Clichéd but still gorgeous – St Basil’s just after sunset.
I’m back after a brief but awesome Thanksgiving trip. More reactions to come.
This post is long overdue, but I thought I’d some of the experiences from my most recent visit to Utah. The Western US is amazing – absolutely mind boggling geology, wide open spaces, and friendly people. The natural attractions are world class and any serious traveler should have a a trip on their list. Planning is my least favorite phase of a trip because it’s hard to find clear, directive advice on what to do and how long to allow – so below I’ll share some specific observations and guidance:
- Southeastern Oregon and Northern Nevada are really, really, really empty. I think I went 400-500 miles between stoplights including a stretch on ‘the loneliest road in America’ (north of Ely, Nevada) – but did pass a camper walking along the highway. It’s actually a little surprising to me how little the landscape and vegetation changed between E. Oregon and southern Nevada – just mile after mile of high desert plains crossed by a small streak of mountains here and there
- There’s really nothing like seeing a beautiful sunrise on a crisp morning where you know you’re the only person around – it’s an experience that’s uniquely yours
- The Washington Post has named Battle Mountain Nevada ‘The Armpit of America’. This is a bold claim and I’ve spent some time in towns that should be serious contenders for an award like this, so I was of course compelled to visit for lunch and test the claim with a skeptic’s eye. But in fact it seems like a really depressing town with nothing to recommend it.
- I camped at Great Basin National Park hoping to hike up to see 4,000 year old bristlecone pine trees and Nevada’s only glacier (did you know Nevada has more glaciers than Colorado?)..but in May the road to the top of the park was still snowed in. I camped around 8,000 feet and woke up to find my water jugs frozen – not exactly the Nevada experience I was planning for. I went just a little out of my way for this park; it’s an easy place to camp and I was treated to a gorgeous sunrise but if you’re time constrained I wouldn’t trade off a day in Utah to see it.
- Two books that helped plan Utah were the Lonely Planet guide and “Photographing the Southwest” – which actually has decent guidance on hiking trails. This was the most scenic leg of the trip and if you weren’t putting it in the middle of a larger road trip you could easily fly in to St. George Utah (or even Las Vegas), rent a car for the week, and drop it off at the airport in Moab/Canyonlands (CNY) or Grand Junction for your flight out. To give you a sense for how to allocate time in Utah I’ve broken out our itinerary by day:
Days 1-3 in Zion National Park
- Zion National Park is absolutely amazing; the Zion river has cut down into the sandstone leaving a steep valley with incredible sights – e.g. the color contrast between red stone and the vibrant green cottonwood trees. Unless you really don’t hike at all, plan 2-3 days in Zion. The marquis hike is Angel’s Landing, a ~3 hour hike that ends by climbing up a knife-edged ridge about 1,500 feet above the valley floor. I highly recommend getting out there early – it’s so much nicer to be the first people up – and later hikers will have to deal not only with opposing traffic passing on that knife-edge ridge but possibly afternoon winds and blowing dust that raise the stress even more.
- Other awesome hikes we did: Observation Point (strenuous, ~5 hour, best views in the park); Hidden Valley (short spur on the way to Observation Point); and Emerald Pools (a little rocky but pretty easy). The Narrows is the other marquis hike in the park – walking upstream in the Zion river as the canyon walls narrow to only a few yards wide and hundreds of feet deep – but we missed it because the river was running too fast to permit hikers
- For a scenic drive, head west out of the main entrance towards Virgin, UT and take Kolob Terrace road up to the mesa – you’ll see postcard views of landscapes, farms, forests, and wildlife. It tops out around 8,000 feet and in May there was snow and black ice on the road (enough to require winching two of us out)
- After crossing over from Nevada I grabbed a private campsite in Springdale, Utah right outside the gates of Zion National Park. As a general rule the national parks (and many state parks) have better and cheaper campsites than the private facilities. If you’re like me and couldn’t get a reservation, show up and do a private campsite night 1 (almost never sold out), then get to the park’s first-come-first-served campsites and snag one around 7-8am after the early risers have left. At Zion this is the South Campground and it seemed like first-come-first-served spots were pretty easy to find until 9-10am
- The restaurants and hotels in Zion don’t have a whole lot to recommend them, but we did get a great meal at Oscar’s; I’d hit it daily if I were there again
Zion Canyon as seen from Observation Point
Day 4 – Bryce Canyon and Cottonwood Canyon road
- From Zion we drove to Bryce Canyon, about 60-90 minutes away. You probably don’t need more than half a day at Bryce Canyon but you should time it such that you’re there starting 15-30 minutes before sunrise or 1-2 hours before sunset. I keep raving about sunrises in the US West but walking up to the canyon rim, seeing the spires coming into view, and watching the sunrise color the hundreds of hoodoos was absolutely best view of the trip. Aside from sunrise/sunset on the rim, walk through Wall Street on the Queen’s Garden or Navajo trail (closed in winter).
- On the way out of Bryce stop at Ruby’s Inn for lunch as you won’t have many options if you’re continuing east. The buffet is so-so but my BBQ pork sandwich hit the spot
- On the strength of the photography book’s recommendation we spent the afternoon driving down Cottonwood Canyon road (4×4 or rental car + tow strap recommended) and were rewarded with spectacular views – in particular Devil’s Garden, the Cockscomb, and Cottonwood Narrows – all are very close to the road. If you’re feeling adventurous you can put your 4×4 in low and try the VERY steep and narrow Brigham Plains road spur a few miles into the cockscomb
- Kodachrome State Park sits at the paved end of the road and was the nicest campground we stayed at during the entire trip – highly recommended if you can reserve ahead of time.
- Note that you’re still in the high desert and the altitude provides cold temps at night – we got a hard freeze at Kodachrome in mid May
Day 5 – Slot canyons on Hole-In-Rock Road + Capital Reef at sunset
- Continue driving east to Hole in Rock road (again, rental car or 4×4 + tow strap recommended) where you’ll find an unmarked turnoff for the Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons. These are incredibly narrow canyons cut into the rock after rainstorms…as in, so narrow you’ll need to leave your backpack behind. Don’t bring a watch, fancy clothes, or anything else you’re afraid of having abraded as you slide through dusty sandstone. I would strongly recommend a plastic bag for your camera as without it you’re virtually guaranteed to hear grit in your zoom lens/focus ring after spending a few hours in the dust.
- If you’re a reasonably serious photographer, try to find a small tripod (light is low and you’ll want small apertures for DOF), use a UV or polarizing filter on your lens (no lens changes in the canyon!) and seal your camera in a clear plastic bag with a hole cut for the end of the lens (use a rubber band around the lens hood/barrel to keep the bag sealed). The aforementioned photography book gives tips on the best time of day to shoot each canyon (e.g. around mid-day may be best as the canyons are so steep and narrow that morning/evening light won’t penetrate)
- Dave navigating Peek-a-boo canyon:
- When you emerge from the slot canyons in early afternoon, head for Boulder Utah and have dinner at the epicurean Burr’s Trail Grill. We were treated to a mind blowing preparation of polenta, the best gourmet burgers of the trip, and a slice of moist Devil’s food cake cake the size of my head..all a very pleasant high quality surprise in a town of 250 people.
- Time your departure from the restaurant to pass through Capital Reef national park during the 1-2 hours before sunset. There’s more traffic and bigger cliffs on the west side of the park but for my money the most interesting formations are actually on the eastern end after you cross the Fremont river. Seeing the diversity of shapes and colors in the cliffs made me consider going back to school to become a geologist.
- Given the diversity of formations at Capital Reef, a serious photographer could spend a week or more there (a major fraction of the photography guidebook is devoted to this park). Alas we were on a schedule and had to see it in transit
Looking back at the cockscomb formation from Brigham Plains Road
Day 6-7 – Moab and Arches National Park
- Moab is the big town in eastern Utah – filled with adventure tourists and yippies who’ve moved there for the rock climbing, mountain biking, view, etc. You’ll have quite a few options for shopping/eating/sleeping. We camped in town at “up the creek” campground because we weren’t early enough to get a reservation at our preferred location – Dead Horse Point State Park
- Arches National Park is right outside Moab and almost everything in the park is close to the road (read Edward Abbey’s classic Desert Solitaire for a sense of the park before the road was built!). This means that relative to Canyonlands or even Zion there’s a huge number of casual tourists at most of the sights in the park.
- IMHO, one day is enough for Arches NP. Start by being at Dead Horse Point State Park 30 minutes before sunrise and watching the earth rotate to illuminate the bends of the colorado river through Canyonlands National Park (2nd best sunrise of the trip!). Be sure to bring $10 cash to pay your parking fee on the way in even if there’s no ranger in the booth – they show up at 7am and make a beeline for the overlook parking lot to write tickets for anyone who didn’t behave honorably. After sunrise cruise back to Arches NP and do whatever hikes interest you (they’re all short). Head into town to grab lunch (nothing really stood out; the local brewpub is decent as is Eklecticafe). A couple of hours before sunset grab your camera, head back to Arches NP, and make the short climb up to the Delicate Arch viewpoint (follow the dozens of other people carrying tripods) to watch the most famous stone arch in america luminesce in the warm tones of sunset with the snow covered La Sal mountains in the background.
- Crash at Deadhorse Point State Park (if you were able to get a reservation) for the night
- Spend the next day or two doing whatever interests you around Moab – the town has dozens of outfitters who’ll set you up for rock climbing, mountain biking, 4×4 tours, etc. If nothing else, cruise out Potash Road just north of town to see climbers hanging on the side of the road and do some off-roading (search for “poison spider mesa” trail) or just take the road out to the gravel section past the potash mine for views of the Colorado river cutting through red rock. I found the town itself underwhelming; like so many places dominated by tourists the restaurants and service were a little flat with few bargains to be found…but you’re not in Moab to hang out indoors, right?
Sunrise at Deadhorse Point State Park near Moab
From here you can continue driving the “Grand Circle Route” through Cortez, Colorado (Mesa Verde National Park) and Arizona (Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, etc.) or turn in your rental car and catch a flight home from Canyonlands (CNY) or Grand Junction (GJT).
I’d do this trip again in a heartbeat.
Just another mountain view – near the metro station in El Golf.
I came to Santiago with low expectations (“nothing to do there…don’t spend more than 24 hours”) but was very pleasantly surprised. Buenos Aires is very European, but it’s a European influence from 1880-1950. Santiago’s European influence feels more 1970-present. Walking around El Golf near my hotel there were Starbucks, Brooks Brothers, TGI Fridays, etc. Parts of Vitacura felt almost German – Bauhaus buildings, porsches, contemporary furniture stores, etc. Presumably Chile’s trajectory of rapid economic expansion since the 1970s brought expats and foreign influence at the same time as Argentina was relatively stagnant and unattractive for foreign investment.
Santiago just feels more vibrant than Argentina; walking around BA, Mendoza, or Rosaria (Argentina) on a weekday gives the sense of pretty low asset and labor productivity – storefronts not open for business, equipment idled, people moving slowly or without purpose, etc. Santiago has a sharp contrast between the high rent European neighborhoods and the rest of the city but it’s still noticeably more active. Or perhaps my impressions were skewed positively by getting gorgeous weather in Chile after a week of rain and clouds in Argentina.
As with Buenos Aires it seems the Southern Cone’s days as a cheap weekend getaway are over. You can get by on $30 per day but to get out and have a good time you’re spending $150/day – cabs and meals are a little cheaper than Texas (especially on the high end) but not much.
I’ve kept my perfect record of encountering youth protests on every visit to South America – tuition hikes in Chile (2011), something undetermined in Mendoza (2011), socialist party rally in Cusco (2007), and cracking down on crime in BA (2006). I’ve never really felt threatened but I wish I spoke a little more Spanish to understand the context of what I’m walking through and when to GTFO.
Specific travel suggestions:
- Take the free walking tour of the downtown area that meets at the Plaza de Armas around 9am (check google). It’s great to get your bearings and the tour guides are quite engaging (because they work for tips!)
- Consider taking a bicycle tour of neighborhoods beyond downtown. TripAdvisor has some suggestions (but TripAdvisor is really getting AstroTurfed these days, so do your diligence)
- The W Santiago is fantastic if you’ve got points to burn…but be sure to get out of that neighborhood to get a feel for what the other 98% of Santiago looks like
- Cabs are really expensive ($15 for a ~10 minute ride) but the metro is awesome. Figure it out quickly and save your money
- The university area (Bella Vista) has a really coo vibe (a little gritty – but high energy). I love walking down the street and seeing all the sidewalk cafes with folks sharing liter bottles of beer at lunch. The single best corner for budget food in South America might be at Constitucion and [ ]. There’s an amazing sandwich bar (‘sangucheria’), a good casual chilean place (Galindo), and a higher end seafood place – plus others nearby that look promising as well.
- Take the funicular (or hike) to the top of Cerro San Cristobal to get a fantastic view of the city. You can eat in Bella Vista at the bottom of the hill, walk it off by spending the afternoon on the hill, and descend to eat again in the same great neighborhood.
- Beyond Santiago, Valparaiso is a coastal city and UNESCO world heritage site about 90 minutes away which offers a nice 1-2 day side trip, and Villerica (lakes district) and patagonia look awesome if you had enough time to make a second leg down south.
I’d like to go back and spend more time there, although I’m not sure when it’ll happen.
Ice in the water, Kenai Fjords National Park
- Driving (first) and then riding the bus through Denali; almost hitting a moose and her calves; seeing grizzlies and caribou near the road
- Braving the mosquitoes at Wonder Lake to bushwhack across spongy tundra, almost run into another moose, and realize that even if sunset is technically midnight it never really gets dark
- Taking a shower and drying our gear out at the Sheraton after a couple days camping in the rain. Finding pizza and beer at Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage
- Hiking Bird Ridge just outside Anchorage on the Seward Highway; watching one of the world’s highest tides go out of the Turnagain arm – with incredible mountain views, blue skies, and black bear + bald eagle sightings on the trail
- Kayaking through Kenai Fjords National Park; listening and watching glaciers as they calved small icebergs into the water we paddled through (something dropped every 5-10 minutes!!). Pulling the kayaks up on an empty beach in the park to camp for the night and cook steak fajitas
- Climbing the trail up to the Harding Icefield – the massive (300-1000 square miles) ice field that feeds all of the glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park. Recovering from the hike in Seward with savory crepes from the Belgian chef at Le Barn Appetit
- Relaxing at the Anchorage Museum’s excellent exhibits on native people and the transformation of Alaska into a natural resource economy (gold, then fishing, then oil)
- Go flight seeing over Denali. The park is generally overcast and visitors might only see the mountain on a few days out of the summer. Had it been clear I’d have booked a flight seeing trip in a second
- Go backcountry camping. I’m a sissy – tents and sleeping on the ground are fine, but hiking around all day’s more fun without 35 pounds on my back. In any case much of the terrain we did walk on was either wet, rocky, or spongy so allow plenty of time to keep a safe pace if you’re going off trail
- Go fishing. The fishing is amazing, but none of us are passionate about it and we decided to put the funds to work somewhere else
- See Wrangell St. Elias National Park (beautiful, remote, and just a little too far away for us to justify driving to on this trip) and cross the Arctic Circle (again, would have been too much time in the car)
- See brown bears feeding on salmon at Brooks Falls (books up a year or more ahead of time, requires another $1k or so in airfare from Anchorage)
- The weather is hit and miss. We had an awesome time kayaking but if it’d been raining we probably would have done a day cruise instead of kayaking for 2 days. If you’re OK with risking things you can defer making reservations until a day or two before the trip and adjust your plans based on the weather
- Get the books Milepost (for driving) and 55 Ways to the Wilderness In South Central Alaska (for hiking)
- Pack some decent rain gear and binoculars in addition to the usual hiking/touring kit
From reading Wikipedia on the 8 hour (!) domestic flight. My favorite sentences:
- Alaska has a longer coastline than all the other U.S. states combined.With the extension of the Aleutian Islands into the eastern hemisphere, it is technically both the westernmost and easternmost state in the United States, as well as also being the northernmost.
- Mount Shishaldin [an occasionally smoldering volcano that rises to 10,000 feet (3,000 m) above the North Pacific] is the most perfect volcanic cone on Earth, even more symmetrical than Japan’s Mount Fuji
- Alaska is tied with Hawaii as the state with the lowest high temperature in the United States [100 degrees, recorded 8 miles inside the arctic circle in 1915]
- At the height of Russian America [i.e., pre-Alaska Purchase by the US], the Russian population reached 700.
- The oil and gas industry dominates the Alaskan economy, with more than 80% of the state’s revenues derived from petroleum extraction
- The state capital, Juneau, is not accessible by road, only a car ferry
- In 2009 there were 6,000 Jews in Alaska (for whom observance of the mitzvah may pose special problems)…In 2010, the local Muslim community broke ground on the first mosque in the state
Crossing over the Andes from Argentina to Chile in July (i.e., winter in the Southern hemisphere). The pass is about 10,500′ and had just re-opened after 4 days closure for weather. More photos from my trip are on here and here.
From my first trip to Mendoza – the major city in western Argentina famous for wine production.
- Overnight buses in Argentina can be quite luxurious – lay-flat beds, personal entertainment stations showing US movies, hot meals, etc. If you’re on a budget the overnight bus is a no-brainer because you pay half the cost of a plane ticket as well as a night’s rate at a hotel. However quality and timing are more variable than flights…
- Mendoza is pretty quiet in the winter. The Sheraton seemed to be about 20% full – a few tourists, a few mining and oil company folks, etc. I’d recommend going sometime in spring through harvest season (Nov-Mar) if possible
- The Park Hyatt is a bargain if you have Hyatt points. The Mendoza Sheraton is not quite as nice and not nearly the bargain with points
- There are a ton of adventure tour companies, wine tours, and tourist-focused restaurants in town. If you’re really bold you can take a bus up to Aconcagua Parque and see the highest mountain outside the Himalayas. The park is on the Chilean border, a few hours scenic drive outside of town following the Mendoza riverbed through the Andes
- Adventure tour companies run activities year round (zip lines, mountain biking, hiking, whitewater rafting, etc.) about an hour’s drive from town. I’m glad I did the rafting/hiking/ziplining but it would have been a lot more fun in the summer with the river running higher.
- We booked a wine tour through Trout & Wine – not cheap but very well done with an excellent guide. I think the secret to a fun wine tour is going with people with whom you can have fun drinking…and hitting vineyards with midrange wines so folks aren’t intimidated by the tastings (and probably makes it more affordable as well!).
- From Mendoza it’s a “7 hour” ride over the Andes to Santiago. I’ve really liked Santiago so far and recommend the trip…with the caveat that the pass can be closed for days at a time during winter. I booked a bus on a day following a closure and the 7 hour trip turned into 11 hours due to a 4 hour queue at border control.
Without the benefit of any actual data, I think Mendoza is the 2nd most popular destination for US tourists behind Buenos Aires and perhaps Iguazu Falls. It’s a slam dunk if you want to see Argentina wine country or climb Aconcagua. For adventure tourists in the summertime I might try Los Glaciares National Park in the south instead.
The Salentein vineyard – gorgeous buildings in the Uco valley at the edge of the Andes.
From a quick trip down to take advantage of a friend’s apartment:
- BA is no longer the land of bargain shopping that I remembered from 2006. Clothes and food are much closer to parity with US prices, although the highest quality restaurants remain a good value. I came expecting to pick up leather goods and winter clothes but came away emptyhanded.
- Perhaps it’s a function of trying different restaurants, but the cuisine we’ve had on this trip is much better rounded than 2006 – particularly a higher quantity and quality of vegetables and bread
- The favorite restaurants from this trip: Las Pizarras Bistro, Bella Italia (Excellent across the board; I’ve yet to be disappointed when ordering rabbit)
- It’s surprisingly easy to fall into the local schedule – lunch around 2pm, dinner at 10 or 11, drinks, and a club sometime after 2am
- Brazilian tourists are much more common than I remembered…of course Brazilian disposable incomes have risen quickly, or perhaps they show up year round but the american/european tourists are more present in the Argentine summer?
- Puerto Madera reminds me of the Victory Park development in Dallas – very new and flashy but without enough traffic to feel truly vibrant. Oddly enough the Dubai Marina might be the most lively of these massive mixed use /high rise condo projects. A long walk from Palermo through the center/capital and continuing to Puerto Madera is a great way to see the city
- Inflation is a hotbutton political issue (see the NYTimes take). Subjectively it appears that there’s plenty of production capacity in the system – you notice lots of idle assets and real estate in Argentina relative to the US/Europe or even Chile.
- Tyler Cowen’s take is always interesting. I particularly enjoyed the factoid that in 1910 more Argentine schoolchildren had two Italian parents than two Argentine parents – by a factor of 2x! Italian influence is everywhere – food, language, architecture, etc.
For your moment of Zen I leave you with this billboard from Palermo Soho. I thought it was a joke – such a stereotypical take on the Argentine love of all products bovine – but you can actually take home a “Limited Edition Stacker” for about 40 pesos.
If that image is crossing your eyes, it’s 5 flame broiled patties, 5 slices of delicious cheese, and a bacon kicker. No word on whether you can combine it with fries or helado for a value meal.
From Tea Time With Terrorists:
Sri Lanka is a piece of land covered with food. There is no need for laws that are based on models of scarcity. Sri Lanka is so rich in food, and so covered with it, that you could set down a healthy person, naked, on one side of the island, and that person could walk to the other side of the island, hundreds of miles across, without dying from starvation. The entire island is smeared thick, like a layer of butter on toast, with food. Starvation would never even remotely be a question. Not a day would pass without at least four different kinds of fruit to be picked from the trees. People here don’t know what it feels like to come out of a five-month winter and see buds on trees. It’s a perpetual growth season. Scarcity is scarce, so they don’t know the need for greed since food is growing everywhere and always. They have no need of money for the same reason, and they don’t know why we have shopping malls, overpasses, and models that are grinning and squirming on the covers of diet magazines.
There’s a healthy dose of unsupported assertions and noble-savage-worship in the book but it was worth the quick read to give me some context on the place before I visited. I found much less extreme poverty than I expected (although I didn’t venture much beyond the tourist corridor). There are not many marquis tourist attractions unless you have the time to spend a couple of days in the car to the UNESCO sites in the center of the island. I only found out later that one of my friends lived there for 4+ years and could have provided some great tips in Colombo – but if you are going I’ll get his tips for you.
And on the genesis of the conflict (and the perils of democratic elections):
Appeasing the [Sinhalese] majority seemed the best water to throw on the fire so Solomon Bandaranaike, another “Brown Englishman,” in a 1956 bid to claim the office of prime minister, offered to make Sinhalese the official language. He felt as though it was the only way to avoid the dispute; after all, in a democracy, the majority rules. Or at least that was his reasoning. Acting quickly, he proposed the Sinhala Only Act, a decree stating that Tamil [Sri Lanka's minority ethnic group] would not be used in schools or in government institutions. Twenty-four hours after he proposed the legislation, it narrowly won, with fifty-one of the ninety-five available votes, and over a million Tamil taxpayers became officially illiterate. The majority of Sri Lankans had been appeased, but the eighteen-hundred-year-old differences between the Sinhalese and Tamils had not been erased. History aside, the passing of the Sinhala Only Act meant that from then on, Sri Lanka would distance itself from both its English and Tamil populations. This meant that Ceylon would be a Sinhalese country, as opposed to a Tamil and Sinhalese country. History has shown it to be one of the worse decisions made, because it incited the civil war by denying dialogue with the Tamil minority.
Possibly SFO next weekend (Oct 2); possibly Tahoe the following weekend. Dallas Oct 16. India, Sri Lanka, Nepal for the 2nd half of October. Tentatively the Sante Fe area for Thanksgiving. The rest of Nov/Dec are still TBD. Lots of time on airplanes but should be fun.
I’m also game for a long weekend trip to Buenos Aires or Santiago sometime this winter (their summer). Drop me a line if anyone wants to join or meet up.
Go to Vimeo and watch it full screen in HD. Brad should be on the payroll of the national tourism board. H/t Jeffrey Friedl.
Last weekend I had the privilege of trying four different BBQ places in Lockhart, the “BBQ Capital of Texas”. For my money Smitty’s was the best all around – particularly the pork ribs. I put Kreuz in the #2 spot.
More pics below the fold.
I’m all settled in Texas (have been since August, actually). I’m working full time and it looks like my vacation schedule is going to keep me close to home for a while.
Although it’s hard to sum up all of the traveling we did I’ll offer a few observations. First, it is amazing how easy it is to get around the world. The internet, message boards, Skype, and the emergence of English as a lingua franca all make arranging travel pretty straightforward. Currency exchange and power plugs are increasingly simple. Corruption and personal insecurity are, I think, much less of a threat than newspapers would have you believe – aside from tourist pricing and some crooked cab drivers I did not encounter a bribe solicitation or theft on the entire trip (except possibly a suitcase lost in transit by British Airways/Swiss). At no point did I get hassled by customs about carrying several thousand dollars worth of electronics. Electronic communication is ubiquitous – I saw locals on cell phone calls in the middle of the Serengeti and using a BlackBerry in rural Laos. Every country I visited had Visa ATMs, and only in Laos and Tanzania was there any inconvenience in finding one that took a Mastercard. I had no food related health problems despite eating plenty of street food, and in the two cases where I needed medical supplies the local pharmacies were easy to deal with. Renting cars in Germany and South Africa was easy and renting mopeds in Southeast Asia was done for $6 with no paperwork. The only time I really had travel headaches was in China when I were forced to cut out the Tibet leg of our trip.
A few highlights of the trip – you’ll notice there’s a lot of food involved:
- In Thailand, visiting temples, eating constantly, and learning to SCUBA
- In Cambodia, visiting villages, seeing the ruins of Angkor, and learning about the years under the Khmer Rouge
- In Laos, cheap seafood restaurants, watching locals on the Mekong river, elephant rides, and fresh baguette sandwiches from the hardworking lady in the Hmong market near our hotel
- In Vietnam, eating pho and cha gio from street vendors in Saigon and piles of fresh mangoes near the beach in Nha Trang
- In China, walking the Great Wall and learning to bargain in Beijing
- In Germany, driving a BMW on the Autobahn, walking around German farms, and sunset dinners on a patio with fresh food from the garden
- In South Africa, watching sunrise over Cape Town, seeing whales playing off the coast, and driving through the incredibly scenic area near Hermanus and the wine country
- In Tunisia, traditional meals with old friends at a 300-400 year old family home, hearing the call to prayer throughout the day, and seeing artifacts in situ from at least three ancient powers (Arab, Roman, Punic/Carthaginian)
- In Tanzania, descending into the Ngorongoro Crater, seeing herds of elephants in Tarangire National Park, and spending an afternoon with hunter gatherers in a nearly extinct ethnic community (Hadzabe)
- In Italy, St. Peter’s Basilica and our daily Nutella gelato
Obviously traveling light helps when one moves every few days. I had a daypack and a carry-on suitcase with wheels; as I bought souvenirs or cycled through books it was easy to send them home via mail or with people we met during the trip. About half of my bag was actually made up of electronics, which could have been done a little better but not much. I took a 14″ laptop, Canon SLR (20d), backup SLR (Rebel XTi), 17-55mm/2.8 lens, 100-400mm lens, extra batteries and cleaning supplies, a pocket sized camera (Canon SD450), and a 60GB iPod to back my photos up to. I wasn’t thrilled with carrying around the 100-400mm zoom as it was longer, heavier, and lower quality than my 70-200mm, but given our time on safari it would have been a real loss to give up the 200mm-400mm range. By the end of the trip (Italy) I was tired of carrying the SLR and pro-weight lenses and would have happily traded them for a high quality compact. If I had bought a new laptop for the trip I would have targeted the smallest size (12″) that could still fit a large hard drive. Although it would have been nice to ditch the laptop completely it was enormously useful for using WiFi and processing photos on the fly instead of facing a stack of tens of thousands of images to go through when we got home.
You can see all of the photo albums from the trip here.
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Taken handheld, Canon Digital Rebel, 17-55/2.8 at 28/2.8
I had a fantastic time in Tunisia – so much so that when people make me choose a favorite country from the trip I pick Tunisia. This had a lot to do with being able to spend time with local friends who could show me around and explain all of the cultural things I was seeing.
As an extremely brief primer for those who can’t place Tunisia, it’s a small country in North Africa between Libya and Algeria and just across the Meditteranean from Italy/Sicily. It was a thriving Phoenician settlement from the 8th century BC, Roman/Byzantine from the 2nd century BC, Arab from the 7th century AD, and a French colony from 1889 to 1956. Today it is 98% Arab & Muslim and moderately well off with a per capita GDP (PPP) around $8k, placing it between Colombia and Mexico in the wealth rankings. Virtually everyone is bilingual in French and Arabic although English is not uncommon. Its Mediterranean beaches are a common destination for budget European tourists but very few Americans ever get there. We spent a day in the country’s main city (Tunis) seeing the ruins of Carthage and the national museum, then proceeded to Kairouan for the remainder of the week. Kairouan is a smaller city and actually has UNESCO World Heritage status due to its rich Islamic culture going back to the 7th century. A regular tourist itinerary would have spent only about a day in Kairouan and then moved on to the southern/Sahara desert areas, the coastal resorts, and maybe an island or two in the Meditteranean; however since I was lucky enough to be visiting friends in Kairouan I relaxed a bit and was able to have a great time walking around town, eating home cooked meals, and marveling at North African history. However the tourist attractions look amazing and I’ll hopefully get to visit them on our next trip (see Tunisia.com for some good explanations).
Tunisia is extremely well endowed with Roman era ruins, many of which have been reconstituted into Byzantine or Arab structures over the last 1500 years. The irony in the trip was that visiting Rome (the final stop) was a bit of a let down because I had to stand in lines and deal with masses of tourists when in Tunisia I saw things nearly as impressive by just walking up to them. For example, in the photo album you can see the amphitheater at El Jem, nearly as large as Rome’s Colosseum but with better access and 99% fewer tourists.
The coolest aspect of the trip was just enjoying the feel of being at home with friends in Kairouan. Much of the old city dates back about a thousand years and the architecture remains largely traditional; three story houses that have room for several generations of a single family, all sharing a central courtyard. My friend’s home was something like 300 or 400 years old and infinitely more functional than any 300 year old European home or, I think, many American homes 150 years old. Despite being in the middle of the city amongst narrow streets and crowded markets the houses are a sanctuary of cool air and calm.
I will admit to having a few concerns about visiting an Arab/Muslim country as an American tourist in these times; however we had zero incidents of hostility, suspicion, or even anxiety. Everyone I dealt with was friendly and I’m very much looking forward to going back as soon as possible. I realize it’s a destination that isn’t on most people’s radar so if you have any interest in going please drop me a line and I will be happy to tell you more.
On a dune, De Hoop Nature Reserve. See my South Africa album
South Africa photos are up. My itinerary wasn’t too adventurous, remaining solidly on the tourist track, but the landscape is spectacular and even in mid-winter the weather was too warm for anything but a light jacket. Cape Town earned my admiration for a fantastic poly-ethnic food culture at reasonable prices – like Houston but maybe even better.
From Cape Town I did quick day trips around Simon’s Town, Table Mountain, Cape Point, and the wine country. After a few days I headed southeast to Hermanus and from there to De Hoop nature reserve. Although I was only on the cusp of whale season I saw at least a couple dozen whales and a few dolphins and harbor seals as well.
A Topi antelope watches a Hyena trot away with scraps in the Serengeti. Tanzania photo album #1 (of 2)
Our first stop in Africa was Tanzania, and like most visitors we headed out for safari in the country’s national parks. Although the country is one of the poorest in the world the safari experience consists of jumping from park to park in a daisy chain of good food, good accommodations, and innumerable wild animals. Fees for the national parks are fairly high, limiting the number of folks crowding the roads and restricting the demographics of visitors to those willing to pay a for hot water and good food. Thus we experienced a weird juxtaposition of “luxury” and “roughing it”. About half of each day was spent getting knocked to pieces driving on rough and dusty roads, insects were always a problem, and amenities like internet service were unavailable. Conversely the “tents” we stayed in had hot showers, 4 course dinners, and an army of wait staff to handle our bags, serve us coffee, or anything else to generate a tip.
Out in the parks we managed to see some incredible things; swarms of thousands of dragonflies, mating lions, herds of elephants, frolicking troops of baboons, and a bunch of predatory cats sitting around doing absolutely nothing. Our favorite site was definitely the Ngorongoro Crater – it is just amazing to descend 2,000 feet into the crater of an extinct volcano and see a huge plain of grassland, marshes, and wild animals. The natural boundaries in and out of the crater make it feel like the most incredible theme park I’ve ever seen.
The most surreal experience of our entire summer consisted of visiting a small band of Hadzabe Bushmen near Lake Eyasi. There are less than 800 Hadzabe people remaining and they all live in small nomadic groups on the barren volcanic highlands around Lake Eyasi. After picking up a local who spoke their language and knew where to find a current campsite we took the Land Cruiser up to find them. The hour or so we spent with them felt like something out of National Geographic – a “click” language, bare breasted women, an 11 year old bride, and using two pieces of wood to light the herb for their stone pipe. The men go out hunting in the morning with poison arrows and, as you can see in our photos, managed to bag a frickin’ leopard with an arrow a few weeks before we got there. My clunky writing skills make it impossible to convey how cool it was to visit the group but it is definitely something worth detouring to check out.
The new bride, age 11 or 12. Tanzania photo album #2 (our Hadzabe visit)
Crowds at Tiananmen Square for a flag-lowering ceremony. More Beijing photos
I arrived in Beijing to find clouds, haze, and a breeze cool enough for long sleeves – all very welcome after spending a month melting in Southeast Asia. Beijing is kind of surreal – intellectually it’s hard to reconcile the ultramodern freeways, malls, and skyscrapers with a country that, on average, is quite poor. The disparity in wealth and amenities seems kind of like putting New York City in the middle of Bolivia, with all the consequent social tensions between the urbanites and traditionalists.
Although I’m getting to like Beijing more and more it has taken some time to warm up to. I started with the notorious pollution, which gave me two days of depressing gray skies, 300 meter visibility, and obvious respiratory problems. After being accustomed to walking around freely in the rest of Asia, Beijing’s sprawl, construction sites, and ideograph-only signage made exploring a little less fun. Finally I had the pleasure of trying to change my travel arrangements without speaking the language or encountering anyone especially helpful.
I originally planned to spend a week in Tibet but in April a few Americans held a protest against the Chinese (PRC) occupation of the region. The PRC responded by disallowing all tourist travel to Tibet, later relaxed to allowing travel only when chaperoned every day by an official guide. My first reaction was to blame the 4 American protesters who screwed it up for everyone else. On further reflection it’s pretty obvious that the fault here lies with the PRC’s hamhanded response to any suggestion that the optimal form of government for the people of Tibet might be something other than occupation by PRC troops, systematic transfer of Han emigrants to crowd out traditional ethnic groups, etc. At any rate I elected to nix that leg of the trip rather than jumping through all of these hoops and paying an egregious day rate to a chaperone. Removing Tibet from the travel plans cost me a couple dozen hours plus $500 and, combined with things like currency controls and crappy censored internet access (Wikipedia and most blogs are blocked) left us with a general resentment of the PRC which has taken some time to overcome.
The other beef I will mention before moving on to why I’m starting to like it here is the language issue. I’ve been spoiled with my other destinations by having either plenty of English speakers around (Europe, Cambodia, India), speaking the language (Vietnam), or being able to fudge with sign language and cognates (Latin America). China is completely different; the local words are very difficult to learn and pronounce and very few people speak any English. If someone is speaking English to you, you are mostly likely either in a place catering primarily to foreigners or are in the process of getting scammed. The first couple of days were tough – I imagine I had an experience about like a Chinese-only speaker would have if they showed up in Dallas with no English or Spanish skills. For example, taking a taxi requires finding my destination in Chinese characters on the internet and taking a picture of the name so I can show it to the driver on the camera, or alternately a hotel concierge who understands where I’m trying to go and will transcribe the directions into Chinese for the cabdriver. Dealing with airlines, train tickets, and other logistics is a nightmare without a translator since websites are not used much and reaching English speaking staff over the phone is like playing the lottery. I am only trying to set expectations for other non-Mandarin speaking travelers, not trying to imply that everyone here is “bad” for not learning English. However it is tough to imagine all of next year’s Olympic visitors getting around without similar headaches.
Once I settled in to Beijing I headed out for the country’s star attraction: counterfeit luxury goods. The Silk Street market is 7 stories of small booths selling everything from fake North Face jackets to fake Rolex watches to fake silk bedding and fake chicken sandwiches. I might be making that last one up but I might not. The vendors are absolutely hysterical – they are aggressive like nobody I’ve ever seen and any one of them could teach a negotiation class at Wharton. Walking down the aisles I got more female attention than I’ve ever imagined, with about a third of the girls actually grabbing me by the arm and physically trying to pull us into the stall. Once you’re in you may be forced into a chair with a girl basically sitting on your lap to keep you from leaving before you find something you like. If you do find something you can expect the vendor to offer a ludicrous price loosely in line with what a genuine article from an authorized seller would cost (“I make special deal for you because I want you to tell your friends to come here in 2008!! No joke – lowest price for Polo shirt is $45”). I ended up walking away with Polo T-shirts for $3 each, 2 knockoff Hermes watches for $11 together, and assorted Gucci and LV handbags for something like $20 each….but not without a lot of salespeople checking my forehead temperature because I was “sick” for making such low counteroffers. The market can be either enormously stressful or kind of a fun game depending on how you calibrate your expectations going in.
Having filled duffel bag with knockoffs for people at home I was free to check out the rest of the city. All the stories about the frenetic pace of construction here are true. The sidewalks around the hotel seem to get torn up in the evening, worked on overnight, and be freshly set with marble flagstones by dinner the next day. Every fourth block is a high rise building in progress, and many of the buildings have 3 or 4 tower cranes installed where the US would use 1 or 2. Rumors are that as many as a million people in Beijing were relocated for Olympic related construction although the government officially claims that only 6,500 households were moved. Even the 6,500 number is mind-blowing – can you imagine trying to displace this many families for the London Olympics?
Beijing’s literal and figurative centerpiece is the Forbidden City-Tiananmen Square complex. The Forbidden City is the 600 year old cloistered quarters for Chinese emperors; they lived and worked amongst 9,999 buildings surrounded by a wall and moat to keep the common folk at bay. While the size of the complex is massive there isn’t a whole lot of explanation in English, the best buildings are closed for pre-Olympic renovation, and at least half the complex is off limits to visitors. The whole experience is a visual fugue – endless repetition on the theme of red buildings, yellow roof tiles, right angles, and big open rectangular spaces. Across the street is Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world and most notorious meeting area in China. Again the size and history are impressive but the square itself is….just a big square, surrounded by a couple of grandiose federal buildings you can’t get into.
The Great Wall at Huanghuacheng. More Beijing photos
The highlight of the “old stuff” part of Beijing was walking along the Great Wall in the Yellow Flower area, a/k/a Huanghuacheng. You’ve probably seen the photos or heard about the wall on the history channel but there’s nothing like struggling up the steep mountain sections of the wall to really appreciate the majesty of it. This was probably the most fun I had at any of the sights in China; this section of the wall was gorgeous, combined both restored and unrestored sections, and remained completely free of hawkers and other tourists while I was there.
Towards the end of my time in the country I spent a couple of days in Xi’an, a city of 5 million people and another well worn spot on the tourist trail. Xi’an’s primary claim to fame is the Terracotta Army, a collection of 8,000+ life size model soldiers buried to protect an emperor’s tomb in 200 BC. However I really enjoyed Xi’an itself – it is much more pedestrian friendly than Beijing with a more manageable level of shopping, construction, hawkers, etc.
Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. More Xi’an photos
I have mixed feelings about China as a tourist destination; the place is amazing with hundreds of things worth seeing but the logistical headaches of traveling here are substantial. If you have the chance to visit in the company of someone who speaks the language I would jump on it; alternately I’d consider going with a tour group that provides a translator (the horror!) or at the very least trying to maximize the planning and booking you can do stateside rather than waiting until you get here and struggling with communication.
Mopeds waiting for the light in Saigon
Saigon has the blessing and the curse of being on the leading edge of change in Vietnam. The blessing is that in this case “change” means better living conditions and job options. The bad news, arguably, is that Saigon is starting to look a lot like Bangkok at the expense of traditional Vietnamese culture.
There’s a lot of construction underway in Saigon. The pho stall I hit on Monday morning had an ad on the wall for an heavy equipment dealership and excavators were working through the night on Sunday when I arrived. The central market area in Saigon, Ben Thanh, was clean, well lit, and had “no smoking” signs up everywhere, none of which seem very Vietnamese. I didn’t see much traditional dress (except uniforms) and there’s a new Louis Vuitton store a block from city hall. District One is full of stores selling big ostentatious LCD TVs, Hi-Fi systems, French wines, and other flair of the nouveau riche. The government has clearly bought into Deng Xioaping’s epiphany that “to be rich is glorious” and has redirected their energy from implementing communist ideology to simply remaining in power (although the state-monitored media still ham up the stories of farmers using their land communally and such).
Having visited Vietnam last year some of its novelty had gone for me, and gone with it was the desire to spend every moment outdoors fighting off heat exhaustion. Instead I had a leisurely week with plenty of ca phe sua da (iced Vietnamese coffee with enough condensed milk to rot your teeth on contact), pho, banh xeo, and every other local delicacy that I knew I wouldn’t see again until I was back in the US near a Vietnamese neighborhood. The one tourist site that I took time to visit was the War Remnants Museum, a slightly anachronistic collection of salvaged US war materials and Vietnamese propaganda set amongst a neighborhood of new western style homes and office buildings. The museum contains horrible photos and descriptions of US behavior towards civilians, although as far as I can tell the North Vietnamese Army acted just as horribly….so both sides did awful things but only one tells their story in this museum. Do some fact checking on the exhibits if you go – allegations are often stated as facts and a few statements are outright wrong.
After spending a couple days in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s most significant rice growing area, I headed back to Saigon, and from Saigon I moved to Nha Trang. Nha Trang is gorgeous – sandy beaches, incredibly clear water, and amazing mango orchards everywhere.
Election day in Saigon; families were required to fly the flag.
I’ll post notes on Vietnam shortly but in the meantime some of myphotos are up:
Buddha statue at Bayon in Angor Thom. See more of our temple photos
The first headline on our Cambodia notes is that, like 80% of tourists who visit the country, we didn’t get much beyond the Angkor temples and Siem Reap. This city in north central Cambodia is home to the airport, hotels, and restaurants that allow over a million people per year to see Angkor Wat, and consequently it gave us about as valid a picture of the rest of the country as if we had just stayed in the airport the whole time.
Obviously the Angkor temples were the start of the show; my head almost collapsed thinking about the workplan required to coordinate the building and maintenance of such massive monuments. Something like 50-60 major temples exist in a radius of only a few miles, each with thousands of enormous stones transported 20-40 miles and engraved with incredible detail. The manpower required is mind boggling, not least because of the supply chain to feed so many workers and elephants living in a dense area. The empire eventually collapsed in part due to the cost of maintaining the monuments – a classic guns-or-butter problem except in this case it was rocks-or-butter.
Beyond visiting temples we managed a few quick detours to local homes and markets. We found an excellent guide, Sam, who speaks great English, knows volumes about every corner of every monument in the area, and thoughtfully answered all of our questions about how Cambodians live and work (email me if you want his contact info). Amongst other things Sam showed us:
- People harvest the juice from Sugar Palms and boil it down to make palm sugar cubes (sold wrapped in palm leaf like a candy bar – yum!) and molasses-like syrup to ferment into booze
- Many families can afford a small black and white TV but have no electricity so they power the TV with a car battery, then take the battery into town occasionally for a charge
- On the banks of Ton Le Sap Lake (the “great lake”) families have small, way-overcrowded houses floating on the lake that are broken down, moved up the shores, and reassembled during the rainy season when the lake expands to roughly 10x its size in the dry season
- Mobile phones in Cambodia are everywhere, with a 40 day/500 minute SIM card costing about $10. Satellite TV costs ~$5 per month. Seeing prices like this in countries with bad infrastructure and scarce technical skills always makes me that much more annoyed about how US and European telecoms have managed to keep prices high via a regulatory process that nominally protects consumers; e.g. East Africa and India both have vibrant cell phone economies with average monthly revenue per user of <$10
- Building a house is an all-prepaid enterprise as interest rates on personal loans are 60%+ APR. Because of the weak financial infrastructure families generally put their savings into gold bullion which is then hidden somewhere until they have enough to build what they want to build
- Most houses are still built on stilts between 6’ and 12’ tall; although the irrigation infrastructure goes back over a thousand years and has solved the problem of floods families still like to have a place to keep their bikes/mopeds/other property under cover and potentially add more indoor space if they eventually decide to finish out the ground level
- Outside the city, even brand new homes generally don’t have conventional electricity or running water; affluent families might have a small generator behind the house. Electricity in town on the grid costs 80 cents per kwh, probably at least 5x what most people in the US pay
- I asked about programs where individuals can contribute to building a schoolhouse but Sam said that there is generally enough hard infrastructure for education (buildings); instead the problem is teacher qualifications and performance. Schoolteachers make roughly $40 per month for working 9 months a year, half days (students have one teacher in the morning, another in the afternoon). Construction workers coming in from the farms around Siem Reap make $5-$10 per day
- Sam believes that the most effective international aid programs around Siem Reap have been well and water related – either providing new wells so families have easier access to water or providing household filters to sanitize water.
- Most registered tour guides charge $25 per day; there’s a shortage of Spanish and Italian speaking guides so these folks charge double. The huge volumes of tourists from Korea and lack of Khmer guides who speak the language means that 200 Korean expats have been brought to Siem Reap to give tours to their countrymen. 90% of tour guides are men because, according to Sam, Khmer women want to work out of the sun to keep their complexion fair (as in India, Vietnam, etc)
- The government is planning a new, larger airport near Siem Reap once the number of tourists reaches 3 million per year, but the size of the runways combined with the density of temples and sacred sites means it will be difficult to site the airport
Finally, Cambodia’s most notorious bit of history is probably the Khmer Rouge regime that killed between 1-2 million people due to starvation, political purges, and military action. Although most of the country’s current population was not alive during the troubles of the 1970s and 1980s there still seems to be a somberness in Cambodia that is not present in neighboring countries.
Cambodia tends to suffer a bit from comparison with Vietnam or Thailand since the majority of English speaking visitors include it as a side trip from these countries and both are richer in activities. Having said that we’re glad we made the trip and are looking forward to spending more time outside the tourist areas of Angkor and Siem Reap on our next visit.
The first of two albums from Cambodia is here. I am now in Hoi An, Vietnam.
I’ve put together a couple of photo albums from our time in the country:
The 5 days in Koh Tao [Wikitravel, map] was dominated by diving and an uneasy relationship with the great outdoors. Despite gorgeous beaches and a location in the Gulf of Thailand my beach time was foiled by nearly constant rain . Fortunately we had previously committed to spending much of the week either in the classroom or underwater to get certified to scuba dive, so the weather didn’t impact me much.
Koh Tao is a strange island; it’s not very big and the expats and tourists probably outnumber the Thai. Despite claiming that it’s not just a place for divers I imagine we’d get bored pretty fast if it wasn’t for the diving we did; the attractions consist of a couple of spas, one paintball shop, and ATV rentals. Almost everything is open air, streets aren’t paved, and the soundtrack at every business in town is all Jack Johnson, all the time (seriously). Food options basically consist of backpacker/diver hangouts with international menus (fly 8,000 miles to Thailand and eat spaghetti!) or the fly-saturated food stalls which cooked up some amazing Thai noodle dishes for us.
Diving ended up being much more technical and cognitive than I had expected, not that I had spent any time anticipating it. In particular buoyancy control requires a fair amount of thought and took me a few dives to get accustomed to before I could really pay attention to the great stuff going on around me in the reefs. While the rain over the island created a lot of runoff that compromised visibility the reefs in Koh Tao are amazing – full of sea critters and, less romantically, other divers like us. We don’t have any plans to dive again on this trip (maybe Nha Trang?) but I am already plotting another trip to the cayes of Belize….However I will say that learning to dive made me appreciate snorkeling more; as you are closer to the surface the lighting and colors are much more enjoyable and you can just focus on looking around rather than being “task loaded” with buoyancy control, managing ascent/descent speeds, what your dive buddy is doing, etc.
A funny thing happened on the way to the dive shop…Because I checked “Asthma” on the enrollment form the dive shop asked me to get a medical consult in town for clearance to dive. Despite the prestigious beachfront office next to 7-Eleven the actual doctor looked about 13 years old and charged us $5 to listen to my lungs for 10 seconds before giving me the all-clear.
As for the uneasy relationship with the outdoors, Koh Tao is very jungle-like with all the critters to match. We stayed at a little individual bungalow at “Koh Tao Cabana” with a great view of the bay and exotic outdoor bathroom. It quickly became clear that my bathroom hosted enough nature that if it were somewhere it Manhattan we could call it a jungle preserve and charge people admission. Full grown Tokay geckos, spiders, millipedes, ants, and a bunch of insects I don’t even have names for were all sighted in the 15 square feet of the outdoor shower.
My photos from Koh Tao are here.
Next up: Luang Prabang, Laos