2015 − Traveling around Asia

October 18 − Greetings from Georgia (the Republic of)

One can make a career and a life by saying "yes" to opportunities that look like fun and/or a challenge. Saying "yes" has allowed me to work on the Apollo missions, search for the end of the San Andreas fault, train an elephant, ride a Harley across Australia, travel to unusual places, and meet interesting people.

Three months ago, on the slopes of Mount Ararat in Turkey, I bumped into an old friend who offered me an apartment in Batumi, Georgia. 48 hours later, I happened across a band of Georgian teachers, dancing and drinking in the Kaçkar Mountains, who invited me to come to Batumi to teach English. It was easy to say "yes" to this opportunity − even easier when I learned that I could walk from the apartment to the school. So, I bought a one-way ticket to Batumi and arrived in this marvelous place 3 days ago.

For comparison, The Republic of Georgia is half the size and half the population of the US state of the same name. Georgia (the country) has only been independent from Russia since 1991, but its history goes back thousands of years.

Batumi is a manageable city with a population of about 120,000, sandwiched between stony Black Sea beaches and misty hills full of parks, nature trails and gardens.

Batumi is a good base for exploring the other regions south of the Caucasus Mountains.

Architecturally, Batumi is an amusing and colorful mix of the old and the new. The city experienced a bulding boom during the past decade as part of its development as a summer holiday destination. Yet, the city has preserved its fin-de-siècle elegance from its original boom time a century ago when it was a major Black Sea shipping port.

Mostly, I'm just enjoying walking around in the sunshine smelling the sea breezes. The trees are still green here. Autumn hasn't come to Batumi yet.

Here's the view from the balcony of my apartment. Gorki Street is lined with shops and restaurants, and noisy with cars and mini-buses 20 hours a day. I'm glad to be on the 4th floor, above all the traffic. It's convenient to be right in the middle of town. Everything I need is a short walk from my front door.
Behind my apartment is Nurigheli Lake, which is a peaceful place for a morning stroll. There're several playgrounds, a zoo, and a dolphinarium around the perimeter of the lake.

The Black Sea is 100 meters to the left of this photo.

This is Tornike. He's a 23-year-old artist. He speaks English, having spent 2 years at university in London. He manages my apartment. My arrival and first few days were easy thanks to him. He met my airplane last Thursday and helped me find all the essentials for getting setup. Over lunch, he gave me a summary of the social, economic and political situation in his country. Life is getting better here, but there are still major concerns.

Tornike sells his ceramics and oil paintings at cafés and exhibitions. He has traveled to Russia and Turkey a few times. He hopes to leave Georgia some day and to move to western Europe. He believes that his art will be more appreciated and find a better market there than in Batumi.

One of the best reasons to travel is to eat foods that you can't find at home. Here's the first real meal I had in Batumi. This is a warm eggplant salad. I'm told this is a traditional Georgian dish. I have no idea what spices were in this, but it was delicious. (Tornike opted for the club sandwich and Coke.)

The fresh squeezed lemon juice still had the seeds and pulp in it.

I'm often asked if I get tired of traveling. One of the things that can make traveling tiresome is carrying a lot of luggage. Most tourists burden themselves with 3 or 4 times more stuff than they actually need. Not me. I leave behind everything that I might need because, by definition, if I might need something, then I might not need it. Why carry something that's not needed?

If I need something I don't have, I buy it. Shopping in foreign countries is a great way to experience the local culture and to see how business is done. It rains hard in Georgia, but did I pack an umbrella? No. Today, I paid $8 for a 16-spine, black and plaid umbrella with a wooden handle. I like supporting the local economy. When I walk down the street with my new Georgian umbrella, I look less like a tourist and more like someone who lives here. When I leave Georgia, I'll donate my umbrella to someone who doesn't have one.

Shown above is all that I have, with the exception of the clothes I wear and the camera with which I took this photo. Be a minimalist. Your bag will never get lost. You'll breeze through customs. Little luggage makes travel fun.

October 25 − My first week of school

This is the end of my first week of school. I work afternoons from 1:00 to 5:00pm at a large public elementary school. I've been teaching English in the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th and 8th grades. During this first week, I've become acquainted with the materials used, the method of instruction and, of course, the teachers and students.
I teach at Batumi's Public School #9. About 1500 students, from 1st to 12th grade, attend classes here. This building was built by the Russian government about 30 years ago. It could use some paint. A few windows need to be replaced. The doors are out of alignment. The blackboards are chipped and cracked. The desks and chairs are well-worn. But the school is a solid structure still serving the purpose for which it was built.
In Georgia, English is a required course from 1st grade all the way through high school. The students learn to read and write English at a fairly aggressive pace. By the 8th grade, their grammar and spelling is almost equivalent to that of American students.

Before my arrival, there were no native English speakers at School #9. So, one of my jobs here is to help the students − and the teachers − with pronunciation. The other way that I'll make myself useful is to share teaching techniques and methods with the Georgian teachers.

These are my 4th grade students. They are a delightfully happy and enthusiastic bunch. If there were any doubt in my mind about what a Caucasian person looks like, now I know.

This is Magda Kuridze and her husband Olegi. Magda and I met in July when she and the other teachers from School #9 took a field trip to the Kaçkar Mountains of Turkey. That's when Magda and her colleagues invited me to come to Batumi to assist at their school.

During my first week of classes, I've been observing and co-teaching with Magda. Next week, I'll start working with the other English teachers.

When I'm not teaching, I enjoy walking around Batumi marveling at its creative architecture. Here's a photo of one of the wackier buildings. It's a scale replica of America's White House, turned upside down. It's a fully-functioning and fashionable restaurant. The upside-down theme is repeated inside the building, with upside down staircases, decorations and even bathroom fixtures.
Many of Batumi's fin-de-siècle buildings have been well-preserved. Downtown Batumi has cobble-stone streets, electrified gas lamps, art deco clock towers, old cathedrals, charming plazas with sidewalk cafés, and outdoor entertainment. In the summer, this quaint downtown is flooded with tourists. October is the off-season. There's no trouble finding a table with a view this month.
Batumi is a beach town on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Although it's late October and we're at 41 degrees north, the weather has been remarkably warm. Temperatures this week were in the mid-70s. The maples and oak trees haven't begun to show their fall colors yet. In the mornings, I go jogging on the beach. People are still swimming here. And yet, this is the former USSR?!

I took this photo Thursday morning on my walk to school. From the streets of Batumi, one can look north and east to the Caucasus Mountains and see that the mountains are full of snow. It's remarkable to see these threatening, jagged, white peaks towering above the palm trees. Warm as it is, winter can't be far away.

In the evenings after a day of teaching, I walk to nearby restaurants to sample the local fare. This is khachapuri, one of Georgia's national dishes. It's a boat-shaped bowl of bread filled with melted cheese, egg and butter. It goes well with beer. Yum!

November 1 − An educational experience

People often ask me why I travel. I travel because I like to learn new things. If I stay in one place for too long, I get comfortable ... and lazy. Traveling to places I haven't been before forces me to learn languages, adapt to new cultures, accept different points of view, and in general challenge myself.

Living in Batumi is a pleasant challenge. I'm enjoying a modest teaching schedule with about 20 classes per week. My school needs repairs and resources are limited. But the staff is dedicated and the children are enthusiastic and quite bright, too.

One of the best parts of my day is my walk home from school. Here's the Black Sea on a calm day. I'd been warned that October is the rainy season. What this means is that there are 2-3 days per week of rain. The rest of the days are stunningly beautiful, with clear skies and daytime highs in the 60s. Great weather for walks − or runs − on the beach.
Exploring a new city starts with one's immediate neighborhood. Walking out of my apartment, turning right and walking two blocks brings me to a small farmer's market that happens every day, rain or shine. The produce is restocked every morning. Judging by the spots on the vegetables and the sweetness of the fruits, I suspect that everything is local and organic. Delicious, too. No doubt about that.

The usual veggies, like tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, are available, of course. Persimmons, squash, pumpkins, apples and tangerines are in season now.

If I walk out of my apartment, turn left and walk two blocks, I come to one of Batumi's top tourist attractions: The Dolphinarium. There's an entertaining show every afternoon. From my ringside seat, it looked as though the dolphins were enjoying putting on their show. I was impressed. A bargain for eight bucks.
This is Diana Jakeli. She sits on the first row of my 5th grade English class.

Georgian children don't know about Halloween. In conservative Orthodox Georgia, Halloween is not celebrated because it's thought to involve Satanism.

Yesterday, I told my students about Halloween in America. I showed photos of homes decorated with pumpkins and ghosts, and children in costumes going trick-or-treating. The students were astonished by this bizarre American custom. It was the first time that they'd ever seen a real jack o'lantern. They all wanted to touch it and have their photos taken with it.

And now for the educational challenge of my week: Learning the Georgian alphabet, shown here with the vowels in red. I'm using flash cards to learn these letters. At least there are only 33 − so it's easier than Japanese.

I'm also learning to speak Georgian. I figure that if I'm going to ask my 1st graders to learn to count from 1 to 10 in English, then I'd better learn to count in Georgian. The sound of this language takes some getting used to. There aren't very many vowels. For example, the word for the number 9 is TSKHRA. That's the sort of word I'd like to be able to use when playing Scrabble.

One of the other reasons I love to travel is to try new foods.

The dumplings shown here are called KHINKALI. The spicy beef and pork filling is uncooked when the khinkali is assembled. So when cooked, the juices of the meat are trapped inside the dumpling. Khinkali is eaten by hand. On the first bite, one must suck out the juices in order to prevent the dumpling from bursting.

The rolled bread at the top contains kabob, which gets lathered in a sauce made from tomatoes and peppers. Hidden beneath the onion rings are spicy pork ribs.

Georgians are generous and hospitable. This week, I was invited to 3 different homes for meals. Each time, my hosts insisted that they weren't serving me anything other than their normal, every-day meals. Here's desert at a colleague's apartment. The black round nuggets are walnuts, which were picked early in the season and then soaked in honey for a few months.

There are two types of persimmons shown here. The yellow one is crisp like an apple. The red one is so soft that it can be eaten with a spoon. At the farmer's market, persimmons cost about 15 cents each. I'll be having one for breakfast every day.

November 17 − The Secret to Happiness

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an article affirming what I've come to believe about money, travel and material possessions. If you want to be happy, you should do three things:
  • Achieve financial security. This doesn't mean being a millionaire. It simply means earning more than you spend. Nothing more.
  • Buy experiences instead of things. Owning lots of pretty things might allow you to keep up with the Joneses, but maintaining those material possessions will consume your time − which is more valuable than money.
  • Do things for others. Use your time and money to benefit others instead of yourself. Walking out of a store with a new pair of shoes won't make you smile as much as giving a pair of shoes to a child who has never worn shoes before.
I follow the blog of a fellow traveler named Chris Guillebeau. When he started his travels, Chris calculated that visiting 100 countries would cost about the same as a new SUV. He didn't buy the SUV, of course. Instead, he hit the road and his travels became a life-changing experience. Would driving an SUV for a few years have done the same for him? No way.

My travel budget is $100/day, and that includes everything, such as visas, health insurance, airplane tickets and my storage locker in San Francisco. Naturally, some countries − like Sweden − are more expensive than others − like Cuba. But my long-term average is about $100/day. If you do the math, that works out to be only $36k/year − which is less than the average US net income.

To travel forever, all I have to do is find a way to make about $36k per year. I can do this thanks to a few clients in California and a long-term contract with the Navy. Thus, I have all the time in the world, no possessions to burden me, and cash leftover to give to those in need.

It's not about money. It's what you do with your money − and your time.

I spend six days a week at Batumi's Public School #9. Here's a photo of a typical classroom. There are 26 first graders in this class. I'm the only native English speaker at this school. I read aloud to the students and help them with their pronunciation. Two weeks ago, the first graders learned their numbers from 1 to 10. Last week, they learned the words for members of their family, such mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother and grandfather.

Georgia is a very traditional, family-oriented, Orthodox Christian culture. Young women live with their families until they're married, at which time they usually move into their husband's home. Everyone has children. Divorce is rare. So, learning the English words for their family members was natural for these children.

This is Mrs. Guguli Pataraya, one of my colleagues. She's 87 years old and has been teaching at my school for more than 60 years. (No one knows exactly how long she's been teaching here.)

Guguli wears black because she's a widow. She has one unmarried son who lives with her. She has no grandchildren. She treats her students like her grandchildren, and they absolutely love her. Guguli is revered by all the other teachers.

In the Georgian elementary school system, teachers keep the same students for four consecutive years from 1st through 4th grade. Then, the teachers start over with a new group of students. I like this teaching system because it gives the students and the teachers four years to get to know each other. The students who have Guguli consider themselves very lucky.

Although Guguli speaks no English, she knows exactly what I'm saying.

Being by the sea helps moderate Batumi's temperature. Even in mid-November, daytime highs are in the 60s. At night, temperatures drop into the upper 40s. The mountains rise steeply behind the city. When it rains in town, the mountains get snow.

A lot of Batumi consists of old Russian-built apartments in need of new roofs and fresh paint. I'm told that life in these apartments is comfortable and social. Neighbors drop in on each other for coffee without invitation. You can buy a 3-room apartment in Batumi for about $50,000.

Georgian food continues to delight. Not all Georgian food is comprised of meat, eggs, cheese, butter and bread. Here are two vegetarian appetizers:
  • The three whitish squares on the left are Badrijani Nigvzit: Fried eggplant stuffed with spiced walnut paste.
  • The larger patty on the right is Mtsvane Pkhali: Minced cabbage, eggplant, spinach, beans and beets, combined with ground walnuts, vinegar, onions, garlic, and herbs.
Both appetizers are garnished with pomegranite seeds. Yum! (For you foodies, click on the links above to see the recipes.)
Archaeologists have determined that the world's first wine production started here in Georgia about 8000 years ago. Wow! No wonder the local wine here is fantastic. Not very expensive either.

On the first floor of my building is a woman with a small store in which she has several large barrels of wine. I visit her every few days with an empty wine bottle, which she refills for about $4.

I walk home from school every afternoon along the beach. Here's a fishing boat coming home with the day's catch − and a flock of gulls following close behind hoping for dinner.

The snowy mountains high in the background are the Caucasus, about 200km north of Batumi. The 2014 Winter Olympics were held last February on the other side of these mountains in Sochi, Russia.

Here's the full moon on November 6th, with the nearby hills dusted with fresh snow.

With the Ukraine-Russia conflict to the north and the terrible plight of the Kurdish refugees to the south, it's remarkable how happy and peaceful this little country is. I've decided to stay here for another month.

November 28 − Health & Happiness

Many of you responded to my last blog about money and happiness. A friend reminded me that I forgot an essential ingredient for a happy life. He wrote ...

If you don't have your health, everything else ain't worth spit.

This is so true. In addition to good health, close personal relationships are also part of being happy. In honor of Thanksgiving, I'd like to say thank you to all of you wonderful family and friends back home. You make what I do worthwhile. Thanks for all the emails!
The weather here in Batumi continues to be mild. So, I've spent time exploring the sites near here. Here's what the coastline of the Black Sea looks like north of town. I was surprised to find it so rugged and lush.

Yes, that's a railroad that runs along the shore. The tracks continue to the oil fields of Azerbaijan.

This photo was taken in Batumi's Botanical Garden, a public park created about a century ago to showcase plants from around the world. It's a huge area − almost 300 acres − of forests, waterfalls, pathways and vistas. Lovely for a walk or a picnic.
Just south of town is Gonio-Apsaros, the oldest fortress in Georgia. Archeologists have found artifacts and stone walls dating to the XV-XVII centuries BC. According to the Greek myth about the Argonauts, this was the place where Apsyrtus (King Aet’s son killed by Jason) was buried.

Later, when Batumi was the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, Roman troops were stationed here. Having visited Roman ruins in Morocco in February, I can now say I've traveled from one end of the Roman Empire to the other in 2014.

The son of one of the teachers at my school got married last weekend.

Here's the car, decorated for the drive from the ceremony to the reception.

The wedding reception was a feast. Anticipating that I'd be well-fed, I skipped lunch that day − and quickly ate my fill of all these delicious treats. What I didn't realize is that the food shown here is just the hors d'oeuvres! The meal went on for hours and the plates kept coming. When the boar's head was finally served, I only had room for a few bites.
During our lavish meal, we were entertained by a number of shows. including dancing Cossacks doing traditional Georgian dances. Wow!

Going to a wedding is one of the best ways to experience a foreign culture. I'm told that this reception dinner was nothing out of the ordinary:

"Dis eez like all ov our veddings. Dey are alvays like dees. Have some more vine. Gaumarjos!!!"

On a sad note, a dear friend died at her home in Connecticut last week. Nancy was lovely inside and out. She was an inspired musician. Her sweet spirit, constant smile and great conversation touched everyone she met. Our lives are better for having Nancy come into it. She will be remembered fondly in our thoughts and prayers.

Nancy was only 56 years old, but her chronic illnesses finally got the best of her − which underscores the point made at the top of this post: Health is everything!

So, please let's all take good care of ourselves and each other. Appreciate our delicate existences. Life seems more precious in the face of such an event. Let's be kinder to each other. Have a happy, healthy Thanksgiving.

December 17 − Moving on

Batumi has been my home for two months. I could write pages about what a wonderful place Batumi is with its ...
  • Mild climate
  • Low cost of living
  • Colorful traditions
  • Delicious food and wine
  • Easy living beside the Black Sea
  • Generous, hospitable and warm-hearted people
This little town is such a welcoming place, I could consider living here. But if I did, I wouldn't see the rest of the world. So, I'm writing this blog at the airport.
Since my last posting, I've been involved with performing arts.

Here's Batumi's Performing Arts Center − a handsome bit of architecture blending modern materials into a classical design with arches, pillars and frescoed ceilings.

I was here twice last week, once to hear Batumi's symphony orchestra play Beethoven and Mozart. My second visit was for a cultural variety show featuring local musicians, singers and dancers performing everything from opera to traditional Georgian folk dances and rock and roll.

Not far from my apartment is Batumi's Drama Theatre, a classic XVIII century theatre. There's an acting troop that performs here about 3-4 times a week, with a different show every couple of nights.

The acting is first rate and the tickets average about $4 each for great seats. The performing arts must be heavily subsidized by the government.

Here's the interior of the Batumi Drama Theatre. Like all good theatres, it's in a fashionable neighborhood filled with cafes and restaurants that stay open late for the patrons to have a nightcap after the show. It may not be Broadway, but it's an inexpensive and intimate alterative.

I should mention that all of the performances are in Georgian. I don't speak much Georgian (yet!) and can't understand the dialogues word for word. So before each play, I read the plot summary on-line and, when possible, view a performance in English on youtube. Knowing Georgian isn't necessary to following the story because the acting at Batumi's theatre is so convincing.

Meanwhile, I've been involved in my own theatre project. I wrote and co-directed the 4th grade play at Public School #9. Because the actors were from one of my English classes, this play was in English, including musical numbers from Crosby, Stills & Nash and Michael Jackson.

The audience was parents and faculty, of course. They were amazed and delighted to see their children speaking and singing in English.

This was the first time that this school has done a play. They say it's going to become an annual tradition.

This is Anri Gabaidze, who played the role of Mr. Jolly. If he looks a little subdued or nervous here, it's because this photo was taken before going on stage. Once on stage, he displayed his usual good humor and exuberance.

I was impressed by this group of 9-year-olds. After three weeks of chaotic rehearsals, their performance went off without a hitch. Amazing!

Working closely with these students for many afternoons was a unique opportunity to get to know what Georgian children are like. Like all kids of this age, they're full of energy. But unlike most kids of the same age, these Georgian children have humility and determination.

Every good show deserves a cast party. Here we are in the 4th grade homeroom after the performance, congratulating ourselves on an excellent show.

I introduced Public School #9 to another first last week: A Spelling Bee, for 6th, 7th and 8th graders. The final round was fierce competition in which the students battled it out with words like "chimney" and "neighbor". The conclusion was dramatic. Now that School #9 knows what a Spelling Bee is, this too may become an annual tradition.

Before I came here, I never expected Batumi to be such a lovely place. I've been blessed by unseasonably warm weather. I was still having lunch on the weekends at outdoor cafes on the beach.

This really has been a lovely place to live for the past two months. But if I stay any longer, I'll start putting down roots. So, it's time to move on. My next stop is Tel Aviv.

December 26 − Merry Christmas from Bethlehem

The last time I was in Israel was August 1981. The appeal of spending Christmas in Bethlehem plus a welcoming invitation from old friends were enough to convince me to come here. Two Georgian marshrutkas, two flights with discount Pegasus Airlines and one modern Israeli train transported me door-to-door from my apartment in Batumi to my friends' home in Tel Aviv.

Israel has changed a lot in the past three decades. The biggest difference is the growing social and economic contrast between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In 1981, I rode rickety local buses between ethnic restaurants in the Gaza and my inexpensive back-packer hostel in Tel Aviv. Today, Tel Aviv is a 21st century city with gleaming hotels and hi-rise office buildings (shown below), while Gaza sits behind a concrete wall covered with graffiti.

After celebrating a few nights of Chanukah with my friends, I took a bus up the hill to Jerusalem to be both pilgrim and tourist.

Here's part of the interior of the Church of the Sepulcher in Jerusalem. This is one of the places where Jesus is thought to have been entombed for 3 days. This is a vast church, managed and maintained by six different Christian denominations. Visiting this church is like visiting six countries.

Jerusalem isn't only a pilgrimage site for Christians. Here's the Western Wall of Solomon's Temple. The Hasidic Jews come here to pray and to celebrate Bar Mitzvahs.

This wall looks exactly as it did in 1981. However, getting here today involves passing through a number of metal detectors and bag searches. Although heavily armed, the Israeli and Palestinian guards at the "border" are friendly and speak English. Still, there is a sense of tension and wariness between the opposing sides that I didn't see when I was here 33 years ago.

Here's Manger Square in Bethlehem. This is where all the action was on the 24th and the 25th. On Christmas Eve day, there was a 2-hour parade of Palestinian Boy Scout fife and drum corps playing Christmas carols on their bagpipes.

In the background of this photo is the Church of the Nativity, constructed on top of the site where Jesus is believed to have been born. Like the Church of the Sepulcher in Jerusalem, this church is multi-denominational.

On the stage next to the Christmas tree (above), there was a band that performed all the traditional seasonal songs, while the crowd sang along. These three sisters danced joyfully and sang along. Click here to hear what Jingle Bells sounds like in Arabic.
These days, Bethlehem is part of the Palestinian Territory. Although only about 10km from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is in a different country. Arabic is spoken here, and the dress styles are more conservative, too.

Returning from Bethlehem to Jerusalem involves going through a checkpoint, and showing one's passport.

On Christmas Eve, I attended two church services. The first was in the Greek Orthodox chapel built above the manger. This was a VIP event presided over by the Bishop of Jordan, and attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and several ambassadors. The service and its prayers were mentioned in international news.

The second was a candlelight Episcopal mass at St George’s Cathedral Pilgrim Guesthouse where I was staying. The organ music and the carols were familiar and comforting.

Celebrating Christmas in The Holy Land was a powerful religious experience. But honestly, with all the political tensions and distractions, it was hard to feel a sense of brotherly love. My thoughts and prayers are for all the people who are trying to live together in this part of the world. May they find peace.

January 12 − I looked over Jordan and what did I see?

Jordan is an easy hop from Israel. My Lonely Planet guide describes Jordan the "Switzerland of the Middle East". Jordanians I met call their country "The Land of Refugees". I've just spent two weeks in Jordan, and found it to be a friendly, safe, and fascinating country.

I started my two week tour in Amman, which is the biggest city in Jordan. The downtown area is bustling with activity and sprinkled with Roman ruins. Amman is also noisy and crowded. Traffic is often grid-locked. There's a bit of smog. That's why the photo to the left isn't Amman. This is nearby Madaba, which is more photogenic than Amman.

40km north of Amman are the Roman ruins of Jarash. This is as impressive an archaeological site as any I've seen, including those in Morocco (Volubilis), Tunisia (Carthage) or Turkey (Ephesus).

Strolling quietly down colonnaded streets with tracks worn by ancient wagon wheels, one can feel what life in a Roman outpost 2000 years ago might have been like. Jarash has markets where groceries and handicrafts were sold, stately mansions and public baths, a hippodrome for chariot races, and stunning temples to the gods. Sitting in the great theater, it seems as though the actors will come on stage any moment dressed in togas. (The theatre is actually in good enough condition to be used for music festivals in the summer.)

Here's the Dead Sea, which Jordan shares with the Palestinian Territories. The east side belongs to Jordan, of course. Having visited both sides, I prefer Jordan's side, which has steeper cliffs and more dramatic canyons.

In the photo to the left, notice how each year's salt deposits are a little lower than the year before. Yes, sadly, the Dead Sea is shrinking as the streams that feed it are being diverted for agriculture and for the growing populations on both sides of this valley. If you want to see the Dead Sea, see it now before it shrinks any more. It may end up like the Aral Sea.

Jordan's side of the Dead Sea has spectacular canyons (wadis). To the left is Wadi Numeira, where the polished sandstone walls are often no more than 2 meters apart.

A visit to Jordan isn't complete without a seeing Petra. I could post lots of photos, but the professional ones are better. If Petra is on your bucket list, be sure to allow yourself at least two full days. It's a vast outdoor museum, with much more to see and explore than the famous Treasury shown to the right. January is a good time to visit Petra. I saw more camels than tourists.

This is Rosa. She's a Bedouin who sells trinkets beside one of the trails in Petra. She gave me a hot cup of chai and let me sit by her fire for a while. She told me that she's a widow with nine kids. But she doesn't complain. She's got her health and her family. That's all that matters.

In two weeks, I met a wide range of Jordanians and liked them all. They're relaxed, friendly, down-to-earth, and welcoming folks. Although Jordan's people are a mix of many different tribes and cultures, they all seem to get along with each other − unlike some of their neighbors.

Until now, I'd thought of Israel as the Holy Land. There are almost as many holy sites in Jordan as there are in Israel, such as ...
  • Mt.Nebo, from which Moses saw the Promised Land and then died.
  • The cave where Lot lived after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • Bethany, where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
  • Machaerus, where Salome danced for King Herod in exchange for John's head.
Here's a Greek Orthodox church built near Jesus's baptism.
In contrast to Israel and Palestine, Jordan's security forces are relaxed and friendly. They smile and pose for photos. They're happy to provide information and to help tourists. They also don't carry guns.
One evening, I came to a checkpoint near the Israeli border. The Jordanian guard was pleased to see an American passport. When I told him I was from California, he responded with an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation, saying "Hasta la vista, Baby." Then, he gestured to three guys who were hanging out at his guardhouse and asked if I could give his friends a ride into town since I was going that way. I was happy to oblige. When we got into town, they paid for my parking and showed me to the perfect local restaurant. Now that's what I call great security.

January 24 − Kuwait, Bahrain & Oman

From Jordan, I flew to Kuwait, which has been completely rebuilt since the Gulf War. Although Kuwait has strict laws forbidding alcohol, and some folks wear traditional Arab robes, this is a very westernized country.

Here's the view from my 10th floor hotel room. Along the waterfront, there's a 10km walkway with shops and restaurants. At one end are skyscrapers. At the other end is an educational Science Center and aquarium.

There was a shopping mall next to my hotel that had all the familiar names: Adidas, Athlete's Foot, Baskin Robbins, Body Shop, Burberry, Burger King, Cinnabon, Domino's Pizza, Givenchy, Guess, Gymboree, H & M, Hallmark, Hardees, Johnny Rockets, KFC, Liz Claiborne, McDonald's, Nine West, Nokia, Pastamania, Sony, Starbucks, Subway, Sunglass Hut, Swatch, TGI Friday's, Timberland, Victoria's Secret, Virgin Mega Store, and Vision Express.

48 hours was enough time in Kuwait.

My next stop was another westernized Gulf state: Bahrain. Flying from Kuwait to Bahrain was like flying from Tulsa to Houston. I flew United, with a flight crew from DC. In Manama, I stayed at the Holiday Inn.

In contrast to Kuwait, alcohol is available in Bahrain. This is significant to Saudi Arabia, which is only 26km away via the King Fahd Causeway. Saudis come to Bahrain to enjoy the bars and the budget hotels that offer the same services as those in Bangkok. I enjoyed having a Heineken with dinner.

Both Kuwait and Bahrain are pedestrian unfriendly places. 4-lane highways without crosswalks create pedestrian barriers within the city, and there's almost no public transit. In the heat of the summer, people don't go outdoors.

The big draw in Manama is the Al-Fatih Mosque (above), which also happens to be the biggest building in Bahrain. I took a tour of the mosque with a group from the nearby US Navy base.

Shown to the left is our loquacious tour guide who provided a 1-hour explanation of Islam, answering all our difficult questions, and delivering a strongly-worded condemnation of the recent killings in Paris: The assassins were not Islamic.

This was my first extended conversation with a woman wearing a niqab over her face. She made a few humorous remarks, yet it was odd to be unable to see whether or not she was smiling.

Like Kuwait, Bahrain seemed comfortable, familiar and safe, but 48 hours was plenty of time to spend here.

Finally, I made it to Oman, which is real Arabia. Omanis observe Ibadi Islam (a more moderate form of their faith) while maintaining their traditional culture. I found them to be hospitable, genuine and sympatique.

My first encounter with an Omani police officer proved this to be so. Shown here is the Sultan's Palace. Next door is a high-security communications center and military base. I strolled up to the electric fence, noting the large sign warning that cameras and tourists were not permitted in the area. I said salaam alaikum (hello) to the guard, who responded by asking if I would like to join him in his kiosk for a cup of tea. I can feel secure in a country like this.

Oman, unlike the other Gulf States, isn't all glass and concrete. Here's the scenic fishing port of Sur, a 2-hour drive down the Indian Ocean coast from Muscat.

The seafood is wonderful. Many of the restaurant chefs come from nearby India. Fish masala is on many menus.

Oman is a good place to rent a car as there are few buses and no trains. But, the roads are in excellent condition, and gas costs about $1/gallon.

In contrast to Kuwait and Bahrain, Omani food is local and fresh, not flown in from somewhere. Every port in Oman has a fishing fleet and a daily fish market. Fruits and vegetables grow in the canyons where water is available.

Most towns have traditional markets (souks), similar to the markets of Istanbul and Marrakesh. The souks are full of dates, pomegranates, oranges, tomatoes and cucumbers.

The most famous product that's unique to Oman (and Yemen) is frankincense. Most shops, hotels and homes have a bit of it burning in an incense burner all the time, which adds to the exotic smell of this country.

The interior of Oman is a desolate land of treeless mountains and empty deserts − except where canyons have cut deep into the bedrock. Here is where fresh water can be found. The Omanis have devised irrigation and storage systems for their farms and villages.

In the past, these precious oases were guarded by forts. Here's the massive 13th century fortress of Bahla. Climbing around on the walls felt like something from Beau Geste or the Foreign Legion.

January is a good time to visit Oman. The days are warm, and the nights are cool. In July, temperatures are in the low 50's C − which is 122° F and hotter!

As for Oman's wildlife, I saw goats in the mountains and camels in the desert. I spent an evening on the beach at the Raz al-Jinz Turtle Preserve to witness baby Green turtles emerge from their nest in the sand, struggle across the beach, and then swim away into the Indian Ocean. That was a personal first.

Typical of this part of the world, there are many European adventurers here − but almost no Americans. It always surprises me how few Americans there are in wonderful places like Oman. Where is the American sense of adventure and exploration?

Throughout Oman, Arab hospitality brought me in contact with interesting people and comfortable places to stay. Here's the host of Misfah Old House, who converted his ancient family home into a B&B.

In the desert, there are Bedouin-styled camps where one can watch sunset from the tops of orange sand dunes, relax in carpeted tents filled with pillows, dine on lamb kabob and garlic hummus, and discuss the politics and philosophies of the Middle East with literate and well-travelled nomads. (English is widely spoken here.)

These places and people gave me a good idea of what real Arabia is like. I'm satisfied to have gotten to know one of the more peaceful and scenic countries of the Arab world.

A year ago, I was in Morocco. Since then, I've visited eight countries across North Africa and the Middle East − a fascinating journey through which I've dismissed misconceptions through first-hand observations:
  • Every country is unique and there's lots of variety. In the west, we tend to lump all Arab countries into one group. Just because two countries share the same language and religion doesn't make them the same.
  • It's important not to confuse culture with religion. For example, women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia for cultural reasons, not because of Islam.
  • Western media has distorted our perceptions of the people who live in these countries.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died last week. The president, prime minister, and cabinet of Yemen resigned. Sultan Qaboos (74) of Oman has been ill, and he has no children or direct heirs. Changes are coming to this part of the world and there may be new conflicts.

My personal belief is that, if left alone and without the interference of other countries, the people of the Arabian Peninsula will sort things out on their own. As T.E.Lawrence wrote in his 27 Articles (1917):

Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. ... Under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.

February 3 − Southern Thailand

Travel is work ... well, sort of.

It takes time and effort to research where to go and what to do, to learn enough of the local language to get by, to book transportation, to find accommodations, and then to adjust to the inevitable changes in plans. So, after two months of "working" my way through the Middle East, it was time for some R&R.

Thailand is a huge contrast to the Islamic countries. Whereas even snowmen are forbidden in Saudi Arabia, here in Thailand, there are golden gods to be prayed to.

Thailand also has cold beer, music and an open society − that's both playful and businesslike − where anything can be arranged any time.

I should add that it's also nice to be someplace where I can talk to all the women, and they're not covered head to foot.

Coming to Thailand meant a change of weather, culture, scenery and especially food. Thailand has some of the world's best street food. It's spicy, cheap and available everywhere 24/7. The motorcycles zip by as you chow down on unrecognizable delicacies.

These ladies introduced my taste buds to a stew made with ant eggs. Yes, I had to try eating ant eggs, which are sort of like couscous. Not bad, actually, especially when washed down with a cold Chang.

Thailand's seafood is fantastic, too, of course. It's usually so fresh that it's still wriggling. There are many different ways for seafood dishes to be prepared − mostly spicy, but always good.

Did I mention that beer is cold and available everywhere?

From Bangkok, I flew Nok Air south to Krabi, which is famous for its stunning beaches facing the Andaman Sea. I indulged myself with a few days in a bungalow on this beach.
Southern Thailand is made for hedonists. Activities include wearing a bathing suit all day, relaxing on the beach, talking to friendly locals, drinking cold beer, eating fresh seafood, watching fishing boats (see photo), falling asleep at night listening to the surf, and waking in the morning to the sound of parrots.
An hour's boat ride from Krabi is Phi Phi Island, made popular by Leonardo DiCaprio's The Beach. There's a gorgeous beach here (shown above) which has unfortunately become much too popular. After taking the necessary touristic photos, I retired to my relatively quiet beach at Krabi.

The sun is bright here. I bought a new hat. The water is perfect for swimming. Before resuming the hard work of traveling, it was time for a vacation.

February 22 − Northern Thailand

Whereas southern Thailand is crowded with tourists, beaches and bars, northeastern Thailand is an undiscovered country. Bordered to the north and east by Laos and the Mekong River (above), to the south by Cambodia, and separated from the rest of Thailand by a ridge of hills, Isan is Thailand's Appalachia.

When I was in Bangkok in 2012, I met a villager from Isan who invited me to come visit this region on my next visit to Thailand. I stayed in touch with the family by email. For the past three weeks, I've been living in a farmhouse in the middle of fields of sugar cane, surrounded by limestone outcrops.

The first difference I noticed about Isan is that the rice is sticky. It clumps together and is eaten like bread with one's fingers. Next, I noticed that my mouth was on fire from the intense chili peppers in all their food.

Agriculture is the main industry in Isan. February is harvest season for the sugar cane crop. This is a family operation with the mothers cutting the cane, children tying the cane into bundles, and the fathers hauling the cane bundles to their trucks. For a truckload of raw cane, the family earns about $25.

During the past two years, I've been micro-financing my host family's new crop. In 2014, they produced 500 kg of Nang Fa Phutan mushrooms, for a net profit of about $1000. I came here to see the results of my small investment and to discuss the next phase of this project.

As with most of southeast Asia, Buddhism is everywhere. Although people live in shacks with tin roofs and rough wood siding, every village has one or two gilded temples with golden statues, polished floors and ornate tile roofs.

Celebratory processions are common here. The photo above of the decorated pickup truck is a procession for a young man who has just turned 20 and has decided to become a monk.

Isan reminds me of southern China, with similar costumes, dances and musical instruments. In fact, the cultural roots of Isan are to the north, rather than to the rest of Thailand in the south.

Above right is the main street of Chiang Khan. I wouldn't have known about this charming town beside the Mekong if it weren't for my host family. Few people here speak English. Although Thai is understood, the primary language is a dialect of Lao.

The deeper into Isan I go, the more exotic the food becomes. To the right are cicada larvae, which are eaten chilled. To honor my hosts, I had to try one. It was cold and crunchy. I reached quickly for the beer.

This is Pearwa, the 4-year old who lives in my house. She likes bicycling, climbing trees, running, and shouting. She has lots of energy and monopolizes dinner conversations with continuous banter. She has no bed, but sleeps on a blanket on the floor. She prays to Buddha with her grandmother every morning and evening.

Thanks to the generous support from a friend in Washington DC, Pear will start school in May, where she'll learn all the usual subjects and English. She already knows some English, such as "Thank you" and "Bye bye".

Thanks for reading my blog, and bye bye for now.

March 23 − Wandering around Southeast Asia

Every traveler has a bucket list. Last month, I left Thailand to check off several places that I've always wanted to see.

My first stop was Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. I'd actually been here for one day in 2012. But a day is not enough to see the world's largest religious monument. Why Angkor Wat isn't included in the seven wonders of the world is beyond me.

As this was my second time in Cambodia, I revisited places that I'd enjoyed before, such as the Siem Reap silk farm. I hope to be returning to the Black Sea in July via the Silk Road. So, of course, I had to buy some silk to take along for the journey.

I stopped in for an evening of spicy food and exotic Aspara dancing, as shown to the right.

Cambodia today is much more than ancient temples and traditional culture. On this visit, I wanted to learn more about Cambodia of the 20th century, so I spent time at the heartbreaking Killing Fields Museum and the inspiring Land Mine Museum, where I learned about one man's heroic efforts to undo the damage done to his country during the 70's.

Cambodia's fields and forests still contain millions of buried, unexploded ordinance. But medical care is being provided for the victims, and there's hope for the future.

Next stop: Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. Completely rebuilt after 1975, this is a modern, fast-paced, cosmopolitan city.
In this city of 10 million, there are 8 million motorcycles. Traffic is intense and constant. Crossing the street is unnerving, done best by closing one's eyes.

The highlight of my visit to Saigon was the Củ Chi tunnels − a testament to Vietcong determination to do whatever it took to rid their country of foreign invaders.

In Vietnam, I rode trains, bicycles and boats. Vietnam's trains are better than those in India. By bicycle, I stuck to quiet country roads. With boats, I was glad that to never be farther from shore than I could swim.

I loved Hoi An for its ancient temples, the surf at China Beach, and the great seafood. If you're there on a full moon, enjoy the festival by the river.

I'm always on the lookout for new products made from natural materials. Here's a bamboo bicycle: Lightweight, partially recyclable, inexpensive.

Hoi An was wonderful and I hope to return there sometime. Here's a list of services and places that will make your visit there a delight:

Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, in north central Vietnam, contains the largest cave in the world, the longest underground river, and the world's largest combined caverns and passageways.

Paradise Cave, discovered in 2005, is particularly beautiful. Not only is it huge, but the fact that it's only recently opened to tourism means that it hasn't met the fate of most tourist caves. It hasn't yet been blighted by algae and bacteria imported by tourists and kept alive by electric lights. Also, having been well-protected since its discovery, none of its formations have been vandalized. I've seen a lot of caves, and not just Mammoth Caves and Carlsbad Caverns. This cave is The Best Cave I've ever seen. The Nam Long Plus Hotel in Dong Hoi organizes day trips to Paradise and Phong Nha Caves.

Historic (and restored) Hanoi is a contrast to the freeways and skyscrapers of Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi has ancient temples, traditional architecture, classic museums, and pretty parks.

There's also a contrast in lifestyle and culture between Hanoi and Saigon. Saigon, in the south, has a reputation for being relaxed and laid back, like Cambodia and Thailand. Hanoi, in the north, is known for being more aggressive and hard working, like its neighbor, China.

Vietcong Execution
February 1, 1968
Eddie Adams
Kent State
May 4, 1970
John Filo
Napalm Girl
June 8, 1972
Nick Ut
The Fall of Saigon
April 30, 1975
Francoise Demulder
What struck me most in Hanoi were the relics from the "American War". History is always told by the victors, of course. In Hanoi, the iconic photographs shown above are presented from the Vietnamese point of view. Everywhere I went, I was reminded me of the terrible war of my youth. I registered for the Draft when I turned 18. Fortunately, Nixon started withdrawing our troops that same month. I was never drafted. I was one of the lucky ones.

John McCain's flight suit is displayed in a glass case at the Hỏa Lò Prison, known affectionately by its inmates as the Hanoi Hilton. Nearby are photos of Mr. McCain smiling as he chats with his Vietnamese doctors. American POWs are shown playing baseball, decorating Christmas trees and living comfortable lives in prison. These photos are a sharp contrast to McCain's biography in which he describes the torture that he endured at the hands of his captors for five and a half years. One has to wonder whose story is true. Most likely the truth lies somewhere in between.

Ho Chi Minh is revered as the father of modern, independent, unified Vietnam. His body lies in state and is a pilgrimage destination for many Vietnamese, much as Mao Tse Tung is in Beijing. Ho's sandals are in a glass case in a nearby museum.

Hanoi is one of those places like Hiroshima that well-informed Americans are obligated to visit. Was this war worth fighting? Is any war worth fighting? Have we learned anything from these events? The stories told by the Vietnamese victims are similar to those told by the Kurds being attacked by ISIS in Syria today. The American use of Agent Orange is still causing birth defects in Vietnam. No matter where you stand on these issues, I think John McCain said it well:

I want to say this to anybody in the military:
If you don't know what your country is doing, find out.
And if you find you don't like what your country is doing,
get out before the chips are down.
John McCain's flight suit Sculptures made from downed American B-52s Ho Chi Minh's sandals
From Hanoi, I flew to Luang Prabang, a touristic town in northern Laos.

Laos is still recovering from 1965-1973, when the US ran 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, dropping a ton of bombs for every Laotian man, woman, and child. Like Cambodia, Laos also has minefields waiting to be cleared.

Having seen enough amputees and war museums in Cambodia and Vietnam, I was content to visit gilded temples and sip cold beer in cafes beside the Mekong River and watch the locals ferry their supplies back and forth across the river.

Always on the lookout for creative products made from natural materials, I was delighted to come across yet another use for bamboo. These simple bamboo tubes are analog acoustic amplifiers. Just place your iPhone into the slot provided (different models are available for various sizes of smart phones). Then enjoy your iTunes, amplified 3-4 times louder. Lightweight. Inexpensive. No batteries or wires required. This is a perfect product for micro-financing. Tourists were buying these up like hotcakes.
Growing up in Tennessee, I often heard squirrel referred to as the other white meat. Yet, I never saw squirrel for sale at the market − until I strolled through the meat and produce market in Luang Prabang. There were many other animals for sale at this market that aren't usually considered "food" in the west. This is either a testament to the rich variety of wildlife in Laotian forests, or an illustration of how unrestricted the Laotian diet is. After this, I studied restaurant menus more carefully.
Continuing west, I flew to Myanmar (Burma). Flying is the only way to get to this country, because its land borders are currently closed for security reasons.

There are many amazing things to see in Myanmar. But I came to Yangon for just one reason: To see the Shwedagon Pagoda, with its 27 metric tons of gold leaf, 1000s of diamonds and gems, and relics from four Buddhas. Why this 2600-year-old site wasn't included among the finalists of the New7Wonders competition is a mystery − or an indication of how little is known in the West about the wonders of Asia.

Wrapping up my six-country tour of southeast Asia, I went to Dhaka, the 10th largest city in the world.

With an area almost equal to Louisiana, and a population more than half of the US, Bangladesh is the most densely populated large country in the world. To picture life here, imagine cramming half of America into the Mississippi Delta, and then throw in a high birth rate, low income (the average income is $3/day), and a massive typhoon every few years.

Oh yes, there's one other detail: This is an Islamic country, with mosques in every neighborhood and calls to prayer five times a day.

In spite of the crowds, I enjoyed my brief visit to Dhaka. I expected to find a noisy city with unbreathable air. Instead, I was serenaded by the bicycle bells of 600,000 trishaws, and the calls of boatmen offering to row me across the Buriganga River. Thanks to all the non-polluting forms of transportation, I could breathe easily. Beijing take note!

As with Hanoi, I spent my time in Dhaka revisiting history that I'd almost forgotten. 1971 witnessed the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan − and one of the cruelest genocides of the 20th century. I have to admit that when I was 18, all I cared about what who was playing in George Harrison and Ravi Shankar's Concert for Bangladesh.

To anyone under 30 who reads this blog, I'd like to say: PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT'S HAPPENING IN THE WORLD TODAY!

April 4 − Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan is one of the most exclusive and pristine tourist destinations in the world thanks to the policies of Bhutan's Tourism Council:

I'm used to traveling independently for about $100/day, so I was initially put off by these rules. Now that I've seen Bhutan, I'd say that the daily cost is good value, and that these rules are the best way to preserve an unspoiled culture.

The Great Dzong at Phobjikha

Downtown Paro
Bhutan is small and friendly. It's about half the size of West Virginia, with a population of 700,000. It has one international airport. Only nine pilots (from Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines) are cleared to fly into the narrow airstrip tucked into Paro Valley ... and one of these pilots is the queen's father.

Clearing customs was a breeze. My tour company had notified immigration when I'd be arriving. I was greeted at passport control with a smile and something that sounded like "Welcome, we've been expecting you." This was a first.

From there, I was whisked to downtown Paro for the start of my 12-day Bhutan adventure.

In Bhutan, the most common tour group size is two, but since I was traveling alone, my group was half that size. For company, I had two very likeable fellows provided to me by Rainbow Tours & Treks: Sangay (guide) and Tshering (driver). They both spoke English and were excellent travel companions.

Through Sangay and Tshering, I learned about Bhutan, where cultural heritage, health, education, good governance, ecological diversity and individual well-being are more important than "growth economics". It's called Gross National Happiness.

For the next 12 days, we followed a detailed tour plan that I'd worked out in advance with Rainbow Tours. Yet we weren't tied to the plan at all. Depending on weather, road conditions, hunger or thirst, we deviated from the plan regularly. I liked having a personalized, flexible tour. The fact that my tour payment covered everything meant that there was never any negotiation about how much it would cost to do this instead of that. We just did whatever we wanted to do.

Sangay & Tshering

Naksel Boutique Hotel & Spa
Friends have emailed to ask what sorts of accommodations are available in Bhutan. Are the hotels primitive and funky like those in India and Nepal? Not at all.

Here's the beautiful Naksel Boutique Hotel & Spa where I spent four of my twelve nights in Bhutan. Note that this hotel is owned by Rainbow Tours & Treks. If you book your tour with Rainbow, you're likely to spend a few nights here. From my balcony, I could see Tiger's Nest. Gorgeous!

The Naksel is an illustration of how Bhutan seeks to encourage sustainable tourism. Instead of allowing hotels of varying quality to pop up all over the place to meet rising tourist demands, hotels in Bhutan must meet restrictions in terms of low-impact and high-quality.

One of my first adventures was a two-day trek in western Bhutan, from the Haa Valley to the Paro Valley. This afforded me the opportunity to see some of the remote countryside, visit farming villages, meet yak-herders, hike over a 4000-meter pass, and see some of the Himalayas.

This was a rather luxurious trek. My pack was carried by a mule. My lunches were served on picnic blankets at scenic rest stops. My tent was pitched for me, with a foam mattress, warm sleeping bag, multiple pillows and a hot water bottle at night. I ate dinner and breakfast in a tent on a folding table. The evening bonfire was prepared and lit for me. I did nothing but take photos, ask questions about the flora and fauna, and get a good night's sleep. For $250/day, this is what one might expect.

Village above the Haa Valley

Farmhouse in the Haa Valley
People in Bhutan are genuinely friendly. Perhaps this is because they aren't over-run by tourists. The Bhutanese don't mind having their photo taken. Their houses are beautifully painted and decorated, too. Later, I visited the Buddhist Art Craft School in Thimphu where artists and carpenters are trained to do the traditional woodwork and painting shown here.

Naturally, I learned and used as much Bhutanese as I could:

Thank you    Kaadinchhey la
Hello    Kuzoozangpo la
Delicious    Shim toto doo
Good wishes    Tashi delek
See you later    Log jay gay
I spent a night in a traditional farmhouse. There was electricity, but water was pumped by hand. Over a wood stove, my hostess cooked me one of my best meals in Bhutan, with amazing flavors from locally-grown ingredients. I tried her home-brewed rice wine, too. It was very potent. As the honored guest, I slept that night on a tatami in the family's shrine room.

No English was spoken here, so Sangay and Tshering served as my interpreters. This is the sort of experience that helps promote understanding, appreciation and respect for peoples of different cultures and lifestyles.

The next day, I visited my hosts' grandchildren at school where I learned that all instruction (except Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan) is taught in English. No wonder my young guides spoke such good English.

My hosts in Phobjikha Valley
Archery is Bhutan's national sport. Every town and village has an archery range, usually right in the middle of town. There are two leagues:
  • Traditional bamboo bows and arrows
  • Modern carbon-fiber bows with metal arrows
Both leagues shoot at targets that are no more than 20cm in diameter (tiny!), from distances of 140 meters (far!). It's impressive how often they hit the target at this distance. Archery competitions are fun to watch because they're accompanied by much dancing, singing and good-natured teasing.
Bhutan's national animal is the takin. This odd-looking, undomesticateable beast, is unique to the eastern Himalayas.

According to legend, the Bhutanese, wanting to test the magic powers of a Tibetan saint named Drukpa Kunley (aka “The Divine Madman"), brought him various animal parts to see if he could assemble them into a living creature. When the great master accomplished this feat, he instructed the animal to run free in the high mountain pastures and never to become a beast of burden.

This is how Bhutan got its national animal. This story, like many others which explain unusual mountain phenomena, is typical of the traditions, mysteries and folklore of Bhutan.

A takin in the Motithang Takin Preserve

The unveiling of the Great Thongrel in Paro
Bhutan celebrates with grand festivals (Tshechus) almost every month. I timed my visit so as to attend two of these Tshechus. In Paro, I witnessed the unveiling of the Great Thongrel, which is said to bring one good fortune. One can't be sure about the good fortune, but I got two days of music, dancing, pageantry and good food − plus more than 1000 photographs.

Click here for Bhutan's festival schedule for 2016.

Tshechus are religious events celebrating Guru Rimpoche (Guru Padmasambhava), Bhutan's patron saint. Entire communities come together for these events to witness religious mask dances, to receive blessings, and to socialize.

In Bhutan, everyone must attend a Tshechu and witness the mask dances at least once in order to receive blessings and wash away their sins. Mask dances performed during a Tshechu have special meanings or tell stories based on incidents from as long ago as the 8th century, during the life of Guru Padmasambhava. In monasteries the mask dances are performed by monks and in remote villages they are performed jointly by monks and village men.

Tshechus are excellent for people-watching. Everyone turns out, bringing their whole families, and dressed in their finest. Men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe which resembles a kimono tied at the waist. Women wear the Kira, an ankle-length dress with an outer jacket known as a Tego. Click here to see the handsome Ghos, Kiras, jewelry and smiling faces worn at the Tshechus.

I've been to festivals all over the world. In many countries, traditional festivals are put on for the sake of the tourists, and are therefore packed with tourists. Not so with Bhutan's Tshechus − an illustration of Bhutan culture being sustained through low-impact, low-volume tourism.

Last but not least, here's Bhutan's most photographed tourist site: Tiger's Nest, so named because Padmasambhava flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress.

Perched high up on a mountain face, the caves within this monastery have been meditation retreats for Buddhist monks for centuries. To get here, it's a 2-hour walk from the valley up a narrow flight of stairs, but well worth it for the temples and the vistas. Most folks go in the morning. If you go in the afternoon as I did, you may find that you'll have only the monks and birds for company.

I took this hike on my last day in Bhutan, capping off a fascinating visit to truly happy country.

Taktshang Goemba ("Tiger's Nest")
Have the Bhutanese discovered the secret to happiness? I certainly like their government's tourism policy, founded on sustainability. Bhutan has shown me how tourism can be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable.

Thanks to Bhutan's oversupply of hydroelectric power and a healthy tourist industry, there is economic growth. But economic growth is not seen as an end but rather as a means of achieving more important ends. This is how Bhutan achieves Gross National Happiness.

P.S. Here are three things that Bhutan doesn't have that make this country different from other places: No plastic bags, no traffic lights, and no tobacco.

April 21 − The Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa)

After a couple of weeks in landlocked Bhutan, I felt the need to see an ocean again, to walk barefoot on a sandy beach, and to swim in tropical blue waters. With Bangkok and Seoul being major airline hubs, it was surprisingly easy to get from Bhutan to Okinawa. It was also cheap. (One of the benefits of independent and flexible travel is being able to fly on days when airplanes are empty. I use kayak.com to surf for the best deals.)

In Okinawa, I met the Shisa, the traditional half-dog/half-lion symbol of the Ryukyu Islands, and learned about these beautiful islands, which are hospitable, historic and not entirely Japanese.

The Shisa, symbol of Okinawa

Shurijo Castle, showing strong Chinese influence
From the 15th to the 19th century, the Ryukyu Islands were home to a peaceful, maritime kingdom. Equidistant between China, Japan and Korea, Okinawa was a natural shipping hub for East Asia. Products, technology, art and culture flowed through Naha's port, while the Ryukyu kings maintained diplomatic relations with their larger neighbors.

All this changed in the 19th and 20th centuries when Okinawa's strategic location earned it the label of Keystone of the Pacific. These islands were first conquered, annexed and subjugated by Japan. Then in 1945, Okinawa was obliterated during the final months of World War II. Today, reconstructed castles, gardens, and a few archaeological sites are all that remain of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

One thing that hasn't changed is Okinawa's connection to the sea. The Churaumi Aquarium has the 3rd largest fish tank in the world − big enough to contain three whale sharks. Having never seen a whale shark in the wild, I was happy to sit for an hour to watch these enormous creatures swim around in their tank. The nearby Ocean Expo Park has dolphin shows, sea turtle nesting areas and a manatee breeding center. Not bad.

Of course, the seafood is excellent. (I'd forgotten how much I love sashimi.) Okinawan food is different from Japanese food. There's a Chinese influence in the noodle dishes, plus occasional Korean spices.

The Churaumi Aquarium

Americans and the Battle of Okinawa
The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest battle in the War of the Pacific. During this 3-month engagement, 96% of Okinawa's soldiers and 25% of its residents died. More people died during the Battle of Okinawa than all those killed during the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Okinawa's war museums tell the gruesome story from the Okinawan point of view. I was struck by the willingness of the Japanese soldiers and citizens to die for Japan and for their Emperor. I now appreciate Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was to prevent another Battle of Okinawa.

This photo shows a few of the 12,000 Americans who died here, including one possible Fairman relative.

For my travel lodging, I continue to use AirBnB.com. It's cheaper than hotels and gives me a chance to meet the locals. This is how I met a survivor of the Battle of Okinawa. Shimabukuro-san still lives in the same home where he was born in 1942. Over a bottle of his awamori, he told me how his parents hid him for three months while the battle raged all around them. Shimabukuro-san also taught me three useful phrases in Okinawan:
Hello    Hie sie
It's delicious    Quachi sabita
Thank you    Ni he debe

Although my Japanese is far from fluent, it's nice to be in a place where I can speak the language. It almost feels like home. When you travel all year long, it feels good to come "home" from time to time.

Shimabukuro-san, my host

Practicing for the Dragon Boat races
In Okinawa's port of Naha, Dragonboat races, known as hari, are held every year during the first week of May. This tradition of the Duanwu Festival in Okinawa dates back to the 15th century, during the era of the Ryukyu Kingdom's close relationship with China. Since then, the Okinawans have been holding Dragon Boat races in Naha for more than 500 years. I was sorry not to have been able to stay in Okinawa to see this week-long event. Next time!
But I've digressed ....

My main reasons for coming to Okinawa were to see the ocean, to walk barefoot on the beach, and to go swimming. I found all this in the Kerama Islands, just 25 km west of Naha. I settled on tiny Aka-Jima, an island 2km in diameter with a population of about 300. High season isn't until summer so I had the beaches to myself. Except for a tsunami warning, it was just the peace and quiet that I'd been looking for. I sat on the beach and thought about the places that I've been and the places that I still want to go − as well as the people I miss, and the people I look forward to seeing again.

May all your days have sunshine. I send you my very best.

Nishibama Beach, Aka Jima

May 7 − The DPRK (North Korea)

Visiting North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is surprisingly easy. Several tour companies, including Juche Travel, Koryo Tours, North Korea Travel Guide, and Young Pioneer Tours, offer packaged tours coordinated and controlled by the state-owned Korea International Travel Company.

In March, North Korea lifted its five-month Ebola travel ban and re-opened its doors to foreigners − except journalists and South Koreans, of course. While most visitors to the DPRK are Chinese, a few thousand western tourists visit every year. Last week, I joined Juche Travel and 19 other travelers (mostly from Europe) for a bizarre and educational adventure.

With no flights from Seoul to Pyongyang, I flew to Beijing, collected my DPRK visa, and met the folks in my tour. Next day, we continued together to Pyongyang via Air Koryo.

On arrival, my bag was thoroughly searched and x-rayed. The security officer checked the photos on my camera's memory card. There were none since I'd purposely bought a new SD card for this trip. (I left my laptop, GPS and iPhone with friends in Seoul.)

The first thing one sees in Pyongyang is its iconic 105-story Ryugyong Hotel. Construction started in 1987, but was halted when funding ran out in 1992 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The building is still unfinished.

The Ryugyong Hotel, aka "The Hotel of Doom"

Workers' Party Monument
I'd been forewarned that this tour would be a scripted visit to sites approved by the DPRK government. So, we saw lots of monuments and museums. We dined at restaurants with other western tourists. We stayed at the deluxe Koryo Hotel.

My group had two English-speaking KITC guides (and an unknown number of other handlers) who watched all our moves. We were not allowed to go outside alone. We were instructed when and where we could take photos. We were forbidden from entering most shops and stores. We were introduced to various people, but were gently guided away from contact with "local" folks.

North Korea doesn't have religion − it has Kimilsungism. Kim Il-Sung, DPRK's first president, is revered as a god. His birthplace is a pilgrimage site. Huge statues and pictures of him are everywhere. Our group was expected to purchase flowers and to bow to at least one statue of Kim Il-Sung every day.

Kim Il-Sung is often accompanied by his son Kim Jong-Il (1941-2011) in these statues and pictures. DPRK's current leader, Kim Jong-Un, is on the front page of every newspaper. When it's not showing DPRK-produced movies, the state-controlled TV channel shows continuous loops of 32-year-old Kim Jong-Un as a benevolent and wise leader.

The propaganda gets laid on pretty thick. Here are some of the statements that I heard or read:

Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994), The Great Leader
  • Korea is the Land of the Morning Calm because it’s the first country in Asia to see the sun every morning. (Don't tell this to Japan.)
  • Kim Il-Sung liberated Korea from half a century of occupation by the Japanese when he single-handedly forced Japan to surrender on August 15, 1945.
  • The US started the Korean War by its unprovoked attack against North Korea on June 25, 1950.
  • During the Korean War, Kim Il-Sung visited a typhoid ward and cured all the dying soldiers simply by shaking each man’s hand.
  • July 27 is celebrated as Victory Day in the DPRK because it’s the anniversary of Kim Il-Sung's winning the Korean War. Russia and China had very little to do with North Korea’s victory over America.
  • Kim Il-Sung developed the ideology of Juche (self-reliance) which has enabled the DPRK to become one of the world's most economically successful countries.
  • Kim Il-Sung authored approximately 10,800 reports, books, treatises and screen plays which fill 100 volumes in the Workers' Party of Korea Publishing House.
  • The North Korean constitution declares Kim Il-Sung the country's "Eternal President". Thus, even though he is dead, he remains the country's president, general-secretary of its ruling communist Worker's Party of Korea, and chairman of the Party's Central Military Commission.
  • There are more than 500 statues of Kim Il-Sung in North Korea.
  • A temple guide told me "Our monks have more respect and give more honor to our leaders than to Buddha."
  • People aren’t censored. "We just don’t allow outside music or fashions to influence us. There’s no need for censorship when there’s nothing to criticize in our country."
  • The DPRK uses a calendar which starts with Kim Il-Sung's birth in 1912. Thus, the year 2015 is their year 104.
  • His birthday, April 15, is a public holiday called "Day of the Sun".
  • Kim Il-Sung is the greatest man who ever lived.

Cadets practicing their formations
I was instructed on my first day not to take photos that include soldiers. In the DPRK, this is hard to do! There are soldiers everywhere. About 6% of North Korea's total population of 24 million is in the military, making it the world's 4th largest military force. (The next three photos were taken with my guide's special permission.)

The cadets shown to the left are practicing for an upcoming military parade. Click here to see a video of one of these impressive events.

The DPRK has a lot of military museums. The USS Pueblo is a major tourist attraction at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. As expected, the DPRK reports their version of their military history. I watched the videos, listened to the guides' presentations ... and kept my mouth shut. One must always consider the source of a fact.

Here're some facts from a different source: According to Transparency International, North Korea is tied with Somalia as the world's most corrupt country. About half of DPRK's wealth is controlled by a secret department known as Room 39. The Kim dynasty has been using this slush fund since the 70's to enable a policy of "gift politics" and to fund their nuclear weapons program.

The US spy ship, USS Pueblo

At Panmunjom in the DMZ
One of the highlights of my visit to the DPRK was a tour of Panmunjom in the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). I've been to the south side of this border, and wanted to see how the north differed. I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike the south, the atmosphere on the north is relaxed and casual. The DPRK soldiers act as tour guides. Tourists on the north are allowed to wave to the tourists on the south − but not vice versa.

Senior Lieutenant Hwang Myong Jin (shown here) took us around. I gave him a pack of Camels and he opened up by asking how it felt to be called “Imperialist”. I replied by conceding that my government has imperialist tendencies. We chatted one-on-one for about 5 minutes. This was one of the most candid and genuine conversation that I had with anyone during my visit to the DPRK. Sr. Lt. Hwang concluded with a comment that I've heard frequently on both sides of this contested border: "We must find a way to unite Korea."

Can Korea ever be one country? Only if the personality cult of the Kim dynasty ends AND if China and the US allow unification to happen.

International Worker's Day dancing in Kim Il-Sung Square

I timed my visit to the DPRK not just for good weather but for the festivities on May 1st, which is International Worker's Day. This is a national holiday in many countries, especially socialist ones. An estimated 10,000 people turned out in their finest costumes for an evening of dancing in the big square in the middle of the city. After the first 30 minutes of formal steps, tourists were invited to join in the fun. This was the happiest hour I spent in the DPRK. Dancing is a good way to forget one's worries. Click here for a 30-second video of this dancing.

Drummers at Mangyongdae Funfair
My government-approved tour included several live performances, including traditional dancing and drumming, an acrobatic circus, and a concert of rousing nationalistic songs. The quality of the performances was exceptional. I suspect that the performers were selected and trained from an early age and that they devote their entire lives to their superb performances.

I was also treated to a made-in-DPKR movie about socialism, athletic sports and family values. One of the primary messages to the audience was "Socialism makes the best athletes."

Pyongyang has a Metro. It consists of two lines. Daily ridership is estimated to be between 300,000 and 700,000. Construction of the metro network started in 1965, with stations opening between 1969 and 1972. It does not seem to have been upgraded since then.

Pyongyang Metro is one of the deepest metros in the world, with the track approximately 100 meters below ground. At this depth, it doubles as a bomb shelter.

Pyongyang Metro

Waiting for the bus

Because of economic sanctions, gasoline is rare and expensive in the DPRK. Consequently, there are very few cars or traffic. Those who don't take the metro ride bicycles or take the bus. Throughout the DPRK, I saw a lot of people standing in lines, whether for the bus or at stores to use their food ration coupons. This is about all of the "real" DPRK that I was allowed to see.

Whenever anything goes wrong, such as a blackout (which happens regularly), it's usually blamed on the American economic blockade. But really, the DPRK has a serious energy shortage. Click here to see the difference between North and South Korea at night.

This woman's face and her knotted hands sums up how the North Koreans seem to me. They seem afraid. Or worried. Or both. Perhaps half of the people are brain-washed, and the other half have learned not to say what they think.

I was anxious during my visit here. On arrival, the KITC collected everyone's passport, promising to return them when it was time to leave. To ensure that I'd get my passport back, I played the part of the respectful tourist. I didn't relax until my plane returned to Beijing.

The total cost of my 8 days and 7 nights in the DPRK was about $250/day, including airfare, visa, tips and my single-occupancy supplement. (Airfare was about 1/3 of the total cost.) For an all-inclusive tour, this is good value.

The best part of the trip were the other folks in my tour. The sorts of people who choose to go to North Korea aren't your usual tourists. My travel companions were worldly − some better-traveled than I.

DPRK is the most unknown country in the world. After 8 days, an impermeable barrier still separates me from the people and blurs whatever I try to learn about this place. There is, in the end, a sense of incompleteness. It was an educational and worthwhile experience, but not one that I'll repeat.

A museum guide

May 16 − Seoul (South Korea)

Cherry blossoms along the Han River (April 10)
One of the best things about traveling without an itinerary is that, when you find someplace you like, you can stay for a while. I arrived in Seoul five weeks ago, and have come to love this city. It's an agglomeration of markets and K-Pop, teahouses and temples, palaces and mountains, skyscrapers and neon. The city is clean and efficient. The people are friendly and helpful.

Seoul is especially beautiful in the springtime. When I arrived here, the cherry trees along the river were in full bloom, signaling the end of winter. I've now been here long enough to see spring turn into summer. If there weren't so many other places on my "bucket list", I could live here.

With Mikka 2015
Like Bangkok and Singapore, Seoul is a superb travel hub, with express trains to both airports, and discount flights from here to all of eastern Asia. I used Seoul as a base for my excursions to Okinawa and North Korea.

The main reason that I came to Seoul was to meet my daughter and her boyfriend who flew here from San Francisco. My son and daughter have an open invitation to join me wherever I travel. If I'm going to a country that they want to visit, all they have to do is to send me an email, and I'll send them money for the airfare, and cover their expenses while we travel together. What better way to spend time with one's adult kids?

The last time I was in Seoul was in 1982. This city has changed a lot since then. So have I.

Seoul 1982

The view from my 14th floor apartment balcony

Since 1982, Seoul has been transformed from a disheveled factory town full of sweat shops and street markets, to a gleaming 1st world metropolis. Although people here are busy, they still have time to be polite and relaxed. The food's great. The air is clean. The cost of living is reasonable. I rented an economical apartment on AirBnB with a million-dollar view. Click here to book your stay at my apartment in Seoul.

I appreciate cities that have good public transit. Seoul is a public transport dream come true. The subways run on time. They're spotless. For about a dollar, you can get anywhere in the city. With trains running every couple of minutes during rush hour, they're not very crowded.

Excuse me for ranting, but America is falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to public transit. We've neglected to invest in alternatives to the automobile. It’s hard to overstate how important this is. Bad transit doesn’t just upset people, or encourage them to drive. It saps a city’s economic vitality. It extends distances, pushing people away from their jobs, their friends and their families. The recent news of the Philadelphia train derailment is a symptom of a public transit system that's unreliable and getting worse. Wake up America.

Sparkling clean subway in Seoul

Changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace
I don't usually like cities, but Seoul has been a pleasant surprise.

In addition to spotless subways, great food, stunning architecture, upscale malls, traditional markets, and friendly people, Seoul has plenty of tourist attractions: Museums, palaces, gardens, etc.

With my daughter's guidance, I discovered a facet of this city that goes unnoticed by most foreign tourists. Seoul is the capital of the video gaming industry − also known as eSports.

If you're over 25 years old, you have no idea who the 19-year-old Korean kid is to the right. He's considered by some to be the world's best League of Legends player. According to eSports Earnings, Faker is the highest paid League of Legends player in history with single-day earnings of over US$270,000. Two weeks ago, I saw his team (SK Telecom) win the 2015 LCK Spring Playoffs, for a cash prize of about $90k. Yes, this young man is every geek's dream come true: He gets paid mega-bucks to play video games.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, don't feel bad. You're simply out of touch with a phenomenon that's so new that most people haven't heard of it yet. But it's coming.

Lee "Faker" Sang-Hyeok

League of Legends broadcast studio
eSports are played at both the amateur and professional level. League of Legends is one of the most popular of these games. According to Forbes, there are currently 67 million active LoL players worldwide.

eSports is only about five years old. The number of viewers and players doubles every 12 months. Last year's League of Legends World finals had twice as many viewers as baseball's World Series. This is why Amazon.com paid a billion dollars for Twitch.com to broadcast these matches on-line.

eSports is very big business in Korea, Taiwan and China, but it's catching on all over the world. American colleges are starting to offer eSports scholarships. Will eSports someday replace traditional sports?

League of Legends fans

In Seoul, fans queue up for hours to buy tickets to watch their heroes compete against each other. The fans at these events are true fanatics, dressing up as their favorite virtual champions. Yes, it's weird. Why would anyone want to watch someone else play a video game? I don't know. But they're having fun.

So now the question that I'm asking myself is this: The North Korean border is just 50km from Seoul. On the other side of that line are people old and young, dressed in drab coveralls, planting rice by hand, sleeping in unheated homes, without access to the internet, and worshipping a young ruler who thinks he's the grandson of God. On both sides of this border, I've heard people talk about their dream for a unified Korea. But how can these two cultures come together?

I've never seen two groups of people living so close to each other, sharing a common history and language, yet so totally different. The difference between these two peoples is more than just day and night, or yin and yang. The difference is like life and death.

June 7 − Trains across Siberia

Ferry from Donghae, South Korea to Vladivostok, Russia
I'm tired of airplanes, of having to be at airports two hours before my flight, of standing in lines, of being searched by security, of cramming myself into seats with no legroom, and of arriving at airports miles from the city center.

So, my goal is to return to the Black Sea without taking an airplane. My journey began with a train across Korea to the Eastern Sea. With typical Korean efficiency, the train delivered me to the dock at Donghae, where I stepped onto the Eastern Dream. 24 hours later, I stepped off in Vladivostok, the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Because of its bays and bridges, Vladivostok is sometimes called "The San Francisco of Russia". I spent three days here getting used to being in a new country. I changed money, learned the Cyrillic alphabet ...


... and memorized a few handy phrases, including the most important one of all:

Spasibo (Thank you)

Vladivostok − my first view of Russia

My first providnista
The Trans-Siberian railway is an ideal way to enjoy a hop-on/hop-off tour of Russia. Stations are located in the middle of the cities. There are automated kiosks, ticket windows and a website where one can buy tickets. The trains are comfortable, clean and safe. The restaurant cars have hot food and cold beer. I travel 2nd class, which is good enough for me. I often travel at night which saves on having to book a hotel. I find that I can sleep quite well on the trains. Best of all, I meet nice people on the trains.

Every car has two providnistas who work in shifts managing the 36 passengers in her car. They check your tickets, provide sheets and towels, sell snacks, and wake you up when it's time to get off the train.

In the past 3 weeks, I spent about 140 hours on Russian trains, riding from Vladivostok west to Novosibirsk and then south into Kazakhstan. I've crossed five of Asia's ten time zones, and traveled almost 8000 km. Traveling by rail has given me a chance to see what Siberia really looks like, and to appreciate the vast expanse of eastern Russia. (Siberia makes Montana seem small.)

The scenery has been somewhat monotonous: Hours and hours of tundra, stunted trees, ice-cold lakes, meandering rivers, wetlands, farming communities, and an occasional modern city.

Meanwhile, it's been a very relaxing ride. The train is a great place to get some reading done, to watch a few movies on my laptop, and to practice my Russian.

The Trans-Siberian Railway

A home-cooked Siberian lunch
Every few hours, the train stops for 15-20 minutes. This is an opportunity to stretch one's legs and to get a bite to eat. The home-cooked meals served by the babushkas at the train stops are consistently authentic and delicious. From the woman shown here, I bought ...
Syrniki    Cottage-cheese fritters
Solyanka    Pickled vegetables
Pelmeni    Pasta dumplings stuffed with pork
Holupki    Meatloaf wrapped in cabbage leaves
When the train stopped at Lake Baikal, everyone hopped off to stock up on smoked omul, a cousin of salmon and trout.

The cold beer to compliment this meal is available in the restaurant car, which is where I spend a lot of time.

One of the conveniences of train travel is that train stations tend to be in the middle of cities. When I walked out of the station in Ulan-Ude, I walked into the central square where I was greeted by Vladimir Lenin (his head, actually), and a huge school choir singing patriotic and traditional songs.

This was a typical welcoming experience − quite a contrast to arriving at an airport full of security police and then having to organize a taxi 40km into town. How civilized to alight from a train and to be exactly where you want to be!

A choral concert in Ulan-Ude

Irkutsk's Bogoyavlensky Cathedral (1718)
Siberia was settled a few centuries ago. The streets were laid out and the markets and buildings were constructed long before the automobile was invented. Consequently, the cities are compact and walk-able.

Siberian cities look very different from anyplace I've seen in the past few months. Every city has historic neighborhoods of wooden houses with gingerbread trim, plus two or three stunning orthodox cathedrals. (In 1997, the Orthodox Church was legally recognized as Russia's primary religion and has resumed the role it had in tsarist days.) I spent 2-3 days in each major train stop gawking at unusual architecture, especially at the gorgeous, newly-restored churches.

The architecture isn't the only thing that's different here. Although this is Asia, the people look different, too. Many people are tall, blonde and blue-eyed − nothing like the faces of the rest of Asia.

All the Russians I've met are open, friendly, fun, and eager to practice their English − or at least use sign language to communicate with a foreigner. The most common topics are Putin, Obama and food.

I wish I spoke more Russian. There's not much English spoken in Siberia. Someday, I'll return to Russia to visit Moscow and the western half of this country. But before I do, I'll take a beginning course in Russian.

Khabarovsk local guide and cathedral

Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal is the most beautiful place I've visited this year. It's stunning and serene. Snow-capped mountains border the lake on both sides. With shifting sunlight, the water changes from turquoise, to indigo, to silver. This is the deepest lake in the world at 1635 meters. That's more than a mile deep! It has more water in it than the five Great Lakes combined. The sparkling cold water is clean enough to drink. In winter, the lake becomes a wonderland of white snow and emerald ice. It's no surprise that this place is a revered pilgrimage site. I stayed four nights in the middle of Lake Baikal on 72-km-long Olkhon Island at Nikita’s Homestead. Highly recommended!

Tchaikovsky’s Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden)
No trip to Russia would be complete without a trip to the ballet. For 500 rubles − about the cost of lunch − I bought a ticket to what turned out to be Tchaikovsky’s Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden). I think it was performed by the Moscow ballet troop or the Bolshoi. It was a fabulous performance. Socialist governments are to be commended for subsidizing the arts.
I've never been into the bar scene as a way of meeting people. But restaurant cars on Russian trains are ideal places to strike up lively conversations and make new friends − which is one of the best things about traveling.

From Novosibirsk, I'm heading south. I've just crossed over into Kazakhstan, which reminds me of another wonderful thing about train travel: When crossing an international border by train, instead of standing in long lines at customs and immigration windows, you get to relax in your cabin − sleeping, reading, eating and talking with friends − until the customs officials come to you to stamp your passport.

I'm still on the train as I finish this chapter of my blog. Soon, I'll be having lunch in Almaty, southern Kazakhstan. From my window, I can see the snowcapped Zailiysky mountains on the horizon. Stay tuned for further adventures.

Three oilfield workers, a surgeon and a nomad

June 25 − Central Asia & The Silk Road

Central Asia is where global commerce began, where ancient cultures mixed, and where East met West. The oases and markets in this region were the caravan stopping points along the Great Silk Road. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane all recognized Central Asia as the key to wealth and power.

For three weeks, I followed the Silk Road for about 1000 km which, although only a fraction of its entire length, was enough to get a feel for what early explorers must've seen and felt when they traveled this route. Like Marco Polo, I feel as though I've discovered an important part of our world that I didn't know existed.

Silk Road Crossings


With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the "stans" became independent nations, each with its own language, culture and traditions. Kazakhstan is the largest of these new nations and the world’s 9th-largest country. I joined the Silk Road in Almaty, Kazakhstan's biggest city.

Thanks to abundant oil reserves, Kazakhstan is the most economically advanced of the "stans". With this prosperity, Almaty is a city of leafy avenues, well-maintained city parks, chic cafes, glossy shopping centers, and a first-class ski resort in its backyard. Located between a vast, dry plain and a steep mountain range, Almaty reminded me a little bit of Denver.

The Zenkov Cathedral in Almaty

Interior of the Zenkov Cathedral
Almaty was a good place to get off the train and relax for a while. This is a very livable city. Public transit is easy to use. In the center of town, every other street is a pedestrian walkway. The opera house has performances five nights a week. Nice restaurants are on every corner.

Although the "stans" are mostly Islamic, Kazakhstan is about 25% Russian Orthodox. Colorful Zenkov Cathedral is built entirely of wood (including the nails). Built in 1904, it's one of Almaty’s few surviving tsarist-era buildings.

After a month in flat Siberia, I was pleased to see some real mountains. A 20-minute bus ride took me from downtown to the ski lifts, which lifted me to almost 3400 meters.

If Almaty is in your travel plans, here's an excellent AirBnB apartment in the center of town.

Talgar Pass in the Zailiysky Alatau range


Kyrgyzstan is on the other side of the Zailiysky Alatau Mountains from Almaty. Whereas most of Kazakhstan is flat and dry, Kyrgyzstan is a land of mountains, glaciers, alpine meadows, rushing streams, deep forested valleys, and one very large and very beautiful lake called Issyk-Köl.

For centuries, Kyrgyzstan has been a land of semi-nomadic, yurt-dwelling shepherds. Today, Kyrgyzstan continues to welcome nomads like me with its visa-free travel for all tourists.

More than 170km long and 70km across, Lake Issyk-Köl is the world’s second-largest alpine lake after Lake Titicaca. Though at 1600 meters elevation, the lake doesn't freeze in winter due to extreme depth, thermal heating and mild salinity. Snow-capped peaks surround the lake on three sides. The lake's micro-climate moderates the temperature along the shore. The beaches, especially on the south side, are clean and sandy.

After a swim in the crystal blue water, you can enjoy a cup of tea at one of the yurts where the locals live during the summer months. The locals also serve a traditional drink called kymys, made from fermented horse milk. I tried it. The tea was better.

Erecting a yurt on the shore of Issyk-Köl

Holy Trinity Cathedral in Karakol
Kyrgyzstan has a frontier wild-west feel. Karakol, the main town at the east end of Issyk-Köl, was only founded in 1869. With lumber for the primary building material, the town has many gingerbread timber houses.

I liked this charming all wood cathedral. In a country that's mostly wilderness, this was a small sign of civilization.

Barskoön Valley, en route to the Kumtor Gold Mine (4200m)

The Lonely Planet guide recommends against renting a car in Kyrgyzstan because the roads are poorly maintained and because the police are notorious for extorting bribes − especially from foreigners. But I did it anyway because it was the only way to get to some of the remote places I wanted to go.

Inevitably, on my first day, I was caught in a speed trap doing 90 in a 60 kph zone. I pulled over and queued up with the other drivers making payments to the officers. Expecting the worst, I had various denominations of US currency tucked in my shirt pocket. When it was my turn to be cited, I presented my passport, title, insurance and license, smiled and said "Hello."

The three cops studied my Michigan driver's license carefully. One pointed to the big blue letters at the top and read phonetically "Mich-e-lin". The other two nodded and repeated "Michelin ... Michelin ...!". There was some discussion in Kyrgyz. The three looked me over. Then, one of them asked "You Kyrgyzstan like okay?" I responded "Yes, da!" and gave a thumbs up. The police nodded to each other, smiled, returned my documentation, shook my hand warmly, and wished me a good day. I guess the cops here aren't as corrupt and troublesome as I'd been told. Perhaps it helps to be from Michelin.

My other lucky break was having a flat tire ... right in front of the only tire repair shop in the region. The mechanics had the tire off, patched, and back on the rim − in 30 minutes for $2, including a tip which was received with big smiles.


Uzbekistan is the center of Asia. It's both the middle of nowhere and the middle of everything. For centuries, it was the mid-point on the Great Silk Road, where the northern and southern trade routes met. This is a land of despotic emirs and desert castles, a region swept regularly by invaders from Greece, Persia and Mongolia. It's the heartland of Tamerlane, from his birthplace and his capital, to his mausoleum.

Before coming here, I had few expectations about this country. Like most of you reading this blog, I had to look at a map to figure out where Uzbekistan is. I've been thoroughly surprised and delighted by what I've found here, and will probably return.

Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent
Tashkent is Uzbekistan's capital. It's a big modern city with broad tree-lined avenues, city parks with fountains, an efficient metro, lots of hotels, mosques and museums, and a very big marketplace (bazaar) that sells everything that grows and is edible.

The Chorsu Bazaar meat market
I found it very easy to start conversations with Uzbeks, even when we had no common language.

Traditional costumes are worn not for the sake of the tourists, but because that's how the people still live here.

Uzbeks observe "Islam lite." The minarets did not call me to prayers at dawn. Ramadan is observed optionally, and usually for a few days at a time.

I saw few tourists in Uzbekistan − perhaps because most of them have the good sense not to visit Uzbekistan in the heat of the summer. Afternoons were in the 40s (over 100⁰F).

Uzbekistan has a problem with its currency. The largest bill is 5000 som, which is worth about a dollar. But most of the time, all that one sees is the 1000 som note (worth 23₵).

On my first day in Tashkent, I changed $100 US into som and received four and a half bundles of money wrapped in rubber bands. It was way too much paper to put into my wallet. So, I stuffed one wad into each of the pockets of my REI cargo pants. (I was glad I had lots of pockets.)

The good news is that nothing costs very much here. A beer is less than a dollar. The overnight train from Bukhara to Tashkent, costs about $15.

$23 worth of Uzbekistan soms

The Registan in Samarkand
The three medressas that form Samarkand's Registan plaza is arguably the most awesome single sight in Central Asia. The three grand edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved medressas. The gold covered interior of the mosque (see below) reflects the great wealth of the Timurid Empire in the 15th century when Bukhara was the most visited oasis on the Silk Road.

As I mentioned above, I didn't know what to expect from Uzbekistan. I was impressed!

Inside the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa's mosque

Mosques, minarets, medressas and markets in Bukhara
Central Asia’s holiest city, Bukhara has buildings spanning a thousand years of history, and a thoroughly lived-in old town that hasn’t changed much in recent centuries.

The warren of markets, arcades and bazaars shown here have multi-domed roofs designed to draw in cool air.

For more than 2000 years, Uzbekistan has been the place to go shopping in Asia. Uzbekistan's bazaars are still alive and well, doing brisk trade in silk, gold and ceramics.

One of the things that impressed me about Uzbekistan is the quality of their handicrafts. To the right is a photo of something that I bought in Bukhara. It's 100% silk and hand-made − the typicial embroidery from this region known as suzani. Hey, I'm on the Silk Road, so I should buy some silk, right?

Of course, I have no place to put this thing, but it was too lovely to pass up. Maybe someday I'll hang it in my tent somewhere.

Suzani for sale

Ochilov & Ilkhom from the Uzbekistan Mining Institute
On my last night in Uzbekistan, I took the train from Bukhara to Tashkent. In my cabin were two language instructors from Uzbekistan's Mining Institute. By the time we'd finished the first bottle of vodka, I'd been hired to teach geology at their institute next spring. Before we went to sleep, they agreed to include an apartment in the deal. The next morning, with typical Uzbek hospitality, they drove me to the airport for my flight to Azerbaijan. I really like Uzbekistan. If this teaching assignment works out, I'll be back.

July 22 − Return to the Caucasus

For the past 10 months, I've travelled around Asia. I've visited 22 countries. I learned how to say "Hello" and "Thank you" in 12 languages. I've made genuine friends in fascinating places. I've compressed a lifetime of experiences into less than a year. It seems fitting to return to the place where I began this journey.

The Caucasus is home to 50 ethnic groups, each with its own customs, foods, clothing, art, and architecture. Medieval scholars believed that these are the peoples who were scattered when God wrecked the Tower of Babel. At least 37 indigenous languages are spoken here. Ossetians speak a language related to Farsi. Georgians speak a language whose closest relative is Basque. I've been looking forward to spending more time here.

Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan − Mountains of languages


When I left South Korea two months ago, my goal was to cross Asia from the Pacific to the Black Sea without taking an airplane. But Turkmenistan said Nyet! to my transit visa request. So, my first view of the turquoise Caspian Sea was from a window on Uzbekistan Airways.

I had no idea what to expect of Azerbaijan, except that this is an oil-rich country. Oil wells have been operating in Baku since the 1840s. The Nobels and the Rothschilds made their fortunes here. In 1900, Azerbaijan accounted for half of the world’s oil production. What I found here is a modern nation built on top of ancient empires, well-funded by gasnoil.

The Old City of Baku, Flame Towers in background
Baku has a well-restored Old City core of sultan palaces, museums, cobblestone streets, fortress walls and a Unesco-listed watchtower so old that no one knows who built it. The rest of Baku features a sparkling new metro, gleaming city parks with fountains, upscale shopping, entertainment and dining areas, and mushrooming glass skyscrapers. Baku's elevation is -28 metres, which makes it the largest city in the world located below sea level.

In ancient times, natural gas leaked from the ground near Baku. These gas vents often burned spontaneously giving rise to the area being called Atashgah, which is Persian for "home of fire". Temples at this site may have been the first Zoroastrian shrines. From the word Atashgah, this country became known as Azerbaijan.

Baku put itself on the map this year by hosting the 1st European Games. I timed my visit to Baku to see some of these games. Although I only managed to see a couple of sporting events, I accidentally booked myself in the same hotel with the Russian women's volleyball team, so I got to see lots of athletes. (Sorry, no photos.) I've promised myself to learn Russian before I return to this part of Asia.

The photo to the right is an example of Shabaka. These stained-glass windows are a traditional Azeri art form made without glue or nails. Shabaka fill walls and window openings of halls and rooms in palaces and hotels, harmonizing with the composition of the building’s façade.

Traditional Azeri stained glass

The Karavansarai in Şәki
The Silk Road, or one branch of it, once passed through Azerbaijan. Travelers in old times needed safe, comfortable places to stay, to rest their animals and to do business. Consequently, Azerbaijan has some colorful old inns out in the countryside.

I'd read that the town of Şәki (Sheki) "snoozes amid green pillows of beautifully forested mountains". The clerk at my hotel in Baku told me that Şәki is Azerbaijan’s loveliest town. This is how I ended up spending two days at the beautiful, old (and inexpensive) Karavansarai Hotel. This was my base for exploring a more rustic part of Azerbaijan. Truly, one of the best things about traveling is discovering quite, unspoiled corners of our planet.

Ahh ... and then there's Plov, the signature dish of Azerbaijan. This is made from saffron-covered rice, served with various meats, herbs and greens. The finished product is a mix of yellow and white rices, topped with sweet and savory nuggets of flavor. Azerbaijani cuisine includes more than 40 different plov recipes. Photos don't begin to do express how delicious this meal was. If you'd like to know what it tasted like, here's a recipe. Good luck!

When I was in central Asia, I didn't post any photos of food because ... well ... a kabob is a kabob, and beer is beer. However, with my first meal in the Caucasus, I knew I was once again in a land of fine food. This was also the first time in months that I enjoyed a really good local wine.

Plov with lamb, dates and chestnuts


The border between Azerbaijan and Armenia is closed due to on-going conflicts and disputes over lands occupied and claimed by both sides. So, I passed through Georgia en route to Armenia.

Again, I didn't know what to expect about this small landlocked country. I found a proud and handsome people, working hard and committed to recovering from the atrocities inflicted against them during the 20th century. The cost of living is modest. Transportation is still a bit primitive. The food is great. The people are warm and welcoming.

Taking hay to market in rural Armenia
To really see Armenia, you need your own transportation. Renting a car in Georgia would have required driving in Georgia − where traffic accidents are almost as common as in India. Although the fellow shown to the left might've been willing to give me a ride, I decided on a tour with Envoy Hostel & Tours and was pleasantly surprised.

Rural Armenia is as rustic as it gets. Some villages look as though they haven't changed in centuries. During the Soviet era, factories, mines and railroads were built to make use of local labor and to extract Armenia's limited natural resources. But since 1991, Armenia has returned to its traditional ways of farming and herding.

Armenia became the world's first officially Christian state when King Tiridates III made Christianity the state religion in 301 AD, 36 years before Emperor Constantine was baptized. Consequently, Armenia is full of really old churches. They're all amazing, not just for their age and for their frescos, but for the fact that many survived the Soviet era and are still working churches today with services held regularly.

What surprised me in Armenia was to find the Temple of Garni, probably built 1st century AD. It was constructed to honor the sun god Mihr. It's the only Greco-Roman colonnaded building in Armenia and the entire former Soviet Union. As you can see by all the tourists in this photo, this is not an unknown site, but remarkable just the same.

Garni Temple, 1st century

A big bakery in Aparan, Armenia
Can you smell the fresh bread coming out of the ovens at this bakery? Armenian bread has lots of shapes and flavors, and it's fresh with every meal.

As the story goes, when God was handing out countries to all the peoples of the Earth, the Armenians were late and arrived after all the good lands had been distributed. God said "I'm sorry but all that I have left are some rocky hills where only thorns and wild grasses grow. At least, there are lakes and rivers, so you'll have water." So, the Armenians made the best of what they were given, and learned to grow wheat and bake bread.

Today, agriculture and herding are their main industries. 25% of their income comes from Armenians living overseas. Of the 8 million Armenians alive today, 5 million live outside of Armenia.

Although rug experts disagree, many believe that the "oriental carpet is neither of nomadic origin, nor do its origins lie in Central Asia. It is a product of ancient oriental civilizations in the Armenian Uplands at the crossroads of the oldest trade routes between west, north and south." In other words, all those wonderful rugs that we attribute to Persia, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the Orient have their origins in the weaving and knot tying traditions of Armenia.

Someday, when I have a house (ha!), I'll come back here to buy my carpets.

Armenian rugs for sale
The capital of Armenia is Yerevan. In sharp contrast to rural Armenia, Yerevan feels like an affluent European outpost, with boulevards, high fashion, fast cars, parkside cafes, dozens of theatres, concert halls, galleries and live music clubs.

A performance at the Yerevan Opera House

Something that I appreciate about socialist countries is the way that the government subsidizes the arts. For about $2, I had a balcony box seat to a memorable evening of national dances and songs at the Yerevan Opera House.

When I was a child, my grandparents used to scold me if I didn't eat everything on my plate. "Think of the starving Armenians" they would say. I didn't realize the full implication of this scolding until I went to the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan.

A century ago, the Ottoman Turks carried out a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing through which 1.5 million Armenians were killed. The shocking brutality of this extermination may have provided a rational for the Holocaust. As Hitler wrote in 1939 "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

It's because of this genocide that there is a diaspora of 5 million Armenians living outside of Armenia. Travel can be an eye-opening experience.

Memorial to the Armenian Genocide (1894-1923)


Returning to Georgia felt like coming home. Although I still don't speak much Georgian, I'm starting to understand it. When I crossed into Georgia, the immigration officer greeted me warmly, and I responded with a hearty didi madloba! (thank you!)

Georgia is one of my favorite places in the world. It's a beautiful place. The food and wine are superb. This is a country of very big-hearted people ... and also very big people. The men all have pot bellies. Georgian women say that a man without a belly is like a house without a balcony. Okay, so pass the khinkali, pour some more Saperavi, and let's tell jokes about God and Armenians.

Georgia's patron saint
When God was handing out countries, the Armenians were late, which was why they ended up with a bunch of rocky hills. But the Georgians didn't even show up ... at least, not until Sunday, God's day of rest. The Georgians explained to God that they were late because they'd been celebrating in His honor, eating His food, drinking toasts to Him, dancing for Him and singing praises to His name. God was moved (or perhaps amused) by the Georgians and said "Well, there was this little valley that I was saving for myself, and I suppose I'll have to give it to you." This is how Georgians ended up with the most beautiful country on Earth.

One day, two men arrived at the Pearly Gates. One was an Armenian priest. The other a Georgian taxi driver. St.Peter explained that Heaven was crowded and that he only had room for one of them. He thought for a moment, and decided to admit the taxi driver. The priest asked "Why him and not me?" St.Peter explained "Everyone slept through your services, but everyone prayed while he was driving."

When I was teaching in Batumi last fall, I didn't have time to travel around. On this visit, I spent some quality time in the capital, Tbilisi. It's a charming place, with lots of character, cobblestone streets, and old buildings that look as though they're about to fall down.

Summer is the perfect time to enjoy the casual outdoor cafes and the great food. Here's an excellent AirBnB apartment in the middle of the Old Town with a rooftop terrace.

Nariqala Fortress and Tbilisi's Old Town

Tbilisi's clock tower
This old clock tower is typical of what you'll find in Tbilisi's old city. Note the steel beam on the left side propping up the tower to keep it from falling. A lot of Tbilisi is like this. Over the centuries, Georgia has been attacked by invaders from north, south, east and west. Perhaps Georgians have tired of rebuilding after every invasion.

Although Georgia has some modern buildings, the architects and city planners don't try to compete with the skyscrapers of Baku or the broad boulevards of Yerevan. Georgians seem to like to keep their old relics around. They add charm to the place.

If Armenia was the first Christian country, Georgia wasn't far behind, and has legends to authentic its early Christian traditions.

In the first century AD, a Georgian brought Jesus’ robe back to Georgia. Returning home, he was met by his sister who upon touching the robe died immediately from the power of this sacred object. The robe could not be removed from her grasp, so she was buried with it.

Georgia's first church was built above her grave in the 4th century. The current Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the model for all other churches in Georgia.

Mtskheta's Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (11th century)
There's something very playful and casual about Georgia that I really love. Maybe it's the fact that the priests can wear cowboy hats. Something I learned about Georgia's Orthodox priests is that they must marry. In fact, a priest can't be ordained in Georgia until he has a wife. Maybe this would be a good idea for Catholic priests. The Orthodox church also says contraception is okay. Another good idea!
Up near Georgia's northern border with Russia is stunning Mount Kazbek, a dormant stratovolcano, and the third highest mountain in Georgia. In typical Georgian humility and humor, this mountain is named after Alexander Kazbegi, a 19th century poet, journalist, novelist, playwright and ... shepherd.

Mt.Kazbek (5047m), Tsminda Sameba Church in foreground

According to legend, Prometheus was chained on this mountain in punishment for having stolen fire from the gods and having given it to mortals.

The Tsminda Sameba Church (2170m)
Perched on the slope of Mount Kazbek is the 14th century Tsminda Sameba Church, a symbol of Georgia's beauty, piety and fierce determination. In times of danger, precious relics from Mtskheta, including Saint Nino's Cross, were brought here for safekeeping.

In 1988, the Soviets built a cable-car lift from the town to the church. The people of Kazbegi felt it defiled their sacred place and destroyed it. Today, the walk from town to church is a rigorous one hour hike ... or a 30-minute ride in a 4x4.

This church and the mountains around it are the most photographed site in Georgia.

Exuberant and enthusiastic are two words for describing the Georgian spirit, which is best expressed in traditional Georgian dancing. Living and working in Georgia, I've seen these dances at weddings and at public performances. It's gratifying to see this tradition preserved in the 21st century. The dance shown here was part of an evening of free performances in the summer theater in the park near my apartment.

When I taught English last fall, Batumi was a relatively quiet town. Now that it's summer, the parks and beaches are alive and active until after midnight. One tradition that I especially enjoy is that pianos are placed throughout the park to encourage people to gather, play and sing together. What fun!

Traditional Georgian Dance

Black Sea beaches in July
Last December, I used to take long walks on the beach after teaching school all day. I would rarely see another person. July is a different scene. The kiosks, restaurants, bars and gift shops that were washed away by last November's storms have been rebuilt. The Turkish, Ukrainian and Russian tourists will soon be as pink as cooked lobsters.
This post concludes my circumnavigation of Asia. I've been gone for 10 months. I've met many wonderful people, done some volunteering, and learned about places and cultures that I knew nothing about. In particular, I've learned how important it is to preserve our planet's natural environments. To this end, here's a good cause that I now support.

Most folks think of vacation as the time to go traveling. When I take vacation, I go home. I'm looking forward to going home to a cottage in Michigan, to sit, to read ... and to plan my next journey.

Sunset over the Black Sea

I've now travelled to about 100 countries. I'm often asked which one I like the best. I can't begin to choose just one place, so I've nominated my favorites and posted a music video on youtube. Please click here to see my Top 15.
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