A Travellerspoint blog

India

Incredible India!

So this is going to be a long one, with an EXCESSIVE amount of pictures and endless narrative because we have free internet and a fast connection. (Apologies to those with a slow connection.) India was a bit of a mix for us -- challenging in some ways but overall a place we enjoyed, although in our travels we only scratched the surface of this vast place. We saw some amazing architecture and craftmanship, met some nice folks, and saw some pretty countryside. But we were also bombarded by aggressive folks trying to sell stuff. And tuk-tuk drivers who always wanted to take us to shops to "just look," where invariably we were subjected to a hard sell. We got a little jaded after a while. Plus the pollution and garbage in the streets was disheartening. Our photos are pretty sanitized, like the ad campaign we saw on TV - "Incredible India!" - so we'll give just one that shows the other part of the story that people tend to leave out, but is part of what we encountered most places we went.

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We decided to fly from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur, and then go overland to Darjeeling. Though this meant flying on Yeti Air (which had just had a fatal crash a couple weeks before), and a negative contribution environmentally, taking the bus route overland seemed far worse, as the normal ten hour trip had stretched to twenty, following road wash-outs, and had been described as harrowing even in good conditions. Traffic in Kathmandu had been harrowing enough..so we took to the skies and had some great views of the Himalayas, even managing to see Everest above the clouds. We landed in Bhadrapur in the late afternoon (sweltering and humid) and hired a car to take us across the border and up to Darjeeling. Although it was dark by the time we reached the foothills, we were pretty sure there were some steep drop offs, given the number of switchbacks, but we arrived safely nonetheless. Our driver loved the Eagles, so we got to listen to all their hits, plus ones even worse...We ended up staying in a "hotel," which was part of a Tibetan Institute, founded by the Dalai Lama, whose mission is to preserve Tibetan language and custom. Lots of Tibetan refugees live in the area, as do Nepalis, so the place is a real mix of cultures and peoples. In the morning we got our first real view of the area:

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Darjeeling is spread up and down along the hillsides, and was a peaceful break from Kathmandu. One day we tried going to the Happy Valley tea plantation but it was closed as it was Sunday afternoon. No matter as we meet Flora, who clearly has encountered tourists in such a situation, and invited us to her tea shop for a tasting, and a-testing. We learned a little about tea making and types and then were tested...we pretty much passed. She was quite a character so it was good fun. For all you train geeks (yes, Daphne, this includes you--come on, own it--it's not just your brother and father anymore) we spent a nice afternoon riding the famed narrow gauge Toy Train (non-train geeks google it) from Darjeeling to Ghum, a nearby town. Very entertaining. Here's a shot of Daph by the train:

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When we got to Ghum, we stopped to get the best samosas we had in India from this man:

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Near Ghum was the Yiga Choeling Monastery:

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Later, we checked out the Ghum monastery and shared a far away dance with these kids. (Too bad we don't have a shot of us carefree, wacky tourists dancing "with" them. Picture it if you dare.)

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We timed our visit to coincide with Diwali, the festival of lights, which in Darjeeling, at least, means tons of fireworks all over the place. We had a nice evening watching them, and sort of enduring a small cultural show at a place we went for dinner. After a few days in Darjeeling, we headed down to Siliguri to catch a night train to Varanasi. (Real name: Benares. We were told by some amazing ladies we met later that the British couldn't pronounce Benares, hence Varanasi.) Night train....hmmmm. Would have been better with some Night Train. Yow! Truth is it went fine at first. We met a nice college student, Karma, from Darjeeling, and chatted with him for a bit. We hadn't been able to get a private compartment, nor had we been able to get all the berths together, but Karma graciously switched with us, and even took the top berth. Unfortunately sometime in the middle of the night three guys boarded the train and started yelling at Karma that he was in their berth (we suppose, as this was all in Hindi), and suddenly two of them climbed up and grabbed his pillow and sheet and tried to wrench him out of the berth! Karma changed berths so the tension abated. But then the three guys wouldn't shut up. The whole train is asleeep and they blabbed on and on. Daphne finally got them to shut up--thanks Daph. Needless to say, we didn't have the greatest night's sleep, and the morning was spent trying to guess what station we were at, as they don't have conductors announcing stops, and we didn't have a route map. After a false start, satisfying only because we made a point of waking the three jerks up, we finally got off at the right station, and got a taxi into town.

So, Benares was the first real jolt for us in our foray into India. This is one of the holiest places there, due to the Ganges, but also one of the filthiest we saw. Spirituality in the raw. There are daily rituals at the Ganges, and loads of pilgrims (as well as tourists), but the river and city is quite polluted. Our first night we took an evening boat trip to see of the nightly rituals at the temples that lines the banks, and it was quite amazing, especially as this takes place every night.

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The next day we saw the Ganges at "work", washings and cowpies drying:

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Death tourism is alive and well in Benares. Many Indians hope to be cleansed, cremated and then have their ashes scattered in the holy river. So, some travel there, stay in hospices and wait to die. Cremation requires lots of wood. Banyan is favored:

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Walking through the streets it's common to encounter bulls and cows:

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One night we decided to go eat dinner at a fancy place a bit far from where we were staying, and took an auto tuk-tuk, owned by two brothers, Arjun and Uttam. They were quite pleased when we asked if we could try our hand at driving. They said most tourists don't even talk to them. Well, we're kind of crazy that way. Not only do we want to talk, but we want to drive! (Driving in India is a bit different than back home. There's no adherence to traffic lanes, if there are any, and few traffic lights, and fewer that are obeyed. No one uses their mirrors--changing lanes and negotiating roundabouts and intersections is done by easing in, and listening for the warning honkings. Takes a bit of time to get used to, but it does work.)

From Benares we hired a car and driver to go south and west to Khajuraho, and then to Agra. The roads in most parts of India that we travelled, and this was no exception, are in really poor condition. Average speed is around 25 m.p.h. Average vertical rise on each bump around one foot. The drive to Khajuraho took about ten hours, and one flat tire. Our driver Arbinder was great and never flagged. It must be all the paan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paan) he chewed and spat out the window. However, Kahajuraho was worth the effort getting there, as it has so many beautifully and intricately carved Hindu temples. It's known for the erotic carvings (tourists need titty-lation?) but that focus minimizes the place, which has outstanding artistic work. Here are a few shots:

We loved this first one as it shows a sculptor working on an elephant carving that isn't complete:

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There was also a Jain temple complex we visited. This is the oldest religion in India, which has non-violence as one its tenets, and thus, some strict adherents will not eat after dark to ensure they don't ingest insects by mistake--wow! Some also sweep the ground in front of them while walking so as to avoid the little critters. Most temples you visit expect a little contribution, and the Jain ones are no exception:

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Oooops! Looks like the "secret" is out! And you gotta wonder what all those padlocks are about.

We also visited the old village of Khajuraho, away from the tourist strips surrounding the temples, thanks to a couple of kids who just wanted to "show us the real Khajuraho" and practice their English. When will we ever learn? Well, it's actually good that we still get duped a little here and there, because it means we're retaining some of our naivete and openness. What the kids wanted in the end was...baksheesh! Sheesh! However, we all enjoyed walking around the streets there, which were peaceful, and hearing about life there. Plus we got to make a contribution at a temple, the "mayor's" giftshop, and a school. So we decided that made it okay that when the kids asked for baksheesh we didn't give it to them....Rationalization is so great!

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From Khujaraho we headed further west and north, and stopped for an hour or so at Orccha, which was blazing hot as it was a midday. Orccha has a palace-fort complex from the 17th century, which we saw, and some temples, which we didn't. There are three palaces, one of which is the Jahangir Mahal, which comes with an unusual story. Jahangir, one of the Mughal emperors, allied with Orccha, and a palace was built in his honor...it took years to build but Jahangir only stayed one night. Those Mughals had plenty of other nice accomodations...The architecture was a blend of Hindu and Mughal styles, and there are still some frescoes that haven't totally deteriorated--here's one in the Raja Mahal, as well a shot of the Raja Mahal:

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Finally got a shot of a pigment seller's wares:

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We continued on, finally getting on a decent road a couple of hours later on the way to Agra, a place where smog ruled--it was so bad you couldn't see the Taj from fairly nearby it. We visited the usual tourist sites: the Red Fort, the Baby Taj, Fatehpur Sikri (outside of Agra), and, of course, the Taj Mahal. Palace-fort fatigue set in. Plus, we battled many touts and tuk-tuk drivers, sometimes unsuccessfully. That means we visited a carpet shop, a marble shop (we had a good laugh about the idea of buying and lugging around a piece of marble), and some other places escaping memory at this point, thankfully. We held firm and bought nothing, eventually regretting not buying a miniature backgammon set that started out at 1500 rupees, and went down to 200 (a couple bucks), as we walked further and further away from the guy. (From then on we were obessed with getting one, and kept looking for another without success until we got to Udaipur, where we paid 1000 rupees. That's how it goes sometimes.) All of these sites were pretty incredible, but it's too boring (maybe more for us than you) to show all the pics, so here's some of each place.

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At the Red Fort we posed on one of the thrones, and an Indian tourist asked us to take a picture for him. We agreed, of course, but made him pose, just like Will had to...that's just how we roll sometimes:

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To get to the Taj and the Baby Taj, we had to cross this bridge. Typical tuk-tuk traffic:

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Here's the Baby Taj. Smaller but beautiful in its own right.

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By the time we got to Fatehpur Sikri, we were a little tired of people pretending to want to show us sites for free, take us places promising no shopping detours, etc., and resolved to ignore anyone who approached...but this guy was a "student," who promised he didn't want any money, that he was just a volunteer at a holy place (there'a mosque there.) So we agreed. Actually he was quite nice but at the end he happened to pass his "uncle's" blanket arrayed with sandstone carvings just so we could see that artisans today continue the heritage. Okay, we did buy a little candle holder. It wasn't too heavy either, considering it was...STONE, AAAAHHHHHH! This is a jali in the mosque complex at Fatehpur, carved from one piece of stone. Amazing craftmanship:

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The Taj Mahal. A tribute to love. What can we say? It is magnificent, much larger than it looks in photos, and was glowing in the late-afternoon sun. It was worth going there even though we were almost crushed by crowds when we made the stupid decision to go into the mausoleum chamber. You've seen the photos of the Taj, but probably not the crowds. This photo only hints at the hordes there:

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The final Mahal is one you won't have seen before:

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This is how they served toast at our hotel. We dubbed the creation "Toast Mahal." Lovely, isn't it? A tribute to the short-lived usefulness of carbs.

From Agra we took a day train to Jaipur, which was uneventful, which is where we spent the last few days with Daphne before she headed back home to her ever-lovin' man, Carlos, enclosed showers, and her plasma TV. Jaipur was also pretty smoggy, and just as touristy as Agra, but touts were slightly less aggressive. All the Indians we met seem to agree that Agra is the worst in that regard. Japiur had a great astronomical instruments site--the Jantar Mantar--which was built by Maharaja Jai Singh II in the early 1700s. This is an outdoors site consisting of various pieces, like sun dials and horoscope instruments, some of which are quite large.

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Jaipur has its own share of palace-fort wonders. Here's the Amber Fort, and a shot of a detail from the Sheesh (mirror) Mahal there, which must have been breath-taking orginally:

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In Jaipur, the guide we hired for the day only fooled us into visiting a "guru"...whose office was in the back of a jewelry shop. Didn't buy anything though, not even the crystal the "guru" said would solve so many problems. Later that night we met a tuk-tuk driver, Ali G...yes, that was really what he decided to call himself, who was quite a cut-up. He didn't want us to pay for the tuk-tuk ride but just to buy him a beer. He was such a character we agreed, and busted a gut with him as they say. He told us a joke about a guy who got a cobra up his rear...well, we'll spare you this one. We related all the fun we'd had with various tuk-tuk drivers wanting us to go to shops and "just look" etc. and he laughed along with us.

The next day we said goodbye to Daphne as she headed off by train to Delhi where she would catch her flight back home, and then we made arrangments for our last couple of weeks in India. We decided we would stay in Rajasthan, and head down to Ranthambhore, a wildlife preserve, to get away from city life, and maybe see a tiger and other animals we don't get to see in the U.S., 'cause they're all extinct back home. We had a pretty good time there, though some bone-jolting rides in the safari vehicles, which are large trucks that have seats in them, and bounce like crazy, especially towards the back. We spent some time with a couple of Indian women who were in their nineties and had some great stories to tell. And we did actually see a tiger once, but it was too far away and moving too quickly for a photo--nonetheless, exciting. Other than the tiger, we managed to see a hyena (we have a shot of its ass as it's walking away, but didn't think it worth posting) and sloth-bear, which are rarely seen, loads of deer and antelope, and, of course, langurs, which were everywhere we went in India. They pose really well, no? (Don't want baksheesh either!)

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It was nice and peaceful in Ranthambhore and we rested up a couple of days there, getting over some colds, our first since leaving home. Bundi was our next stop, as we made our way to Udaipur. Bundi is still not overly touristy, but that probably won't last too long, as they're working on changing that. Plus, it's in Lonely Planet as a good place to go...

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During our stay there was an important Sikh festival, celebrating the birth of the religion's founder, that was fun to watch as the processions went by:

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Will met these guys who wanted their photo taken, so we feel we should share it with the world...

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It's a small city...that also has a fort-palace complex. Here's a shot of it from the streets below it:

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Our time there also coincided with Bundi festival, created to promote tourism, and that was a kind of wacky. It started out by the Palace gates with various dignitaries making pujas (offerings), and groups of dancers and drummers. From there a long procession of floats interspersed with dancers and drummers, some camels and horses, and an elephant, went through the streets of Bundi. The noise was deafening as each of the groups blared their own music, but it added to whole experience. Some of the floats had "scenes" of events we are ignorant of. There was one that had a mechanical papier-mache dog that lifted its leg and peed on a dead guy underneath him. Clearly a bad guy, but we never found out who. (It's hard to see the pee in the photo otherwise we'd put it in, as we liked it a lot.) Will took this photo of some Rajasthani costumed drummers outside the palace gates and had to give them money for it...so you're going to look at them now so we get our money's worth:

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Here are more shots of the festival:

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We did take a little tour with a guy from the hotel we stayed at, and saw the fort-palace as well as one of the 50 or so step-wells Bundi has. These are deep wells with "steps" that circle down, which were built by the Maharajas so commoners could have easy access to water. The one we saw was the biggest and very impressive.

From Bundi we continued south and west to Bassi, and stayed in a modest, restored fort palace. Sounds grander than it was, but it was quiet, and it had an enclosed shower. From there we visited...another fort-palace complex at nearby Chittaurgarh. Fort-palace fatigue should seem more than understandable by now. There were two large towers there, in addition to a complex of buildings in not so great condition spread over an area, on a plateau overlooking Chittaurgarh. We especially liked the detail of the woman peeking out from above and looking down.

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After Bassi, we had a really crazy taxi driver who took us to Ranakpur, a quiet area with another nature preserve, that is north and west of Udaipur. The driver alternated between loud, gaping yawns, deep-felt sighs, and looking at us and laughing while he asked if everything was okay. Probably because he nearly killed us a couple of times. He asked for a photo to be taken of him and for some reason got all serious for it.

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Ranakpur and the area around is bucolic, quiet and hilly, and is an area we would definitely go back to. We got a tour of the local animal preserve by our hotel owner who also happened to be the preserve manager. Alas, no leopards were spotted that day. We saw some Jain temples there, one of which was spectacular as it had hundreds of uniquely carved columns inside:

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There are many small stepwells around the area of Ranakpur, that farmers use for agriculture, typically with cows and waterwheels:

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Yikes! This is long. That's what happens when we have free and easy internet access. Conciseness goes out the door. Getting near the end though. Whew!

Our next to last stop was Udaipur, a city built around several man-made lakes. This is where the Lake Palace is, which is where most people want to stay. We didn't as it was tooooo expensive. This is it, where we didn't stay, and how it looked at night from our hotel:

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Nice, huh? This is also where Octopussy was filmed, which for some reason remains a plug for many places in town, who advertise nightly showings of it. We wanted to go, but somehow never did. Roger Moore's mug has lost some of it's luster for us.

There is a city palace...which we did go and see. The rooms have various displays, often with life-size photo cardboard cut-outs of historical figures. We liked this sign inside quite a bit; it's everyone's favorite Hindu god:

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To finish with Udaipur, here's sunset from our hotel. Ooooh!:

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Our last stop was Mumbai. We left 48 hours before the killings and hostage-taking and so count ourselves very lucky. We stayed in the area where it all took place, and visited a few of the places targeted. We have no other comment than to wonder how we can make the world a different place, so people don't feel they have to resort to violence to be heard. (Thanks Arundhati Roy.)

On a lighter note, we giggled at this item on the menu at our hotel. If someone can figure out what it means, let us know.

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We actually kind of liked Mumbai. It's a big city, with lots of traffic but has a good feeling to it. We won't give the blow-by-blow of what we did, but we finally did get to the cinema for a flick. Not Bollywood (ridiculous aren't we?), as the new James Bond one was there, and having missed Octopussy, we had to see it. Wasn't so hot. But you do get reserved seats which was cool, and we all stood for the Indian national anthem before the show. We did go to the house where Gandhi lived when he was there, which has been turned into a kind of museum, and felt spiritually renewed there. Given the recent violence, it seems appropriate that we ended our travels in India with his plea to Hitler to reconsider his ultimate course of action.

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See you in Thailand!

Posted by cleichter 21:34 Archived in India Comments (0)

Nepal

Manasulu circuit trek and the non-trek circuit (aka the highs and the lows of Nepal)

When we got to Nepal after our diving extravaganza in Egypt, we sadly realized that because of Carina's injured ankles, she shouldn't go on the trek and risk more damage to her tendons. This was very upsetting for both of us since this was a part of the trip we were both really looking forward to. The decision that we made together was for me to join Daphne on the trek as we couldn't send her off alone, while Carina would try to make other plans and then regroup in Kathmandu before travelling together in India. In hindsight, we should have made the decision earlier to cancel the trek and give Daphne enough of a warning so that she could decide what she wanted to do. As it was, we basically decided the night before the trek was to begin with the manager of the company. It all felt a bit rushed and of course upsetting and weird and worrisome to know that I'd be leaving Carina alone. I think the entire trek was filled with the very mixed emotions of enjoying some moments of it and at the same time feeling bad that Carina couldn't be there to share it.

Rather than give a long narrative of the trek, I thought it would be more interesting to share some pictures from different moments along the trail. The trek took around twenty days to complete, and I would divide the time between three distinct sections of the loop around Manasulu Himal: the week and a half hike up the steep river valley to higher altitudes, the week at altitude and the crossing of the Larkya Pass, and the final days of descending via the Annapurna circuit trail. The first week was a difficult one because the weather was extremely hot and humid, and it rained almost every day for the first week and a half. Eesh. I was surprised to learn that the altitude at the beginning of the circuit was only around 200 meters: we had a lot of ascending to do. Another challenge of this particular circuit trek is that the terrain doesn't gain altitude steadily; instead, you go up and down (jokingly referred to as the "Nepalese flats" by our head guide) many times during the day. Beautiful terrain, though, and quite different from the return side of the circuit.

A typical day would start with one of the kitchen staff serving us our wake-up tea by our tents. After dressing, we would sit in our dining tent and be served a hearty breakfast of porridge, chapati, eggs, etc. The first week, we spent most of the day hiking, because we weren't at altitude and needed to gain a lot of ground. Something that struck me about this trek was that at no point (except briefly at the pass) were we away from any kind of settlement. The trail was always filled with villagers and their animals, travelling up and down the route. It was always amazing to see people farming and herding animals at very high and seemingly inhospitable areas. Lunch was always a welcome respite for us, but it meant more cooking for our kitchen crew. After the afternoon portion of hiking, we would usually roll into our camp site, already set up by the porters, and would sit down to my favorite moment: tea and cookies. Then we had time to write in our journals, play cards, hide in our tents, or tend to our washing and laundry, before eating dinner at 8-ish, then sleep. A simple existence made so by the hard work of the porters and kitchen staff.

Here are some moments from the three weeks.

This is a shot Daphne took of me talking to Purba, a Sherpa who functioned as a sherpa. We learned that the word means both an ethnic origin and the function of mountain guide/porter. This was during the first week of the trek on a particularly enjoyable part of the trail above the river valley below (and a rare moment of clearer skies). We spent many days gaining and losing ground to the river, the Budi Gandaki, and crossing it on suspension bridges many times.

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This was a common site on the trail, especially at higher altitudes where more Sherpa lived. They alone herded the yaks we saw on the trail. Also, many villagers use burrows to haul loads up and down the trail.

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This is a shot of faithful Gyanendra, our motherly head guide, taking care of a little blister I developed during the first week. Daphne braved a bad respiratory ailment over the first week, and here she's undergoing a Gyanendra special: head under a towel suckin' in the clove oil fumes. She said it helped. Something else we encountered on this wetter portion of the trail, were leaches. They attach themselves to your boot then work their way up to your leg where they suck the blood right outta ya! Daphne and Gyanendra were plagued by them for two of the days. Yuckie!

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This is a shot of some of our kitchen staff at one the lunch stops. Because this was a camping trek, meaning there often weren't tea houses available for sleeping, we often ate lunch outside on a tarp. This was one of the times we made use of a house in a village. These guys were incrediblely young and fit. They would make us three meals a day and would run ahead of us on the trail to be sure to be at the camp site before we arrived. From left to right are Chatra, Mona and Subey (not pictured is Dhana, our head cook, whom we really grew to respect).

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We passed the eastern flanks of Manasulu before we reached the high pass. Manasulu is one of the fourteen +8,000m peaks in the world. Many teams were higher up at the base camps making their summit bids. This has always been known as the Japanese mountain since they were the first to climb it in the '50's after Hillary and Norgay did Everest. Apparently, Manasulu holds the same kind of mystique and awe for the Japanese, as Everest holds for us. We were blessed with a window of clear weather on this morning to take some photos of the summit before the noon clouds socked it in.

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This is a shot of our porters. I was embarrassed when the trekking company manager told us before we left that we would have a total staff of two guides, five kitchen workers and 12 porters....for two people...ridiculous. The upside was that we were employing these guys. The porter issue is somewhat controversial for westerners because it feels like exploitation. They carry big-ass loads and are compensated, by our standards, with minimal pay. However, Gyanendra told me that many of the porters are farmers in their villages, and that during this time of year, after the harvest, supplement their income by portering. He made a point of telling me that they want the work and actually not happy with folks who are self-sufficient on the trail. We gave them what I considered to be excellent tips after the trek. I also loved the fact that the trekking company made sure they had fairly decent (and matching) Gore-tex clothing for the colder, higher altitudes. This shot was taken at a village called Samdo, which was just two days before our crossing the high pass. Our porters were Rup Badu, Maan Badu, Ed Badu, Mahan Badu, Sher Badu, Mongal Badu, Sushil Badu and Narayan. Badu means "strong" in Nepalese.

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This is a panorama shot I took on our acclimitization day at Samdo. We stayed there an extra day to help our bodies prepare for the altitude of the pass. That day I decided to go with one of our kitchen staff-turned guide to hike up the ridge of one of the smaller peaks to get this beautiful view of the Manasulu massif and the Larkya pass. From this perspective on the ridge, we are actually quite close to the Chinese border. This was a nice moment that I wished Carina were sharing with me. The peaks in order from left to right are: Himal Chuli, Peak 29, Manasulu, Larke peak, and to the right, the Larkya Pass, we were are headed.

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It snowed the night before we headed up to the pass and we did the classic pre-dawn start. This shot is of me...taking a much needed rest on the way to the pass after the sun had risen above the other peaks.

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The prayer flags were our signal that we had finally reached the pass. This is a shot of us with Gyanendra and Purba enjoying the moment before heading down the other side of the pass towards the Annapurnas and our completion of the trek in the following week. This was by far our toughest day. We topped out at 4,930m (16,269ft). Our elevation gain for the day was 470m (1,651ft) and loss 1,340m (4,422ft) on the "backside."

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I added my little stone to this cairn in an emotional moment of reaching this beautiful place and not having Carina there to enjoy it with me...difficult. I took a stone from the site back for her...don't tell anyone.

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So here's Carina's posting:

That I was pretty bummed about not being able to do the trek is an understatement, as it's something I've wanted to do since I was teen, plus I had over three weeks till Will and Daphne got back, and couldn't do much walking. I decided to try to rest my tendons as much as possible and focus on "acceptance."

Kathmandu (and much of the valley) is quite a congested place, and the area our hotel was in, Thamel, was as touristy as could be. Navigating the streets is a challenge, as they're narrow, and there's tons of pedestrians, motorbikes, rickshaws, and cars. Thamel is party central at night, so lots of live bands, mainly playing the classics--think: "Sweet Child o' Mine." Even though Nepalis are mainly Hindus, it does a attract a large portion of tourists who are Buddhist wannabes, which must explain why every shop plays the exact same CD of the Om Mani Padmi Om mantra. I'm sad to say I grew to cringe every time I heard it. I'll never be able to meditate again... I'd like to say something positive about Thamel...but I can't.

Anyhow, I tried arranging a few trips that would have been awesome--a horse trek to the less-visited Kingdom of Mustang, and a trip to Bhutan, but both fell through. At this point I was pretty much losing my mind in Thamel, and arranged a car and driver to take me on a trip to few places in Nepal. Razu, my driver, was absolutely great, but spoke rarely. (After about two days in the car with him, he finally spoke, saying as we drove through the outskirts of a small city, "Madam, this is a city." Thankfully I was making a little movie with the camera at that very moment so I captured the whole dialogue.) I would insert some pics of my trip here, but somehow we sent those home already...It's fitting as most of my time in Nepal I felt kind of cursed, what with every travel plan I tried to make disintegrating.

I saw some beautiful views of the Himalayas, and Annapurnas from a mountaintop place in Daman, south of Kathmandu, that was extremely peaceful and restorative. After that I spent a couple of days at a wacky stay at a lodge in a nature reserve. I knew it would be bizarre as the manager's orientation speech included his telling us that the schedule of activities was packed tight so we wouldn't get bored, as we probably wouldn't see much wildlife. I spent a lot of time laughing with other guests while I was there. Our schedule included: early morning elephant safari, canoe trip, elephant bathing, elephant safari, and then...movieshow!

The elephant safaris (I never would have gone to the lodge if I had known this was in store) were silly--nothing to see, and a lot of foliage hitting you in your face if you're not watching, plus there's four people on each elephant, sitting cheek to cheek so to speak. The canoe trip? Thought this would be fun. We floated downstream while two guys poled to steer through the shallow water. Wonder what elephant bathing is like? Now I know. People climb onto the elephant who is in a shallow stream, and elephant is commanded to spray water on them. Needless to say everyone was a bit surprised by this one, as for some reason, we all thought elephant bathing would involve the elephant being bathed. Go figure. And then..."movieshow." I skipped it both nights, which was just as well as both times it was in Nepali. I do have to say, to be fair, I did see two rhinos in the stream, which was exciting, but no tigers, which are what people hope to see in this park. We found out our last day there, that in this lodge the last tiger sighting was about 2 years ago. The stay there is something I'll remember with a smile.

After my nature experience, we drove further west and south across the Terai, a wide plain in southern Nepal (and northern India), to reach Lumbini, the place Buddha is believed to have been born. It's an interesting site, quite large, and not yet finished. A Japanese lansdscape architect designed the place about twent years ago, and it's still being completed, and will be lovely when done. The government of Nepal has given plots of lands to different countries to build their own temples, and some are finished, so it's an interesting assortment of styles. I hired a guide and spent a few hours there, learning details about Buddha and Buddhism, and giving psychotherapeutic advice to the guide who wanted to help his good friend through a bad time. Wil managed to get a call through after trying for a few days on the way down from the pass, and we arranged to meet up in my next destination, as I still had a couple days left on my itinerary.

We had a very long day's drive north through more stunning mountains, with beautiful valleys and gorges, and few inhabitants for the most part as much of the area has steep hillsides, and reached Pokhara, a lakeside town in the foothills of the Annapurnas. The next day Will arrived and we had a joyous reunion. Will got his beard shaved off and had a massage in the chair by the barber that wasn't up to his expectations but was funny for me to watch.
After a day in Pokhara, we started heading back east to Kathmandu, stopping for the night at Bandipur, a medieval village, that we both enjoyed visiting. Scenic views of the mountains to our north, and a valley below that was swallowed in mist in the morning. Then back to the dreaded Kathmandu where we met up with Daphne and had a farewell Nepal dinner at a nice French restaurant, before leaving for...India!

Posted by cleichter 01:30 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Return to Egypt

Our ferry across the Red Sea from Jordan got us to land pretty late. We had thought we'd be able to get a taxi from there to our destination, Dahab, but as it was around 11:30 at night, none could be found. Luckily there was a bus there heading south, and we negotiated a price to take us to our hotel. Now having had some experience with prices being changed at the last minute we made sure to each ask a couple of times if this price included taking us to our hotel...The bus was loaded with yappy tourists heading south, mainly to Sharm El Sheikh, the mega draw for most tourists. We got to Dahab and the bus conductor told us to get off and transfer to a taxi as the bus could not navigate the small streets of Dahab, and that we should pay the taxi driver more money. It had been a long day and journey, and that probably explains in part why Carina went a little off on the bus guy, telling him we wouldn't pay any more. Don't need to go into any more details...she just got quiet after a bit....and the bus guy ended up paying the taxi driver (as was right!) Our hotel, the Red Sea Relax, was decent, and had been recommended by someone we had met while snorkelling in Zanzibar. We checked in around 2 a.m. and went straight to bed.

Dahab is a very touristy place, consisting of a beach strip of restaurants and shops, and a so-so beach. (Actually not so much beach, but the water was great.) Will likened the strip to the Jersey shore, but then it seems he thinks a few places are like that. Amazingly, it's possible to meet friendly locals every five feet or so, as they eagerly want to engage in cultural exchange. This kind of exchange is where you give them your money and they give you a meal at their restaurant, or some clothing from their shop, or a trip via camel, jeep, boat etc.

Somehow we weren't feeling that friendly all of the time, and so decided we would do some snorkelling as the Red Sea has lots of great reefs. We ended up at one of the famous sites, the Blue Hole, about a half hour away, and had some of the best snorkelling so far--incredible coral and lots of fish. We had made the trip with a group of divers, and by the time we got back, we started talking to the dive shop at our hotel. It didn't hurt that they were having a 2 for 1 special. Plus Carina had injured her achilles tendons a few weeks and was hobbbling a bit, so we figured the course would be a good way to rest her ankles. So...that's how we ended up getting certified as Open Water divers over the next three days. Woo-hoo! We're just happy-go- lucky, foot-loose and fancy-free. (When we heard that India was sending a rocket to the moon, we started thinking about becoming astronauts, but that'll be another trip.) Spending our time taking the course meant we didn't get to see more diving sites, but we were excited to think of including more dives on the rest of the trip so it was worth it. We spent our time studying our manuals and practicing our diving skills, and negotiating the strip to eat dinner at night.

These are the only two pictures we took in Dahab!! Shame on us!!

They're both of a well-known site called the Blue Hole. If you look in one of the shots, you can see the lighter-colored reef that forms the circular, deep "hole." Very nice. You could also ride camels here...wee!

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Next stop...Nepal trek!

Posted by cleichter 00:56 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Jordan

We realized we needed to get out of Cairo to maintain our sanity and because the India visa took so much time, we had to change our original plan which was to go to Alexandria and the Siwa Oasis. Thinking on our feet, we made a last-minute decision to travel to Jordan to see Petra and the Wadi Rum. We flew to the capital Amman, to begin a three-day car trip with Ibrahim, our new favorite driver and all-around solid Jordanian. "Okay, Boss?" Turns out his brother opened a chain of gas stations in California, is likely wealthy, invited Ibrahim to visit a few years ago. In the space of four months, Ibrahim drove through thirty some odd states and fell in love with Las Vegas seafood buffets. Our country rocks!!!

Our first full day was in the ancient sandstone city of Petra which you access via a narrow gorge called a siq (see one of the Indiana Jones movies for reference purposes). This opens dramatically onto the treasury building (misnamed because it held no money, much to the chagrin of looters who attempted to shoot open the giant urns atop), which is carved out of the sandstone wall.

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Besides all of the architecture, what really stands out are the amazing colors of the stone itself. Many of the buildings are the tombs of wealthy Nabateans, the people who originally inhabited the place.

From there, we drove south through the country to the Wadi Rum desert. This was made famous for many Westerners by T.E. Lawrence's exploits there...you know, Lawrence of Arabia? Like the cool desert. We went on a sunset tour of part of the desert via pickup truck with a Bedouin family. They were absolutely great, spoke no English, but spoke the universal language of love. At one point, Dad got out and let Junior drive the truck in a display of fatherly pride. The kid was eight years old and held his own despite barely clearing the dash. We won't go into detail but there was one horrifying moment when we watched Junior flooring it in reverse narrowly missing a standstone wall (we weren't in the truck at this point). Despite this, Dad was clearly trusting of him and remained calm. It really made us think of the difference in child-rearing practices across cultures. Oh yeah, Dad even trusted Will enough to drive the truck. Here's a few pics of the scenery.

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The funny part was that once the tour was over, Dad drove 50 mph in the shifting sands to get back home in time to break the fast at sundown. It was still Ramadan and people are eager to eat as soon as they can. The landscape was beautiful and it's a place we would both love to return to for more exploring. Later that evening, we had the odd experience of sleeping out in one of the several tourist "camps" that dot the desert. These are Bedouin-like camps where bus loads of mostly European tourists spend the evening having a meal and sleep in a canvas tent. A somewhat bizarre experience, but beautiful desert stars.

We liked our Bedouin driver so much that we decided to book a camel ride with him for the morning. The setting was stunning, the animals hungry and mostly docile, our asses stunning, but painful. Hut, hut, hut!

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We sadly drove to the port of Aqaba where we spent the day buying daggers and eating the local cuisine before embarking on a very long evening of travel consisting of ferry, bus and taxi, across the Red Sea to Dahab, Egypt.

Posted by cleichter 04:39 Archived in Jordan Comments (0)

Egypt

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Well, we’ve been delayed again in writing this blog for a variety of reasons which we’ll get to in future entries. We finally made it to India and are traveling through Varanasi and Agra. We apologize to all those waiting for our entries.

So, Egypt. Well, it started out alright. We flew from Turkey to Cairo and then to Luxor to start our week-long Nile cruise aboard a dahabiya, called the Lazuli, which is a reproduction of a 19th century sailing vessel that has a shallow draft. Kind of swanky, and quieter than the massive, motorized cruise ships carting very white Danish people up and down the river.

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The first good bit of news was that because we were there at the beginning of their season, we were the only ones aboard the entire boat (normally holds about 12 passengers). The bad news is that it was 40,000 degrees Kelvin in Egypt during that part of the season. We also got upgraded to a cabin in the stern which had, for want of a better word, a back porch close to the water. Nice.

Basically, we spent each day visiting temples that line the river, like Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae. At first, seeing these temples, especially Karnak, proved to be a mind boggling experience, but after awhile, it’s embarrassing to say, we found ourselves getting a little templed-out. Ancient temple? Who cares. One thing we loved was the amount of graffiti on the walls of the temples. Over the centuries, people who visited found the need to write that “they were there,” Napoleon’s Army, a notable example. One of our favorites was one that a Roman with a bone to pick scrawled in one of the temple pillars: “B. Mure stultus est” meaning B. Mure is stupid. Poor guy. Forever known to history as being a dummy.

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Sadly, Will, in his obsessive desire to “organize,” deleted the photo card that held most of these pictures. When we reached Aswan, we decided last minute to take the short flight south to see Abu Simbel, Ramses II’s (the rock star of Egypt’s pharaohs) massive temple complex that consists of his own and his wife, Nefertari’s monuments. His is the more impressive of the two, of course. The amazing thing was that when they built the Aswan Dam, Abu Simbel was going to be submerged by a rising Lake Nasser. In the 60s, several nations carved the thing up into blocks and moved it uphill. It lends the site a slightly artificial feel, but it was still impressive.

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Aswan was our turning-around point, and we headed back "down" the Nile to Luxor. On the way, Will decided to swim in the river with some of the crew. It was fun for Carina because the crew was underwear-clad. Because Will was already taking massive amounts of anti-bacterials to fight the "Pharoah's Revenge," it was deemed safe. The water was surprisingly refreshing and fast-flowing. Overall, the cruise experience was very pleasant, the crew and guide very friendly, despite the fact that it was Ramadan and they had to fast until sunset.

After staying in Luxor for another couple days, we headed up to Cairo in an overnight train which was fun. And then....CAIRO!!!! Holy s&*t!!!!! CAIRO!!!!! Insane. Too much. Too long. Too hot. Too dusty. We know we're being complain-y here, but it wasn't our favorite place. Perhaps we had been on the road a bit long at that point and maybe would have had a great time with a native Cairene. Walking through town and traffic is a real treat. At the pyramids, Will experienced the final melt down after we were propositioned for the 567th time to buy postcards, ride a camel, see someone's shop, just look at a carpet, ride in a taxi, have a tour of the city, etc.

Unfortunately, we needed to stay there much longer than we would have wanted because we needed to get our visa to India which required four days processing time. Plus, the "Revenge" continued to work its magic on Will, so a lot of time was spent in the safety of hotel rooms. Ahhhh. Silver lining: the best Peking Duck we've had in years. The hell with you, GI system.

More silver linings to follow in our next entry. Our trip to Jordan. Ah, Jordan.

Posted by cleichter 21:22 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Turkey

First, apologies to those who have been waiting for this update...we've done a lot of travelling in this beautiful country, and haven't had access to high-speed connections when we would have liked. Second, that means we went a little crazy with the photos, so if you have a slow connection, this one might be agony.

On to Turkey!

We love this place--incredibly warm people, gorgeous scenery, and unbelievably good food. We started our trip here in İstanbul, the city that is the crossroads of East and West--literally. A very cosmopolitan place, it instantly reminded us of New York, with its cafe culture and lively street scene. Home to the famous Aya Sofya Church (eventually redone as a mosque) and the Blue Mosque, built with an eye to outdoing the Aya Sofya. Both of them were stupendous--massive yet very airy feeling inside them. We took many more pics of them, but you can easily find more yourself. This is just a taste...

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Another interesting, unusual site is the Basilica Cistern, which they have lit with groovy ambient lighting. This was actually used to supply the area with water starting aroun 1500 years ago.. It lay derelict for some time, and now there's carp aswimming in it. We ended up having çay in the little cafe down there. Very atmospheric!

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Throughout Turkey, shop owners and staff have lunch and çay delivered from nearby places, carried on trays usually by boys. This is a place we happened upon and had some yummy köfte (like a seasoned meatball bt shaped differently). In this shot, you can see a tray of food being readied for delivery.

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The next day we headed off to the Chora Church (AKA Kariye Muzesi) , which has some of the most beautiful frescoes we have seen.

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After wandering around İstanbul the next couple of days, checking out various neighborhoods, including the one in Beyoğlu, across the Golden Horn, called Tünel, which is where all the young'uns drink beer and eat mezes, we got our rental car and headed westwards, across the Dardanelles. Will drove the whole way through Turkey, being the only one who can driive manual, and by the end had logged over 4,500 km! Turkey's drivers have a bad reputation but Will handled the roads like a native, passing every car and truck he could!

From Gallipoli, we took the ferry to Canukkale, and headed to Troy, along the Aegean coast. Frankly, it didn't excite us that much...There's something like 7 layers of settlements that have been uncovered there, and that makes it a little disjointed. Didn't merit including a pic...From there, we continued a marathon day, making our way to Assos, one of many archaelogical sites that dot the country. We stumbled across a beach and motel not in the guidebooks about half an hour away, and liked it so much we spent a couple of days there. You can see Lesvos, the huge Greek İsland, and the Ergul, our 'home', here:

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After enjoying ourselves swimming in the Aegean, we moved on and went up to the Acropolis at Assos, a comparatively small site, but with beautiful views..and maybe Aristotle lived there...we can't seem to remember. Google it if you want. This is the nicely restored Temple of Athena:

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Our trajectory down the coast would visit more ancient sites. That day we continued on to Bergama, the ancient Pergamum. The town Bergama is now below the acropolis and was quite vibrant. Will got his first Turkish haircut which includes a complimentary burning of ear hairs with what appeared to be a large Q-tip dipped in petrol. They take their facial hair removal seriously here. Thankfully, nasal hairs do not appear to be culturally significant. Anyway, there are two major sites around the town, the Asclepion, one of the first healing arts centers of ancient times (Galen was born and practised here), and the Acropolis, the old city that stood atop the hill. The site is quite large and we got a better sense of the relationship of all structures (from the top of the hill you can still see remnants of the aquaduct system in the surrounding fields). This is a shot of the Temple of Trajan. The picture unfortunately doesn't do justice to the scale of the columns:

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Continuing on to Selçuk, the gateway town to seeing the Roman city, Ephesus, which is the darling of the Turkish tour bus circuit. The site is undeniably massive and quite intact, giving you a sense of what daily city life may have been. However, the hordes of tourists and intense summer heat made the experience less than stellar. Hence, our choice for Ephesus photo of the week (we omitted the oft-photographed Library of Celsus):

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Later that day, we escaped the heat by going to a nearby beach, frequented by locals and devoid of tourists. The next day we headed East about four hours to first stop at Afrodisias before ending up in Pamukkale. Afrodisias turned out to be our favorite ancient ruin. There were so many well-preserved structures, few tourists and the opportunity to see some incredible decorative art in the museum there. At most of the sites, all of the good stuff was taken by the Germans...or the British...or thieves. This is a shot of the 30,000 seat stadium that is amazingly intact and said to be one of the largest of its kind in the world.

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There are two agora. The south one had a 200 meter long pool in the center that was partly excavated. Around the agora, the columns originally had these theatre masks decorating the perimeter.

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Could this be Apollo? Let us know.

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That night we arrived in Pamukkale, an ancient, as well as contemporary, tourist town. This town is known mostly for its travertine pools fed by springs from the top of the mountain. Sadly, due to overuse and a lack of protection the past few decades, they ain't what they used to be. There is much less water and the rocks are dirty from people's stinky little feet. In the old days, people could bathe and climb about the pools. Those photos are in every Turkish calendar in every kebap restaurant in the world. This photo does it some justice.

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At the top of the walk past the travertine pools, is Hierapolis, an extensive Roman city built to take advantage of the thermal pools. The big tourist attraction is the Antique Pool, which has submerged columns and costs 18 euros to swim in along with 10,000 other tourists. Weird. We skipped it and opted for scorching heat and a hike through the necropolis among other areas. While Carina was exploring the extensive set of hillside graves, Will was vomiting his breakfast on the ancient stones, but still managed to get this shot of a sarcophagus (flesh eater) encased in the travertine.

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After more barfing and followed by eventual recovery the next day, we set off due south towards the Mediterannean coast to the town of Fethiye. Here's a shot of the landscape on the way there:

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Fethiye is one of the departure harbors for the twelve island cruise...which we thought we were going to get when we booked a boat. Let's just say thirteen Italians took over the boat and as they were only going for two nights, we eventually realized on day three that we were never going to go far from Fethiye. Despite this, and a captain who was rendered a sniveling baby after our mild criticism of his decision-making skills, we were able to experience a bit of what the cruise was all about...probably saw two the twelve islands and boy were they nice! Beautiful swimming, okay meals and a stinking hot cabin that made us retire nightly to the deck for cooler sleeping.

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Returning to shore and our trusty Renault Symbol, we continued travelling east following the 'Turquoise Coast' to our destination of Cirali, a small beach town near Olympos. The coast was stunning and we got glimpse of some of the islands we missed on our cruise. This whole area was inhabited by the Lycians during the time when Turkey was made up of city states (post Hittite...i.e., old). We visited one Lycian site along the coast that had amazingly intact burial chambers built into the faces of cliffs. It also had an amphitheatre that was well-preserved.

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In Cirali, we chilled for a couple of days. The swimming was great, but just so you're not too jealous you had to wear flip-flops to navigate the rocky beach.

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One of the dishes that you see advertised by many roadside stops is gözleme. We finally tried this at a local lokanta. An older woman made them fresh in front of us. It's basically a kind of pancake that can be filled with cheese, meat, vegetables or honey or jam. Mm, mm, mm. By the way, almost every entree was delivered with a variation of the traditional tomato and cucumber salad.

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Carrie, the woman who ran the hotel with her husband, told us that if we got up at sunrise, we might be able to see loggerhead turtles hatching from their sandy nests. Because they're endangered, a conservation group monitors the nests each morning during the hatching season and assists the hatchlings by clearing away sand for the ones who haven't made it out by sunrise. No other intervention is applied. We got lucky and saw a group instinctively make its way to the sea. It was one of the highlights. Thank God Carina convinced Will to get up at dawn.

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The next portion of our trip centered on seeing villages and sites inland to the north and east. First stop, Konya, home of the mystical poet Rumi and the Sema (the whirling dervish ceremony). Here's a shot out of our hotel window overlooking the town's bazaar.

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The Mevlana Museum used to be the center for the Mevlevi, the followers of Rumi. He is buried here and many pilgrims come here to see the site and to pray for his help.

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You know what this is. Ataturk outlawed the order in the early part of last century as part of his secular reform of the country. Some of the orders managed to survive on a technicality, and so we were able to see a Sema--the rite of union with God. We found the experience to be magical despite its public context.

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We too were shocked by the size of this Döner kebap. These things are everywhere in the country.

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From Konya we drove over the vast Anatolian steppe on our way to Cappadocia. We stopped to get gas by accident at a station that only supplied diesel and LPG for the farmers. The attendant, Süleyman (the Magnificent) was incredibly hospitable and offered us çay and conversation. We exchanged picture taking and eventually sent him this photo. Nice guy. By the way, gas is most expensive in Turkey out of the European countries, it cost us approx. 100 dollars to fill the tank of our compact 4-cylinder sedan. Yikes. Kind of like California and the rest of the United States by now probably...too bad that Iraq thing didn't work out. Alaska anyone?

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Anyway, on the way we stopped at a very large, old and intact Seljuk caravanserai (aka hans in urban sites). These are inns that were built approx. 30 kilometres or a day's camel travel along the Silk Route--where the animals and drivers could rest up and get food and trade.

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Cappadocia, land of cave churches and houses, fairy chimneys and underground cities, was an incredible place and we realized we wanted to come back again because we only scratched the surface of the area. It was formed by volcanic ash that was later eroded by water and wind. The other nice thing about Cappadocia, or at least our inn, was that it was visited by our country's great liberal minds. While we where there, Sen. Chuck Schumer and his family were staying there. Totally low-key. The day we left, our hosts informed us that Howard Dean would be arriving. What is it about this place? The inn where we stayed, the Esbelli Evi, had the most wonderful staff, who were both observant and unobtrusive. The owner makes you feel like you're at home, and the setting is beautiful. Check it out, and go there: http://www.esbelli.com/.

Here are some pics around the area:

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One day we drove to nearby Soğanli valley. We hiked around the valley to look at more cave churches and near the end we were befriended by a family who were there for a picnic. Their daughter hiked up the trail and said hello to us, her only words of English, and once we got down to the road Grandma came to get us for çay. We communicated with sign language, but it was sufficient to enjoy their hospitality and have the sense of what friendly, warm people they were. They offered us melon and apricots. From them we learned that you can crack open the pit of an apricot and get a tasty seed.

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On our tour through Turkey we saw many of these colorful apartment complexes, part of the accelerated rate of development in an economy that's strong. Sprawl hits Turkey.

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A photo of the landscape on our way to a town called Kahta:

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Our destination of this drive was ultimately Nemrut Daği, a strange and amazing mountain-top burial site for Antiochus, described in the guide books as a megalomaniacal, pre-Roman king. The site was only discovered in 1881 and excavated in 1953. After arriving at the car park, you have to walk another twenty minutes to the top. The site consists of two large terraces facing east and west for the rising and setting sun. Each are filled with colossal heads that have fallen from their original places due to earthquake. We chose this special place to spend Big Headed Will's 44th birthday.

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From Nemrut, we continued east across the Ataturk dam via car ferry:

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...in route to this lovely hill village, Savur, unspoiled by tourism as of yet. We stayed at a lovely pension owned by the Özturk family which has been in the family over two hundred years. The house was essentially a hilltop mansion and we have since seen pictures of its rooms in different guides. The grandmother of the family was our favorite. She would often have whole conversations with us totally in Turkish. Plus we fell in love with their kitty kat, Minuş. Don't let LB and Buckle see this.

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These are common sights while driving on the roads of Turkey:

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While staying at Savur, we took a day trip to nearby Hasankeyf, a village above the Tigris. Its days are numbered because of a large-scale and controversial dam project which has already swallowed countless historical sites. Talk about your Waterbuster (http://www.waterbuster.org/). Down below you can see the ancient Roman bridge that used to span the river. We had lunch on an elevated platform while the river ran beneath us.

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We now turned west again to see another hill top town called Mardin, known for its religious and cultural diversity. Despite being somewhat touristy, the architecture is lovely. We both liked it more an night when the air was cooler and the lights of the towns below in the Mesopotamian plain were lit up. It still has a working bazaar where we spent time drinking çay with a saddlemaker. Lots of bread shops, too.

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Continuing west, we made our way to Gaziantep crossing the Euphrates. The city is know for its kebaps and baklava, which we sampled several times. It's all good!

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These are dried vegetables that will be stuffed with rice and meat to make dolma, one of our favorite Turkish foods.

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Had to include this one. This was taken at the city's Ethnography museum, essentially an old city mansion. As you can see, Elvis has not left the building. And apparently the mannequin's hands were so deformed they had to be hidden.

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A highlight of Antep is its Mosaic Museum. Much of the collection was salvaged from nearby Zeugma, one of the sites that was flooded by damning. This shot is of the god and goddess of the Euphrates.

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This one is probably the most famous, referred to as the 'gypsy girl,' although some contend that it is the likeness of Alexander the Great. You be the judge.

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We're back in Istanbul for a few days before we leave for Luxor, Egypt. With amazing timing, Will suffered from a bout of the 'Sultan's Revenge' and was laid up in his hotel room while Carina bravely downloaded five zillion photos to this blog. Strangely when she returned, Will had made a mostly full recovery.

Posted by cleichter 03:47 Archived in Turkey Comments (1)

Kenya

Masai Mara Safari

We decided to make our way to the Masai Mara, really just the northern extension of the Serengeti into Kenya, via Nairobi. This turned out to be a great safari for several reasons. Our driver in the Masai Mara, Willy, was a great guide who enjoyed his work and was equally enthused as we were to spot game. Another is that there were fewer cars in this part of the park, and Willy was able to get much closer to some of the game.

WARNING: There are blood and guts in these photos!

We stayed at a tented camp, called Kichwa Tembo. Very swank. The routine was morning and evening game drives separated by down time, which could include swimming in the pool next to the resident wart hogs who liked to hang out there, too:

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We saw lots of cats up close:

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This is a serval, which is a smaller cat that we were lucky in seeing on his/her morning hunt:

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We also saw mothers and their young:

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One of the big reasons we came here was to see the migration. Each day we were there, the plains filled up with the wildebeest and zebra that had journeyed from Tanzania. Many people come to the Masai Mara to see the animals crossing the Mara river to get to other grassy plains and watch the drama that ensues:

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In this shot of a crossing, you'll notice a crocodile in the path of the lead zebra. We watched as it attempted to drag down the baby, but the latter was successful in crossing. Others weren't as lucky of course, and we witnessed several wildebeest young being pulled under and eventually eaten by hordes of crocs.

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The migration also means more food for the predators. We saw many lions with full bellies and many kill remains that were being picked through by vultures, eagles and jackals. We were fortunate to have arrived just after these kills:

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Some of the "small stuff" is interesting here, too. Many species of birds and small mammals and these fellows crossing the road, "safari ants":

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Posted by cleichter 00:47 Archived in Kenya Comments (2)

Tanzania

Northern Circuit Safari

We wanted to keep the post short and just show some pictures we took on the Northern Circuit. We had a driver/guide and a cook for the week-long trip, and covered several different national game parks in the northeast part of Tanzania: Arusha NP, Tarangire NP, Serengeti NP, and Ngorogoro Crater. We loved all of the parks and each one is quite different in terms of climate and animal populations.

The migration of wildebeest and zebra had happened a bit early this year, so we didn't see the vast hordes of animals we were expecting in Serengeti. Most of the animals were already near the Tanzania/Kenya border and working their way to the Masai Mara. We eventually decided to go there to have the experience of seeing the migration and weren't disappointed. Post to follow.

These shots were taken in Arusha NP. We had an armed park ranger, Rehema, take us on a game walk through a small section of the park. The only time she wielded her Kalashnikov was while approaching the water buffalo. These are apparently the most unpredictable and aggressive animals out there. She happily informed us that she had to shoot one in the head because it refused to stand down. Luckily, the herd was quite diffident.

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This photo was taken at Tarangire NP. A little hotter and dryer, but still some vegetation.

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These photos were all taken in the Serengetti. This lion was near the entrance of the park. Incredible to see it immediately like that:

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We did a camping safari, which meant that we drove in Land Cruiser through the parks with our guide/driver, Robert, and then would return to various camps along the way to eat and sleep, then repeat the next day. This shot is of our camp in the Serengeti. We heard hyena and lion outside each night, ooooo:

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We were informed by Robert that we were very lucky to have seen this leopard because of their stealthy nature. We spent some time watching him slowly move toward a group of distant gazelle. He seems vaguely interested in hunting, but he eventually dropped off his pursuit.

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The reality of game drives is that they can be a circus of vehicles, especially when a leopard is spotted and "word gets out." We would often see game along or with one other car, but there were times when the hordes descended (especially when spotting black rhino...another prized sighting).

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This is our guide/driver, Robert (in orange), and Deo, our cook. Both swell guys. Robert used to be a DJ, and Deo taught us a lot of Swahili...poa kama chizi kama ndizi,
cool and crazy like a banana, for instance.

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Posted by cleichter 00:29 Archived in Tanzania Comments (1)

Zanzibar, Tanzania

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We were sad to leave Mocambique, but we hope to go back some day, especially to spend more time in the beautiful northern areas, which are still undeveloped and quite beautiful from what we saw (and heard). We caught a plane to Dar Es Salaam, and then had some tense moments as our flight was delayed, and we had barely enough time to catch the last ferry to Zanzibar. As soon as we left the airport, we hit traffic, so we did our best to relax as our very competent taxi driver weaved in and out of traffic, off-roadfing at times! We made it to the ferry terminal with minutes to spare, and there got ripped off--the firdst time (at least that we know of...), surrounded by the ticket agents yelling "hurrry, hurry," we were overcharged twent dollars. No biggie--we got over it. The ferry took about three hours, so by the time we arrived it was just about dark, so we didn't get a sense of the place till the next day. Zanzibar consists of two islands--one to the north called Pemba (yes, another Pemba), and the main one, more developed that everyone thinks of when they hear Zanzbar. The islands are about 99% Muslim, due to their history of being the center of the Omani empire that stretched down the coast of Africa from Ethiopia to Mocambique. Zanzibar's main attractions are its beaches and the spice tours, both of which we took advantage of.

Many people go to Zanzibar after they safari, however we did it the other way around, not intentionally...Stone Town is the main port town, and the main town on the island, and has some amazing ornately carved woden doors throughout town:

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The town is a maze of windy, narrow streets, and the main drags are filled with touts and any offers to give tours--what a drag. Later we were told these folks are not from Zanzibar, but are drawn here by the chance to work the tourist crowds, which there were plenty of. We were only there a couple of days, and the highlights were two day trips we took---a spice (plantation) tour and a vist to Jozani Forest.

The spice tour we booked (ten bucks each) was with the classic Mr. Mitu's tour. Apparently he was a taxi driver who would give customers tours way back in the sixties, and his business expanded so that it now has a small fleet of minivans. We really enjoyed the tour, which was at a couple of plantations about an hour from town, and saw vanilla beans, peppercorns, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, as well as various fruits, some of which we had never had, like the jackfruit, a relative of breadfruit, but on the sour side. Having a guide means you get to learn things like that nutmeg makes you horny, cardamom is related to orchids, and cloves are the only spice the government controls the price and sale of, because it's the most valuable. After the tour, we got to go to a small beach and had a lovely swim. Here's a pic of the horny spice:

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Jozani Forest is an hour from Stone Town, and is fairly small, but very significant in that it has the only remaining red colobus monkey population on the island. Their numbers shrunk because they like to eat coconuts, and the farmers killed them freely. Ther numbers have grown dramatically since the Forest preserve was created. We managed to see a troop of them up close--unlike vervet monkeys who live there as well but are very shy, the colobus could care less if you are near. One actually jumped into the bush we were next to, completely ignoring us as it snacked on some leaves:

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We took a trip to the northeast coast and had another incredible snorkelling experience, in the waters off Mnembo Atoll. We spent a couple of days at the beach near Matemwe, before heading back to ther mainland, and the start of our SAFARI!

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Oh, it looks like Zanzibaris are known for their political forecasting:

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Posted by cleichter 09:53 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

Pemba

Wimbe Beach and Ibo Island (Quirimbas Archipelago)

Waking up in Pemba the next day, we realized that we were at an aging beach strip called Wimbe Beach. A bit of a letdown since we had read fairly positive things about it. The beach is perfectly beautiful, as is Pemba Bay, but the accomodations available are either 5-star or just tolerable. The strip has a few beach restaurants, vacation homes, one or two hotels, and not much more.

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Another element of staying here is that if you plan on spending time on the beach itself, you have to be prepared to be constantly asked by the adolescent boys of the town to buy their trinkets. Not so bad, but this doesn't end up being your "private paradise" experience, as our friend Joan well knows.

We decided to take a short flight to Ibo Island, one of the larger islands that makes up the Quirimbas Archipelago. The 30-minute flight itself was almost worth the trip...amazing views of the sea and islands.

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Ibo has a similar history to Ilha in that it has a sad history of Portuguese colonization and slave trade. To this day the residents still can recount the brutal treatment slaves endured here. We saw some of the holding cells at the fort on the tip of the island. Here's a shot of Ibo's "stone town" from the air:

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Our first evening on the island, we decided to take part in the island's "home stay" program. This meant paying a small fee to the community group so that we could stay in one of the villager's homes. We ended up staying with a woman who was the bread baker for the inhabitants, including the one or two commercial lodges, of the island. When we arrived, she was busy baking rolls. Before we really had the chance to explore the island or figure out what we would do, she served us a lunch of goat curry, rice, those excellent rolls and bananas. Delicious curry, tough goat. Oy!

After lunch, we went to find Dimitri, who we hoped would be our snorkeling guide for the following day. When we arrived at his home, we discovered a very tanned, Frenchman with a huge abcess on his foot. This led to a very troubling conversation about the lack of healthcare on the island and in the country as a whole. We found out that tropical climates can lead to dangerous infections for foreigners whose immune systems have difficulty fighting the local bugs. We offered him antibiotics, but he refused. He did however follow our suggestions to soak his foot in warm water several times a day, and by the last day we saw him, his foot had greatly improved. It was a sobering reminder of the possibility of becoming sick on the road without any real access to medical help (knock on wood). So far, we believe we've prepared our medical kit to cope with whatever we might encounter.

He recommended that we hire a local dhow captain to take us to the "sand bank," a well-known snorkeling location with reefs. We found our man, Moussa, that day and he agreed to take us early the next morning to benefit from the high tide, that is if you consider 5am early.

That evening, we had a drink at the Ibo Lodge, the island's one luxury accomodation. We realized that most of the other islands have the kind of accomodation you might see in a slick spread in some travel magazine. White sand, blue water, your own private bungalow and very few people. Of course, this is VERY expensive. Ibo doesn't quite fit this mold as it has a small town, a couple of villages and no beach. I think we both had the fantasy that we might have that kind of experience in coming here. Although it wasn't to be, we did have an amazing day of snorkeling the next day.

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The slow sail back to the island on the dhow was great. Alas, our previous evening with our host "mother" wasn't so good. I think we went into the home stay thinking we would get to know our host and spend time with the family. She was perfectly pleasant to us, but she treated us with a more distant respect, more of business proposition. It gave us a glimpse into her family's life, but not much more. After our snorkeling trip, we decided to stay at the upscale lodge and splurge a bit. The couple running the lodge offered us a room at half price, their "walk-in" rate. We had a smashing time and it was a nice way to leave the island in good spirits. Here are some photos taken around the grounds and on the lovely terrace:

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Posted by cleichter 09:22 Archived in Mozambique Comments (0)

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