Saturday, December 24, 2016

2016 Happenings

What Happened in 2016!

Surprisingly, I did most of what was planned for this  year.  Iran in April; Murmansk and the North Pole in June, London and the Lawrence Symposium in September and then, Azerbaijan in October.  All were good trips but very different. 

I had been on an earlier  sightseeing trip; this time  it was to take a look at Iran’s role after sanctions.  We met with religious, press  and business people; spent time at a school as well as wandering about and appreciating the landscape.  As before, I found Iranian people friendly and outgoing even as school girls chanted Death to America.  (I was the lone American in the Political Tours  group!)

It was Murmansk, that beleaguered port of WW2 that enticed me onto the Arctic cruise, via a Russian Nuclear icebreaker to the North Pole.  And Murmansk is a quite Russian port, still the gateway to the Arctic lands claimed by the Russians  A combination German and English  speakers, along with Chinese and Japanese - and a handful of Russians made up the 100+ passengers.  As always with Quark, ongoing talks about  past explorations as well as the landscape and its inhabitants.  Floating seminars!

London to see friends and attend performances before  the TE Lawrence Symposium at Oxford.  It was the symposium that got me to the Great Arab Revolt dig tin Jordan ten or so year ago.  Going to the UK is like coming home.  It was the first overseas stop of my travels.

Finished up traveling with a friend, up, down and sideways in Azerbaijan for two weeks, one of the Caucasus’ countries that parted from the Soviet Union early on.  And has had a rather tempestuous relationship with its neighbors, particularly Armenia, since.  Landscape ranges from mountainous country to dry scrubland.  With Baku the ruling Queen, built up by oil revenues.  A combination of ultra new and ancient old. Even got to  Naxcivan, that island  of Azerbaijan assessable only by all arrangements made by Travel the Unknown.  

The year coming?  It looks like I may return to Lebanon with Political Tours in February.  And a friend and I are considering a week in Hawaii:  the WW2 Memorials and Father Damien's leporsy colony.  I’ve signed on with Explore  for a several week  trip in June, back to St. Petersburg and Murmansk and then into Arctic Norway.  November will see a change:  sailing from Tahiti to the Marquesasa and Pitcairns to Easter Island. 

Inbetween, ballet and yoga and Pilates; local theatre, dance and music.  And trying to figure out how I can get to Karkamus (original TEL dig on Turkey-Syria border)  for their website says they started accepting visitors in June 2016!?

In the meantime, I hope the Mini and the computer hold out - they’ve been needing attention this past year.  Hang in there, guys!

And let me also hope  we all survive the political scene here at home:  four years to go!

Happy Holidays from us both!

jo and Sam
Azer 10.16-Jo @ BakuAsset0024.jpg

Monday, October 31, 2016

October 2016; Two Weeks in Aberbaijan

Awhile back, I traveled in Armenia and Georgia but didn't  take the three-day add-on to Baku.  Later, I read Ralph Peters' Looking for Trouble which included a bit about the Azerbaijan and Armenia conflict. Azerbaijan  promptly went on my bucket list.  And now, having spent two weeks there  I am so glad I waited, for three days in Baku would have not shown me much, other than an urban oil rich Islamic city, overlooking the Caspian Sea.  Two weeks gave me a flavor of the regions and nationalities  populating this most diverse country.

This was a two person tour, arranged through a British travel agency, Travel the Unknown.  We had local guides  with a driver in Azerbaijan. And with time to wander about on our own, or not.  We were based in Baku, passing through as we traveled on the Absheron Peninsula, and into Naxcivan  plus  the Northwestern, Northern, and Southern  parts of the country.  Since I had a twelve year   old Lonely Planet guide, we were able to appreciate  recent changes.

I had traveled with my friend at least a dozen time: we both liked to explore various bits of the world's landscape.    Good company, she instructed me in things, computerwise.  If not for her, I never would have had an I-pad.  And would have even less understanding of the internet world.  She is a birder and trekker; I'm more history and people oriented.
Our Azeri guide was a middle aged man, precise in movement and language.  He  taught himself English and been a guide for ten years.  One of the Azeri refugees from Armenia after the difficulty over Nagorno Karabakh, he had spent two years with the Russian army in Siberia.  The Naxcivan guide was a younger man, married with several children.  Both wanted the present regime to continue:  the so-called Aliyev dynasty had brought stability to long conflicted territories.

Baku is a contrast  of old and new, religious and secular..  Lots of shiny, new architecture: some appropriate and some tasteless. in places, a bit Las Vegas.    Three glass sky scrapers molded into the shape of three flames over look the Old Town, related to the Zoroastrian tradition  Baku, the City of Wind and Flame.  We wandered about the waterfront area, a lovely park where families were enjoying a Sunday outing.  Nizami Street was a walking street with a collection  of upscale stores.  Most buildings, old and new, had a Islamic motif.

Most of a day was spent in the Old Town: starting at the glassed flamed buildings and working our way down,   we climbed up the Maiden's Tower, likely a defensive stronghold in early times, and wandered about the Palace of Shirvan Shahs, and the pathways of   old city.  This was the last of the sunny days -  wet and fog the rest of the visit!     On a second try, we got into the Rostropovich Museum, a collection of memorabilia in his childhood home.  I didn't get the feeling they got many visitors. We missed the carpet museum.

Another day and we  moved onto the oil rigs and fire temples of the Abseron Peninsula.  Plus YanarDag, a natural gas outlet,  very unique! So back through Baku and onto the Greater Caucasus., ending up at Sheki., where we spent several nights.  There were stops at a small mountain village, various historical sites dating from 12th-18th Century, including a palace built by one of the early rulers:  glorious glass work.  Wonderful mountain country, though weather limited some planned explorations.

Then  two nights at Ganja, in the Lesser Caucasus, noted for its Mosque, Mausoleum  and the Bottle House,  And an  Archaeological museum, mud volcanoes and petroglyphs - all at Qobustan.

Then back through Baku and on to Quba, the principal northern town  with its sad little zoo.  Here we were invited for tea at a local weavers home, after spending time in a rug factory.   In visiting  a local synagogue - there is an small Jewish population nearby -  we ran into two young,  impolite  Israelis, looking for religious services.  Quite moving was a Memorial - the unrestored skeletons of  Azeri victims from 1918 Armenian activity..

We then flew out for a day in Naxcivan, that bit of Azerbaijan, briefly independent, that is not connected with the mainland but rather,  surrounded by Iran, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Pristine and lovingly restored, there wasn't a trace of trash about.  We were taken to  mosques and mausoleums but most interesting was the collection of musical instruments, ancient and contemporary; the carpet museum,. and the unusual salt caves now used for medicinal purposes. 

The final segment was a trip to Lerik, in the South - high in the mountains, through rain and fog and over bad roads courtesy of rock bearing trucks.  A dark and spooky ride!  It's an  area inhabited by  a long living  Caucasian Talysh ethnic group  We made stops at Shirvan Nattion al  with its affable manager, at Lankaran at a tea plant and then, the prison and lighthouse where Stalin been and then escaped. 

Now back to Baku and flights home.  It was a good trip, The    exchanges with local people  were friendly with no feeling of tension with the extant regime.  While some women were covered, many weren't.  There were several check points but they were seemed quite routine..  Not a lot of tourists, but that's to be expected this time of year.

 Azerjbaijan looks like what it is:  a secularly run Moslem majority country.  With money.  With scenery. At the moment, peaceful.

Accommodations:  From a quite authentic Karavansaray to standard 3-star to resort hotels.  All comfortable and all with wi fi albeit standing outside in the Karavansaray's courtyard for use.

Food:  Various breads, lentil and chicken (with a bony piece of chlcken included) soups, eggs,tomatoes and  cucumber were standard.  Both of us were non red meat eaters so occasional chicken  kabobs and fish,.  A couple of exceptional meals but mostly routine.  One horrible greasy breakfast omlet with equally unappetizing male companions at the Karavansaray forced us to pay for breakfast at a hotel across the way. Estimate:  $250,

Transportation:   Turkish Air, Economy.  Coming over, had several seats together for the long segment:  SF to Istanbul.  No such luck returning.   $775.

Travel the Unknown:  $3200pp plus approximately $150pp tips to driver and guides. 

Cat Care:  $550..

Comment:  You really have to understand this country in relation to the other parts of the Pinochle:  Armenia and Georgia and Russia (and Turkey?)  All have had part  of the action over the years and thus influence the present.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Adventure Travel Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Murmansk-Arctic-North Pole: June-July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 29, 2016

Iran the Second Time Around: 10 days in April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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