advertised the Danakil as part of a more extensive tour into Ethiopia, Somaliland and Zanzibar.  I hadn't great enthusiasm about a return to the Omo Valley but the rest of the schedule was tempting. And  I knew the guide for Ethiopian segments was tops:  Asrat Kahsay at Image Ethiopia Tours.

We (there were six of us) flew from Addis Ababa to Makale in the north, then driving into the Afar  and the Danakil, there for four days, escorted by three  armed  military.  We stayed at a small village, Hamed Ela, sleeping on platforms and a mat, either outside or in lean-tos or sheds.  Buildings, such as they were, used poles, branches, pieces of wood, material, cardboard and fabric in the construction.  Very basic though we did have portable facilities.  The cook that traveled with us was superb - he managed excellent meals under adverse conditions.

Interestingly, there was an Italian academic there for a month, studying the effect of a nearby mining operation on the Afar people. 

For two days we drove about in Land Cruisers,  exploring  the Depression, the lowest point in Africa and one of the hottest places on earth.  The desert is covered with scrub, land fit for a camel.  But there were some bits of unique landscape:  colorful mineral beds and out growths of sandstone called The Chimneys - quite spectacular. 

But it was the never ending parade of camels with their cargo of salt that memorized  me.  Chunks of salt are mined and shaped into blocks by the Afar people, loaded onto camels (and a few patient donkeys) and taken (a four day trip?) to proper roads and trucks where the salt is loaded onto trucks for further distribution.  Photos of the never ending lines of camels trudging across  lava beds and desert are on the internet; there is  a particular notable shot by Michael Poliza  in the Lufthansa Magazine for November 2011. 

The area is also known for  volcanoes and we (five of us; one elected not to go) drove to a nearby village to get the headman's permission to continue on to Erta Ale, one of the active volcanoes.  A three hours-plus walk/climb.  In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit I cheated and did most of it, coming and going, on a camel - some of it in the dark.  Beyond  was the walk to the lip of the crater where you could watch the swirl of the firey lava bubble up.  My first experience with a volcano and it was awesome!

There were others there.  In fact, one group was leaving as we were arriving.  When we had our fill of the primordial scene, we returned to a late supper and sleep, before negotiating the ill defined, rocky path down.

The night on the mountain in  sleeping bags was where  I had the best sleep of the trip.  Early next morning when still dark, we headed down and out to the autos.  On to Hamed Ela and breakfast.  And back to Mekele and a proper shower before we flew to Addis for part two of the four part tour.

So off to the Rift Valley and the various African tribes.  Unlike my earlier trip where I  had camped, we stayed at   lodges. some more basic than others but all quite comfortable, during our seven day visit. We stopped  at at least half a dozen villages and at least three markets. 

  The people were in all sorts of dress:  from body painting, braided hair and beads to cast offs of Western clothing.  They were experienced in dealing with the Westerner and charged for photos - it was strictly business.  Five birr a shot!

Despite a couple of flats we persevered. Roads were crowded with all kinds of vehicles:  tuks-tuks, ox and donkey carts, scooters and bikes, trucks and buses, cars and carriages- plus the livestock and the walkers.  Ethiopia is full of those who walk from place to place. Tribal people as well as the more Westernized.

Most village dwellings are with thatched roofs, conical in shape.  Often family and livestock share. Some still hunter-gathers (except for the 5 birr photo income!) and a  contrast with the Fly Emirates shirts which were popular with many males. 

I was most impressed with a tribal chief, who was working at Addis as an engineer when called home to assume the leader's responsibility upon his father's death.  While he missed the amenities of civilization, there was no question but his life was now with his tribe.  He was attractive and  articulate and patient with our questions.

I tended to  wander about the villages, watching women grooming themselves, checking out  the elders who were checking us out, and enjoying the wee ones chasing each other about in what seemed to be a combination of tag and hid'nseek.  I just wasn't into the commercialization   with the photo shoots. 

At one place, I sat with our drivers at the local "Starbucks" where a young woman was serving coffee and also acting as the bank for villagers.  A fair amount of activity, particularly with a young man who kept taking and then returning monies to her and with a rather possessive manner toward her.  I would have loved to have known their story.

I think it was our  last village where a local took photos of our tour group as they were  negotiating  for photos of the villagers.  Serendipity.

Next was the flight to and one night in Hargesia, the capital of the declared but unrecognized country of Somaliland.  Again, we acquired security - two armed uniformed men.  and  with an young, attractive and delightful   Moslim woman as guide.  The afternoon was spent in the dusty and crowded town center.  Mostly one story, corrugated metal roofed shops though a few more modern building were in the works.  Trucks were decorated a la Indian/Pakistani custom.

The next morning found us at the camel market before going onto Laas geel aand the spectacular rock paintings. Located in a series of caves,  they were really quite unique.  Enroute, I noticed a large and modern boarding school built by  Kuwaitees, at odds with  more prevalent primitive structures.  Women were  covered. We were told we need not be, but I noticed the Western women at the hotel were wearing  scarfs so i followed custom. 

NGOs were around but it is the British who take  most interest in the welfare of Somaliland.  Natural as it was once British.  They have their own currency but lack UN recognition as a sovereign state.  Someone's hope is that they will peacefully reunite with Somalia.

Last, but certainly not least, was Zanzibar. a semi autonomous  region of Tasmania.  And Tasmania apparently is not happy with the US for it cost us about double for the visa.

Beforehand, I didn't know half of our group had opted out of the Zanzibar portion - didn't know I could.  If I had known, probably would have.    I am  glad I didn't know, for I really enjoyed the time there.

There was the  tour of Stone town, the old city, starting at the old slave market, walking through the active souk and then the old stucco buildings with shops in various nooks and crannies.  Zanzibar is a city waiting to be photographed and I was without camera - used the last shots of the throw-a-way in Hargesia.  The big attraction of Zanzibar is the doors. There are many of them:  various sizes, woods and decorations - seeing is believing. 

The other notable sight was the red colobus monkeys who hopped and swung about, posing for the tourists.  Of which there were some. For this is a vacation spot par excellence!   There was the spice tour, a chance to see the plants used in the various seasonings, and a walk through the jungle area.  Zanzibar has it all!

I must mention the hotel:  The Serena, one of a number of 5* hotels operated by the Shia Ismaili Moslim sect and the Aga Khan.  Taking two old time waterfront buildings - one had been a dispensary - they developed a luxurious seafront hotel consistent with the local architecture.  I was familiar with the Ismailis' support of clinics and schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so had little hesitancy about  contributing.  (The other 5* hotel I've stayed at is Dwarka's in Kathmandu, where the owners also contribute earnings  to the community.  Both reflect the styles of their respective cultures.)

So endth the tour.  After two nights in paradise, two of us started on our flight to SFO:  Zanzibar to Addis to Rome to DC to SF.  One stayed on for two more days. The trip home was long but went smoothly.

Food:  Breakfasts and Dinners were usually at the hotel/lodges/camps and were excellent.  Choices from pasta to chicken.  I tended to go vegetarian:  Rice and veggies but with chicken soup.  Noon meals were often at a local restaurant - good and varied.

Accommodations:  A wide range:  In town, 4*.  In the countryside, comfortable lodges.  In the Danakil, basic - see photo of Afair dwellings.

Cost:  This was an all inclusive tour from Washington DC onward:  $1,262.82.   Airfare SFO-IAD:  $424.20   Tips and visas:  $400. Cat care: $600.
Danakil-Afar Dwellings.jpg
Danakil-The Camels and the flats.-01917-019A.jpg
Danakil-Jo @ downtown Hargeisa17-000A.jpg
Danakil-Back in the Saddle Again!R1-01917-012A.jpg
Danakil-Omo Valley-Them watching Us! .jpg
Danakil-Mekele street scene..jpg
Danakil-Omo Valley Market1-01917-007A.jpg

care: $600.

Conclusion:  Expensive but the Danakil made it all worthwhile.  Now moving to the head of the bucket list is  a visit to the Taklamaken, a fierce Chinese desert. Next trip, though, is the Siberian Railway.                                                                           

Jo Rawlins Gilbert
Palo Alto CA  94303