Kenai Fjords National Park – Alaska

In August of 1995, I made my annual trek back to Alaska to visit friends and family. The 5 ½ hour nonstop Delta Airlines flight from LAX to Anchorage was very smooth and quite enjoyable. As we passed over Vancouver Island, a superb dinner was served – fresh King salmon filet topped with Hollandaise sauce, along with crispy asparagus, grilled red bell peppers and mixed rice. The chilled glass of 1992 Haywood chardonnay went very well with the baked salmon. Later, a nice tart, yet creamy, lemon-lime cheesecake was served for dessert, along with a glass of Port.

In the early evening, we landed in Anchorage, and as I headed to the baggage claim area, I ran into Leslie Kerr, my friend from the days of working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It turned out that she was returning from a vacation in Florida before beginning her new position as the manager of the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge in Kotzebue. We chatted for a few minutes and arranged to meet for breakfast the next morning. I picked up my bags and the rental car, then headed downtown to the Hilton Hotel. As I checked in, I was upgraded to a very nice suite on the 20th floor, overlooking the harbor, and Mt McKinley, had it been clear weather!

Map of National Parks in Alaska
Map of Kenai Fjords National Park

From the Hilton, I walked around the corner to “F-Street Station” for a plate of the world’s best Halibut and chips, accompanied by a cold pint of Alaskan Amber Ale. The place was crowded with locals and tourists alike, which made for some interesting people watching. After a couple of pints of Alaskan Amber, I walked back to the hotel in the light rain, which is so typical of Anchorage summer weather. Even though it was almost 11pm, there was still enough daylight to read a newspaper outside!

The next morning, I joined Leslie Kerr for a classic Alaskan breakfast at “Snow City Café” – crab omelet, home fried potatoes, sourdough toast, and huckleberry jam! Later in the morning, I drove to my old condo in Alpine Village at the foot of the Chugach Mountains on the east side of Anchorage to check on my renters. I found there had been some nice improvements made in the property, as well as some beautiful new landscaping. It remains a wonderful setting, just as I remembered it when I left Alaska for southern California in 1985. In the afternoon, I spent time roaming around the Saturday Arts and Crafts Market downtown. In addition to the many local artists and crafts people, I saw quite a few Russians selling old antiques and beautiful traditional Siberian crafts made from native Birch bark. Before leaving the market, I bought a small bottle of “Birch Syrup” – delicious, with a taste similar to Maple syrup and produced in the same way. Then I booked a tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park for the following day. After which, I stopped at Walgreen’s to pick up some motion sickness medicine, since the tour would be aboard a small boat over the open ocean. (the pharmacist highly recommended “Bonine”, which turned out to be excellent!)

The tour was scheduled to depart from Seward at noon the next day, so I decided to drive down the day before and spend the night there. As I drove south on Alaska Highway 1, known as the “Seward Highway”, the winds along Turnagain Arm were ferocious.

Turnagain Arm

But they didn’t stop a lot of fishermen at Bird Creek from trying to take advantage of the annual Silver Salmon run. Nearby was the famous “Bird House”, an old, dilapidated log cabin bar that had been slowly sinking into the ground for decades! Further down the highway I stopped at Portage Glacier to see huge blue icebergs piled against the shore of Portage Lake, having been blown down the lake from the face of the glacier by the ferocious winds! With a cold rain driven in my face by the stiff wind, it was almost impossible to take a photo.

Portage Glacier and Lake

From Portage Glacier, it was a long drive through the Kenai Mountains, over Turnagain Pass and Moose Pass to the small town of Seward. Along the way, the lower slopes of the mountains were covered with huge expanses of beautiful wildflowers.

Wildflowers – Moose Pass

But as I approached Seward, I encountered a long stretch of road construction, which was made more miserable by having to follow a semi for several miles. Every two minutes I had to activate the windshield washer to have any hope of seeing the road through the mud thrown up by the truck in front of me! Finally, as I arrived in Seward, it became obvious from the large number of people in the small town that something was going on. It was the annual “Silver Salmon Derby”. And somewhere in the cold waters of Resurrection Bay was a Silver salmon that had been tagged with a very special prize worth $100,000! But rumor had it that a killer whale ate the tagged salmon shortly after its release! Naturally, if it was indeed true, the killer whale would not be awarded the prize. Besides the $100,000 salmon, there were many more fish tagged with prizes ranging from $100 up to $10,000.

As I toured the historic old downtown, I spotted the “Van Gilder Hotel”, a vintage 1916 office building that had been converted into a hotel in the late 1920’s. It was a beautiful 3 story structure in the Edwardian style and furnished with lovely old antiques from the same period. The old hotel possessed a few “frayed” edges, but its atmosphere was definitely that of old Alaska. (and after all, it had survived the catastrophic “Good Friday Earthquake” of 1964!) It was also on the National Register of Historic Sites. My room, though small, was very comfortable, with a view overlooking downtown and the harbor.

Van Gilder Hotel – Seward
Lobby – Van Gilder Hotel
My Room – Van Gilder Hotel

Just around the corner from the hotel was an old church that had been converted into a trendy coffee house called “The Resurrect”. As I sampled their coffee, I listened to live music from a local group seated on what had been the alter! For dinner that evening, I followed the recommendation of the hotel manager and walked down to “Ray’s Restaurant” on the harbor. As I sat at a table by the window, I watched fishermen cleaning their catch of the day, throwing scraps to the crowd of squawking seagulls below.

I began dinner with a cold pint of Alaskan Amber Ale, before settling into a wonderful bowl of thick, creamy seafood chowder and a huge plate of fresh King crab – a positively amazing dining experience! The King crab was so succulent and sweet – exactly as I remembered from my days of living in Alaska. After dinner, I went into the bar at Ray’s and joined the crowd of locals and fishermen as they exchanged their stories of the “big ones that got away”! A couple of guys had been successful in catching tagged salmon worth $100, but everyone agreed they were out to catch the $100,000 salmon, despite the rumor spinning around town about the killer whale. Even though I wasn’t a fisherman that night, I enjoyed being part of their experience in the bar.

The next day began with a huge breakfast of 3 eggs, reindeer sausage, hash browns, sourdough toast and wild raspberry jam at the “Breeze Inn” overlooking the harbor. I watched the fishermen as they prepared their boats and gear for a day of fishing in Resurrection Bay. Then I paid a visit to the Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center and watched a fascinating video about a group of scientists who crossed the enormous Harding Icefield. The icefield feeds over a dozen major glaciers that slowly make their way down to the sea from the 10,000-foot-high Kenai Mountains. By now it was time to go back to the harbor and check in for the tour of the national park. I joined about 25 other people as we boarded the “MV Kenai Explorer”, a 75-foot-long boat with two decks and a cabin with 50 seats inside. It wasn’t long before we sailed out of the harbor, past many “crusty” old fishing boats and a huge cruise ship of the Holland-America line – the “Ryndam”. Within the past couple of years, Seward had become a significant port of call for several cruise ships during the summer months.

Seward Harbor – Cruise ship and Alaska Railroad

Our first stop on the tour was a small cove in Resurrection Bay where we saw at least 25 – 30 Bald Eagles in the trees along the shore, feeding on an early run of Pink salmon. Also, in the calm water of the cove were several Sea Lions having a feast of Pink salmon. High above the shore were several large “hanging glaciers”, perched precariously on the steep mountain slopes.

Hanging Glacier

The cove was an idyllic setting for all forms of marine life. As the boat slowly motored along the steep, rocky coastline, we entered the main channel of Resurrection Bay – over 1000 feet deep! We continued south along the coastline toward the heart of the Kenai Fjords National Park. Along the way, we passed close to Bear Glacier, the first of many massive “tidewater glaciers” along the rugged coast. At one point we sailed around Aliack Cape, known to the local native tribe as “Stormy Point”, because it juts out so far into the Gulf of Alaska that it’s battered by ferocious winter storms. Beyond the cape, we came upon many large seabird colonies clinging “tenaciously” to the sheer rocky cliffs of numerous small islands that rose straight up from the cold Alaskan waters.

Seabird Colony

Throughout the journey along the coast, our boat was occasionally pounded by cold rain squalls. It was during these moments when I was very thankful for having taken the Bonine motion sickness pills – they worked miracles! I was even able to enjoy the hardy lunch of delicious smoked salmon as the boat bobbed about in the choppy sea!

After lunch, we continued up the Aliack Arm to Holgate Glacier, for a spectacular view of its face, towering over 100 feet above the water. As we stood on the deck, every few minutes a chunk of the glacier would “calve” off the face and plunge into the cold, ice laden water with a loud thunderous sound.

Holgate Glacier
Holgate Glacier “calving”
Face of Holgate Glacier – up close

Our National Park Service guide told us that when very large sections of the glacier “calve”, the sound can be heard more than 20 miles away! She also informed us that Holgate Glacier was the fastest moving glacier in Alaska, moving down the mountains to the sea at more than 12 feet per day!

Leaving Holgate Glacier, we headed further south along the coast to the Chiswell Islands – a small group of rocky islands that are home to an abundance of seabird colonies, especially the colorful “Tufted Puffin”.

Tufted Puffin colony

The near vertical rocky cliffs of the islands provide nesting sites far removed from predators. We had the exceptional opportunity to quietly cruise to within 20 feet of the massive colonies. It was a beautiful, wild scene as thousands of birds took flight under the cold gray sky. Later, as we rounded one of the islands, we came upon an enormous rock that was a favorite “haul out” spot for large Steller Sea Lions. At times, their “barks” were almost deafening! We were so close we could almost reach out and touch them! (a few of the children aboard even tried to do so)

Stellar Sea Lions
Stellar Sea Lions “hauled out”

Not far away was a large colony of Tufted Puffins sitting on a rocky ledge, in a perfect pose for photographs. Together with the Puffins was a group of Common Murres. Despite their name, they are definitely not common, as they can dive to 300 feet or more in search of fish! Among many of the islands were small flocks of Black Cormorants, many of them trying to dry their wings in the misty weather so they could fly again after their deep dives into the ocean for fish. As the boat turned around and headed north back to Seward, we had a couple of occasions to spot the great Humpback whales feeding in the plankton rich Alaskan waters. And although we didn’t see any spectacular displays of “breaching” or “tail slapping” behavior, it was still exciting to see the giant creatures in the wild. Our guide explained that during the summer months the whales spend almost 20 hours a day feeding on the plankton and krill to develop a thick layer of fat, before heading 5000 miles south to Hawaii, where they spend the next 6 months in mating rituals, without feeding! At that point, someone piped up and remarked, “must be great sex”! (everyone burst out laughing)

As we made our way back to Seward, a group of Dall Porpoise accompanied us, “surfing” in front of the boat’s wake. (they are capable of swimming more than 30mph, and enjoy following boats) At one point, our guide alerted us to a small group of Storm Petrels in the sky above us. They are rarely seen so close to land, so they must have been “blown” off course from the open ocean during a storm. Coming into the harbor, we saw lots of Harbor Seals, obviously attracted by the Silver salmon run. As we pulled into the dock, we passed many small boats “bobbing” in the bay with their fishing lines strung out in all directions, in the hope of landing that one special Silver salmon with the $100,000 tag! (but as we all know by now, rumor had it that the fish had already been eaten by a Killer whale! Of course, it was just a rumor, most likely conjured up by some unlucky fishermen) Before the boat docked, the captain told us there was also a rare second run of King salmon in the bay at the same time as the Silver salmon run. So, there were fish literally everywhere! (and if you couldn’t catch a fish with those numbers, you obviously weren’t much of a fisherman)

After we docked, I went back to the hotel for a shower before going to dinner. I ended up at Ray’s again and had a delicious meal of deep-fried fresh calamari, a large salad topped with Chinese sesame dressing, and a juicy, tender fresh blackened halibut filet! Dinner was concluded with a dish of scrumptious “Creole bread pudding” topped with Bourbon sauce! Ray’s definitely had great food, great service, and a beautiful view of the harbor and Resurrection Bay. After dinner, I walked along the shoreline of the old town waterfront in the slowly fading twilight of the evening. The skies began to clear and a calm came over the town. Then, all of a sudden, fish began jumping out of the placid waters in a spectacular display, right in front of several fishermen standing no more than 20 feet away! Yet none of the fishermen were catching any fish. Suddenly, a large Harbor seal popped up – this was the reason the fish were jumping! (but for the fishermen, it still didn’t explain why the fish weren’t biting)

As I walked around downtown, it looked like the “Yukon Bar” was jumping, so I stopped in for a beer. Inside, it was rather odd and funky, with an interesting mix of locals and “out-of-towners”. The bar had an outstanding selection of beers on draft, so I took a seat at the end of the long bar and “soaked” up the atmosphere, as well as listening to some tall fishing tales!

Main Street – Downtown Seward

After a couple of pints of Alaskan Pale Ale and several fish stories, I headed back to the hotel and decided to watch a bit of TV before retiring for the night. After switching on the small TV, I discovered there were only two channels available! But worse yet, the colors were so bad (red on the top third of the screen, green in the middle third, and blue on the bottom!!) that my only option was to tune out all the colors and watch the TV in black and white mode! Having successfully achieved a clear picture, I could finally watch TV. Over the following hour, I enjoyed a travel show about Clive James visiting East Berlin shortly after the wall came down – it was fascinating, informative, and funny at times, even without the benefit of color!

The next morning, I had another great Alaskan breakfast at the Breeze Inn, across from the Harbormaster’s Office. Once again, the restaurant was packed with fishermen getting ready for another day of derby fishing.

Old Alaska Railroad station – Seward

After breakfast, I checked out of the hotel, picked up a couple more rolls of film, and some provisions for lunch. Then I headed to the National Park Service Ranger Station at the trailhead to Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield.

Exit Glacier – trailhead to Harding Icefield

As I picked up the trail map, I was told it was a very steep climb – a gain of 3000 feet in elevation in just 3 ½ miles! (I found the trail to be exactly as advertised, in addition to being very rocky and quite muddy after several days of rain) Despite the challenging conditions, there were many spectacular views of the valley below and the rugged mountains surrounding it.

View from the top of the trail

Throughout the climb up the trail, the edge of the glacier was always in sight. Besides the incredible vistas, there were lots of wildlife around. Several times I walked up within 2 or 3 feet of Marmots who were sunning themselves on large rocks beside the trail, almost oblivious to hikers. Later, I almost stepped on a Ptarmigan hiding in the rocks above the alpine tundra. (they are very well camouflaged) A few minutes further up the trail, I spotted a small band of 8 Mountain Goats with two youngsters, making their way across the steep slope. They seemed completely at home on the loose shale rock – upon which it would have been almost impossible for me to walk or even stand upright! Along the trail I had been seeing quite a bit of bear scat, most likely due to the ripe huckleberries on the mountain slopes. Luckily, I never encountered a bear during my hike.

Family of Marmots
Marmot – up close
Ptarmigan

Finally, after an exhausting hike up the steep rocky trail, I reached the barren summit of a long chain of lateral moraines that had been deposited thousands of years ago by the massive glacier as it slowly ground its way down the mountains to the sea. As I stood on the top of the moraines, I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Harding Icefield that seemed to stretch forever off in the distance. By any measure, it was a massive natural phenomenon, among many in Alaska! As the morning moved on toward the afternoon, I began my journey back down the trail toward Seward, which I could see off in the distance. When I returned to the Ranger Station, I had been gone just over 4 hours – a lot less than the 6 – 8 hours that was the average roundtrip time. (and my legs felt like it too)

Alpine Tundra
More tundra fungi
“Skunk Cabbage”
Alpine tundra – mosses and lichens

On the return drive to Anchorage, I stopped at the “Summit Lake Lodge” for a cold pint of Alaskan Pale Ale. As I sat outside on the deck overlooking Summit Lake and the surrounding Kenai Mountains, I reflected back upon my experiences of the past two days.

Summit Lake Lodge
Summit Lake

Back in Anchorage that evening, I had a delicious dinner of Dungeness crab and artichoke dip with hot crusty French bread at Simons Bar, and watched a brilliant sunset over the mighty Alaska Range across Cook Inlet. The beautiful colors of yellow, orange and red filled the western sky!

The next morning, after another delicious crab omelet for breakfast at Snow City Café, I spent some time shopping for Alaskan gifts, such as huckleberry jam and smoked salmon. Then it was time to return the rental car and check in for my flight back to California. Dinner on board the nonstop flight was fantastic – chicken tortellini, served in a delicious sauce of sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil, topped with fresh grated Parmesan cheese. It was followed by warm Apple cobbler for dessert before landing in Los Angeles. Not only were we served a wonderful dinner, we had a spectacular view of the Gulf of Alaska, the mighty peaks of the 19,000-foot-high Wrangell-St Elias Range, and several massive tidewater glaciers – at least until the clouds settled in for the rest of the trip to California.

Wrangell-St Elias Range
Columbia Glacier – Prince William Sound
The “Inside Passage” – Southeast Alaska

Later, as I sat in the Delta Airlines Crown Room at LAX, awaiting the short flight to Ontario airport, I noticed a very distinguished looking Sikh gentleman as he ordered two drinks at the bar. The bartender poured the drinks, and then, in a “simulated” Indian dialect said, “and here is the Coke and this shall be the diet Coke”! At that point, it was like we could have been in New Delhi.

Such was the ending to another wonderful and amazing trip to Alaska, of which I never become tired. Stay tuned for my next Alaskan adventure, and if you haven’t yet visited the “Great Land”, be sure to put it on your “bucket list”!

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Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro – An Experience of the Highest

[Excerpt from my book, “Travels with King Kong – Overland across Africa”]

In 1974 and 1975, I travelled with an overland expedition across Africa from Morocco to Kenya. After five months on the road (that’s another story), we finally reached Nairobi. I spent the next few weeks along the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya, including a month on the fabled island of Lamu, just south of the border with Somalia. Later, I met up with a small group who planned to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, and the invitation to climb the highest mountain on the African continent was something I just couldn’t pass up.

Overland across Africa (Map of the Route)

February 10, 1975  Twiga Beach, Kenya

“On our way to a meeting with Kilimanjaro” So, early that morning, we packed up our camp on the beach and loaded our gear into Liam’s old red Landrover. As we rolled down the highway toward the border with Tanzania, tunes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones blasted at full volume from the loudspeakers. That’s when I knew I was in for a wild ride! I laid on the top of the bags in the back of the old Landrover as it roared down the rough gravel road, swaying to and fro.

We crossed the border into Tanzania with no problem, and an hour later, as evening approached, we came to the “Marangu Hotel”. In the dim light of sunset, we had a glimpse of the mountain, its summit shrouded in a fluffy blanket of pink clouds that spilled over the side of the peak and cascaded down the slope like a giant waterfall. We were told about a small campsite behind the hotel by a group of German and Austrian climbers. So, we set up camp and then went to the hotel office to check-in. We were promptly “chewed out” by a prim old lady for not having reported to the office first. We were apparent victims of inadequate signage or notices. The experience was a foretaste of future hassles with the Marangu Hotel management. After dinner and a couple of beers in the hotel lounge, we retired to our campsite in the cool, crisp mountain air.

 

February 11 – 12, 1975  Marangu, Tanzania

“Waiting for the Mountain”  We awoke to a pleasantly cool day under the shade of the huge trees in the hotel garden, where we were camped, as we waited for space to open up in the mountain huts. Confirmed reservations for space in the huts was required to obtain permits to climb the mountain, which was managed by the National Park Service of Tanzania. We spent the day lounging in the old hotel, a series of rooms surrounding a lovely courtyard full of beautiful red and gold flowers. The lounge and dining room were filled with old wooden and leather furnishings, nothing pretentious, just warm and homey. Surrounding the old hotel were several small gardens, huge old trees, spacious lawns, and an area of pens and hutches for everything from chickens and rabbits to ducks and goats. Another resident of the “Marangu Menagerie” was a “bush baby”, a small, shy, retiring creature native to the tropical forest. We usually began our day with a hearty breakfast in the dining room and took dinner every evening in the hotel as well. Meals were always solid, hearty home cooked German food, but it was served by a sour, grumpy, capricious staff who often went out of their way to let us know it was a real “pain in the ass” to serve us! Fortunately, it never took anything away from our enjoyment of the delicious food.

I often spent the afternoons relaxing in the warm sunshine, writing in my journal, and reading Rachel Carson’s book, “The Edge of the Sea”. (it was ironic, since we were over a hundred eighty miles from the ocean) Early in the mornings, just after sunrise, and early in the evenings, the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro was visible from the hotel garden.

Mt. Kilimanjaro from Marangu Hotel campsite

It was a very imposing sight, almost like it was directly above us – the view was more than enough to inspire us for the climb to the top! After dinner in the evenings, we would usually sit in the lounge, share a few beers with the German and Austrian climbers, and talk about our “date” with the mountain. Then we would all head to the campsite and retire for the night under the stars. I always rolled out my sleeping bag under a picnic table so as to avoid the heavy dew that showed up every morning.

 

February 13, 1975    Marangu, Tanzanzia

“Monsoon in Marangu”   This day was pretty much the same as the past two days, except that Liam, Petra, Helga, and Tim drove into Moshi, the nearest large town, to buy some provisions and attempt to change money on the black market. I spent the day relaxing beneath the huge trees overlooking the garden, writing in my journal and reading Rachel Carson’s book. Later in the afternoon, the group returned with lots of fresh fruit and a rate of 13 schillings to the dollar, almost double the official exchange rate at the bank! We were happy about the success with changing money, but also a bit apprehensive because the hotel was not supposed to accept any money without official bank exchange receipts. As it turned out, they never required us to show the official exchange receipts, although they were empowered to do so. That evening, we all enjoyed a wonderful dinner of traditional German schnitzel and potato salad. Then we took our after-dinner coffee sitting in the lounge around a roaring fire in the old stone fireplace. Suddenly, the wind picked up speed, the windows began to rattle, and the bushes in the garden shook – a clear sign of an impending storm. Within a few minutes, the deluge of rain began – first as a soft patter of raindrops on the roof, followed by light drumming on the slate roof shingles as the raindrops united.

Finally, the rain turned into “waves” of water beating with incredible force on the roof above us. I couldn’t stand the tension any longer and felt compelled to witness the event first-hand. As I stood in the open doorway, feeling the brisk wind in my face, I watched as wave after wave of heavy rain crashed against the buildings, flowers, bushes and garden. The ground quickly became a small river and soon a lake, as water poured off the hotel roof in steady streams. At one point, I feared the roof might not be able to withstand the torrent of water and the incessant pounding of the rain. On and on it continued, for more than an hour, never letting up its fury! Then, all of a sudden, the onslaught of the storm ended as quickly as it had begun, and gently faded away into the night. The raging waters subsided, the land appeared again, and the evening air was refreshed as if it was the coming of spring! It was an incredible phenomenon of nature I would remember for a long time after. Not trusting the night to remain clear, we rolled out our sleeping bags under the shelter of a small hut, to await yet another day in the shadow of Mt Kilimanjaro.

 

February 14, 1975    Marangu, Tanzania

“An Afternoon by the Waterfall”   The day began with word that we would be permitted to start our climb of Mt Kilimanjaro the following day. We were all excited with the news and made final arrangements with the Kibo Hotel for a guide, porters, and gear that was required for the 5-day climb. After we confirmed the permits, paid the fees, and met with our climbing guide, we decided to visit a lovely waterfall about two miles upstream from the hotel. As we hiked up the road, always with Kilimanjaro in our sight, we had visions of what the climb to the summit might be like. A narrow trail to the waterfall led us through the dense forest and past some banana plantations. Soon, we came to a cool, clear mountain stream, bubbling over huge boulders into small pools of water shining in the bright sun. Along the trail, I spotted a small pool that looked especially inviting and secluded. So, I decided to stop there, while the rest of the group hiked up the trail to the waterfall. The pool was hidden by a steep slope and surrounded by thick forest. I climbed down to the edge of the pool and tested it “gingerly” with my toes. The crystal-clear water was cold, but not unpleasantly so. I quietly slipped out of my clothes and waded into the icy water, until I stood up to my knees.

Then I “plunged” in and found it to be very invigorating and refreshing! I splashed and paddled around in the water, enjoying the beautiful “seclusion” of my private pool! After an hour or so of invigoration in the cold stream, I climbed out on to a sun swept rock to relax and bathe in the warm rays of the sun as it dried my nude body with intense warmth. Later, I took another short dip in the pool and then retired to a comfortable spot on a large rock beside the mountain stream. As the water tumbled over the huge boulders, it provided a constant musical interlude as I did some writing in my journal. At least two or three hours passed as quickly as minutes in a day. Then I decided to join my friends at the waterfall, and as I approached, I saw it plunged more than 50 feet into a large pool. Everyone in the group was stretched out on the lush grass beside the pool.

Waterfall near Marangu Hotel

It was an idyllic scene, reminiscent of an old-world painting of people reclined under large trees beside a stream. It was like a piece of art I had seen in the Tate Museum of London. We all lay on the grass until the sun’s rays failed to reach us any longer – then we bid farewell to the beautiful secluded spot and headed back to the hotel to prepare ourselves for the climb to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in the morning.

 

February 15 – 19, 1975   Marangu, Tanzania

“Kilimanjaro – The roof of Africa” 

[Day 1]  I began the day with a cold shower at 6:00am and breakfast at 7:00am, before we all gathered our gear and met up with our guide and porters, in preparation for the 5-day expedition to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. As we were about to depart, Petra had a run-in with the hotel owner for having entered the kitchen to boil some eggs without first obtaining permission. It was a clear case of not respecting the “chain of command”, and she received a harsh reprimand from the hotel owner. When we prepared to leave the hotel and begin our trek up the trail, the owner, a little “beady-eyed” man with a Hitler style mustache, gave us final instructions in a stern voice and bid us a safe journey. At that point, I almost felt obligated to “salute”! The first three miles of the route followed a new gravel road up to the Kilimanjaro National Park entrance gate. Our guide and porters insisted that before we left civilization behind, we had to make a stop for banana beer, known locally as “Bombay Bomb”! The taste was rather bitter and heavily fermented – it stretched the traditional definition of “beer”. But we all shared a cup with the crew before entering the national park.

Once inside the park, the trail quickly became more primitive, but relatively free of rocks and a steady uphill grade. It felt so lovely and free to be hiking through the lush forest without the oppressive burden of a 40-pound pack on my back. Following the slow steady pace of the porters gave me time to fully appreciate the surrounding countryside, a beautiful combination of coniferous forest and equatorial woodland. The weather of the day was perfect, with clear blue skies and pleasantly warm temperatures. Earlier in the day, as we had prepared to leave our campsite at the hotel, the view of Mt Kilimanjaro was spectacular and beckoned us upward. Around mid-day we stopped for lunch beside a small stream, and the crystal clear, cold spring water afforded my feet a welcome dip. We also met several people along the trail on their way down from the mountain, and they told us stories of how tough the climb was – not something we wanted to hear just then. But we would be undaunted from our goal of reaching the summit. After hiking another couple of hours, we were in sight of Mandara Hut (#1) at 9,000 feet elevation. Just below the hut, the trail entered a large open field that afforded us a fantastic view of the hills and vast East African plains far below. We could even see Lake Manyara and the town of Arusha in the distance, over 100 miles away.

As we got close to the hut, the landscape changed abruptly to meadows of thick grassland, intermingled with juniper shrubs and small coniferous forest along the nearby stream. The hut was nothing fancy, but it was comfortable, with bunks, a large table, and an old stone fireplace. There were two other climbing parties on their way down, so a lot of people were lounging around the hut, sharing their experiences of reaching the summit. As I stood on the front porch of the hut, I had an amazing 180-degree panoramic view of the entire northeast corner of Tanzania – it was such an awe-inspiring sight, that I wondered what awaited me on the summit! Precisely at 4:00pm, we were served hot tea and biscuits, a continuation of the old British influence. As we sat on the lush green grass outside the hut, with the vast expanse of the East African plains below us, we listened to the mellow sound of Santana on my cassette tape player – a beautiful moment to remember!

View from Mandara hut

While the sun slowly descended behind the mountain and evening fell upon us, the porters served us a delicious dinner of vegetable soup, Swiss steak, boiled potatoes, carrots, fresh fruit and coffee. From our table beside the fireplace, we looked out upon a beautiful, multi-hued landscape of orange and red that slowly transformed into deeper, more somber shades, eventually becoming a single color – black.

Soon, we became aware of the chilly night air and the blanket of a billion stars overhead. It was a spectacular light show for our benefit. Far below us, the lights of many small towns and villages twinkled in the night. Off in the distance, we could see a few spots of orange glow from a huge brush fire far to the south. The rest of the evening was spent playing cards by the light of a kerosene lantern and a roaring fire in the stone fireplace. About 8:30pm, everyone’s eyelids became so heavy that we all headed for our bunks and bid each other pleasant dreams – knowing the morning would arrive early and the start of day two.

[Day 2]  We were awakened before dawn by our guide who brought us cups of hot tea to take off the chill of the night and give some light to our eyes. As I sipped the hot tea, still huddled in my warm sleeping bag, the first rays of sunshine began to give color and life to the landscape outside the hut. Slowly, as we awakened to the day, so did Mt Kilimanjaro. As I climbed out of my sleeping bag, I stumbled around trying to find my boots and my camera to capture the spectacular sunrise. I stood on the front porch of the hut and took several pictures of the vast sea of clouds below us, as the sun painted them with soft, golden shades of orange, pink, and red. At last, a fiery ball peeked over the eastern hills and announced the official beginning of the day. It was not long after sunrise that our porters served us a hearty breakfast of fresh mango, bananas, hot porridge and boiled eggs. Soon it was time to pack up our gear and prepare to move out. We left the hut around 7:30am, with our porters in the lead. But we soon outdistanced them, as they were carrying heavy loads at a much slower pace up the steep trail. As I watched them, most being smaller than me, I was very impressed by their incredible agility and stamina, especially since they were so ill-equipped compared to us. Many wore old, worn out “plastic” shoes, while others had no socks and just old ragged sandals.

The first mile of the trail descended through thick forest covered in moss and lichens hanging from the trees. It was a lovely scene with the early morning light softly filtered through the dense canopy – it gave us the feeling of being back in the tropical jungle, except for the effect of the chilly morning air. Then, all of a sudden, the trail left the edge of the dense forest and emerged into a huge open grassy meadow, with a beautiful view of the snow capped summit of Kilimanjaro.

On the trail to Mt Kilimanjaro

As we tread lightly through the lush grass, there remained a bit of frost covering the ground. From that point, the trail crossed mostly open grassland, sagebrush, and a low growing form of juniper. The trail itself was in good condition, with only a few large rocks along the way. It climbed at a slow, steady grade over several low ridges. As we neared an elevation of 11,000 feet, the trail crossed through some rocky canyons with small streams and a strange palm-like plant with a top in the shape of a burning candle. The scene resembled a scattering of birthday candles spread atop a rocky cake! I even imagined a light snowfall would make the scene look like “icing” on the cake – a very bizarre and fascinating illusion! Just beyond the “birthday candles”, the trail passed above a huge wildfire burning in the juniper brush on the steep slope below. The thick smoke obscured our view to the south. I remembered having seen a small spot of smoke high on the southern face of the mountain from the Marangu Hotel campsite two days before. At the time, I thought it might have been caused by the thunderstorm the day before.

Early in the afternoon, after hiking 12 miles of trail, we arrived at Horumbo Hut (#2) in time for lunch. At an elevation of 12,000 feet, we were starting to feel some effects of the high altitude, though I still felt strong and in good shape – confident I would be able to reach the summit.

Me with my climbing companions outside Horumbo hut

After lunch, I sat outside the hut reading my book, and I noticed some curious little mouse-like creatures scurrying around gathering dry grass. Soon it was time for an early dinner of roasted chicken, rice, potatoes, carrots and soup. A large party of Swiss climbers had just come down from the summit, so there were a shortage of bunks and a few people had to double up for the night. Following dinner, I walked out to a point of rock where there was a spectacular view of the sunset as it painted the mountain and clouds in a beautiful spectrum of orange and red. As I watched the sunset, I could see the glow of the brush fire that had been burning for the past three days. Later in the evening, we were told by one of the guides it been started by a campfire and two porters were jailed for having started it. The fire had spread rapidly over a large area below Horumbo hut, and apparently it had already crossed over the trail below, forcing some hikers to scurry around it. That night, an older Swiss gentleman played a few folk tunes on his harmonica before lanterns were turned out and we all headed for bed. We tried to get some sleep, but it became difficult at times.

[Day 3]  We arose early as usual, before dawn, and heard a howling wind blowing outside – just the sound of it made us feel a lot colder. Once again, our guide brought us hot tea to get our blood flowing, so we could manage to hop out of our warm bunks. Then he advised us it would be a day we could expect to really feel the effects of the high altitude. Already I had begun to notice heavy breathing and pounding heartbeat, even while I was at rest. After another hearty breakfast, we slowly made our way up the trail again. Our guide continued to emphasize the importance of going slowly to avoid exhaustion, so we followed the pace of the porters ahead of us. It was a very steady, comfortable pace up the steep slope toward a long ridge between the base of Kilimanjaro and its little sister to the east, Mawenzi Peak. After four miles up the steep grade, the trail reached the crest of the ridge. From that point, the trail stretched out another five miles across the broad, rocky saddle that resembled a barren desert – but bitterly cold.

At 14,000 feet elevation – on the way to Kibo hut

The strong wind drove the cold air through our skin like sharp nails – not what one would imagine as Africa! As long as we kept moving, it wasn’t too bad, but as soon as we stopped, even for a brief moment, the cold went deep into our bones. It was no exaggeration to say that we weren’t really prepared for such a drastic change in the climate. It felt more like the North Pole than the Equator! The final two miles to reach Kibo Hut (#3) became a very steep, heartbreaking trek, as the hut looked so close yet so far away. The last 300 yards were very difficult, due to the steepness of the trail and the high altitude. We finally arrived at Kibo hut about 1:00pm in the afternoon and quickly arranged our gear in the hut.

That afternoon, all of us experienced the effect of the thin air as we attempted to catch some sleep at 15,500 feet elevation. But due to the lack of breath and bad headaches, it was nearly impossible. Later, a few people became nauseous, a common malady of “mountain sickness”. I couldn’t eat anything that evening and had to take four aspirin for my headache. One of the German guys gave me one of his sleeping pills, and I managed to fall asleep for a couple of hours, until we were awakened at midnight by our guide with cups of hot tea and biscuits.

[Day 4]  We drank our hot tea and I managed to eat a couple of biscuits before we got dressed for the final assault to the summit. It was literally a matter of putting on every available piece of clothing, including two pair of pants, to brave the subzero cold of the night. It was a real shock to hop out of a warm sleeping bag, but after a few minutes, I felt in pretty good shape compared to earlier that night. However, there were many who didn’t feel quite so fit. As we stumbled out of the hut, it was pitch black, bitterly cold, and the wind was whistling like a mad hawk! At 1:00am, we began to follow our guide up the steep, sandy trail, hardly able to see one foot in front of the other – so we just followed the shadowy figure ahead. I had nothing to break the strong bitter cold wind as it stung my face in the dark. With our walking sticks, we steadied ourselves in the soft volcanic ash and probed for large rocks in our path. At one point, my eyeglasses became so fogged up that I felt like a blind man swinging his cane in all directions, desperately trying to find his way. The “trail” was hardly a trail at all, and it was very frustrating to make any headway in the soft volcanic ash. It was a matter of zigzagging across the steep slope, and for every step up it was half a step back.

On and on, hour after hour, we continued to climb up the incredibly steep 45-degree slope of the ancient volcano. It became a matter of simply putting one foot in front of the other, while the bitter wind chilled us to the bone. The higher we climbed, the thinner the air became – so thin that all of us were breathing heavily just to move one foot at a time. It was a slow, monotonous rhythm – step up one foot, breathe deeply, step up another foot, breathe deeply. On and on we climbed in the darkness. At one point, as we neared the summit, two of our group felt totally exhausted and couldn’t get their breath. But after a short stop, the rest of us encouraged them to persevere. Just as we approached the rim of the giant volcanic crater atop Kilimanjaro, the early morning sunrise began as a soft warm glow across the entire eastern horizon of the earth – what looked like half of the world! At last we stepped on to the edge of the crater rim, a place known as “Gilman’s Point” at 18,500 feet elevation. From there, as we looked east toward the sunrise, we knew we were the special guests of GOD, and with the best seats in the house! As we watched from the top of Kilimanjaro, the soft orange glow on the horizon became brighter and the clouds below us reflected the sun’s early rays.

Then, the climactic moment arrived as a massive ball of fire slowly rose over Mawenzi Peak below. The jagged rocky spires appeared to be on fire, as if they were giant burning candles, sending the brilliant sunlight skyward and into the heavens! The entire peak was glowing with fire – a spectacular and awesome natural phenomenon as anything I had ever witnessed before in my life!

Sunrise from the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro

As the sun began its daily journey westward, I knew I had been most fortunate to have shared the experience. Having reached Gilman’s Point, the official summit of the climb, we turned to face the west and looked down into the massive volcanic crater at the heart of Mt Kilimanjaro. As an ancient volcano, it had been dormant for tens of thousands of years. Snow and ice covered the floor of the crater and remnants of massive glaciers surrounded the rim. Our guide invited three of us to hike up a mile or so around the rim to “Uhuru Point”, the highest point on Mt Kilimanjaro at 19,380 feet. Slowly we hiked along the southern edge of the crater, past ancient glaciers and spectacular ice formations, which Earnest Hemingway referred to as the “snows of Kilimanjaro”, seen from the plains far below. But what most people thought of as a “snow covered” summit, was in fact the remains of ancient glaciers formed tens of thousands of years ago when the earth was in the middle of an “ice age”.

As we approached Uhuru Point, we passed close to one of the ancient glaciers, and I was able to see the beautiful, deep blue color in the massive ice, in hundreds of layers formed thousands of years ago. The solid wall of ice towered over 100 feet above us as we gradually made our way to its base. When we stood at the foot of the massive glacier, its face was virtually vertical – a result of “sublimation”. At such an extreme altitude, the ice did not “melt”, rather it transformed directly from a solid form to water vapor! Such a unique natural phenomenon, and only on the top of Kilimanjaro. When we neared Uhuru Point, the bitterly cold wind became so strong it was difficult to remain standing upright. But we pressed on, one step at a time, until we reached the highest place in all of Africa – 19,380 feet above sea level.

Me on the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro

We hugged each other, much in the same way as I suspected climbers on Mt Everest had done upon their conquest. From Uhuru Point we had the most awesome view of Tanzania, Kenya, and the plains of East Africa! There was no doubt at that moment – “everything” was below us! There was no higher point on the African continent, and it was a once in a lifetime feeling of literally being “on top of the world”. (one would have to travel over 3800 miles to the Hindu-Kush region in Pakistan to find a higher place on earth!) We marveled at the view of the world from almost 20,000 feet above sea level, at least for as long as we could bear the brutal cold wind.

Then we began our descent past the ancient glaciers that glistened as they reflected the brilliant mid-day sun. At one point, I took a photo of Tim standing at the base of a glacier that towered over 100 feet above him.

Tim standing at the base of an ancient glacier

At last we met up with the rest of our group at Gilman’s Point and began our descent down the steep slope we had labored so hard to climb in the middle of the night. Whereas we had struggled to put one foot in front of the other on the climb up to the summit, we literally “plowed” our way down through the soft volcanic “scree”, as if we were in deep snow. As we almost “flew” down the mountain, I couldn’t help wondering how on earth we had been able to climb the incredibly steep slope in the middle of the night? As I looked back on the climb, I was sure that one of the main reasons for climbing the steep ascent during darkness was psychological, so that what might otherwise look “impossible” would not stare us in the face for the five long hours required to reach the summit. And, of course, there was another important reason for the night climb – to arrive on the summit at the precise moment of sunrise over Mawenzi Peak! It was truly a joy to witness the spectacle of sunrise from atop Mt Kilimanjaro, knowing we were the first people to see it in all of Africa that morning! Within a couple of hours, we arrived back at Kibo hut, where our porters had prepared hot soup to welcome us and celebrate our successful climb.

A short time later, we began the long 10-mile hike down to Horumbo hut. Somehow, the cold wind that swept the broad barren ridge between Kilimanjaro and Mawenzi didn’t seem as bitter or uncomfortable as it had felt before. Perhaps we were becoming accustomed to the altitude and mountain climate. We arrived at Horumbo hut in the late afternoon and the air quickly became very chilly as clouds began to fill the sky. As we settled down in the hut, I met a girl from Finland who would be going up to the summit the next morning. I asked her about her hometown and when she said she was from Helsinki, I mentioned I had gone to graduate school with a guy from Helsinki named Rikko Haarla. Immediately she gasped and said he was her friend! Then she told me he was working in the southern part of Tanzania – it was a very strange coincidence and really amazing. I ended up lending her a few of my clothes for the climb.

Then I walked down to a small mountain stream for a quick washup before dinner. It turned my whole body into a giant goose bump, but it was also very refreshing and invigorating! I joined everyone for a wonderful dinner of roasted beef, potatoes, carrots, and hearty vegetable soup – it was clear that my appetite had returned in earnest. As the evening fell upon the mountain, we sat around the table in the hut playing cards, reading, and swapping stories with those who had been to the summit (aka “veterans”), as well as those awaiting their chance (aka “neophytes”). Later that evening, as the oil lamps were turned out, I fell into a deep sleep, anticipating the return to base camp the next day. My last thoughts were of my love for Marion and the prospect of her letters waiting for me in Mombasa!

[Day 5]  We were awakened early, once again by our ever-faithful guide named John, who always brought us hot tea to give us the energy and motivation to climb out of our warm sleeping bags. Following another hearty breakfast, and a bit of first aid on my heel blisters, we set off down the trail. Tim set a quick pace as both of us “scrambled” down the path, but we were certainly no match for our porters who seemed to “zoom” past us in their eagerness to return home and be with their families. About a mile down the trail from Horumbo hut, we encountered smoldering ashes and a landscape scarred by the huge brush fire we had seen several days before. The blackened earth seemed to stretch for miles in front of us, almost all the way to the rocky base of Mawenzi Peak. We scurried through the charred land, and surprisingly, amid the devastation were several small pools of standing water from a storm the night before. So, I figured it must have been the rain that doused the flames and saved part of the mountain from a worse fate. I recalled having seen storm clouds boiling over Mawenzi Peak when I had sat on the rocky point near Horumbo hut on our ascent up the mountain. It seemed that nature had prevailed in the end, as it always must.

Further down the trail, we came upon a couple of hamster-like creatures that appeared to have been “stunned” by the fire – they just sat in front of us with blank eyes! They were the unfortunate innocent victims of human carelessness. Beyond the fire zone, we reached the thick forest, which had been too moist to burn and most likely acted as a natural “fire break”. And just as soon as we entered the forest of lush vegetation and moss hanging from the trees, the soft light of the sun filtered through the dense canopy of thousands of leaves. A couple of miles further, we arrived at Mandara hut in time for lunch, which had been prepared by our porters well before our arrival. As we sat on the porch of the hut, enjoying our boiled eggs, biscuits, and crisp fresh carrots, I began to compose stories in my head of our ascent to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. Although I was certainly not the first person to reach the summit, it was still an astounding personal achievement none the less. And at that moment, now on the descent, I felt incredibly proud of having achieved my goal! But even more importantly, the experience of reaching the summit was one of a lifetime that would stay with me forever! It was a short lunch stop, after which Tim and I hurried down the trail for the final 12 miles to the national park entrance gate, the place where we had started our trek to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro five days earlier.

Upon reaching the gate, we each wrote a few comments in the visitor’s book about our experience. But quite frankly, even though I tried hard, I found it difficult to put my amazing experience and deep emotions into words on paper. As I attempted to compose a few sentences for the record, they seemed hardly adequate to express my deepest feelings and emotions – but how could one expect to do so with only a few lines on paper? However, I did chide the National Park Service for their proposed road construction all the way to Mandara hut. I was just glad I had been able to hike to the hut without the ugly sight of a road. As we prepared to leave the national park, we had our guide take a photo of us as we all stood beside the entrance sign, (the equivalent of a modern day “selfie”).

At the end of a successful climb

We were clearly back to civilization again as we trudged down the road for the final 3 miles, past many people, houses, cars, etc. until we reached the hotel. While we sat in the lounge with cold beers in hand, we all shared the same good feeling of having reached the summit – but it also felt good to be back down. Sharing the experience around the roaring fireplace with friends, I felt a strong inner emotion of satisfaction and peace with myself.

As other climbers arrived, we celebrated our “comradery”, now being mountain climbing “veterans”, with another round of cold “White Cap” beers. Following the “celebration”, we packed our gear in the old red Landrover and headed for Twiga Beach. Along the way we dropped off Tim in the small town of Voi where he could hitch a ride to Nairobi. Then we drove on into the late afternoon toward Mombasa and the south coast of Kenya. That evening, we shared dinner at the “Curry Bowl” and talked about some of our most memorable moments on the climb to the summit. After dinner, we checked into the “Savoy Hotel” for the night in downtown Mombasa. Unfortunately, the water had been turned off earlier in the evening, so there was no shower that night. But I did manage to scrounge up a wash from a bucket of water in the toilet. Needless to say, it was rather inconvenient, but what could one expect for 7 schillings a night? (about $1.25) We had gone from the snows of Kilimanjaro to the oppressive heat of a Mombasa night, all in the same day! Such was the incredible diversity of Africa!

Twiga Beach on the coast of Kenya

 

The climb to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro remains a treasured memory, and every time I read the notes in my journal and look at the photographs, it’s as if it all happened yesterday! I hope you enjoy the trip as well.

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“Bogota, Colombia – The City of El Dorado”

In July of 1988, I was asked to assist my colleague Jorge with a software training class for our new distributor in Colombia. On a Saturday evening, I drove to LAX and checked into the Sheraton La Reina Plaza Hotel near the airport, since I had an early morning flight the next day. Being an elite Sheraton Club member, I was upgraded to a very nice suite on the Concierge floor – too bad I was staying only one night! The next morning, I was up before 7:00am for the 8:30am flight to Miami and on to Bogota. LAX was very crowded and by the time I got to the Eastern Airlines check-in counter, it was already 8:05am! The airline refused to accept my luggage because, officially, it was an international flight that required passengers to check-in 2 hours prior. They insisted that I rebook my flight for the following day! I insisted that was not acceptable, and after 10 minutes passed, three other passengers arrived and were in the same predicament. So, a supervisor showed up, held the plane, and accepted our luggage – but she said there was no guarantee it would arrive in Bogota on time. Having dropped off my luggage, which included two large boxes of training materials, I ran to the departure gate, only to find the flight had been delayed another 30 minutes. But this was one time that I was glad the plane was late!

The 4 ½ hour flight to Miami was quite pleasant, but I was unable to upgrade my ticket to First Class, as I had been so fortunate to do several times in the past. When we arrived in Miami, we were met by hot, humid weather and a crowded airport. Fortunately, I was able to spend the layover time in the Eastern Airlines “Ionosphere Lounge”. As I sat in the lounge, I noticed the headline on the front page of the Miami Herald newspaper read, “Colombia – Most Dangerous Country in the World”! It was not a very comforting thought for my first trip to Colombia! When I re-boarded the plane, I found it completely full! Karl, from Cologne, Germany became my “neighbor”. Just before we were about to takeoff, a passenger spotted fuel leaking from the right-side wing. So, the maintenance crew was called, and the problem was fixed – two hours later! Then, once we were off the ground, it took a very long time to be served any food or drink – particularly frustrating as food carts continued to pass us on their way to the First-Class cabin. But I had to admit, the food looked very nice as it passed us! Finally, Karl “demanded” two cold beers for us, and our food came soon after – it was delicious! After 3 ½ hours, we landed in Bogota, and the formalities of immigration went quickly. I was anxious to see if my luggage, especially the two boxes of training materials, had arrived as well. Luckily, they had made it on the flight. But when I searched for a luggage trolley, there were none to be found! I soon concluded that it was designed to be that way so as to make it necessary to hire a porter, the only people having a luggage trolley! As I approached the Customs Officer, he wanted to know what was in the boxes. When I said, “training class materials”, he couldn’t believe it and opened the boxes just to make certain.

A driver from the local distributor office was there to meet me as I exited the arrivals hall. He drove me to the “Hotel La Fontana”, located in a northern suburb of the city. The hotel was gorgeous, built of red brick in the architectural style of Spanish Colonial. The lobby was elegantly decorated with old Spanish antiques and a huge centerpiece of fresh flowers. Adjacent to the lobby was a large courtyard paved with beautiful red brick. On the far side of the courtyard was the fine dining restaurant, located beneath a lovely stone clock tower. Everywhere in the hotel were large flower baskets hanging from the windows. I was very impressed with Jorge’s choice of a hotel. He had arrived in Bogota a few days before me, and it was obvious he had been living in the lap of luxury! We shared a 3-bedroom apartment, so each of us had our own bedroom and bath.

Hotel La Fontana
Hotel Room
Courtyard and Clock Tower

Over the next few days, I assisted Jorge with the training class at the distributor’s office in downtown Bogota. The majority of the time, Jorge gave the lectures in Spanish and I helped the students during the exercise sessions, since all of the exercise materials were in English. It also made sense since the software commands and interface were only in English at that time. Every morning, the driver from the office came to the hotel to take Jorge and me downtown. The presence of the Colombian military was literally everywhere! There were soldiers with automatic weapons standing on the corner of every major intersection. But the entire time I was in Bogota, there was never a violent incident. One day, the class invited Jorge and me for lunch at a nearby restaurant. And when we arrived, there was a soldier with an automatic rifle standing guard outside the door – not your usual “doorman”! It was a pretty weird feeling as I entered the restaurant, but for the students, it seemed to be a normal situation. We enjoyed a delicious dish of local seafood and grilled fresh vegetables. After two hours had passed, I definitely got the impression that the “relaxed” lunch hour was the “norm” – quite in contrast to the 30-minute lunch in America!

That evening, our host, Elena, invited us to dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant in a quiet neighborhood near the hotel. The food was excellent, especially the handmade pasta, and the Chilean red wine went very well with the dinner. And at the equivalent of $8.00 per person, it was an exceptional value! At about 10pm, the owner brought out a TV so that everyone could watch the “big fight” – the World Heavyweight Championship match between Michael Spinks and Mike Tyson, both undefeated. Before the start of the fight, several bets were placed at the bar. Then suddenly, everyone was in “shock” as Tyson knocked out Spinks in the middle of round one! For a minute, there was silence in the restaurant. Not only was everyone in the restaurant shocked, the TV announcers were left with the tough job of having to “fill the time” for all the sponsors who had paid for the local broadcast in Colombia. Over the next hour, we must have seen the replay of the “fatal blow” at least two dozen times, and from every conceivable angle, including overhead! As we left the restaurant, replays were still appearing on the TV and heated conversation continued around the bar. It was a dinner to remember!

I spent the entire next day trying to get the plotter in the office to work with our software, but to no avail. That evening I had dinner at “Tres Fragatas”, the fine dining restaurant in the hotel, as a way to “decompress”. The Maitre d’ asked if I was there for dinner (or I think that was his question), and he escorted me to the bar – presumably to wait for a table, since I hadn’t made a reservation. But after sitting at the bar for 15 minutes, I began to wonder. Just then, he came back to the bar and showed me to a table, next to two men from Germany. I began dinner with an order of “Camarones Ceviche” (shrimp cocktail) that was excellent and spicy. For the main dish I chose “Jaiba Tre Fragatas” (crab in three flavors). When the dish arrived, there were three large crabs on the plate, surrounded by three small dishes of different sauces, two of which were spicy and one which was a sweet lemon-lime cream. The crabs were served steamed in their shell – one was red, another white, and the third a light green color. All of them were superb and perfectly cooked. I enjoyed a long evening of cracking crab shells, along with the delicious taste of the sauces. And the chilled glass of Argentinian wine really added to the culinary experience. I finished dinner with a lovely, delicate chocolate mousse and a cup of Colombian coffee. Throughout the evening, rather “innocuous” organ music played in the background. Occasionally, I noticed that the Maitre d’ rang a bell every time another guest entered the restaurant, perhaps to signal to everyone that someone new had arrived. While I’m sure it was meant to be a gesture of hospitality, it made me feel a bit conspicuous when I had entered the restaurant. Overall, the evening was wonderful!

When the weekend finally came, Elena invited us to visit her “country home” in the mountains outside the city. That Friday afternoon, her driver picked us up at the hotel and took us along highway 55 up into the mountains, some 40 miles southeast of Bogota. We were joined by Elena’s colleague, Antonio, and along the way, our driver stopped at a roadside café that was dirty, dingy, noisy, and on the verge of “pandemonium”! On top of that, the food looked horribly greasy, so I settled just for a cup of coffee. (the “Deep Fried Chicken Heads” didn’t really appeal to me!) Further on up the road, we stopped again at a much nicer café located at the exit for Lake Guatarita. Before we left the café, I went to the men’s restroom, and as I walked out, a young teenage girl walked in!

Soon, we arrived at Elena’s country house, a gorgeous mountain lodge near the top of the ridge overlooking Lake Guatarita – surrounded by heavily forested mountains. It was truly a beautiful region. After stowing our gear, the whole family packed a big lunch, and then we all hiked up to the top of the ridge overlooking the lake. As we stood on the edge of the ridge, Elena told us about the “Legend of El Dorado”. It was the story of an ancient local chief who was famous for establishing a tradition of covering himself in gold dust and diving into the lake during tribal festivals and ceremonies. The legend led to several unsuccessful attempts by various European explorers to drain the lake, in an effort to expose the gold they believed to lie on the bottom of the lake! While most people think the lake was formed as the result of an extinct volcano, modern geological analysis suggests the crater was formed as a gigantic sinkhole thousands of years ago. The lake is surrounded by 500-foot-high mountains and has become a major tourist destination in Colombia – a beautiful, historic natural feature.

Lake Guatarita
Mountains around the lake
View from Elena’s “country home”

Just as we were about to make our way back to the house, a very heavy rain shower doused us with cold water. And by the time we arrived back at the house, all of us were drenched to the bone and covered in mud from the trail. When we entered the house, Elena’s housekeeper had warm glasses of “Aguardiente” (licorice liquor) waiting for us as we sat around a blazing fire in the fireplace. We soon warmed ourselves in front of the fire, and enjoyed a local dish called “Ajiaco” – potato soup with chicken, capers, cream and topped with white cheese and dark molasses. It was fantastic! Later in the evening, we enjoyed quiet conversation around the fireplace, sipping hot coffee and whiskey. Meanwhile, we watched the sun descend over the lake, amid heavy clouds – a beautiful end to the day!

The next morning, Jorge and I returned to the hotel and planned the lessons for the upcoming week. Later that evening, we shared a delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant. The next morning, I slept in until 10:00am, and it felt great. Jorge had left earlier to meet Antonio and do some work at the office, even though it was a holiday. So, I was pretty much on my own for the day, and I decided to visit some of the tourist sites downtown. I took a taxi from the hotel to the Bogota Hilton Hotel downtown, and along the way, we encountered several main streets that had been closed to allow cyclists access for a race. At one traffic stoplight, a man on roller skates came “flying” through the intersection – either he was very brave or very stupid! But in either case, he was very Lucky! So, the taxi driver had to take a very long, sinuous route through narrow residential streets, all at “breakneck” speed! As a result, I was constantly being thrown from one side of the car to the other. At last, we arrived at the Hilton Hotel, after having travelled through several very poor neighborhoods. Once I arrived at the Hilton, I went to the hotel café for breakfast, and enjoyed a delicious dish of scrambled eggs and spicy sausage. The café overlooked the pool and the skyline of the city. As I enjoyed my breakfast, I studied a map of the city and planned my day of sightseeing that would include a couple of museums and a visit to Mount Monseratte National Park in the mountains above the city.

After a wonderful breakfast in the warm sunshine on the patio, I walked to the “National Cultural Museum”, and as I crossed the street, a man walked toward me. Somehow, I “sensed” that he was about to approach me and offer something – and I was right. He came up close to my side, and as I continued to walk, he whispered something. Then he showed me some green stones, that he apparently thought would look like emeralds! The stones looked very dirty and dingy – very much like “scratched” green glass. Upon seeing the “stones”, I told him “NO”. As I continued to walk down the street, he still followed me. Then as we rounded a corner, two policemen approached, and suddenly he “disappeared”! When I reached the National Museum, I knew something wasn’t right. Sure enough, being Monday, it was closed. That’s when I suspected that all the museums were probably closed on Mondays – and unfortunately, I was right. So, I continued to walk down “Carrera No. 7”, the main boulevard downtown. It wasn’t long before I came to a large section of the street closed to traffic, and where many stands were set up, with people selling virtually anything. I noticed many native Indians selling very colorful handicrafts made from wood and straw. Even hamsters and rabbits were for sale! It was a very lively street market, and I spent a couple of hours wandering through the market and watching people “bargaining” for anything and everything. Among the wonderful displays of beautiful handmade goods, there were some people trying to sell awful, gaudy posters, cheap cassette tapes, and ridiculous trinkets! One man and his young son stood on a busy corner desperately trying to sell small “GI Joe” toys attached to little parachutes. As they tossed them into the air, they shouted loudly to attract attention. While they attracted a large crowd, I never saw anyone stop to buy one!

Downtown Bogota street

As I continued to walk down the boulevard, I came to “Plaza Bolivar”, an enormous square dedicated to Simon Bolivar, and surrounded by many government and historical buildings, including the Palace of Justice, Lievano Palace, and the primary Cathedral of Bogota. The square dates back to the pre-Colombian era when it was part of the “Muisca Confederation”. The square was filled with families enjoying the weekend holiday. There were many small stands serving food and drink scattered around the edge of the square, very popular with everyone. I had a great time strolling around the immense plaza, watching families enjoying the day. On the north side of the huge square was the “Palacio Lievano”, a massive neoclassical style building. The original palace was constructed in 1810 as the residence of “Viceroy Sanz de Santamaria”. It was completely destroyed by fire in 1900 and rebuilt in 1907 in the same style. Today, the building serves as the City Hall for Bogota. On the east side of the square, is the “Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception”. Its two tall bell towers dominate the view from anywhere in the square. Within the walls of the immense cathedral, is the burial site of “Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada”, the founder of Bogota. The cathedral occupies an area of 5,300 square meters (57,000 square feet), making it one of the largest in South America! In the far distant past, the area occupied by the square today was the site of festivals and celebrations by the “Muisca Confederation”, a large group of native tribes that once inhabited present day Colombia hundreds of years ago.

Simon Bolivar Plaza
Cathedral of Bogota
Palacio Lievano

Leaving Simon Bolivar Plaza, I rode the funicular up the mountain to the “Basilica Sanctuary of the Fallen Lord of Monserrate”, located on the top of the “Hill of Monserrate” above downtown Bogota. The church opened in 1920 as part of the Archdiocese of Bogota. Not only was the interior of the church magnificent, the views of Bogota and the surrounding mountains were spectacular!

Basilica Sanctuary of the Fallen Lord of Monserrate
View of Bogota from the “Hill of Monserrate”

After visiting the church and taking many photos, I hiked down the pathway back to downtown Bogota and then over to “Quinta de Bolivar”, a beautiful colonial house that was once the residence of Simon Bolivar after Colombia gained independence from Spain. Today, the house is a very interesting museum dedicated to the life and times of Simon Bolivar, who is considered to be the father of modern-day Colombia. Originally, the house was built for the “Chaplain of Monserrate”, Jose Antonio Portocarreno. One of the most fascinating  and unusual historical events involving the house took place in January 1974, when the cofounder of the guerrilla group known as “M-19”, stole Bolivar’s sword from the house – replacing it with a note  that read, “Bolivar, your sword returns to the battlefield”! In January of 1991, Antonio Navarro, the new leader of M-19, returned the sword to the house of Simon Bolivar, as part of a peace agreement with the Colombian government. Not only was the house beautiful, it was filled with decades of Colombian history. The visit to Simon Bolivar’s house was a highlight of my day touring downtown Bogota!

“Quinta de Bolivar”
House of Simon Bolivar
“Qunita de Bolivar”

Later, as I crossed a busy street, a man approached me and appeared to ask for directions, in Spanish. I told him I didn’t speak Spanish, so he quickly switched to English. He said he was from Venezuela, while I explained that I didn’t know the place he was searching for. Just then, another man came along and gave him directions in Spanish. At that point, the second man asked me where I came from, and how long would I be staying in Colombia? (as translated by the guy from Venezuela) Then he said he was with the police force, in the “Immigration Control Division” – whereupon, he pulled out his “badge” and a business card, both of which were very poor “fakes”! I almost laughed as I left the two of them standing on the corner – but what a “novel” scam! Later, although I had thwarted their attempt to extract money from me, I thought it would have been very interesting to have gone along with them to find out their full story! After having avoided being a victim of a scam, I walked back to the Hilton Hotel and enjoyed a cold glass of local “Quilmes” beer in the lobby bar as I wrote my travel notes for the day. And as evening fell, I took a taxi back to Hotel La Fontana and savored another wonderful dinner in the “Tres Fragatas Restaurant”.

The next day, Jorge and I went back to work in the training class. Although the schedule had the class starting at 8:00am, students didn’t begin showing up until 9:30 – 10:00am! They seemed to take a very “relaxed” view of work, especially after the 3-day weekend. Around mid-day, Antonio invited the class to join him for lunch at a small restaurant that served food typical of the region where he lived. It was quite a nice place, and we were seated at a table in the courtyard. Antonio highly recommended the special regional dish called “Barenga Paisa” – a large pottery bowl filled with black beans on the bottom and topped with an assortment of ground meat, two kinds of sausage (including black blood sausage – not my favorite), rice, grilled plantains, avocado, and crispy pork skin! With the exception of the black blood sausage, the dish was delicious! During lunch, all the students made fun of Jorge’s habit of putting piquant (hot) sauce on everything! When Jorge complained the sauce wasn’t hot enough, the waiter brought out another hot sauce, which he said was supposed to be “on fire”. As soon as it touched Jorge’s lips, even he had to admit that it “burned” his mouth! (that was something very unusual for Jorge to admit) To finish the meal, Antonio ordered coffee for everyone  and a special dessert – a mild white cheesecake topped with a spicy butterscotch sauce that was fantastic! Throughout the lunch, the majority of the conversation was in Spanish, of which I understood very little. But, nonetheless, the “jokes” were often easy to understand. After the class, Jorge and I returned to the hotel for dinner. Both of us really enjoyed the prawns with artichoke hearts in a lemon cream sauce, along with a very nice bottle of dry white wine from Chile.

The next day, after the class, we joined Antonio and his girlfriend for a football (soccer) game at “El Campino Stadium”, along with 35,000 other people. The game was a “grudge” match between the local Bogota club, known as “Millus” (millionaires) and the club from Cali, Colombia. The trip to the stadium with Antonio at the wheel was nothing short of insane – basically a “free-for-all” during rush hour! The lines painted on the streets appeared to have no meaning or purpose – the width of the street determined how many “lanes” were available. But Antonio was very adept at negotiating his way through the heavy traffic, and we managed to arrive in plenty of time for the kickoff. It was a very enjoyable evening of football, beer, and great “commentary” from Antonio and Jorge. And it was a perfect way to spend my last evening in Bogota.

The next morning, I was up early to catch the return flight to Miami and onward to Los Angeles. As I sat in the Eastern Airlines Ionosphere Lounge, awaiting the departure of the Miami flight, I reflected back upon my experience of being in Bogota, my first trip to South America. It had been very enjoyable, especially the time I spent with the Colombian people. The mountainous landscape surrounding Bogota was incredibly beautiful, with the highlight being the trip to Lake Guatavita! And despite the headline in the Miami Herald, (Colombia – most dangerous country in the world), I found the people to be warm and welcoming, and the country to be beautiful. In addition, the food was wonderful and inexpensive – for example, the cost of my Chateaubriand dinner one night, $5.00, was less than the price two Margaritas! And the hot breakfast at the hotel every morning was only 60 cents!

Even though it my first trip to Colombia, I looked forward to returning someday, hopefully when the museums were open!

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24 Days and 27,000 Miles – Bombay-Kathmandu-Bhutan-Tibet-Kunming-Bangkok

In November of 2002, I embarked on a long business trip to Asia to conduct software training classes for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The ticket agent at LAX had trouble sorting out my two reservations, three separate tickets, and all the upgrades to business class. The length of my itinerary and numerous connections on the route from New York to Rome, Paris, Bombay, New Delhi, Kathmandu and back again made it even more of a struggle for her! But eventually, flights were upgraded (a perk of being a “Million Miler” with Delta), tickets re-issued, and boarding passes printed. Then I boarded a Delta Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York JFK airport. I made the connection in New York with only a few minutes to spare. The 7 ½ hour flight to Rome was very pleasant. Dinner began with a small plate of steamed rock lobster, grilled shrimp, and crisp steamed asparagus, followed by a delicious fresh green salad topped with roasted red pepper vinaigrette dressing. For the main dish I chose the pan-seared halibut in a Thai green curry sauce, served with stir fried Asian vegetables – absolutely incredible! After the fruit and cheese course, along with a glass of Port, I retired for a few hours of sleep, somewhere over the North Atlantic.

The next day I had a meeting at the FAO headquarters in Rome to discuss future training plans for their GIS staff. Later that afternoon, I boarded an Air France flight to Paris, where I connected with the Delta Airlines flight to Bombay. Seated across the aisle from me on the flight to Bombay was an Indian man with his young five-year old daughter. She was very cute and a favorite of the flight attendants, who doted on her all during the 8-hour flight. As we flew over Turkey and Iran, a very tasty dinner of lamb kabob and chicken tandoori was served, before arriving in Bombay at 1:00 am. And to my great surprise and relief, there had been significant improvements made in the Immigration and Customs procedure. The airport had even installed a “Disney line” to eliminate the “chaos” of the past. Remarkably, I was through the formalities in a matter of minutes, compared with the hours I had endured in the past! That night I stayed at the luxurious 5-star Leela Kempinski Hotel near the airport. As I was walking out of the terminal, I spotted an advertisement that read “Sahara Airlines – Emotionally Yours”.

Leela Kempinski Hotel – Bombay

The next morning, I returned to the airport and boarded a Jet Airways flight to New Delhi. And despite the short duration of the flight, we were served a delicious lunch of Hyderabad fish curry, Shinkampur Kebab, Gobi Mussalum, and onion Pulao, along with a small salad, bowl of soup, Indian breads, fresh fruit plate, chocolate cake, and tea! (incredible for a 55-minute flight) As we approached New Delhi, I could see the dark, heavy air pollution hanging over the city. We arrived at the domestic terminal (1A), so when I asked the Jet Airways staff how to get to the international terminal, they simply said “go outside and turn left”. That took me to the international terminal 1B, but my flight to Kathmandu was scheduled to depart from international terminal 2! So, when I asked how to get to terminal 2, I was told that I needed to take a taxi! Immediately a young guy grabbed my bags, loaded them into an old white Indian made car, and we piled into the back seat. Leaving terminal 1B, the engine sputtered and rattled terribly as we sped through the crowded streets. The old car bounced along with the rest of the chaotic New Delhi traffic, dodging hectic scenes of bicycles, push carts, scooters, tuk tuks, and huge diesel smoking trucks and buses – not to mention the holy cows wandering aimlessly amidst all the traffic! (it was uniquely “India”)

Amid this chaos I noticed three things about the old car. (1) The steering wheel was mounted at a 45-degree angle to the driver. (2) The needle on the gas gauge was below empty, but then again, none of the gauges appeared to be working! (3) The turn signals were operated by a small switch on the dashboard, although I never saw it being used! Despite these “deficiencies” the driver seemed to handle the dilapidated old beast pretty well in the heavy traffic. (ie. I arrived at terminal 2 in one piece!)  There was a full 4 hours to wait before the scheduled departure of the Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu at 7:15pm. But my heart sank when I checked the display board of arrivals and departures and saw the flight was “delayed” until 1:45am! And, of course, there was no one from the airline to be seen. But since I was already booked on the Druk Air flight from Kathmandu to Paro the next day, which originated in New Delhi, I decided to look into the possibility of staying overnight in New Delhi and taking the Druk Air flight instead in the morning. But, of course, there was no one around from Druk Air to confirm the change, and nobody knew when they might return to their office. It became a very frustrating situation; however, I was able to find a small restaurant and bar in the huge waiting hall. So at least I was able to enjoy a cold Taj Mahal beer, while a cheap B-movie played on an old TV in the corner. It was a bad Hindi takeoff on a combination of “Halloween”, “Friday the 13th”, and “Night of the Living Dead”! About an hour later I heard an announcement about the arrival of the Druk Air flight from Paro, Bhutan. I rushed down to the arrivals area in an attempt to find someone from the airline, but all in vain. Just by chance, as I reluctantly headed back up to the departures lounge, I found a nice guy in the Druk Air office. He patiently listened to my story and then said, “it should be no problem to switch flights”. Upon hearing this, I quickly decided to stay overnight in New Delhi. Before leaving the airport, I left a note at the office of Royal Nepal Airlines, informing them of my change in travel plans. Then I proceeded to find a taxi to the nearby Radisson Airport Hotel. As I exited the departures area, a young man approached and asked if I needed a taxi, so I said yes. Just then a grizzled old man popped out of the shadows and demanded 500 rupees for the short 10-minute journey. I countered with 250 rupees, but he insisted on 500. When I said “No, I’ll wait for the hotel shuttle van”, he offered 400 rupees – we struck a deal at 300 rupees! Suddenly, two more young men jumped out of the car and quickly threw my bags into the boot (trunk), as I was “herded into the back seat, holding my garment bag in my lap. Meanwhile, the old man sat beside me and the three young guys squeezed themselves into the narrow front seat. The short drive was very hectic in the heavy rush hour traffic, weaving in and out between trucks and buses belching huge volumes of foul-smelling black diesel smoke! At last, after many directions shouted by the old man, we arrived at the hotel. And as I suspected, the old man claimed that neither he nor his sons had any change for my one and only 500 rupee bank note! So, as I surrendered my lonely bank note, I admonished him for his sly “trickery”!

But at long last, I stepped into the beautiful pink marble lobby of the 5-star Radisson Hotel – a world away from the stress and frustrations of the airport. The hotel front desk must have known that somehow, maybe by the expression on my face, and proceeded to upgrade me to a business class suite at no extra charge.

Radisson Airport Hotel lobby – New Delhi

After checking in, I went up to the Concierge Level lounge for the complimentary Happy Hour and enjoyed a cold Black Label beer, after which I headed downstairs to the “NYC Café” for dinner. Upon entering the restaurant, I discovered all the servers were dressed in sombreros and colorful blankets to celebrate “Mexican Buffet Night”! To be entirely honest, they all looked like “bandidos” from Poncho Villa’s army! But they were exceptionally courteous and friendly as they offered me a selection of imported Mexican beers. Later in the evening, another “bandido” came around with a large bottle of Tequila and shot glasses in a bandolier slung over his shoulder. Despite the valiant effort by the hotel to turn the room into Mexico, I was not up for eating Mexican food in India. So, I ordered my favorite dish of delicious Chicken Tikka Masala, rice, and fresh baked naan, along with a cold bottle of Kingfisher beer. After dinner, I retired to my room, set the alarm for 5 am, and nodded off to sleep. Earlier, I had watched a fascinating, but disturbing National Geographic film about a young Pakistani woman who was blinded and disfigured by her husband after she had become pregnant as the result of a vicious gang rape! Eventually she was able to make her way to America where she was treated by a Pakistani doctor in Washington, DC. He literally “rebuilt” her face! The story of her recovery was amazing and inspiring, but she was much more fortunate than many women in Pakistan who have been killed by their husbands, or even their fathers, that were “justified” as “honor killings”!

The next morning, I was up early at 6 am to meet the Druk Air station manager and confirm a seat on the direct flight from New Delhi to Kathmandu. As I entered the airport, I glanced at the display board showing the times of the departing flights. I must admit, it was not a total surprise when I saw the “new” departure time for the Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu at 6 am! Just then, a very nice man from Druk Air met me and confirmed that I could buy a ticket from New Delhi to Paro since I already had a confirmed reservation on the “sold out” segment of the flight from Kathmandu to Paro. But when he asked me how I would pay for the ticket, and I answered, “by credit card”, a frown appeared on his face! I was then informed that only Bhutanese Baht or Indian Rupees would be accepted. At that point, he guided me to the Thomas Cook Agency office, where he advised me to get a cash advance of 18,000 rupees on my American Express credit card to pay for the ticket. I did so in short order, received my ticket, and proceeded through Immigration. As the Indian immigration officer looked at my old passport photo, he “chuckled” at the picture of my long hair and beard. (I had cut my long hair and beard two years before)

Having passed through the Immigration formalities, I headed to the wonderful peace and quiet of the Sheraton Maurya First Class lounge for a cup of coffee and an assortment of delicious Indian pastries. Afterwards, going through the security checkpoint, my baggage and I were thoroughly searched. As I arrived at the departure gate, passengers were boarding other flights to Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Finally, we boarded an old Indian bus that took us to a small ATR-72 aircraft parked at the far end of the runway. Luckily, I had an aisle seat in economy class on what would be a completely full flight on the next segment. (Unfortunately, business class had been sold out for several weeks) The 1 ½ hour flight to Kathmandu was very pleasant, and we were served a nice breakfast by the beautiful, young flight attendants in traditional Bhutanese dress. Upon landing in Kathmandu, only a few people departed the plane, but a large crowd began boarding the flight. A very nervous Nepali man took the middle seat next to me, and he had incredibly large, active elbows. As I looked around, the plane was jammed with people trying to carry on everything from heavy backpacks to large black plastic bags stuffed to overflowing! My host and colleague from UNEP-ICIMOD also boarded the flight, to join me for the first GIS user conference scheduled in Bhutan. As we departed Kathmandu, the plane climbed steadily up to 29,000 feet, and the captain began pointing out the highest and most important peaks of the massive Himalaya Mountain Range, including Lhotse, Annapurna, and of course, Mt Everest. The mountains were shining brilliantly, clad in fresh fallen snow and jutting high above the clouds! It was a view that was only possible on the flight from Kathmandu to Paro, since the route parallels the southern boundary of the Himalaya Range – truly a spectacular vista!

Himalaya Range
Mt Everest

About 45 minutes later, we began our descent toward the airport in Paro, slowly weaving our way down through the steep, narrow valleys. The closer we got to the airport, the mountains began to close in on us, until at one point, I could look out both sides of the plane and clearly see the trees and rocks clinging to the steep slopes less than 100 yards away! I could only imagine what it would be like to land in bad weather. But this day we were blessed with beautiful, clear blue skies. As we deplaned, we were met by our Bhutanese government host, Mr. Drungkar, and our bags were quickly loaded in the waiting Landcruiser for the trip to the capitol city of Thimphu. The journey took us south and then east on the one and only road to the city, following two major rivers. After a half hour or so, we stopped for tea at the “Pegyel Hotel and Guesthouse” beside the “Do Chhu River”. As we sipped our tea, we enjoyed lovely views of the surrounding mountains, as well as the trees along the riverbank, their leaves having turned a beautiful bright golden color. The hotel was built in the unique traditional architectural style of Bhutan, with intricately carved wooden details around the windows and doors.

Do Chhu River near Paro
Pegyel Hotel and Guesthouse

The two-hour drive to Thimphu was on a rough, narrow twisting road with only one paved lane. The maximum posted speed limit was 25 mph, and everyone used the one paved lane, regardless of direction, swerving off to the unpaved side of the road at the last minute to avoid oncoming traffic! Everyone seemed to know the rule, but when the vehicle swerved toward the outside edge of a curve where the steep slope dropped down to the river over 300 feet below, it was pretty scary, even at 25 mph!

During the journey, I noticed almost everyone we passed was dressed in traditional Bhutanese style, which created a feeling of being in a very old culture. Finally, we arrived in Thimphu and were taken to the Jambayang Resort – a small hotel high up on the mountain slope across the river from the city. I was shown to a small apartment with a balcony overlooking the river and the city of Thimphu, surrounded by mountains covered in thick, deep green forest. That afternoon, I sat on the balcony in the warm rays of the sun, enjoying a cold Black Label beer from India.

Jambayang Hotel
Cold Black Label beer on the balcony
View of Thimphu from the balcony

Later in the evening, we were invited to a large, formal dinner in the hotel, hosted by the Secretary of the National Planning Commission. Indian beer and local whiskey flowed freely all night long, during which I was introduced to “Red Panda Beer”, the one and only beer produced in Bhutan. It turned out to be a very nice Weissbier that was developed by a Swiss sponsored aid project over 20 years ago. Apparently, the project had originally been funded to develop a cheese making industry in Bhutan. But it wasn’t long before the yeast made its way into fermenting beer! During the dinner, I happened to notice that the Secretary was wearing long white underwear beneath his traditional robe, known as a “Gho”. The white underwear showed below the robe and above his tall socks – but it didn’t seem to matter to him, or anyone else for that matter! It was a lovely evening, with lots of toasts by everyone seated at the long table.

Just before I retired to my room for the night, I placed the small, one and only electric heater, on the marble floor inside the bathroom, so as to have a halfway warm place to take a shower in the morning. During the night I could hear dogs barking in the distance down in the city below, and I remembered my Bhutan guidebook had warned that large gangs of stray dogs roamed the streets of Thimphu at night, barking incessantly. (Thank goodness for my earplugs) I awoke early the next morning to see clear blue skies and felt a sharp chill in the air. But to my dismay, I found the electrical extension cord had a bad connection and the heater had failed some time during the night. The result was a “stone cold” bathroom! After breakfast, our Bhutanese government host drove us up to “Donchu La Summit Viewpoint”, at an elevation of 3070 meters (10,200 feet) for a spectacular view of the snow -covered peaks of the Himalaya Range on the border with Tibet. Many of the highest peaks were well over 7500 meters (24,000 feet).

At Donchu La Summit Viewpoint
Himalaya Mountains on the border with Tibet

Following many photos, we proceeded down a very narrow, rough, twisting road, surrounded on both sides by steep heavily forested mountains. Slowly we descended almost 7,000 feet to the small village of Punakha, and suddenly found ourselves amid an expanse of deep green rice terraces. Here we visited two very old, historic Buddhist monasteries, which are known as “Dzongs”. The first monastery was “Punakha Dzong”, or “Palace of Great Happiness”. It was a beautiful structure over 400 feet long and six stories high, with a large gold dome, built in the year 1676. Like many of the Dzongs, it had also served as a fortress against invasions from Tibet. The second monastery was “Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag”, a very impressive stone fortress atop a high ridge between two major rivers. It was founded in 1638 by an ancient warlord by the name of Shabdrung. The entire interior of the structure was decorated in beautifully carved wood and stone, painted in brilliant colors of the rainbow.

Punakha Dzong
Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag
Inside Punakha Dzong monastery
Religious artwork inside the monastery

As we walked around the monastery, many young monks came running up to greet us, and a few were eager to practice their English upon us. Leaving the monastery, I gave away all my pens to them, save for one to write in my journal. Meanwhile, we passed a huge gathering of local people waiting to receive the blessings from Bhutan’s holiest monk.

That evening, we all checked into “Hotel Y.T.” in the tiny village of Lobesa, about 20 miles south of Punakha. As the sun set over the mountains to the west, we had dinner, seated on a large wooden deck overlooking the valley below. Later, the one and only TV in the hotel was showing the English language evening news from the Bhutan National Broadcasting Service. Over the next half hour, we listened to some very important news, such as:

  • Locations and dates for census reporting
  • Locations and dates for school exams
  • Current weather conditions and forecasts for virtually every town and village in Bhutan

The next morning brought heavy clouds for our drive back to Thimphu. It was a long trip over steep, narrow, rough roads, and I became convinced there were no smooth, level roads anywhere in the country. No wonder the national speed limit was 25 mph! Unfortunately, the heavy clouds precluded any views of the high Himalayan peaks.

The way to Thimphu

After a couple of hours, we made a stop for tea at a police checkpoint, just below Donchu La Pass. As we sat enjoying our tea and a break from the rough road, a large Indian Army convoy passed through the checkpoint, on their way to re-supply the road maintenance stations that India provides as a service to Bhutan. (In my view, it was quite obvious that the road upon which we had been travelling had not seen any maintenance for many years!) the remainder of our return trip to Thimphu was through lush, thick pine forest that covered the steep mountain slopes like an enormous green carpet, sometimes rising thousands of feet above us.

Finally, back in the city, Sushil, my UNEP-ICIMOD host, and I spent the warm, sunny afternoon walking around downtown Thimphu. The city had no traffic lights, nor where there any in the entire country. However, there were two policemen directing the small number of cars on the street, from their “posts” in the center of a main intersection.

Traffic control in the center of Thimphu

After a lovely lunch at “Plum’s Café”, we began the trek back up the hill to Jambayang Hotel and Resort. Along the way, we stopped to watch an archery competition. Soon we found out why archery was the national sport of Bhutan, as spectators often stood less than a foot away from the target in order to get the best view! The archers launched their long arrows more than 100 yards away from the target and very rarely missed – luckily for the spectators! Further on, we passed several signs posted along the side of the street – “Public urination and defecation prohibited”. Thankfully, there was no evidence of any “illegal” activity! We arrived back at the hotel just in time to join the rest of our group for dinner.

The next day we left the hotel and met up with our local Bhutanese host named Kinley, for a drive north up the deep valley above a Thimphu that also took us through a small Tibetan refugee village. The narrow road clung to the steep mountain sides that were carpeted with a beautiful, thick forest of tall pine trees. At the end of the road we came to an ancient monastery, literally “hanging” on the sheer rock face directly above us. Nearby was a small stone bridge covered with hundreds of colorful prayer flags.

Kinley with Professor Konecny
Monastery at the top of the mountain

And a short distance away, several large Indian families were picnicking on the grass beside the small stream, their huge stereo systems blaring out the latest Hindi pop music! As it happened, the old stone bridge was the entrance to the national park.

As we gazed at the ancient monastery above us, Kinley told us about the traditional religious custom for Bhutanese families. At least one young male child from every family must enter a monastery for a minimum of 3 years of religious study. And during that time, they have no contact with their family. It’s an ancient Buddhist tradition that’s centuries old and continues today. Back in the city, Kinley invited us for lunch at a small café downtown called “The Blue Poppy”. The food was delicious and closely related to North Indian cuisine, reflecting a common heritage in the distant past. Later, Kinley took us to the zoo where we came up close with a small herd of Yaks, animals of great importance to the people and culture of the Himalayan region. Then it was time for traditional Yak butter tea at Kinley’s house, and I can only describe the drink as being very greasy and bordering on rancid – definitely an “acquired” taste! But Kinley’s hospitality was warm and generous. Dinner that evening was at the Druk Kotel downtown, where we happened to meet a one-armed young American guy who was working on a mushroom production project in the mountains east of Thimphu.

The next day, we joined Kinley again to visit with GIS users from around the country before the start of the first annual “Bhutan GIS Users Conference”, hosted by the Ministry of Planning. Later, I was shown to an office where I was told I would be able to access my email, for the first time in almost a week. My first attempt to connect to my email came just before a power failure as I was opening the second message! On my next attempt, the system was so slow in opening any messages that I just gave up! Meanwhile, the one-armed American was still trying unsuccessfully to connect his laptop using the fax line at the hotel front desk. As the day came to an end, the Secretary of the National Planning Commission hosted a fabulous dinner of traditional Bhutanese dishes at the luxury Druk Hotel. The following day, I gave a technical presentation to the staff of the National Land Commission, which was delayed due to the late arrival of the video projector, an essential piece of technology for my presentation. Meanwhile, as I sat patiently awaiting the delivery of the projector, I began to notice that all the government employees were required to wear “formal” traditional dress that included a religious shawl and colorful knee-high socks for men. At last the projector arrived, with many apologies, and my presentation was a great success! Following the close of the session, I returned to the hotel to pack my bags for the return trip to Kathmandu. As I went to check out of the hotel, I was informed the hotel did not accept credit cards or traveler’s checks, so a quick trip to bank was required. (Bhutan really was a “cash only” economy!)

The drive back to Paro was another “hair raising” experience on narrow, one lane mountain roads. Twice, our Bhutanese hosts stopped at small roadside stands to “replenish” their supply of “Paan” (aka “Betel Nut”, a mild stimulant).

At the “Betel Nut” shop on the way to Paro

As we arrived in Paro, we visited the ancient ruins of “Paro Dzong”, once a large fortress where the last battle took place against the invaders from Tibet. From there we had spectacular views of the world famous “Taksung Monastery”, also known as the “Tiger’s Nest” – perched high on a sheer, precipitous cliff thousands of feet above the valley!

Taksung Monastery – “Tiger’s Nest”

With evening approaching, we returned to the Pegyel Hotel and were invited to join a reception and dinner hosted by a group from the World Trade Commission. Seated around a huge campfire, we were treated to a performance of beautiful, traditional Bhutanese music and dance. After which, some people from the various countries represented in the commission were invited to participate in the evening’s entertainment. Of special note were the Aussie’s doing “Waltzing Matilda” around the campfire.

Pegyel Hotel – Paro

After dinner, Kinley and Sushil insisted that I join them for a traditional “stone bath”. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I agreed. So, wrapped in a towel from the hotel, I joined them outside in front of a large stone tub that was buried in the ground and filled with water. At the far end of the tub was a small platform where large “red hot” stones from the campfire were placed to heat the water! It was certainly an ancient and original version of the modern “hot tub”. As we soaked in the tub under clear, cold skies filled with millions of stars, traditional Bhutanese music and dancing continued well into the night. Needless to say, I enjoyed a very restful sleep that night – quiet and peaceful.

“Stone Bath”

The following morning, we awoke to find our vehicle covered in a heavy layer of frost. Then it was a short drive to the airport for the flight back to Kathmandu. Upon check-in, I was most fortunate to get the last available window seat on the right side of the aircraft, which would afford me spectacular views of the highest peaks of the Himalayan Range and the Tibetan Plateau beyond. But upon boarding the plane, my excitement and anticipation were quickly dashed when I saw the windows were heavily scratched, most likely from a great many tourist cameras! However, it was a pleasant flight to Kathmandu, and upon arrival, it was determined that it was less expensive for UNEP-ICIMOD to have me stay at the new Hyatt Hotel, rather than the ICIMOD Guest House downtown. So, I soon found myself in a gorgeous 5-star luxury hotel situated on several acres of land on a hill overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. (at $45 per night, it was an incredible bargain – I only wished I could have stayed longer) As I explored the hotel, I discovered several beautiful scale models of famous Nepalese temples and monasteries displayed in the lobby.

Hyatt Hotel – Kathmandu
Hyatt Hotel lobby

Later that afternoon, my hosts took me to the ICIMOD office to have our photos taken for the Tibetan visas, the country that would be our next destination. In the evening, we were invited to a cultural program and dinner in the Hyatt Hotel, sponsored by the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS). During the program, a contest was held to highlight the cultural traditions of each country – the delegation from Japan won first place. It was a lot of fun, both for the contestants and the audience.

The next day began with a delicious Nepalese breakfast and a leisurely morning preparing my “15 minute” presentation to the ACRS Conference. The meeting was held in the beautiful new conference center near the airport, where we had an incredible view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. The conference began with the obligatory speeches by local government officials, followed by the opening keynote address. Meanwhile, the main entrance door to the ballroom kept “squeaking” loudly as people constantly walked in and out – very distracting! Finally, I leaned over and “quietly” suggested to the session moderator to have the door left open and avoid the disturbing noise. My presentation went very well, and at the conclusion of the session we headed back to the hotel, once again a slow, frustrating drive through narrow streets filled with noxious black clouds of diesel exhaust fumes from hundreds of old trucks and buses! However, along the way I spotted several very interesting local business signs, such as:

  • “Glamour Public School”
  • “Sleep Well for Years Mattress Company”
  • “Royal Peace Restaurant and Bar with Dance”
  • “Moral Academy” (with a huge picture of Mickey Mouse pointing the way!)

Finally back at the hotel, Basanta’s friend, the hotel General Manager, invited our group to have drinks in the “Rox Bar”. He led us down a narrow stairwell, whose walls and ceiling were completely covered with “rocks”. It was a beautiful multi-level restaurant and bar where we were served large glasses of cold Indian draft beer, along with tasty snacks of chicken tandoori and spicy potato wedges. While I enjoyed the draft beer, all the Nepalese in our group were drinking local whiskey and soda, the most popular brand being “Mount Everest Whiskey”. After sharing conversations about our various travel experiences, it was dinner time and we were escorted upstairs to the restaurant. It was a gorgeous atmosphere of simple, elegant décor, with lots of lovely dark tropical wood, together with plenty of native rocks. The food was outstanding, but all during the meal, heavy metal music blared in the background from the bar downstairs. (oddly, I seemed to be the only one to notice it!) In stark contrast, there was lovely, ethereal Indian music playing throughout the hotel lobby. Later in the evening, a very large tour group from Japan arrived just as I headed back to my room.

The following morning, as I waited for Basanta and the ICIMOD driver to pick me up, I watched a large Indian wedding party arrive, dressed in their very finest, the ladies sporting tons of gold. Soon the ICIMOD driver arrived and took us to the airport for our flight to Lhasa to attend a meeting with the Tibetan University staff in charge of the GIS department. As we checked in, we noticed that the flight was delayed an hour, but when we got to the departure gate it was back on schedule. Luckily, both of us had been assigned window seats on the left side of the plane – the “right” side to be able to see Mt Everest! The China Southwest Airlines aircraft was a new Boeing 757, so the windows hadn’t been scratched yet! Due to recent threats from Maoist terrorists in Nepal, airport security was on high alert. As we joined the security screening line, a young Chinese girl in front of us had her batteries, matches, razor blades, and Swiss army knife confiscated! Once through the security checkpoint, we had just enough time for a quick cup of coffee at the snack bar before boarding. Soon after takeoff, we had spectacular views of all the highest peaks of the Himalayan Range! (and this time, the window was reasonably free of scratches) There were magnificent views of the entire Himalaya – Hindu Kush Range as our plane turned north, crossed over the summit just east of Mt Everest, and into the enormous, barren Tibetan Plateau. Suddenly the landscape became an endless vista of barren mountains, broken in places by large rivers, all under cold, deep blue skies!

View of the Himalaya – Hindu Kush Range and the Tibetan Plateau beyond

Two hours later, we slowly descended to the airport, situated on a very barren, dry flat plain, almost 100 km (60 miles) from the city of Lhasa by road – but only half that distance as the crow flies! We were met by our Tibetan and Chinese hosts, and as we drove to the city, the highway from the airport was lined with a series of young Chinese soldiers stationed every 2 – 3 kms to honor and salute the new Chinese army commander being posted in Lhasa. Who knows how long they had been waiting, or how long they still had to wait! Once we finally reached the hotel in the center of town, we were invited to lunch – a Yak burger and Lhasa beer. As we sat in the little café, I noticed a sign on the wall – “Place your order for Christmas pudding from Eat Lover Bakery”! Later that evening, we joined our hosts for dinner at the historic “Snowlands Hotel” for a delicious combination of Chinese, Nepalese, and traditional Tibetan dishes. And afterwards, we all took a long walk down the “new” main street – a very gaudy collection of bright neon lights, new restaurants and bars, mixed among old traditional Tibetan shops. It created a rather weird, odd combination that certainly reflected the recent massive influence of the Chinese culture. Returning to the hotel I felt the sting of the cold, thin air (20 degrees F) and high elevation (almost 12,000 feet). Even the electric heater in my hotel room couldn’t raise the temperature above 55 degrees, at its highest setting no less! And as I entered the tiny bathroom, I had to stoop down to see myself in the mirror – a problem for shaving!

Hotel room in Lhasa

The next morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, our Tibetan driver arrived to take us to the world-famous landmark in Tibet, the 1600-year-old “Potala Palace”, official residence of 14 Dalai Lamas. Fortunately, we were driven up a steep, narrow winding road leading to the rear gate, so we didn’t have to climb the steep staircase rising over 100 meters (320 feet) from the other side, which all Tibetan pilgrims must do. There were over 1000 rooms in the palace and 8 of the 14 Dalai Lamas were buried within the palace walls.

Potala Palace – Lhasa
Potala Palace and the main square of Lhasa

As we toured the countless small dark rooms filled with row upon row of ancient Tibetan manuscripts, all neatly stacked on shelves, nomadic Tibetan pilgrims from the remote regions lit up ceremonial candles made from Yak butter. It made the air in the dark rooms very smoky and heavy with a rancid smell – rather unpleasant! Our Tibetan host also told us that hundreds of cats were kept in the palace to control the rats and mice – a practice dating back many generations.

Tibetan pilgrims ascending stairs of Potala Palace

When we reached the rooftop terrace, we had a spectacular view of the incredibly deep blue sky, in sharp contrast to the brilliant white-washed buildings. As we gazed upon the magnificent scene of the landscape spread out before us, the soft, haunting sound of Tibetan monks chanting in the distance reached our ears – a mesmerizing, magical moment!

View of Lhasa from the rooftop terrace
Rooftop terrace – Potala Palace

Later in the afternoon, we visited the “Tibetan Cultural Museum” and saw beautiful displays of traditional Tibetan lifestyle, culture, and art. (our Chinese host made certain that we also heard the “Chinese version” of the liberation of Tibet by the Communist Party) Following the museum visit, we had a traditional Tibetan lunch at the tiny “Lhasa Kitchen House” in the old quarter of the city.

The next day, I gave a technical presentation to the faculty and students at Tibet University, and afterwards there was a formal ceremony to donate Esri GIS software to the university. Then we were led on a tour of the university, including a visit to the GIS lab. Since there was no elevator, we had to climb 4 flights of stairs to reach the lab. Every one of the lab staff were dressed in sparkling white lab coats and white overshoes – a very neat and clean room indeed. However, when I enquired about the location of the toilet, I was informed that the one and only toilet in the building was down on the ground floor. And when I entered the toilet, it was the typical Chinese style “squat” facility – no toilet paper and atrociously dirty (disgusting!). What an amazing contrast between the computer lab and the toilet! On my way back up to the lab, I saw large photos of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison hanging on the walls of the bleak hallway.

Einstein in the hallway

As we traveled back to our hotel, I noticed a few traffic lights amidst the chaotic traffic, all with a unique feature. They had digital clocks that counted down the remaining time for both vehicles and pedestrians. But the vast majority of the city operated without any traffic control, yet everyone seemed to manage to move safely, though very slowly.

That evening was the inevitable, formal Chinese banquet, hosted by the Vice-President of the university. Although the food was pretty much as I expected, (ie. the “obligatory” Sea Cucumbers and Jellyfish soup, in spite of being over a thousand miles from the ocean!), but we were presented with a new dish I hadn’t seen during previous banquets – small roasted birds that had been chopped into pieces, heads and all, with their eyes and beaks “staring” at us from the plate! (not the most appealing dish on the table!)

Chinese banquet

I was surprised when I was introduced with the title “Guest Professor” and presented with an incredible gift of a gorgeous brass scale model of the Portola Palace mounted on dark tropical wood.

Gift from Tibetan University

During the banquet, numerous toasts were offered, and each time we all had to shout “Gambai”, chug the entire glass, and turn it upside down on our head to show it was indeed empty – no matter if it was fruit juice, beer, or strong spirits! As it turned out, Basanta had chosen the wrong glass at the beginning of the evening and was stuck with having to drink strong spirits all night – a toast every 5 minutes! Near the conclusion of the evening, the restaurant staff serenaded us with beautiful Tibetan folk songs. It was a lovely way to end the evening.

The next morning, we visited the GIS computer lab again, but this time the room was freezing – there was no heat anywhere in the building. Later, we made our way down to the university students’ canteen for lunch, and along the way I saw a very unusual way of heating water for tea. Outside, a large parabolic shaped sheet of highly polished tin was placed facing the sun, and in the center was a metal tea kettle filled with water. Amazingly, it actually boiled the water, probably due to the thin air and the high elevation.

Unique way to boil water for tea

On another note, I was still having trouble adapting to being on “Beijing” time – 2 ½ hours ahead of what would be the normal “local” time in Lhasa. Following another Chinese banquet that evening at the Tibet Post Hotel, we joined a group from the Tibet Academy of Agricultural and Animal Sciences (TAAAS) for a party at a new Chinese nightclub.

  • We were seated at a table reserved for us, complete with a pre-ordered case of Budweiser beer waiting for us
  • The beer was served in small “shot” glasses which we were expected to “chug” every time a toast was offered, which was every few minutes!
  • Meanwhile, a large pot of boiling pig’s feet was available nearby as a “snack”
  • The nightclub was very bright and gaudy in décor, and packed with young Chinese having a great time, laughing constantly
  • After an hour or so, we were treated to a lovely show of traditional Tibetan dances and folk songs by local performers dressed in very colorful native costumes from different regions of Tibet
  • The sound system was extremely loud and too much for me, but our Chinese hosts thought it was just the right volume
  • As we were leaving the nightclub, a crew from the city was busy tearing up the floor at the entrance and pumping out raw sewage from a break in the pipe

So ended our evening out at the nightclub!

The next morning, when I got up at 7:30 am, it was still pitch dark outside as I made my way downstairs for breakfast. But the door to the restaurant was locked, and it was clear that no one was awake. At the same moment, someone was banging on the front door of the hotel, which was also locked. Finally, a half hour later, someone fired up the kitchen stove and fixed us some hot coffee and toast. Later, Basanta and I joined our Tibetan host for a visit to the Yak Research Institute and Breeding Center north of Lhasa. The road followed a large river into a steep gorge where work was going on to construct tunnels and bridges for the planned extension of the railroad from Beijing to Lhasa. The road climbed slowly up to a low, broad pass at 4600 meters (15,000 feet), surrounded by beautiful, snow capped mountains rising to above 24,000 feet.

On the way to the Yak Research Institute
Nima and Basanta on the road from Lhasa at 15,000 feet

Meanwhile, under clear, deep blue skies, large herds of Yak, sheep, goats and horses grazed peacefully on the enormous expanse of brown grassland. Most of the streams that we passed were still ice covered, since temperatures were not much above zero, even at mid-day. After a reasonably smooth trip over the unpaved road, we suddenly encountered a 3 km long stretch in horrible condition, with basketball sized boulders forming the pavement! It was insane, but our driver and the Landcruiser handled it quite well. In the meantime, the few vehicles we encountered were mostly large trucks, overland buses (with double decker sleeping compartments) and small two wheeled tractors pulling old wooden carts. Later, we passed several small villages, each one with a busy outdoor market where nomadic herders traded hides of Yak and sheep. Finally, after several hours of driving, we arrived at the Yak Research Institute and Breeding Center, nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. It was definitely a very remote, lonely outpost of the Tibet Agricultural Department. Following our visit and tour of the center, we spotted some huge black vultures of the kind that are used by Tibetan Buddhists to dispose of the bodies of deceased relatives. The Tibetans believe their spirit is released to join the afterlife by the act of the birds eating their flesh, whereas the Chinese prefer cremation.

As we headed back to Lhasa, we made a short stop to visit an area of natural hot springs where a large new “spa” had recently been developed. It happened to be adjacent to a new electrical generating station that was powered by underground steam from the hot springs – the first geothermal power plant in Tibet. Several miles further down the road, we passed many Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims making their journey to the Potala Palace, much like Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca. The Tibetan pilgrims must make the trek for hundreds of miles on foot, stopping to kneel and pray every 2 – 3 steps, which can take many weeks or even months to reach Lhasa – that’s a remarkable symbol of belief and devotion!

Tibetan pilgrims on their trek to the Potala Palace in Lhasa
Village market – trading Yak hides and meat

Later, our driver stopped at one of the village markets to haggle with some nomads for several kgs of Yak meat. Our journey took only a few hours, but making the trip all the way from Lhasa to Chengdu in Sichuan Province would take 3 days. Once we were back in Lhasa, we stopped for a quick lunch at a local noodle shop. Although the place was very spartan, the food was very tasty. However, the toilet was tiny and atrocious – something I had come to expect in China! Later that evening, Basanta and I joined the TAAAS group and a lovely lady from Colorado named Camilla for dinner at the Snowlands Hotel. (seemed like a favorite place for foreigners to meet in Lhasa) She told us she was doing research on the Yak and its importance to the Tibetan economy. During dinner, Camilla entertained us with a short story about a Tibetan woman who had 4 husbands. Husband #1 to work in the fields, number 2 to tend the Yaks, number 3 to do the shopping, and number 4, the young one, to stay home with her! We all had a great laugh at the end – the meaning was clear! After dinner, I walked back to the hotel in the cold night air, passing the small shops as they were closing for the night. During the night, I awoke at 2:30 am and was unable to fall asleep again, perhaps due to the altitude.

When 7:30 am arrived, I headed down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, though it was still pitch dark outside. The staff were quite sleepy, but they managed to prepare a nice Yak cheese omelet and cup of hot coffee. After breakfast, our Chinese host, Nima, picked us up and we headed south to the airport, as a gorgeous sunrise greeted us. The long drive of 100 kms (60 miles) took us under an hour as our driver insisted upon driving down the middle of the road, except when avoiding oncoming traffic, as well as overtaking vehicles on blind curves. It seemed to be the norm for Tibetan drivers, but it was rather scary to be sitting in the back seat! Along the way to the airport we were rewarded with beautiful views of sunlit mountains reflected in the icy waters of the mighty Brahmaputra River that flows into northern India and Bangladesh, often causing major floods during the monsoon season. About 30 miles outside Lhasa we passed an encampment of nomads beside the road, with campfires blazing in the cold morning air. Finally, we reached the airport, with less than 30 minutes before departure of our flight. (I had no idea why Nima thought we should have time to stop along the way for breakfast, but fortunately, Basanta and I insisted upon going directly to the airport) Two days earlier, China Southwestern Airlines had suddenly canceled the last return flight to Kathmandu for the winter. So, we had only two options from which to choose; (1) Drive for 2 – 3 days over the Himalaya Mountains and hope no landslides closed the one and only road to Kathmandu, or (2) fly to Kathmandu by way of Chengdu, Kunming, and Bangkok – we chose option #2!

The process of checking in for the flight to Chengdu was an absolute madhouse of people pushing and shoving in the chaotic lines of passengers. And to make matters worse, our baggage could only be checked as far as Chengdu because we had to connect to a different airline in Chengdu – apparently no process for transferring baggage in China! By this time, Basanta, Nima, and I had to take the last remaining seats, and I ended up with a middle seat – UGH! Luckily, Nima saw my frustration and found a window seat for me before takeoff. As the A-320 gained altitude, we had incredible views of the vast Tibetan Plateau and the high, rugged peaks in western Sichuan Province. Nearing Chengdu, the plane descended through a thick layer of clouds at 8,000 feet, making the mountain peaks resemble “islands” in a fluffy white sea – gorgeous! Landing in Chengdu, we discovered a beautifully designed, very modern new terminal that reminded me very much of the new Kansai airport in Osaka, Japan. However, our plane landed at the very far end of the runway, so it was a long, very crowded bus ride to the terminal building. Once inside the terminal, Basanta, Nima, and I found a small café for coffee as we waited for the Wuhan Airlines check-in counter to open. Getting from the arrivals area to the departure lounge involved wheeling our two fully loaded baggage trolleys up a steep escalator. A large sign posted at the bottom of the escalator read “No Trolleys”, but the airport staff insisted we must take the trolleys up the escalator, because there were no lifts (elevators) available. While we successfully negotiated the escalator, a trolley behind us suddenly slipped, just as it approached the top and dumped all its bags down the escalator – effectively blocking everyone below!

Having checked in for our flight to Kunming, we explored the shops in the terminal. I found a nice DVD video about Tibet, while Basanta came back with a bright orange “Pumpkin Doll” for his daughter that danced to the sound of a silly Hindi song.  As we sat in the departure lounge, he insisted upon demonstrating it for us, when suddenly, a young Chinese couple seated behind us turned around. It was obvious that that they were enthralled by the doll and demanded to know where he had bought it. While we didn’t understand exactly what they were saying, it was clear by their sign language and facial expressions. A short time later, they returned with their very own “pumpkin Doll”! Finally, the flight to Kunming on China Northwest Airlines was called for departure. The short one-hour flight was quite pleasant as we watched the inflight entertainment, a series of Polish cartoons about a mole and his friends in the forest. Meanwhile, the landscape below us was one of lush, deep green mountains and lovely terraces of rice fields. Upon arrival in Kunming, Nima led us from the baggage claim area to the Tourist Services Desk, where two cheerful, young Chinese girls proceeded to book us rooms in a new 5-star hotel downtown and arrange for a van to transport us there. They were even able to confirm our airline tickets to Bangkok for the following day. All of this was conducted by Nima in a long series of conversations in Chinese, while Basanta and I sat in the waiting lounge.

It was a long, slow ride in heavy rush hour traffic from the airport to the “Greenland Hotel”. Upon entering the hotel lobby, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by enormous Christmas trees and holiday decorations throughout the lobby! (my thought at that moment was that Christmas in China must be nothing more another economic opportunity, and unfortunately, maybe not that different than places in America) The hotel registration and check-in process was long and tedious, but finally we were given keys to rooms for $39 a night, and that included breakfast! (it was a far cry from the “advertised” rate of $199 a night – perhaps due to Nima’s negotiating skills?) My room was a very nice corner suite on the 12th floor, and although it was supposed to be a “non-smoking” room, there were ash trays and burned out matches everywhere! By this time, I had my doubts there was any place in China that was really non-smoking! Later, I went down to the hotel lobby bar, ordered a cold Tsingtao beer, and wrote in my journal, trying to capture the multitude of experiences, feelings, and senses of the past several days. At the same time, I was surrounded by the Christmas decorations, while a local band named “Happy Trails” played some pretty decent old rock-n-roll tunes. Later in the evening, I met up with Basanta and Nima as they were finalizing arrangements for me to visit the “Stone Forest”, a United Nations world heritage site, the next morning before our afternoon flight to Bangkok. Then we all went in search of a local restaurant for dinner. As we climbed into the taxi, Nima began to chat with the driver about his recommendations of places nearby for dinner. Suddenly, the driver pulled over, next to the “King Royal Palace Restaurant”. It was then that I realized we had driven less than 3 blocks from the hotel. A 2-minute ride for 8 yuan or about $2.00!

As we approached the front door, several young ladies in native Yunnan dress greeted us and began jabbering, all at the same time, on our way upstairs to the dinning area. As I looked around, it became obvious there were several different restaurants, each one competing for our business! After several rounds of discussion between Nima and the young ladies, it was decided that we would have our dinner in the seafood restaurant. Then suddenly, a whole crew of servers descended upon us, showed us to a table, and began preparing it for our dinner. As one of the servers, a young Chinese girl with a bright pink, punk hair style proceeded to take our order, Nima expressed some surprise and shock at the high prices, probably, because as our host, he would be paying for the dinner. As Nima continued to carry on the long conversation with the server, focused on the menu choices, Basanta and I began to wonder just how many dishes we would be getting, as well as what “exotic” items might be included? As it turned out, dinner started with a small glass of local herb flavored aperitif, followed by Szechuan tofu, “Moa’s Special Lamb Ribs”, shredded chicken with bamboo shoots, and a steaming bowl of local fish stew – all of which were delicious! Throughout dinner, we toasted many rounds of the local beer named “KK”. All in all, it was a wonderful dinner, especially with the restaurant staff “fluttering” around us, filling our glasses, changing our plates, and bringing even more food!

After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and I retreated to my room to prepare for the trip to the “Stone Forest” in the mountains northeast of Kunming in the morning. As we walked back to the hotel that evening, I spotted a menu board outside one of the many tiny cafes on the street. In big bold letters it proudly announced it was serving a special dish – “Hot Pot with Smelly Fish Tofu”! I was sure it must have appealed to someone, but not me! (later the next day, I found out that Basanta and Nima had spent the night at a nearby pub until 2 am!) The next morning, after breakfast, without Basanta and Nima, I joined my taxi driver/guide for the trip to the Stone Forest, some 100 kms (60 miles) northeast of the city. For the first 20 minutes we were stuck in the midst of heavy traffic on the new “ring road”, which abruptly turned into several miles of incredibly rough unpaved road under construction. Our route took us up into mountains cloaked in thick forest, lovely terraced rice fields, and bright red brick farm buildings. The strong contrast between the bright red of the brick and deep green of the fields was beautiful. As we descended a steep, narrow rocky canyon where two railroads had been chiseled out of the sheer cliffs above us, there were a couple of places where the highway crossed over itself in a series of spectacular tunnels and bridges – very impressive engineering! Amid the new highway construction, intended to replace the old narrow two-lane road on which we were traveling, my taxi driver constantly zipped in and out between the heavy trucks slowly laboring up the steep grade – narrowly avoiding “head on” collisions with the oncoming traffic! At one point, while descending a steep hill, we were suddenly halted by a police van blaring out some kind of announcement over the loudspeaker. As we got closer, we saw a small truck had side-swiped a beautiful new black limousine elaborately decorated for a wedding! (so, someone would be late for the ceremony) As we continued the journey to the Stone Forest, I became aware of two things about the taxi – (1) on the dashboard was an air freshener in the shape of a flying saucer, and every time the taxi made a turn, it spun around, and (2) I realized we had been listening to the same Kenny G song ever since we left the hotel. This continued for the entire trip, and when we finally reached our destination, I wasn’t sure if I could ever listen to Kenny G again! Among my other observations, I began to notice that all the work in the fields of rice and produce was being done by hand! The only tractors I saw were those pulling small wooden carts and wagons on the highway – it was truly the epitome of a classic “peasant” scene.

Arriving at the Stone Forest, a national park, I discovered one of the most unique geological features in the world – a large-scale karst landform that dominated the Yunnan Plateau. It was formed over 250 million years ago as the plateau was slowly eroded by constant wind and water, sculpting the thick layer of soft limestone into various shapes resembling “trees” in a forest. The stone peaks (trees) had smooth lines, stood upright, and had a color of steel grey. Some of the highest ones reached heights over 40 meters (130 feet).

Entrance to the Stone Forest – Kunming
Stone Forest
Walking among the stone “trees”

Walking among the massive stone “trees” was amazing and a bit disorienting at times. I encountered many local visitors, but only a couple of foreign tourists. I spent over an hour wandering around the “forest” and never saw the same scene twice – it was constantly changing at every turn. At the entrance to the national park was a lovely lake, and many young families were having a great time picnicking and enjoying the gorgeous weather.

Small lake in the Stone Forest
Looking into the Stone Forest
Local visitors
A path through the Stone Forest

All too soon, it was time for me to join my taxi driver for the return journey to Kunming. And the trip back to the city was just as “exciting” (aka scary!)

That afternoon, I joined Basanta and Nima for the trip back to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. Although I wasn’t able to use my credit card to upgrade to business class on the Thai International Airways flight to Bangkok, I was able to do the upgrade with cash from a nearby ATM, using my credit card. Once on board, the service in business class was wonderful and worth the price of the upgrade. Soon after departure, a superb lunch of deep-fried Red Snapper in “Three Taste Sauce” was served – outstanding! The landscape of Yunnan Province and northern Laos was one of beautiful, deep green forests and mountains wrapped in thick mist. As we flew over northern Thailand, we could see huge thunderstorms raging to the west and lots of water standing in the rice fields. On our approach to “Don Mueang International Airport” in Bangkok, I could see a golf course had been developed in between the runways! (golf carts had to wait for planes to pass before crossing over the runway to the next hole!) Landing in Bangkok, we were immediately overwhelmed by the 98 degree, very humid weather, even though it was early December. Basanta had already arranged rooms for us at the 5-star “Rama Garden Hotel” near the airport. And because we would be connecting with another Thai Airways flight the next morning, he was able to book a rate of $45.00 per night, which included dinner and breakfast! The hotel had a lovely German beer garden, where they served Texas style BBQ beside the pool. As we enjoyed our cold glasses of German beer, American country music played in the background. A half hour later, our relaxation by the pool was abruptly interrupted by a short, but intense thunderstorm – quite common in Bangkok.

That evening, I joined Basanta, Nima, and Camille for a “farewell” dinner, since they would be departing for Kathmandu in the morning, whereas I would be heading to Bombay, and eventually home to Los Angeles via Paris and Atlanta. As we sat around the dinner table, we shared our experiences of the past three weeks. And for me, I was nearing the end of an incredible journey of 24 days and 27,000 miles!

On a final note, while sitting in the Oberoi Hotel First Class lounge at Bombay airport on my return home, I was “privileged” to see many of the contestants who would be competing in the “Miss World Contest”! It was a moment far removed from the cold, dreary hotel room in Tibet a few days before.

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New York City and the Three Tenors in Concert

In July of 1996, Leslie and I traveled to New York City as part of a special American Express invitation to attend a rare concert by the “Three Tenors” (Pavorotti, Carreras, and Domingo). Our Delta Airlines flight from Ontario to New York, by way of Cincinnati was very enjoyable, especially the Southwest Lasagna served for lunch. After landing at La Guardia Airport, we were chauffeured downtown to the Sheraton New York Towers on 7th Avenue and 53rd Street. The hotel was in a beautiful location, just south of Central Park and on the edge of the Theatre District near Broadway!

Sheraton New York Towers on Seventh Ave

Having checked in, we headed downstairs to “Hudson’s Sports Bar” for a drink. While Leslie had an authentic “Old Fashioned”, I enjoyed a local beer brewed in Brooklyn. Then we joined a large group of people in the bar watching the last half of the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games being celebrated in Atlanta. The most emotional and inspiring moment came when the torch was passed to Muhammad Ali, who lit the final relay flame, despite suffering from a severe case of Parkinson’s Disease! It was a moment that brought cheers and tears from everyone in the bar. It was followed by an impressive video on a giant screen – the famous speech by Martin Luther King Jr, “I Have a Dream”. That really made an impact on all of us seated in the bar.

The next morning, Leslie and I took a long walk through Central Park under beautiful sunny skies. It was a perfect way to experience the peace and beauty of the park – a stark contrast to the chaos, grime, and grey concrete of the city outside the park. As we strolled among the trees, huge skyscrapers rose skyward from the very edge of the park. Inside the park, the noise and chaos of the frantic city faded away – it was like being in a desert oasis – peaceful, relaxed, and civilized!

Walk through Central Park
Central Park – looking toward Park Avenue
Relaxing by the lake in Central Park

On our way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, better known as the “Met”, we passed many street artists and booksellers along Park Avenue, their works vying for our attention before entering the museum to see works of art that have stood the test of time. But seeing the artists in the park reminded me of strolling along the “Left Bank” of the river Seine in Paris. Once inside the immense museum, we had some time to study the map of floor plans in order to decide what we would like to see for the day.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

And among the things we saw, sometimes by design and other times by chance, included the “Temple of Dendron”, a small, very beautiful temple from 2000BC Egypt. It was saved from destruction during the construction of the High Aswan Dam. It had been disassembled into hundreds of pieces, transported to New York, and then reassembled in a remarkably realistic setting within a special hall. The temple was “highlighted” by a wall and ceiling of glass, flooding the entire space with bright, natural light! The entire display was very well documented, both its ancient history in Egypt, as well as the modern story of its relocation to New York. Many of the ancient “cartouches” carved into the face of the massive sandstone blocks over 4,000 years ago were still in perfect condition.

Other highlights of our visit to the Met included an extensive collection of old musical instruments, as well as a priceless collection of Egyptian art and antiquities. There were also several amazing displays of religious objects from tombs in ancient Egypt. Later we “discovered”, quite by accident, a wonderful collection of furniture from the American Revolutionary period, displayed in an original setting that was actually part of the old house where they had sat for more than 250 years. The furniture had been carefully moved piece by piece, board by board, to the museum – a very impressive historical display. One of the most “memorable” highlights of our experience at the Met was our discovery of a beautiful rooftop garden overlooking all of Central Park! It took us three elevator rides to reach it, but once we arrived, we were rewarded with some of the city’s most spectacular views of the park and famous skyscrapers of mid-town Manhattan! The clear, sunny warm weather provided a perfect occasion to enjoy a chilled glass of champagne. As we sat on a wooden bench, enjoying the view, I began to imagine what it must be like to live in a penthouse atop a tall building overlooking the park. The best part of the experience was the fact that we literally ‘stumbled” on to it!

After leaving the Met, we walked across the park to the Museum of Natural History, which was adjacent to the famous Dakota Apartment building, home to John Lennon. But being late in the day, we decided to leave the museum visit until the next day.

View from Tavern on the Green – Central Park

Instead, we continued to walk through the park, until we came to the “Tavern on the Green”, a famous spot for seeing “well known locals”, and so we decided to peek inside. We ended up settling in for a drink in the courtyard, a beautiful garden enclosure surrounded by a lovely old red brick structure topped by a heavy slate roof. Within the courtyard were many large trees with traditional Japanese lanterns hanging from their branches, sparkling in the late afternoon sun. As we sat next to an old stone planter full of colorful flowers, enjoying Leslie’s Campari and my Belgian beer, the scent of the nearby wood fired grill wafted over us. In the warm summer evening, it was a very pleasant and inviting smell – so much so that we decided to stay for dinner. While the evening sun slowly set upon Central Park, we enjoyed an excellent dinner of Caesar salad and a plate of wood fired grilled Swordfish. Dinner turned out to be a magical dining experience and a totally unplanned, spur of the moment decision! Later, as the sun slowly disappeared somewhere in New Jersey, we walked back to the Sheraton hotel and dressed for the concert, which was being held at Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey – home of the New York Giants football team. American Express had scheduled several buses to leave from the hotel, starting at 7:00pm until 8:30pm. With the concert scheduled to begin at 9:00pm, we chose to board one of the 7:30pm buses. Our journey to the stadium began with a trip through mid-town Manhattan to the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, and on into New Jersey. Seated up front, we listened to the “banter” of the bus drivers on their radios, with all the talk being about the heavy traffic, especially heading west to the Lincoln Tunnel. But as it would turn out, our bus driver John, was very “savvy” about taking different routes, and he proceeded to take several back streets to get us to the tunnel ahead of all the other hotel buses! (little did we realize at the time, just how great were John’s driving skills that would benefit us later in the journey) Once we were beyond the tunnel and into New Jersey, the heavy traffic became even worse, and as John put it, “we’re in a very long parking lot”. And at one point on the “expressway”, we crept along in a long line of bumper to bumper traffic moving barely 5 mph. Suddenly, a caravan of buses passed us on our left, following the shoulder of the highway, lead by two police cars. (VIP’s from the ITT Corporation!) Unfortunately, not even John’s creative driving skills could get our bus across two lanes of stalled traffic in time to “join” the VIP’s. But as we watched the VIP’s slowly disappear ahead of us, by a stroke of luck, or maybe serendipity, a fire truck with lights flashing appeared from an on ramp just ahead of us. John, being an ex-fireman (or so he claimed), quickly made a right turn and followed it, gaining many precious miles to bring us within sight of the stadium. But, being “in sight” is one thing and “being there” is quite another! It was now that John became even more creative and began to “slip” in and out of the stalled lanes, using the “bulk” the bus as an intimidating weapon. At times he would open the door of the bus to “beg” drivers to let him “cut in”, and at other times to “curse” those who refused to cooperate or be intimidated! John was very efficient and persistent, however. In the process, through what seemed to us as curious “wrong turns”, he got us to the stadium five minutes before the opening of the concert! It was truly an incredible feat, for which he received a well-deserved standing ovation from all the passengers on board.

As we rushed to our seats, the sun had long set and the blackness of the night sky had descended upon us. The stadium of 60,000 fans stood to welcome Jose Carreras as he opened the performance. Looking around us, there were many empty seats, despite the concert having been sold out months ago. From our seats on the upper level facing east toward New York City, we could see long lines of traffic backed up on the expressway – stretching far in the distance like a long white line toward the city skyline. It became obvious to us at that point, a great many people were still trying to reach the stadium aboard buses. Our appreciation for John’s driving skills began to grow immensely!

The opening of the concert was nothing short of “tremendous”! The sound system was incredible, especially considering the massive size of the outdoor stadium. And we soon found ourselves awash in a sea of superb operatic voice as Jose Carreras began with the famous aria from the great Spanish opera “Granada”! Then each of the three tenors came on stage individually to sing their favorite arias. Their performances were powerful and emotional – soon the sensation of being in a huge stadium began to quickly dissolve, being quietly replaced with a feeling of being on stage!

Concert Stage
The Three Tenors – Domingo, Carreras, Pavorotti

There were many times during the concert when the emotion of the experience brought tears, and tissues began to appear everywhere. Meanwhile, a lot of seats remained empty, as busloads of people continued to be stuck in the horrendous traffic and probably frustrated as they sat in sight of the stadium! As for us, we continued to enjoy the magnificent voices of the three tenors. Time seemed to stand still as the sensation of being almost “one” with them on stage began to overtake us. It is amazing how opera can touch the heart and soul – the power of the human voice is incredible! At the conclusion of the medley by the tenors, they took a well-deserved break. In a few moments, a rush of people flooded the stadium – those who had been delayed by the massive traffic congestion. As we listened to their conversations, we realized they had boarded buses that had left the hotel well before us! However, they had just arrived, halfway through the concert, and they were not at all happy – justifiably so too. Now Leslie and I really appreciated John’s tremendous driving skills! (There had been one place where he pulled the bus off the pavement to skirt around a traffic jam caused by a disabled limousine, and was able to reach to final exit to the stadium, enabling us to reach the concert on time) Among the “disgruntled” people seated next to us, was a couple from Little Rock, Arkansas who had come to New York just for the night, and apparently several others had done the same.

Soon, the second half of the concert began, and it was absolutely phenomenal!! Once again, many arias were performed with such emotion and power, that tears and tissues were in view everywhere. Only once was the emotional experience in jeopardy when a few stadium staff began banging dishes around a concession stand behind us. A swift rebuke from members of the audience quieted them. It was obvious to me that the staff were not exactly opera aficionados, and probably much more comfortable around football or baseball. As the evening came to a close, the finale was a series of four encores, including two renditions of the classic Frank Sinatra song “New York, New York”. The crowd of 70,000 went wild, refusing to let the three greatest operatic voices in the world leave the stage! It was truly a very “magical” evening – and a rare experience to be cherished for a lifetime. (even now as I write about it, more than 20 years later, I still get emotional thinking about it) The evening seemed like a moment in time when 70,000 people suddenly became as one – no thoughts of politics, religion, or philosophy, just a unity of the human spirit! (such a unique and special experience, but unfortunately so rare)

Slowly and reluctantly, we released our grip on the Three Tenors, and as they moved into the background, we were suddenly thrust into the reality of the late evening, and faced with the prospect of several hours of travel back to our hotel. However, our faithful driver John and his bus #5228 came through for us again, as he “bullied” his way through the seemingly “impenetrable” traffic to speed us on our way to Manhattan. He continued to find impossible routes around traffic problems – a side street here, a turn off there, and always saying to us “watch the traffic folks, watch the traffic”! We drove through some pretty “seedy” parts of the city, but we arrived back at the hotel well before any of the other buses, even those that had left the stadium before us!! (it was truly an amazing feat by John, for which he received a busload of hearty congratulations and another well-deserved standing ovation!) Later, as Leslie and I sat in the lobby bar with chilled glasses of fine Tattinger champagne, gazing upon the lights of Seventh Avenue, we watched the rest of the buses arrive – well after us! (we gave a toast to John) It was such a wonderful end to a beautiful and memorable day in New York.

The next morning, we awoke to another gorgeous sunny day. After a delicious breakfast buffet in the hotel, we rode the subway downtown to the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Then it was a long elevator ride up to the observation deck on the roof of Tower Two – 110 stories and 1377 feet above the city!

World Trade Center
View of Manhattan from the top of Tower Two

The views were absolutely stunning – more than 50 miles in all directions, which is almost unheard of in New York City. And the “feeling” of standing on top of the building with my face pressed against the glass wall was literally “breathtaking” – like being on the “top of the world”! The entire city lay at our feet – nothing higher for over a hundred miles. It was so exhilarating that I found it hard to pull myself away from the edge. The thought of someone having successfully climbed the tower was almost inconceivable. Once we had descended the dramatic heights of the city, we walked down to Battery Park, so named for the historic 18th century coastal gun battery that once protected New York harbor.

Leaving Battery Park on the ferry
View of Lower Manhattan from the ferry

From there, we boarded the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The ferry was packed with tourists from around the world. On the way to Ellis Island, the cramped quarters gave us the feeling of what it might have been like for the immigrants sailing to America in “steerage” class aboard the great ocean liners of the day. However, our short 30-minute voyage “paled” in comparison to their trip of several days across the rough seas of the North Atlantic. As we approached the Statue of Liberty, the view of the famous lady was very impressive – the sheer scale of the monument was staggering, especially standing at her feet and gazing skyward!

Approaching the Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty – looking skyward

She is truly a magnificent monument, even more so when one considers how she was transported from France as hundreds of pieces and assembled on a small island in New York harbor over 150 years ago. As we disembarked, the view of the New York City skyline and the harbor of lower Manhattan was spectacular. Walking around, we saw many families enjoying picnics on the grounds surrounding the great lady.

Picnic on the grounds with view of Lower Manhattan

And after spending a very enjoyable time with her, we were back on the ferry headed for Ellis Island. As it approached the dock, the old red brick buildings came into view, much like it would have been for the immigrants and their first sight of America.

Docking at Ellis Island – Main Hall
Ellis Island

Although some of the historic buildings appeared rundown, the main hall was a far different scene. Inside it was filled with a beautiful story of the history of thousands of immigrant families who spent their first few days in America here, most likely wondering what they were about to experience – which I’m sure must have left many of them anxious and maybe even terrified. Several smaller rooms surrounded the huge hall on the perimeter, and here were displayed scenes and photographs of the island during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. There were countless numbers of old black and white photos of people from all corners of the world. And what made the historical exhibit so fascinating was listening to the recorded voices of immigrants as they talked about the time they had spent on Ellis Island. It was truly an emotional experience – a travel back in time. Meanwhile, all around us were crowds of tourists, many of whom were likely descendants of the immigrants who passed this way almost a hundred years ago!

The Main Hall – Ellis Island

Late in the afternoon, we boarded the last ferry back to Battery Park, and as the sun was beginning to set in New Jersey, we walked along the waterfront to South Street Seaport and the historic Fulton Street Fish Market. It was established in 1822 and was the largest on the East Coast.

South Street Seaport

The place was a fascinating collection of boats, shops, bars and restaurants neatly arranged on the old wooden pier, where sailing ships from the 18th century once docked to offload their catch. As the evening fell upon us, we chose a beautiful restaurant on the top level, with a very interesting eclectic menu of fresh seafood and classic American dishes. As we sat down to a table outside on the deck, we suddenly became aware of the incredible view of the Lower East Side waterfront stretched out before us. And “directly” in front of us was the massive Brooklyn Bridge – a magnificent view and a spectacular backdrop for dinner!

Brooklyn Bridge – view from South Street Seaport
Dinner at Fulton Street Fish Market – View of the Brooklyn Bridge

We enjoyed a chilled glass of Australian Chardonnay as the sun slowly set behind us, bathing the city in the light of a lovely orange “afterglow”. Gradually the lights on the bridge began to twinkle in the dark evening sky, and the warm summer evening made our dinner very special. We shared a marvelous Caesar salad, and while Leslie chose a roasted chicken breast in pesto sauce, I ordered a Monkfish filet sautéed in oriental sesame and lemongrass sauce – outstanding! We finished dinner by sharing a warm peach cobbler topped with a vanilla bean bourbon sauce. After dinner, we walked through the quiet streets of the Seaport neighborhood and boarded the famous “A train” for the return trip to our hotel in mid-town.

The next morning, we found the weather had changed overnight, becoming cloudy and wet. But having just enjoyed three glorious days of clear blue skies, we couldn’t complain. We began our day with a rather late, leisurely breakfast at the famous “Carnegie Deli”, a classic New York deli across the street from Carnegie Hall. It’s a favorite location for spotting some of New York’s celebrities, but none chose to join us for breakfast that morning. Leslie and I shared an enormous hot pastrami sandwich that was served with a big bowl of assorted pickles – delicious! The elderly New Yorker waitresses were very much in charge and rather “brash”, but in a fun and friendly way. After breakfast, we walked over to the 48th Street subway station in the light rain and took the train to the immense Natural History Museum in Central Park. Knowing that we wouldn’t have enough time to see everything, which could take several days, we chose to see a few beautiful exhibits including:

  • The evolution of the Dinosaurs
  • Endangered species of the world
  • A life-size Blue Whale over 160 feet long, suspended from the ceiling above the Museum Café
  • African animals in their native habitat, with exquisite 3-D landscape dioramas
Natural History Museum

Before leaving the museum, we watched a new IMAX film about the devastating fires in Yellowstone National Park and the remarkable re-birth of the land. The film was both spectacular and educational. Soon the time came for our return to the hotel, packing of bags, and checkout. A small shuttle van took us to La Guardia Airport, following a rather circuitous route through the back streets of Queens. Throughout the entire trip, I noticed the van’s speedometer never moved above zero, so it was impossible to tell how fast (or slow) we were travelling! Once we had arrived at the airport and checked in for our flight, we enjoyed an hour relaxing in the beautiful new Delta Airlines Crown Room lounge before boarding the flight to Ontario via Dallas. As the plane cruised above Pennsylvania at 37,000 feet, I reflected upon our once in a lifetime experience at the Three Tenors concert, together with three beautiful days that Leslie and I shared in New York City – it was truly memorable!

{Concert photos from Getty Images}

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Lebanon and Jordan – Ancient Lands in a Modern World

In the month of May,1999, I traveled to Lebanon and Jordan to attend the annual Esri Middle East and North Africa Users Conference being hosted in Beirut by our Lebanese office. In addition, I was scheduled to conduct software training classes in Beirut, as well as Amman, Jordan.

Map of Lebanon

As I checked in for the Delta and Austrian Airlines flights at Ontario airport, I was upgraded to business class all the way to Beirut – a welcome perk for being a Delta Airlines “Million Miler” and Platinum Medallion member! On the flight to Atlanta, I watched the Robin Williams film “Patch Adams”, a very emotional and inspiring story that touched many hearts on the plane. I had very little time to make the connection for the Delta flight to Vienna, but once on board I found the seats in the new Business Elite cabin to be very comfortable, with electronically controlled movement five ways – and with the very generous space and almost lie flat recline, I was assured of a very relaxing flight. Soon after takeoff, we were served cocktails and delicious hors-d-oeuvres of crab cakes and goat cheese on toasted crostini. Then came the main dish of spicy vegetarian pasta, topped with grilled chicken in an incredible sauce of four cheeses and diced potatoes. I finished dinner with a selection of French cheeses and dried fruits, along with a glass of Austrian Ice Wine – a memorable dinner in the sky! When I landed in Vienna the next morning, the weather was miserable and cold, but I was just there to transfer to the Austrian Airlines flight to Beirut. After spending an hour in the Business Class lounge, I headed to the gate, only to find the departure delayed by a “labor slowdown” of airport staff. Then, once on board the aircraft, there was another delay when two Swedish passengers failed to show up, so their luggage had to be located and removed! However, once we finally departed Vienna, the 3 ½ hour flight was very nice, especially with a delicious lunch featuring pan-seared Arctic Char. Upon arriving in Beirut, a driver from the local office met me and took me to the lovely, historic old Summerland Hotel. The resort was built on a steep slope rising above the Mediterranean Sea. My room on the “ground Floor” was actually five floors below the lobby, but it had a spectacular view of the Sea from the patio! Virtually all the rooms in the hotel had magnificent views.

Summerland Hotel patio
Mediterranean Sea coast – Beirut

Access to my room was rather strange, being down five levels from the lobby and via a narrow corridor through the bar! Later, I discovered a shortcut through the Terrace Garden, across a pathway of large cement steps, molded in the shape of a giant’s foot, and past a large aviary of beautiful tropical birds.

Terrace Garden

The next day, my training class at the Electricity Company of Lebanon was delayed as a result of having to “re-install” ALL the software. But the journey to the training site followed the coast, known as the “Corniche”, and it was beautiful, despite many old buildings that had been damaged in the Civil War. There was evidence of numerous bomb craters and countless bullet holes, yet there were signs of renovation and reconstruction everywhere!

Bombed out building – Beirut

And all along the route, Syrian Army troops patrolled the area and many large, faded photos of Syrian President Hafez Assad were posted. After class, I joined my colleague Jerry in the hotel bar for a couple of local “Almaza” beers, and then dinner outside on the terrace. We enjoyed several small plates of traditional Middle Eastern “mezzes”, followed by a large order of fresh local seafood, including tiny finger-sized fish deep fried and eaten whole, tasting almost like French fries. (they were 3 inch-long Red Mullet) The next morning, we began the training class at the headquarters of the Electricity Company, with a cup of strong Turkish coffee, dispensed from an automated machine. Nearby the company was the American University of Beirut, located on a hill overlooking the sea. The classic old yellow sandstone buildings, built in the late 1800’s, were gorgeous, especially as they were surrounded by tall, deep green Lebanese Cedars. As I walked around the campus during a break in the class, I came upon the haunting sounds of a concert of classical Czech music coming from the 100 year-old chapel. Among other recollections of my time in Beirut was the “First Call to Prayer” every morning at 4:30 am, “blasting” from a loudspeaker at the Mosque next door! (Jerry said he never heard it!) One day in the hotel, I had some serious problems connecting my laptop modem to the hotel phone system in order to download my email. (there was no internet at this time) The hotel switchboard operator claimed I could only make a “collect” call from Lebanon, which was insane since there was no way a computer modem could call “collect”! Finally, I was able to reach an AT&T support person who told me how to connect using my AT&T calling card. Though I was successful in making the email server connection, it was very expensive at $5.00 per minute! (in today’s money that would be almost $8.00) As I traveled back and forth each day to the training site, I saw a lot of reconstruction taking place, incorporating some exquisite architectural designs, combining traditional Arabic geometric patterns with sleek, elegant modern styles, all using the gorgeous local yellow sandstone and brilliant white marble.

Reconstruction

At the conclusion of the training class, I joined a tour to the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek and Anjar in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut. The route took us over the High Lebanon Mountains, following the main highway to Damascus. As our bus slowly climbed the steep, winding road into the mountains, there were beautiful views of the deep green forests and snow-capped peaks. Along the way, I spotted some interesting signs beside the road, including:

  • “We are on sale – so prices are breaking down”
  • “Foody-Goody Store”
  • “We sale Kodak film”
  • “One Way Shoes Store” (so do you have to turn them in and buy a new pair for the return home?)

We also passed several huge Mercedes trucks laboring up the steep slope with their loads of massive blocks of white marble, headed for Damascus. Near the top of the mountain pass, we came upon a strange structure beside the road. It was the “Monument to Peace” – a very large pillar with several full-size tanks, trucks, and artillery guns “encased” in concrete – very weird and a bit scary! On the far side of the mountains were old stone terraced fields, several centuries old, and lovely green meadows. But all over the region were lots of multi-story buildings built haphazardly among the beautiful old white stone farmhouses – probably the result of no government control during the 17 years of Civil War.

Descending the mountains into the Bekaa valley

Descending the mountains, we could see the rusting remains of an old dilapidated railway line, once part of the old Palestine Railways that connected Beirut with Damascus. Several sections of the railroad were covered by long, concrete snow sheds. (the High Lebanon Mountains sometimes get almost 20 feet of snow during a winter) At one point, there was an old railway bridge that had been destroyed during the Civil War, leaving the tracks hanging in mid-air! As we entered the Bekaa Valley, we could see many Bedouin camps, tents covered with animal hides and floors lined with oriental carpets. Beyond were lovely green fields of wheat, produce, and vineyards, surrounded by steep, rocky, mountains.

Bekaa Valley
Lebanon Mountains – Bekaa Valley

And far to the south we could see the snow-covered summit of Mount Hermon rising above the Golan Heights. (it was such a peaceful scene amidst a turbulent part of the world) After traversing the heart of the valley, we finally arrived at one of the largest ancient Roman ruins in the world – Baalbek. Walking around the site, we had beautiful views of tall carved stone columns and facades, including four massive stone blocks, each weighing well over 200 tons. They formed the foundation of a massive gate – such an incredible engineering challenge to cut and move the blocks from nearby quarries. The highlight of our tour by far was the immense “Temple of Bacchus”, dedicated to the Roman God of wine. Except for the Cedar roof, which hadn’t survived the centuries, the temple was almost completely preserved.

Temple of Bacchus
Inside the Temple of Bacchus
Entering the Temple of Bacchus

It was a joy to walk among the ancient ruins and imagine being a Roman citizen enjoying the fruit of the vine. Our guide told us some of the history of the region, which was first settled by the Phoenicians over 4,000 years ago, and later by the Greeks who named it “Heliopolis”, following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia in 330 BC. The site was later occupied by the Byzantine Empire, which fell to the Romans around 15 BC. The Romans renamed it “Baalbek” – in both the Greek and Roman languages it meant the “City of the Sun”.

Approaching Baalbek
Baalbek

After several centuries of Roman occupation, during which most of the large temples were constructed, the site would fall to the Arabs and more recently the Ottoman Empire. So, there was layer upon layer of ancient history beneath our feet – extraordinary! The ancient site got its name from the fact that it lies in the rain shadow of the 10,000 foot high (3,000 meters) Lebanon Mountains and enjoys over 300 days of sunshine a year. Before leaving Baalbek, we were invited to a small museum/visitor center/gift shop to see displays of artifacts recovered from Archeological excavations of the site. We were welcomed by the local Hezbollah Militia. It was very interesting to see the historical artifacts, but what struck me most were the items for sale in the gift shop, all of which required purchase with only US dollars! (not even the local currency of Lebanese Pounds was accepted!) And in the absurd irony of it all, the walls of the museum/visitor center were covered with anti-American posters and “Death to America” slogans!

Hezbollah Gift Shop – Baalbek

Leaving Baalbek, we stopped at a new hotel in the village of Zahle for a delicious lunch of traditional Lebanese food, including Kafta (spicy meat balls). The hotel was designed and built in a traditional Arabic style, using the beautiful local white limestone and pink marble. We finished lunch by toasting with a small glass of Arak, a strong liquor that tastes very much like Greek Ouzo. After lunch there was a stop at the Kasara Winery, where the caves have been used by monks for generations to age their wine. As we toured the caves, we saw several very old bottles still in storage, covered with thick black fungus! Storage of wine in the caves date back to the early 1700’s, shortly after the vineyards were planted, and the process of wine making continues to flourish today.

Kasara Winery

As we tasted the wines, the French tourists were a bit “snobbish” about the Lebanese wines, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines. Our final stop, before returning to Beirut, was a tour of Anjar, another ancient Roman site near the Syrian border. It had been transformed into a fortress by the Umayyads after the first Arab invasion of the valley. The site had many beautifully restored ruins of Roman temples and palaces.

Approaching Anjar
Roman Temple – Anjar
Ancient Roman road – Anjar
View of Anjar

But of most interest was the ancient, yet sophisticated, Roman water and sewer system! It was very clear that the Roman engineers were incredibly talented. At one point, as I walked among the ruins, I came upon a long black line crossing the old Roman road, and the line was moving! Turned out to be thousands of harvester ants carrying tiny bundles of dry grass they had cut from the forest floor to take back to their nest. It was fascinating to watch them, totally oblivious to my presence. Meanwhile, no one else in the group even noticed them. After a wonderful trip to the Bekaa Valley, we returned to the Summerland Hotel just in time to board the bus that would take me to the conference Gala Dinner Party at an historic old palace in the small mountain village of “Beit-ed-Dine”, located on top of the mountain overlooking Beirut. It was built by the Emir Bashir II, ruler of the Mount Lebanon Emirate, between 1788 and 1818. From 1943 it became the summer residence of the Lebanese President, and part of the castle remains so today. The beautiful architecture of the castle features several arcades, fountains, elaborate facades carved from local cedar wood, intricate inlaid marble and fine mosaics, as well as unique mandaloun balconies (two arched openings in a stone wall with a colonette in the middle and a decorative motif on top). The journey up the steep, winding road was slow and not very comfortable, but we were welcomed in grand style by the local community. The evening began with a visit to the “Marie Baz Wax Museum”, a small but elegant display of some famous people.

Marie Baz Wax Museum

Then we walked down the road to “Moussa’s Castle”, a beautiful limestone structure built entirely by one man, Moussa Abdel Karim Al Maamari, in the early 1960’s.

Moussa’s Castle

Unfortunately, the display of scenes depicting local village life were disappointing “fake” reproductions, even though they were constructed of beautiful yellow sandstone. The “scenes” were poorly represented, in addition to being very dirty and dusty. Despite having an impressive collection of very old weapons, including pistols, swords, rifles, and even an old “blunderbust”, they were all displayed in dingy, dirty glass cases. And worst of all, were the ragged, moth eaten stuffed animals in glass display cases filled with ants – disgusting to say the least! While I admired the family enterprise, the display was very poorly preserved and not cared for – so sad.

Beit-ed-Dine Palace courtyard

Back to the Beit-ed-Dine Palace, we all enjoyed an elaborate and scrumptious Middle Eastern buffet, accompanied by entertainment from a fantastic folklore dance company that included a display of ceremonial sword fighting. And of course, no Gala Party in the Middle East would be complete without a traditional Belly Dancer! Even though the evening was very enjoyable, it was VERY late by the time we arrived back at the hotel – well after 2 am! The next morning, I conducted a Presentation Skills Workshop for the Beirut office training staff. In the afternoon, I spent a quiet day around the hotel, catching up on my email and my travel journal, while a “bevy” of beautiful young girls in skimpy outfits paraded around the pool. For dinner that evening, I went to the hotel terrace café and enjoyed a fantastic “Escalope Viennese” (grilled chicken breast topped with spicy tomato-basil sauce and melted cheese) I ended the evening sitting on my patio with a glass of wine and listening to the soft sounds of waves crashing on the beach below. The next day, after successfully resolving a problem with my laptop (lost the driver for the mouse), it was time to head for the airport and my flight to Amman. The check-in process went very smoothly and soon I found myself relaxing in the “Cedars Lounge”, which was brand new and beautifully decorated with Persian carpets and traditional Arabic artwork. The short one-hour flight on Middle Eastern Airlines took an unusual route north to Tripoli, and then east across the Lebanon Mountains where large areas of winter snow remained on the 10,000 foot peaks. Finally, the plane turned south across western Syria and over the city of Damascus to Amman – a route designed to avoid Israeli airspace. Despite the short flight, a very tasty snack and drinks were served.

Map of Jordan

As we approached Amman, I could see a large cloud of yellow dust hanging over the city – the result of a huge sandstorm in Egypt. Munir, the head of the Jordanian office, was at the airport to meet me and take me into the city. Alongside the highway were countless small vendors brewing and selling thick, black Arabic coffee in traditional tall silver coffee pots – very similar to the espresso stands one finds throughout Europe. Arriving in downtown Amman, I checked in to the newly renovated SAS-Radisson Hotel, formerly the Holiday Inn. The new hotel was much more upscale and luxurious. (lots of dark tropical wood and brilliant white marble) As time for dinner rolled around, I discovered that it was “Gastronomic Week – A Taste of Belgium” in the restaurant. So, I felt compelled to order one of Belgium’s best beers, a pint of “Leffe”, brewed by monks in an old Abby since 1240! Dinner was superb, and I ended the meal with a strong cup of thick, black Arabic coffee, served “medium”, which referred to the amount of added sugar. The next morning, Munir picked me up and we drove north of Amman to the pine covered hills near the Syrian border, over looking the Jordan River Valley, nearly 4,000 feet below. On one of the highest summits was the historic Ajloun Castle – a 12th century Crusader -era fortress located on the site of an old monastery. It was renovated as a fort in 1184 by the commander of the army of Saladin (Salah-Ad-Din), first Sultan of Egypt and Syria. The castle had a commanding view in all directions, which made it a very strategic location during the Crusades.

Approaching Ajloun Castle
View overlooking Jordan Valley from Ajloun Castle
Fortifications

It was later fortified by Saladin to counter further Crusader invasions. Over the following centuries, many additions and revisions were made as it changed hands between warring armies. From Ajloun Castle, we found a very nice restaurant at the base of the mountain for lunch, classic Lebanese food served by Egyptian waiters. And as always, Munir ordered enough food for a large family – such is the incredible hospitality of the Middle East! After lunch, we drove east toward Syria to visit Jerash, another very well preserved ancient Roman city. Among the ruins were several large temples dedicated to the Roman Gods Zeus, Jupiter, and Venus.

Entering Jerash on ancient Roman road
Ruins of Roman Temple
Roman Forum
Amphitheatre

Just beyond the temples was a huge circular forum and enormous Amphitheatre that seated over 3000 spectators and still in use today for summer performances by well known artists. Strangely, in one section of the old city was even a modern Byzantine cathedral, though it was still several centuries old! But something which struck me as most amazing was the old Roman road, paved with large stone blocks that still had the “ruts” worn in them from cart wheels over many centuries. And even more incredible were the stone “manholes” of the ancient water and sewer system – still functional even today, after more than 2000 years! Among some of the other ruins still very much intact, were the “Fountain of the Nymphs”, the four massive stone gates to the city, and the beautiful “Temple of Artemis”, where a massive stone column, weighing several hundred tons, was delicately balanced on its base.

Jerash

Amazingly, the huge column “swayed” ever so slightly in the wind! And everywhere among the ancient stones were large black centipedes, going about their daily business. On our return journey to Amman, we passed a most unusual sight – a taxi packed with passengers, one of whom was riding in the trunk of the old car! Back in the hotel, I joined Munir in the lobby bar for a local “Philadelphia” beer. He told me that modern day Amman was built upon an ancient Roman city called Philadelphia, hence the name of the brewery today. Meanwhile, a large wedding party was celebrating in the lobby. The music and dancing were fascinating, especially the “shrill” vocals of the ladies, which is so typical throughout the Middle East. [On a sad note: In November of 2005, a terrorist suicide bomber exploded a device in the hotel ballroom where hundreds of guests were attending a wedding, killing 60 people.] Later in the evening, we were joined by our colleagues Mazen and Maroun for a spectacular Arabic dinner at a beautiful old restaurant by the name of “Fahr-Ak-Din”, located in the former residence of the Spanish ambassador. During dinner, we dined on lots of traditional Arabic mezzes, along with a delicious mixed grill of lamb, chicken, and Kafta, a spicy mixture of ground beef and lamb. The evening was wonderful, but another very late night, since dinner didn’t begin until after 10 pm! Early the following morning, Mazen picked me up at the hotel for a trip to the ancient archeological site of Petra, about 3 hours south of Amman through the southern desert of Jordan. Access to the ancient site was by way of a narrow gorge through the mountains of Jabal Al-Madbah that form the eastern slope of the Arabah Valley which runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Petra was first settled as early as 9,000 BC and established as the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom in the 4th century BC. Over the millennia, Petra’s importance as a trade route declined, and after more than 300 earthquakes that destroyed many structures, it lay abandoned for several centuries, occupied by only a handful of nomads. It remained unknown to the rest of the world until 1812 when it was rediscovered by a passing Swiss traveler. In 1917, it became the site of battle against the Ottoman Empire, led by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). In 1985 it was designated a United Nations World Heritage Site and gained popularity as a major tourist destination, which continues today. There were many huge temples and tombs carved from the stunning red sandstone, the largest and most impressive being the “Treasury”. Mazen insisted that we enter the site in the traditional manner, on horseback, through the narrow gorge. And as we emerged from the passageway, we had a spectacular view of the Treasury.

Petra Gorge
Riding into Petra
The Treasury

We spent the better part of the day roaming around the ruins and learning of the long history of the place. Despite having seen pictures of Petra, they did not prepare me for the experience of seeing it in person – it had a magical, mystical feeling about it that was hard to describe. At one point, we climbed a narrow staircase of 900 steps carved out of a narrow canyon to see the “Monastery”, another impressive building carved into the rock wall.

Staircase to the Monastery
The Monastery

From there we hiked a short distance to the highest point where we had a stunning view overlooking the Jordan Valley and the southern shore of the Dead Sea. Then, in the late afternoon, we stopped for a bite to eat at the “Al Khalil Tea House”, located inside an old Nabataean tomb!

Al Khalil Tea House
View from Al Khalil Tea House

As we enjoyed our cup of hot tea, gazing upon the beauty of the site, we agreed that it had been a wonderful day in one of the most incredible places on earth! The next morning, I joined Maroun for breakfast in the hotel, after checking my email once more and packing my bags. Then I enjoyed coffee around the pool, wrote some post cards, and caught up on my travel journal – very pleasant and relaxing. Munir picked me up around noon and we paid a visit to the Royal Jordanian Geographic Centre to discuss a potential GIS project. Then it was time to head to the airport for my flight to Vienna. It was a quick check-in process and only a short delay at Immigration. As I waited in the queue, I noticed a Saudi family where the wife was completely covered from head to toe in a black robe, even including black gloves! It begged the question; how does the Immigration officer verify her identity? As it turns out, her husband must vouch for her identity. After clearing Immigration, I spent some time relaxing in the Royal Jordanian Airlines “Jerash” First Class Lounge. Later, before going to the departure gate, I went looking for postage stamps, but both Post Offices were either closed or apparently open but not staffed. Either way, I was unable to buy any stamps or post my cards. So, I decided to buy some Arak liquor in a lovely crystal bottle instead. When I got to the gate, I was surprised to find that everyone was body searched, despite having walked through metal detectors! But once on board, the flight was excellent, especially the lunch of chicken Provençale and smoked trout, accompanied by a delicious wedge of Danish Bleu cheese and a glass of crisp Austrian white wine. After lunch, we were served chocolate eclairs, Arabic coffee, and a glass of Drambuie, to finish a fantastic meal. Meanwhile, there were great views of the Bosphorus Strait, the city of Istanbul, the Black Sea coast, and the mountains of Bulgaria. As we approached Vienna, we had a gorgeous view of Budapest, straddling both sides of the Danube River. Upon arrival in Vienna, I checked in to the Sofitel Airport Hotel and had a very classic Wiener Schnitzel in “Café Wien”. (the only place in the world to get a true Wiener Schnitzel is either Austria or Germany!) Later, in the hotel bar, the service was very slow, so I ended up drawing a second glass of beer on my own from behind the bar. When the bartender returned, we both had a good laugh! The following morning, I boarded the Delta Airlines flight to Atlanta and on to Los Angeles, and it was another great flight in Business Elite Class. I returned home with copious travel notes, lots of photos, and wonderful memories of a fascinating part of the world!

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Egypt – journey up the Nile and Valley of the Kings

In November of 1989, I traveled to Egypt to conduct a software training class for the Egyptian Survey Authority in Cairo. My journey began with an airport shuttle ride at 5:00am to LAX, amid horrendous freeway traffic. Then it was a United Airlines flight to New York JFK airport to connect with a flight to Belgrade, Yugoslavia aboard JAT Yugoslav Airlines. (Why Yugoslav Airlines you ask? Well, they had a special offer of Business Class for less than the cost of an economy class ticket on any other airline!) Meanwhile, my head cold was getting progressively worse, not something anyone wants while travelling, especially on long haul international flights! The 5 ½ hour flight to JFK was quite comfortable, but once I arrived in New York, I found a very crowded terminal and a very chaotic scene. And it didn’t help matters when I discovered that the JAT check-in counter was in the Pan Am terminal on the opposite side of the airport! And of course, being Friday evening, it was “curbside mayhem” outside the terminal, with massive traffic jams, blaring horns, cars double parked, stalled buses, as well as policemen blowing their whistles and shouting “get it outta here”! Although I had been told to take one of the yellow terminal transfer buses, they failed to show up. So, I decided to “hoof it”, since nothing was moving. My hike to the Pan Am terminal was pretty chilly and a bit dangerous – certainly not “pedestrian friendly”, having to avoid the heavy traffic! Finally, I arrived at the Pan Am terminal and found the JAT Yugoslav Airlines Business Class check-in counter, located between Saudi Airlines and Czechoslovak Airlines. But the counter turned out to be closed and everyone had to fight their way to the one and only Economy Class check-in. As I stood in the long line, I overheard the airline agent say to all of us, “this is just the way we do things here”! (the beginning of my JAT flight experience was not very promising!) But once on board the new DC-10 aircraft, I found the Business Class cabin to be more like First Class – a welcome sight indeed. Service began with a chilled glass of champagne, followed by a superb dinner of poached salmon, topped with crab and grilled shrimp. Later, French pastries, fruit, cheese, coffee, and brandy finished the dinner service very well. Early the next morning, after 9 hours, we landed in Belgrade and I spent several hours in the JAT Business Class Lounge before boarding the 3 ½ hour flight to Cairo, via Zagreb. A light supper of cold meats, cheeses, and salad was served, along with a nice Yugoslavian white wine, before landing in Cairo. (Before the flight was called in Belgrade I couldn’t help noticing an unusual looking woman boarding the flight carrying a cat in her bag. The cat was sticking its head out of the bag and watching everything that was going on!) Once I had passed through Egyptian immigration and customs, it was well after midnight. But a driver from Giza Systems Engineering, the company representing ESRI in Egypt and Libya, met me just outside the terminal. Then it was a wild ride through the streets of Cairo to the hotel – constant flashing of headlights, honking of horns, and dodging pedestrians madly dashing across the busy highway! Having finally arrived at the “Safir Etap Hotel”, I was most pleasantly surprised to find it was a beautiful 5-star property in a quiet residential neighborhood near the Botanical Gardens and the Zoo.

Safir Etap Hotel lobby

And at last I got to bed at 2:00am Sunday morning. (my training class was to begin in less than 6 hours, since Sunday was the beginning of the week in Egypt)

Over the next five days of teaching the class, there were some notable highlights that included:

  • Two students from Finland, in Egypt on a Finnish government aid project, created a clock with Arabic numbers on the computer by developing a program using the ESRI software. But, in order to advance the hands on the clock, the return key on the computer keyboard had to be pressed each time. So, their “low tech” solution was to place a book on the keyboard that kept the return key pressed!
  • Virtually everyone in the class understood my English quite well, but they had a very difficult time using the English language during the computer exercises – constantly making spelling mistakes, and it was almost impossible for them to see their mistake. I could only imagine how it might be for me to use the Arabic script – first and foremost, I would have to write “backwards”, and secondly, none of the characters would even remotely resemble anything in English. So, I really had to sympathize with the Egyptian students.
  • The Egyptian Survey Authority employed people to spend their entire working day serving coffee and tea for our training class, in addition to running errands for the students, such as going out to buy cigarettes. And it seemed that everyone in the class was a heavy smoker – by the end of the day, the classroom was filled with smoke and the floor littered with cigarette ashes!
  • Several times a day the electricity would go off, but luckily, the computer room was connected to an uninterruptable power supply – so although the lights would go off, my overhead projector was also connected to the computer power supply, and I was able to continue with my lectures.
  • Near the end of the training class, the government announced that the “weekend” would be changed from being Friday and Saturday to being Thursday and Friday! (the same as a majority of countries in the Middle East)

 

Finally, my last day of work came and I prepared to leave for a trip up the Nile River to visit the ancient sights of Luxor and Aswan, something I had really been looking forward to ever since I had arrived in Cairo.

Map of Egypt and the Nile River

Before leaving Cairo, my colleague Khaled, took me on a tour of the old city, including President Mubarek’s Presidential Palace, a centuries old Islamic cemetery where people were living among the graves, and a neighborhood of many old, ornate stone houses of a strange, yet beautiful combination of Arabic, Indian, and Victorian architectural styles. Then we headed to Ramses train station in the center of Cairo, where I encountered the usual crowds and chaos, especially now since it was the beginning of the weekend. Upon entering the huge station, I saw no directional signs for the train to Aswan, but there was an information desk where I asked about the location of the 7pm train to Aswan. I was told it would be departing on platform 8. As I headed to the platform, there was a train standing on the track. But as I walked along the platform, passing crowds of people carrying bags, sacks, crates of chickens, etc., I could see no “sleeping cars” – rather mostly 3rd class carriages stuffed to overflowing with people. There were even people sitting on the roof, hanging on to the outside, and in between the carriages! They were going to be in for a very long, cold ride to somewhere up the Nile. Obviously, this was not my train – thank goodness! Later, another train arrived on platform 8, with several “Wagon-Lits” sleeping cars, the French equivalent of Pullman. But as I approached one of the train porters, he said this was not my train, which would arrive in about 30 minutes. I waited on the platform, along with the “masses of humanity”. Soon after the train departed, another train pulled into the station, and as I watched several other travelers attempting to board the train, they were told to wait for the next train.

Sleeper train to Aswan

So, as I also waited, I struck up a conversation with a young Frenchman who worked for the BNP Paribas bank in Paris. He told me about his experiences with the station porters and their demand for beaucoup “Baksheesh” (tips in Arabic). Just about that time, the train began to move slowly, and I said, “I wonder if this is my train?”, to which he replied, “are you on the 7:10pm train?” – “No, I’m on the 7pm train”. Suddenly, he said, “it’s 7pm and I think this is your train”! I turned around and quickly looked for an open door as the train slowly passed by me. Luckily, I spotted a single open door, and as I jumped aboard, the porter grabbed my bag. He asked to see my ticket and then directed me to my compartment in carriage number 5. I had come with a few seconds of missing the train, but I didn’t have a chance to thank the guy from Paris. Soon after leaving Cairo to follow the Nile River south to Aswan, the porter delivered dinner to my compartment, along with a couple of cold beers I had ordered earlier. Meals were included in the First-Class fare. After dinner, sleep came easily as the carriage rocked slowly back and forth, and the train sped into the dark night. The next morning, I awoke early to catch the sunrise over the river, as the train passed countless green fields of date palms, sugar cane, cotton, and all kinds of produce.

Green fields along the Nile River

Shortly before arriving in Aswan, after 12 hours aboard the sleeper train, breakfast was served, once again in my private compartment – certainly a luxury aboard the train. At the railway station I was met by a man from American Express Travel, who would be in charge of arrangements for my hotel accommodations and local tours. Meanwhile, a large group of tourists from Finland were gathering nearby, awaiting the arrival of their guide. As we left the station, my guide informed me there was a problem with my hotel accommodations. It seemed now my hotel would be some 26 km (16 miles) outside the city! When I expressed surprise and disappointment, I was told that maybe a closer hotel could be arranged, but that this time of year was a high season, and everything was fully booked. So, we went to the local American Express office in the elegant old “Cataract Hotel”. The hotel was a beautiful classic 19th century property, with a gorgeous terrace overlooking the 1st cataract (falls) on the Nile.

Cataract Hotel lobby
Cataract Hotel

Beyond, on the far shore, the endless, barren Western Desert loomed on the horizon.

The Western Desert

While I waited for the new hotel arrangements to be sorted out, I sat on the terrace with a cold Egyptian beer and took in the beautiful scenery. I watched the “Feluccas” (traditional Arabic sailboats) with their brilliant white sails as they plied the deep blue waters of the Nile River below, each boat being filled with a full load of tourists.

Cataract Hotel terrace
View from the terrace
Feluccas sailing on the Nile

It was a truly beautiful, warm day and a very peaceful, relaxing scene. I began to understand why the Pharaohs chose to spend their winters here – but now the tourists have replaced the Pharaohs! Finally, after much discussion, it was decided that I would stay at the Aswan Oberoi Hotel on Elephantine Island, located west of the city in the middle of the Nile.

Aswan Oberoi Hotel on Elephantine Island

Then I was driven by car to the dock where I boarded a small boat for the short ride to the island. As I went to check in at the hotel, I was told I would actually be staying in a room aboard the large “Nile River Cruise” boat docked beside the hotel. My room/cabin turned out to be clean, comfortable and quiet, although a bit small. After unloading my bags in the cabin, I decided to walk around the island and take photos under the bright, sunny skies. But quite unexpectedly, I found that my camera battery was dead! When I enquired at the hotel bookstore/gift shop as to where I could buy a new battery, I was pleasantly surprised to find they had two smaller batteries, that when put together did the job! (many beautiful photos were saved that day) Later in the afternoon, I explored the hotel grounds and discovered that the hotel had a high tower on one corner, that looked as if it had a restaurant on the top floor. As I got into the elevator, I pushed the button that I figured must be the top floor – “T2”. The elevator stopped at floor 3, two women entered, and then it went back down to the lobby! So where was “T2”? So, I pushed button 4, the highest number and got off on floor 4. Looking around, I spotted some stairs, so I started climbing, only to find a door with a lock that had been broken. Proceeding further, I passed an old mattress lying in the stairwell, and a pretty dirty one at that. I forged ahead, cautiously, only to find more dirty old mattresses and broken bottles. It became abundantly clear by now that many people had been living there. When at last I reached the top floor, 15 floors later, I came to a “construction area” littered with old broken furniture, piles of trash, unfinished walls, and an old sewing machine in one corner with a single, bare light bulb hanging above it! (very weird) The unfinished space looked like it might have been designed to be a penthouse suite, but anyone who was living there now was anyone but the “penthouse” type! Fortunately, I was able to take some beautiful panoramic photos of the Nile, the city of Aswan, and the ancient ruins atop the cliffs on the far shore.

View from Aswan Oberoi Hotel tower
View of the Nile river from the tower

As I returned to the 4th floor, another man with a camera was “eyeing” the stairs, and I couldn’t help wondering if he had also tried going up to “T2” like I did? That evening, I had a delicious dinner in the hotel, a dish called “chicken Korbashi”, cooked in earthenware with lots of Middle Eastern spices, especially coriander – it was excellent! I finished dinner with a cup of strong, thick Turkish coffee. Later, in the hotel bar, a band of “heavily” electrified and synthesized music played what I could only describe as “Italian Boss Nova”! It sounded like what one might hear on a soundtrack for a low budget film – the kind with bad “dubbing”. Virtually nobody in the bar was listening.

The next morning, I met up with the man from American Express for a tour of Aswan. It was a “private” tour with just two of us – me and a girl from Hong Kong. But we were to be in two separate cars – in effect, two different tours, which meant more “baksheesh” (tips in Arabic) for the drivers and guide! Our first stop was a view point overlooking the massive High Aswan Dam, one of the largest earthen dams in the world. It created Lake Nasser, the largest artificial lake in the world with an area of over 2,000 square miles. Then we boarded a small boat to visit the Temples on the island of Philae, where our guide told us of the many legends about the myriad of Egyptian Gods. (Isis, Osiris, Hather, Ra, Horis, among many others) I wasn’t able to keep all of them straight in my mind, and I’m pretty sure most Egyptians these days couldn’t either.

Temple of Philae
Temple of Philae

Once back on shore, we drove to the beautiful old Cataract Hotel for lunch outdoors on the terrace overlooking the Nile. After lunch, we joined another tour group of two people from Singapore – an English lady originally from Wimbledon and Mr. Randy Dillon, an Indian doctor of British citizenship residing in Washington, DC. (Both the English lady and Randy were high maintenance, requiring constant hand holding by the guide) That afternoon, I chose to take a ride to Elephantine Island aboard one of the Feluccas, classic old Arabic sailing boats, to visit the ornate mausoleum of the Aga Khan.

Steps leading to the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan
Mausoleum

It was built of gorgeous pink sandstone and covered with elaborate carvings of Arabic scriptures. Afterwards, we sailed to Kitchener’s Island, known locally as El Nabatat, as a beautiful sunset bathed the river.

Sunset on the Nile

The island was named for Lord Kitchener, who served as the British Consul-General in Egypt from 1911 until 1914. It was also home to the Aswan Botanical Garden, a collection of rare sub-tropical plants that Lord Kitchener established. Sailing quietly on the river was so peaceful – just the sound of the warm evening wind in the sails! Back at the hotel that evening, I joined the group again for an incredible sound and light show at the Temples of Philae. It was very impressive as we walked among the huge stone pillars and statues bathed in brilliant colors of light.

Sound and Light Show

At the same time, we were told the ancient stories of the Pharaohs. As we returned to the hotel, I was moved to a new room, one with a private terrace and a spectacular view overlooking the Nile!

View of the Nile from my balcony
View overlooking the Nile from my room

And for dinner in the hotel, I savored a delicious leg of lamb roasted with Middle Eastern spices, served with rice pilaf and a huge assortment of Arabic sweets.

The following day, I spent the morning exploring Elephantine Island before taking the little ferry to the old city of Aswan. I chose to have lunch at the elegant Oberoi Hotel overlooking the Nile. The restaurant was in a stunning setting, with elaborate wooden lattice work, tables set with brilliant, crisp white linen, sparkling silverware, and fresh roses! All the waiters were dressed in starched white tuxedos.

Lunch at the Oberoi Hotel

Lunch began with “Red Sea Gumbo” (spelled “Jumbo” on the menu), followed by grilled giant prawns marinated in Indian spices and served with a very spicy Indian vegetable curry, grilled onion, roasted potato, and Egyptian flat bread fresh from the oven. I finished lunch with a lovely creme caramel and a small cup of dark Turkish coffee. On another note, shortly after my food was served, the resident “hotel cat” came up to me and put her head in my lap, obviously asking for a handout.

“Hotel Cat”

Later in the day, I joined my guide again for a walking tour of the old city, especially the exotic old bazaar, where literally everything was for sale.

The Bazaar in the old city
Market in the Old City

As evening approached, we headed to the railway station for my short trip from Aswan to Luxor. I was about to board the train, when my guide, a Nubian from southern Egypt, invited me to stay with his family in their small village when I returned to Egypt the next time – such a kind gesture! As the train pulled out of the station, there was a gorgeous sunset that silhouetted the palm trees against the dark night sky, while a brilliant crescent moon and bright evening star shone above!

Night sky on the Nile

The slowly fading evening colors of orange and blue stretched upwards into the night sky. Along the way, as the train followed the Nile River, we passed a multitude of cooking fires glowing in the night alongside the railroad tracks. I was really surprised that all the announcements on board the train were in German, though I was seated in a compartment with Italian tourists – who knows how many different nationalities might be on board. I spent some of the time during the journey reading my copy of “Baedeker’s Guide to Egypt”, trying once again to sort out all the Gods! Upon arriving in Luxor, there was another man from American Express to meet me and he began to ask me for my tickets and tour vouchers, none of which I had been given at the start of the trip! Immediately, I felt a “snafu” was about to happen, but he didn’t seem to be bothered. However, I still didn’t know where I would be staying that night. Then we got into the car for a wild ride through dark, narrow crowded streets, barely missing all manner of pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and even donkeys! As we drove past the Sheraton Hotel and the Winter Palace Hotel, I started to wonder where on earth I would be staying? On and on we drove into the dark night, and eventually we were driving out of the city – now I really began to get worried! Finally, we crossed over a narrow bridge and I saw an illuminated sign for the “Movenpick Hotel Jolie Ville on Crocodile Island”. Then suddenly the bright lights of the hotel lobby came into view, and as I entered the hotel, I found it to be a beautiful 5-star property, with individual bungalows arranged around the shore of the island. My bungalow was “J-1”, near the far corner of the property, surrounded by lush, tropical vegetation. In my room I found a copy of a guide book on the birds and plants of Crocodile Island, as well as a nature trail map. These were very nice accommodations, especially after so much anxiety about where I would stay. For dinner that evening, I enjoyed the huge buffet in the hotel restaurant – a delicious, grand affair of an amazing array of Middle Eastern and Western dishes. Dinner put to rest any lingering anxiety about hotel accommodations that night.

Movenpick Jolie Hotel on Crocodile Island
View from my bungalow

Early the next morning at sunrise, after a quick breakfast, I prepared to leave for a day trip to Abu Simbel Temple in southern Egypt on the Sudanese border. As I entered the hotel lobby to meet my guide, I encountered a large Japanese tour group, which I found out later was on the same itinerary as me. Joining my American Express driver/guide, we headed for the airport, up the hill and west across the High Aswan Dam, into the great Western Desert, which extended for over 2000 miles through the Sahara to the mountains of Morocco. Reaching the airport, I was given instructions by my guide about what to do upon arrival at Abu Simbel. (Abu Simbel Temple can only be reached now by plane. The Immense monument was moved piece by piece from the Nile River valley when the High Aswan Dam flooded the valley.) As usual, it was a scene of chaos during the boarding process, as there were many large groups trying to board at the same time. After passing through the security checkpoint, we all made a mad dash to the plane in hopes of getting the best seats on the left side, to catch a glimpse of the temples. As I boarded the plane, along with the Japanese contingent, I found it to be an aircraft from a Yugoslav company called “Aviogenex” and leased to EgyptAir. But to our dismay, as we boarded, most of the best seats had already been taken by people who had previously boarded the plane in Cairo! Luckily, I was able to find a seat on the left side at the very rear of the plane. The flight was fully booked, but during the short 30-minute flight I had some wonderful views of the High Aswan Dam and massive Lake Nasser that stretched all the way to the Sudan. The contrast between the deep blue water of the lake and the surrounding shifting sands of the desert, was dramatic. Just before the plane landed, we had a glimpse of the massive temples of Pharaoh Ramses II, and it was a magnificent sight to behold! The immense statues of Ramses were exceptionally clear, even from 3,000 feet above. They were on a totally different scale from the surrounding flat desert. As the plane slowly descended to the airport, my heart stirred with excitement, for in a few moments I would see them up close – almost hard to believe. Upon landing on the one and only runway, surrounded by shifting sand, it was a mad dash to the EgyptAir counter to check in for the return flight to Luxor, as I had been instructed to do by my guide upon leaving Luxor. I forced my way into the queue to get my boarding pass, amidst the many tourist guides who were getting them for their group. (the downside of being an independent traveler) With boarding pass in hand, I boarded the EgyptAir shuttle bus for the short 10-minute ride to the temples, together with a large group of Germans. Along the way we passed “Pharaoh’s Village”, a new tourist hotel, and the “New Tourist Supermarket”. Finally, the bus arrived at the temples, literally the end of the road. Once again, I had to stand in line with the tourist guides to buy a ticket to enter the temples. (at this point I began to wonder why American Express didn’t do this for me?) Then I joined the rest of the crowd as we followed a path down toward the edge of the cliff overlooking Lake Nasser, and suddenly, I found myself amongst a British tour group – luckily. Maybe it was the sound of the English voices that caught my ear, or maybe it was the cute girl wearing the “City of Oxford” sweatshirt? We approached the base of the temples from the east, where there were beautiful views of Lake Nasser stretching south into the Sudan – the land of Nubia. Our first sight of the colossal stone statues of Ramses was nothing short of unbelievable! And the closer we got to them, the more enormous they became, being at least 70 feet tall.

Abu Simbel – Temple of Ramses II
Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel
Inner Temple Statues

Inside the huge temple were eight more massive stone statues in a row, four on each side. In addition, the 20-foot-high stone walls inside the temple were covered from top to bottom with colorful hieroglyphics carved into the stone more than 3000 years ago. The inner chamber of the temple was equally impressive, especially considering the entire temple had been raised more than 200 feet up from the valley floor to the top of the cliff above the river before the High Aswan Dam was constructed and flooded the valley. The entire stone temple had been cut into small blocks, each numbered according to its position, transported to the top of the cliff and “reassembled” piece by piece! Even upon close examination, it was virtually impossible to see where the cuts in the stone had been made.

Abu Simbel – Inner Temple
Hieroglyphics – Inner Temple

As we stood in the innermost chamber, our guide told us the temple had been designed so that on just two days of the year, the rising sun reached the innermost sanctuary where the statues of Ramses II and three Egyptian Gods sat on thrones. (Ramses II had “made” himself a God as well) The sunlight reached only three of the four statues – the fourth, the God of Darkness, remained without illumination. The phenomenon occurs only on February 22, the birthday of Ramses II, and October 22, the date he ascended to the throne. Outside the temple, as I stood at the feet of Ramses II, I felt it to be a very humbling experience, and very likely that was his intent when he ordered the temple built. Up close one could see some names and dates of travelers, carved into the stone, who had passed this way long ago, such as “H.J. Clarke – 1837”. But our tour of the temple was not complete until we were ushered inside the enormous concrete dome that protected the inner temple – a very impressive feat of engineering that supported tons of rock on top, designed to make the structure look natural in the surrounding desert. As we entered the massive dome, I had the feeling of being “backstage”, or was it more a feeling of somehow being “inside a body”! It must have been a very exciting moment when the temple was “rediscovered” some 200 years ago, having been almost completely buried in the sand for thousands of years! Our tour also included a visit to the Summer Temple of Queen Nefertari, a smaller version of Ramses II temple nearby. She was the first of the “Great Royal Wives” of Rameses the Great, and her name means “beautiful companion” or “beloved”. Also, among the Great Royal Wives was the most famous and well-known Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra!

Summer Temple of Queen Nefertari
Summer Temple

In the late afternoon, we all boarded the shuttle busses for the return to the airport and the flight back to Luxor. Dinner that evening in the Movenpick Jolie Ville Hotel was delicious, and afterwards, I sat outside on my private terrace in the warm evening air, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and the soothing sound of crickets.

I was up early the next morning to check out of the hotel and meet my tour guide for the days’ tour. I really hated to leave such a beautiful hotel. At the American Express office, we met up with Randy Dillon again and then boarded a ferry that took us across the river to the west bank for a tour of the “Valley of the Kings”.

Valley of the Kings

Our guide was a very pretty “Coptic” lady named Mrs. Selwa, and she was very knowledgeable of ancient Egyptian history. Our first stop was the “Colossi of Memnon” – two gigantic statues in the middle of the desert.

Colossi of Memnon

They stood over 60 feet high, representing Pharaoh Amenophis III seated on his throne and were once located at the entrance to the King’s temple. Then we walked a short distance to the “Valley of the Queens” and the “Temple of Hatshepsut”, the fifth Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt (1507 – 1458 BC).

Temple of Hatshepsut

She was considered one of the most successful Pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman in Egyptian history. The temple was most famous for its impressive murals that were several thousand years old, and in the process of restoration by an archeological team from Poland. Mrs. Selwa also told us the story of Queen Hatshepsut, one of intrigue and scheming as she “ruled” her son, the young Pharaoh. With Mrs. Selwa pointing to the hieroglyphics on the wall of the temple, she showed us how the Queen had “invented” a story that she had been born of the Sun God Ra! From the Queen’s temple, we visited three tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the first and most famous of which was the tomb of Tutankhamun. Though it was relatively small, because he had died suddenly at a young age, it had contained enormous treasures of gold and precious jewels, all of which were moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. At that point, I had to wonder just how incredible the treasures must have been in the tombs of the most important Pharaohs, before they were plundered by grave robbers? And then I began to wonder if succeeding Pharaohs had “orchestrated” the grave robbing to ensure wealth for their own tomb and the afterlife? That’s a question that is bound to remain unanswered. Our next stop on the tour was the elaborate tomb of Ramses VI, adorned with beautifully preserved, richly decorated paintings and hieroglyphics on the stone walls. Mrs. Selwa told us the story of the Pharaoh’s journey through the underworld, depicted in the paintings and hieroglyphics.

Hieroglyphics depicting the Pharaoh’s journey through the underworld

As we descended deeper into the tomb, we passed through 12 doors, each one representing a stage in the Pharaoh’s journey. It was as if we were taking the journey as well! Finally, we came to the burial chamber, carved deep inside the mountain, hewn out of solid rock. The enormous granite sarcophagus had been broken into several huge pieces and turned on its side. The grave robbers had stolen everything, even unwrapping the mummy of the king, leaving it lying beside the sarcophagus. Then Mrs. Selwa pointed to the ceiling of the chamber, a rounded arch with a gorgeous painting of two giant serpents, one carrying the sun on its back and the other serpent carrying the moon and stars. The colors of blue and gold were incredibly brilliant – even after 3000 years! But despite all the beauty and timelessness of the tomb, it did little to protect the Pharaoh, who now resides in the Egyptian Museum. From the tomb of Ramses VI, we walked up the hill to another lesser known tomb of Tuthmosis III, that Mrs. Selwa highly recommended for its unsusal design. The tomb was relatively small, but with a deep shaft that was crossed by a single wooden bridge, and then a steep sloping tunnel at a sharp right angle leading to the burial chamber. Apparently, this was intended to deter grave robbers, but once again had failed to prevent the loss of the Pharaoh’s treasures. As we made our way down the dark, narrow tunnel, I couldn’t help but recall scenes from “Indian Jones and the Lost Ark”! Upon reaching the burial chamber, we discovered several stunning deep blue murals covering the walls and ceiling, with bright white stars representing the celestial sky to guide the Pharaoh on his journey to the underworld. (if only I could have taken photos!) After Mrs. Selwa told us the story of the Pharaoh and his rule over Egypt almost 4000 years ago, we exited the tomb and walked down a dusty path to the “Rest House”, a small café/snack bar, before continuing down the valley to the main entrance gate.

Valley of the Kings

Just outside the gate, the usual flock of vendors were eagerly hawking their wares. Soon a very chaotic scene ensued as they all vied for the attention of the tourists, many of whom were trying desperately to avoid being trapped in the melee. One of the vendors even had an Italian woman by the arm, trying to drag her back into his shop to buy an alabaster statue in which she had undoubtedly expressed some interest in buying! But now, she and her friend were trying to discourage the guy, even as he kept following them, constantly yelling another lower price! In desperation, they broke into a “run”, with the shopkeeper in hot pursuit, waving the statue. He ran after them all the way to their bus! What a mad, hilarious scene – as the bus pulled away, he just turned around and threw up his hands in exasperation. At that moment, I wished I had a video camera! Thankfully, our tour group, led by Mrs. Selwa, was able to avert the vendors. Despite their efforts to “trap” the tourists, in all honesty, they were “well mannered” in comparison to my experience with vendors in Morocco. It was a short walk to the ferry landing for the journey back across the river to the East Bank, the side of the living. There I was met by my American Express guide and driven back to the hotel to check out before the afternoon tour, which began with lunch on the terrace of the beautiful and historic “Winter Palace Hotel”, the oldest in Luxor. It had the faded elegance of a grand old lady. I savored a delicious dish of lamb shish kabobs and a cold beer, as I watched the sailboats on the river below. As soon as my lunch arrived, I was “mobbed” by a group of “hotel cats” looking for a handout. After lunch, I sat on the terrace and caught up on my travel notes about the trip to Abu Simbel and the Valley of the Kings, before joining the tour to the Temple of Luxor and the Great Temple of Amun/Karnack.

Approach to the Temple of Luxor
Temple of Luxor

As we approached the temples, we were struck by the sight of tall, massive stone columns, some of which were topped with enormous pylons inscribed with hieroglyphics. The columns formed a gateway to the inner temples where giant stone statues of Ramses sat in silence.

Temple of Amun/Karnack
Columns at the Temple of Luxor
Obelisk
Statue of Ramses IV

Near the perimeter of the temples were several tall obelisks and the remnants of many ancient stone walls which had formed the foundation of a large village, long since passed into history. Strolling among the giant columns and statues was a humbling experience, as well as a testament to the exceptional building skills of the ancient Egyptians.

Temple of Luxor
Temple of Luxor
Giant Columns in the temple
Hieroglyphics carved in the stone 3000 years ago

As evening approached, it was time to head to the railway station for the journey back to Cairo, another 12-hour overnight trip. Once again, I had a very nice private compartment aboard the Pullman train, including a delicious dinner served by the car porter.

Train to Cairo

The train followed the Nile River north and rolled quietly into the night, passing numerous small villages and extensive fields. Sleep overtook me somewhere north of Asyut, and I awoke early the next morning as the train approached the outskirts of Cairo. While I enjoyed breakfast on the train, I reflected upon the amazing and spectacular ancient sights I had been fortunate to visit over the past three days. I knew for certain, from now on, I would have a much deeper knowledge and appreciation of ancient Egyptian history and culture – a truly remarkable time in the history of the world!

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