Archive | 2012
October 12, 2012

Off to the ‘Stans

Just a super quick note before I head off to the airport. For the next three weeks I will be traveling around Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. So after a few years of being stuck stateside, I will finally have some new content and photos for this blog.

(Courtesy WikiTravel)

September 26, 2012

Travel Wishlist: Borneo

South East Asia is another area of the world that is high on my travel wishlist. I’ve never traveled to this particular corner of the world, and my previous travels to Asia have been confined to China and North Korea. Thankfully, I will finally make it to South East Asia this upcoming December and January, when I will be visiting Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand for 2.5 weeks.

(Courtesy Wikipedia)

Another area, though, that I will have to visit sometime in the near future is Borneo. The third largest island in the world, Borneo is divided among three countries: Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. The majority of the island’s territory belongs to Indonesia, with tiny Brunei occupying a mere one percent of the island.

Visitors to the island will find that there is plenty to do on their Borneo holidays. I’m a nature lover, so would opt to visit the island’s unspoiled beaches and national parks. Visitors can snorkel and scuba dive near the reefs lining the small islands off the coast of Borneo, while those looking for something less intense can relax on the island’s many white sand beaches. At the northern tip of Borneo is Kinabalu Park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its vast number of unique flora, fauna, and wildlife; scientists here are continually discovering new species in this part of the world’s oldest rain forest. The park is also home to Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in South East Asia at 13,435 feet and supposedly an easy climb with no technical skills required. And after summiting Kinabalu, there are plenty of opportunities to soak your sore muscles in the hot springs. Wildlife tours, either by boat or jeep are also very popular, and some animal sanctuaries allow visitors to get up close with orangutans, elephants, and rhinos.

September 5, 2012

Crater Lake National Park

A few weeks ago we drove down to south-central Oregon for a long weekend in Bend and Crater Lake. Bend has a lot of excellent breweries (Deschutes, 10 Barrel, etc) and Crater Lake is, well, Crater Lake. It’s been on my to-do list for a few years, and despite the amazing images of the lake used in the Oregon Tourism ads, I was still floored by its beauty and size.

Panorama taken from Watchman Peak.

The caldera that Crater Lake occupies formed approximately 7,700 years ago when the volcano Mount Mazama erupted. Subsequent rain and melting snowfall filled the caldera, creating Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States.

We drove the 33 miles around the rim, stopping at various points to take short hikes. Strangely, the park did not seem very crowded, at least compared to places like Rainier or Olympic National Park.

Wizard Island, a volcanic cinder cone created by subsequent smaller eruptions.

Wizard Island’s cone.

View of the small island known as the “Phantom Ship”

The Pinnacles.

The tour boat in Crater Lake. We tried to get tickets, but unfortunately they were completely sold out.

View from the Watchman Lookout Station. Well worth the hike uphill!

The fire lookout station. Built in 1932. Elevation 8,025 feet.

Crater Lake is definitely a “must see” and well worth the long drive. We are planning to take another trip there in the winter, when the road that encircles the caldera is buried under feet of snow and open to snowshoers and crosscountry skiers.

The rest of the photos are here.

August 14, 2012

Machine guns, Mao, and the Great Wall: Three Days in Beijing

When it comes to traveling to North Korea, most, if not all, roads lead to Beijing. The majority of flights to Pyongyang leave out of Beijing, and it is likely that your tour operator will require you to attend an orientation briefing the day prior to departure. Since I had never been to China prior to this trip, I added a few extra days in Beijing to the itinerary and basically had three full days to do some sightseeing. Granted, this was nowhere near enough time to even scratch the surface of Beijing, but it was all I could do with my limited vacation time.

My flight landed a little after 10:30 on a Saturday morning. We arrived at Terminal 3, which was built to handle increased air traffic for the 2008 Olympics. It was a beautiful and impressive terminal, especially compared to the one we had departed from in Newark. Not so impressive, however, was the smog that was so thick it obscured the hangars located just across the tarmac. I remember hearing a lot about the pollution in Beijing during the run up to the 2008 Olympics, but I never imagined it would be this bad.

Passport control was severely understaffed when we arrived; the majority of booths were left empty while long lines formed. A few minutes later, a platoon of immigration officers marched in – literally marched in – and went to their assigned booths. They were all wearing surgical masks – the major health concern at the time was H1N1, and because of this we had to fill out extra paperwork about possible symptoms as well as pass through a thermal body scanner that measured our temperature. The passport and visa check was quick and painless, and I was amused to see that each booth was outfitted with a small box containing four buttons ranging from a sad face to a very happy face. It was a rating device – you were supposed to push the button that best expressed your satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with the service you received from the passport control officer. I was astounded by this. They felt so out of place. Could you imagine the US government installing these at passport control booths in US airports?

After waiting about an hour for my luggage and catching a taxi into the city center, I checked into my hotel and promptly fell asleep (because I can’t sleep on airplanes) even though it was 4pm. I woke up a few hours later in a complete daze, and wandered around the neighborhood. All I really remember was going to a grocery store, buying some pastry and Coke, and then falling back asleep.

I stayed at the Marriott Courtyard in central Beijing, just a 15-20 minute walk to Tienanmen Square. This was a bit unusual for me, as I am used to staying at cheap hotels, but I received an excellent “friends & family” rate from a friend who worked for Marriott, so it was hard to pass up.

The China North International Shooting Range & the Great Wall

I didn’t really do that much planning for my short time in Beijing. I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to see. Obviously, Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City, etc etc. I also wanted to visit the Great Wall, but didn’t really care to see the Ming Tombs or Summer Palace, sights that are typically packaged with a guided tour of the Great Wall. So I opted to do something a bit more unusual – visit a shooting range. So I spent my first morning in Beijing sampling the firearms of the People’s Liberation Army (which I wrote about in detail here) followed by a hike up the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall (detailed here).

Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City
My next day in Beijing was dedicated solely to Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City. In order to enter Tiananmen Square I first had to pass through a security checkpoint where you walk through a metal detector and have your bags x-rayed, in case you happen to be carrying weapons or, more than likely, anti-government signs or materials.

After successfully passing the checkpoint (I had left all my weapons at home, thankfully) I entered the southern end of Tiananmen Square near the Zhengyangmen Gate.

The square itself is massive. Measuring 880m by 500m, it is the third largest square in the world. Moscow’s Red Square, at 330m by 70m, seems tiny by comparison. Tienanmen is also the location of the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (more on that later).

Socialist realism statues in front of the mausoleum

Since Tiananmen Square has been the site of important, and sometimes bloody, demonstrations, the authorities continue to keep a watchful eye on any activities taking place there (exhibit any political activity and you will be quickly whisked away). You can find large lampposts with these cameras all over Tiananmen Square (these particular cameras are situated near the mausoleum) along with numerous uniformed and plainclothes police officers.

Monument to the People’s Heroes erected to honor those who died for the revolutionary cause.

Tiananmen Gate

Chinese flag with honor guard.

Heading to the Forbidden City

View from the Tienanmen Gate

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City served as the home of the Chinese Imperial family from the Ming Dyanasty to the end of the Qing Dyansty (roughly 1420-1912). The place is massive, consisting of 980 buildings (and those are the ones that survived through the destruction that accompanies occupation and revolution).

The dragon turtle sculpture

The thick surrounding walls

After wandering around Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, I headed over to the Wangfujing Snack Street. There is a wide variety of street food for sale here, including scorpions and starfish on a stick.

I am willing to try a lot of different foods when I travel, but poisonous insects on sticks were just a bit too much for me. Instead I opted for a snack of noodles and veggies wrapped in a moo shoo pancake (like a Chinese burrito) and for dessert, green tea ice cream.

Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

At the top of my “to do” list was paying a visit to Mao Zedong’s embalmed corpse. You see, since visiting Lenin in 2002 I have made it my goal to see all of the embalmed communist leaders who are still on display (Lenin, Kim Il-Sung, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh). And yes, I realize that is ridiculously weird. Anyways, this trip to China and North Korea presented me with an opportunity to cross two off of my list (only Ho Chi Minh remains!) so on my last day in Beijing, I was up early and headed straight to the mausoleum. As expected, the line was long, but moved at a good pace. I neglected to bring my passport, however, which was apparently required for entry, and was wearing flip-flops, which was also frowned upon, according to one of the posted signs. When I finally arrived to the security checkpoint, this apparently didn’t matter much, because I played the stupid American tourist and the guards let me through. Most visitors were Chinese citizens; in fact, I seemed to be the only Westerner there. Upon entering the mausoleum I encountered a huge pile of flowers, which was growing substantially. I was one of the few visitors who had failed to purchase flowers to honor the Chairman. We moved on to the actual room that displays Mao’s body, which was draped in a red hammer and sickle flag and enclosed in a glass coffin. You don’t have much time to gawk, as the guards move you along quickly into the next room, which, I kid you not, was lined with souvenir stands selling a variety of Mao memorabilia. It reminded me of Disneyland, when you are forced to exit through the gift shop after finishing a ride. I bought a kitschy ornament with Mao portrait that you are supposed to hang from your rearview mirror, like a Beijing taxi driver.

The Temple of Heaven
My last stop on my sightseeing itinerary was the Temple of Heaven. Built in the early 1400s, Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties came to this Taoist temple to pray for good harvests.

My embarrassing last meal
I am not proud to admit this, but for my last meal in Beijing I had a Marriott Burger delivered via room service. I know, I know, I should have gone out for Peking Duck or hot pot, but after five days of North Korean food, and several days of Chinese food, I was craving American food like crazy. So here it is, my burger and waffle fries, which I devoured quickly and washed down with a Chinese beer:

Goodbye, Beijing!
Overall, I was rather overwhelmed by Beijing. There was so much to see, and too little time to see it. I would love to go back to China someday and explore more of the country.

The rest of the photos are here.

July 15, 2012

POTD: Prague Main Railway Station

If I had to name one thing that I missed the most about Europe, it would have to be the rail network. Yes, we have passenger rail service in the United States, but Amtrak can’t even compare to Germany’s Deutsche Bahn or the United Kingdom’s National Rail. For instance, the top speed on Amtrak’s “high-speed” Acela train on the Washington, DC to New York City route is 135mph, compared to the Eurostar which races along at 186mph.

The Eurostar was my preferred method of travel when visiting Paris or Brussels due to the speed (less than two hours to either city), location (no schlepping out to the airport) and price (£59 roundtrip). Within the UK, I’ve used National Rail to visit cities such as Cambridge and Gloucester, both quick, comfortable journeys. (For those who are looking for a more relaxing, scenic journey, steam rail tours are available in northern England, Wales, Scotland, and northern Germany).

The above photo is of Praha hlavní nádraží (Prague main railway station). As part of our December 2009 Central Europe trip we took the train from Berlin to Prague (and after spending a few days there attempting to find the best Czech beer, onward to Vienna). Although the Art Nouveau inspired exterior and interior of the train station could use a bit of renovation, I loved the traditional steel and glass canopy that stretched over the tracks.

An interesting aside – from 1918 – 1938 and 1945 – 1953, the station was named after US President Woodrow Wilson (Wilsonovo nádraží) in honor of his contribution to the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire following World War I.

July 15, 2012

Exploring San Juan Island

Last weekend we made an impromptu trip to the San Juan Islands, an archipelago located between Washington state and Vancouver Island, Canada. There aren’t any bridges connecting the mainland to the San Juan Islands, so the only way you can get there is via ferry or airplane.

We opted for the ferry, and when we arrived at the loading terminal were met with this considerably long line:

Thankfully the ships are enormous and can hold a very large amount of cars, so we got on the earlier ferry and didn’t have to wait an additional two hours. Pricewise, the ferry is a pretty good deal. It was under $80 for roundtrip transportation of the car and an additional passenger.

The ferry ride itself is the worth the trip to the San Juans. Leave your car while the ferry is underway and head to the topside for some amazing views.

Mt. Baker

Approaching Friday Harbor

We chose to stay on San Juan Island. No particular reason why, it was just the first one that came to mind. After an approximately hour long ferry ride, we arrived in Friday Harbor. Friday Harbor is the largest city in the San Juan Islands, and the commercial hub of the archipelago, yet it still remains a quaint island town with a little over 2000 residents.

All of the hotels in Friday Harbor were booked solid (and those that weren’t were going for $250 per night) so we opted to camp instead. A quick Google search directed us to Lakedale Resort, which had available campsites for $45 per night. Quite extortionate for a campsite when compared to state and national campgrounds, but there aren’t many options on San Juan Island.

On Saturday morning were up early to start a full day exploration of the island (after a camp breakfast of bacon and eggs, of course). Our first stop was the English camp, which was built by the British in 1859 after the killing of a pig. Yes, a pig. The “Pig War” was an interesting piece of history that I had been completely unaware of until this visit. For more on the Pig War and subsequent showdown between British and American forces, check out this Wikipedia article.

Garden at the British camp

Driving south of the British camp…

Olympic mountain range off in the distance

And further south to the American camp. This is Cattle Point:

Cattle Point Lighthouse

Out here in the Pacific Northwest we don’t have very sandy beaches, so you have to entertain yourself by building stuff with driftwood, which we have plenty of.

We also went on a whale watching cruise, but we didn’t actually see any whales, which kinda sucked. Thankfully we can go back in the future and take the cruise again for free. But we did see some more of the islands:

And this random Chinese junk boat:

And Mount Baker:

After the unsuccessful whale watching cruise we drove back to camp and sat around the fire drinking beer and eating hot dogs and smores.

The next morning we got up early and headed back to the mainland via ferry.

This was a nice, relaxing weekend and great escape from the city. We definitely plan on returning to the San Juans.

The rest of the photos are here.

July 8, 2012

North Korea: Departing Pyongyang

On the morning of our fifth day in Pyongyang, we were back on the bus headed to the Pyongyang Airport to catch our return flight to Beijing. Of course, we were running late. The majority of our group was typically on time but there were always a few laggards, so we arrived at Sunan International Airport shortly before 8:30am for a 9:00am flight.

Despite the fact that there were only three flights that day, check-in was a bit chaotic; we hurriedly filled out the customs forms and waited for the guards to return our cell phones, which had been kept under lock and key at the airport since we had arrived in Pyongyang. We also waited for our guides to return our passports, which we were required to surrender to them when we arrived in North Korea.

After finally checking-in and receiving our boarding passes, we headed straight to the security check, which meant we had zero time to enjoy the airport’s only restaurant or make last minute purchases of books by the Dear Leader and Great Leader (basically the only souvenirs for sale) at the small gift shop. As to be expected, there was a long line at security and 9am was quickly approaching. Surely our plane wouldn’t leave without our group and leave us stranded in Pyongyang for a few more days?

The Kims are, of course, inescapable.

The security check actually went by rather quickly, as the North Koreans don’t make you take your shoes off or put all of your liquids in a little baggie like the TSA does. I guess if you are a member of the “Axis of Evil” you don’t really have to worry about all that stuff.

After the security check came passport control. Typically, if you enter a country on a visa, this is when you would receive an exit stamp, but we were on a group visa that was in the possession of our tour leader, so there was no visa in our passport to stamp, and thus no coveted DPRK passport stamp. Some of our group members politely asked, or begged the officers to stamp their passport, but their pleas were met by a head shake. So, I exited North Korea with absolutely no official record of having visited the country, just 1,500 photos and a copy of “The Eternal Sun of Mankind”.

Our ride back to Beijing

Air Koryo fleet

Heading to the runway

The in-flight meal – the infamous Air Koryo burger. Yes, it tastes as awful as it looks.

The flight back was uneventful, although quite uncomfortable. The seating was incredibly cramped and the cabin temperature seemed to be 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I dozed off intermittently, glad to be back in possession of my iPhone so that I could listen to music that had nothing to do with the Great Leader.

Goodbye, North Korea!

The rest of the photos are here.

July 8, 2012

Travel Wishlist: Scotland

(courtesy Lonely Planet)

I’m actually pretty embarrassed to admit this, but despite living in London for a year, I never managed to make it to Scotland. I didn’t actually travel much around the United Kingdom that year, instead opting to explore the European continent (France, Italy, Czech Republic, the Balkans, etc). I did visit Cambridge and Cardiff on daytrips, and the usual tourist spots of Stonehenge, Windsor, and Bath, but that was about the extent of my UK travel. When I spent a week in London in January 2010, I seriously contemplated making a quick trip up to Edinburgh and spent a few hours researching railway timetables (it is about a 4.5 hour journey from London) and finding Edinburgh hotels. Ultimately, though, laziness prevailed and I opted to instead spend my time wandering around London with friends.

Someday, though, I will visit Scotland. I figure I would need about two weeks to see everything on my “to-do” list, including Edinburgh, Skye, and the Highlands. BBC Travel recently published an excellent article detailing a two-week road trip itinerary that takes you from Edinburgh to the Orkney Islands. I’m especially intrigued by the Scottish Highlands, often considered the most beautiful part of Scotland due to its multitude of lochs, castles, mountains, and coastal scenery. I’ve heard Inverness is a fun city to visit as well, especially if you are visiting during the Highland Games. The BBC itinerary is packed with a lot of different activities, including hiking, sea kayaking, castle visits, ferry rides, wildlife cruises, and whiskey tastings. Admittedly, I’m not a huge whiskey fan, but maybe a trip to Scotland could convince me otherwise.

July 4, 2012

North Korea: The Streets of Pyongyang, Part VII

Taken September 2009 while driving through Pyongyang in a bus (hence the poor photo quality)

I believe this is the entrance to a factory

I thought the style of these trams looked very familiar. They are Czech made, and likely the same style as the ones I rode in Prague several years ago.

Koryo Hotel on the left

Propaganda vehicle (notice the speakers on the top)

Student group

Top of the Ryugyong Hotel

The only gas station I saw in North Korea

A Nissan Paladin aka Nissan Xterra. The only reason I really took this photo was because I own an Xterra.

Another Xterra

A very crowded tram

The Mansudae Grand Monument to Kim Il-Sung. After Kim Jong-il’s death they added a statue of him as well.

And that is the end of the Pyongyang street photos. All of them can be found here.

July 3, 2012

North Korea: The Streets of Pyongyang, Part VI

More photos from Pyongyang in September 2009.

Traffic Girl (because who needs stoplights?)

City beautification project

City park with playground

Metro station

More propaganda

Apartment buildings and propaganda

Taedongmun (Taedong Gate). This is the eastern gate of the inner castle of the walled city of Pyongyang and one of the National Treasures of North Korea. The gate was originally built in the sixth century however the present construction dates from 1635 (the original was burnt to the ground during in the late 16th century).

Surprise, more propaganda

The elusive male traffic control officer

Pyongyang high rises