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Sacrebleu! It seems as though our year abroad has wound to a close. We write to you today from Jen’s sister’s abode in pleasant California…Dan’s folks picked us up from LAX on December 3 and our families have henceforth been providing extraordinary food and shelter while we readjust to Pacific Standard Time and American living. But we refuse to let any of you off the hook from reading one final blog entry…so here goes, our last 5 weeks in India…

This truck driver needn't worry, most horns appear to be wired directly to the gas pedal

After wrapping up our volunteer positions up in the Himalayas, we bussed southwest to the Punjabi capital of Amritsar. The city itself is as loud, dirty, and congested as any in India. But this is starkly contrasted by the ridiculously serene Golden Temple, the holiest place in Sikhism. And perhaps surpassing the impressiveness of the temple are the friendly Sikh people (big turbans, big beards, big daggers) who are infamous for their hospitality and generosity towards all…as evidenced by the “Free Community Kitchen” just outside the temple grounds. This donation-only restaurant-of-sorts is the size of a convention center and is run by a virtual army of volunteers who slice vegetables, cook up delicious lentils and rice (in pots big enough to submerge a buffalo), and scrub dishes, serving up to 40,000 pilgrims & others per day, many of whom choose to pay absolutely nothing for the hearty, all-you-can-eat meal. And the operation was so cheery and well organized that it even cast some doubt on our previous cynicism about the inevitability of Indian chaos.

Pilgrims waiting on the bridge to enter the Golden Temple

Vegetable chopping on a massive scale

From Amritsar, we made a brief stop back in the chaotic capital of Delhi before beginning a large clockwise loop through the western state of Rajasthan. This region is known for its majestic old forts, bright colors against stark desert backdrops, dramatic landscapes, and rich tribal culture. Pretty touristy but fantastic in most ways imaginable.

Handmade puppets for sale

Turbans, ancient carved stone houses, saggy trousers

Indian campaign posters are different from ours

First stop: Bharatpur, a small and unremarkable town that happens to border one of the world’s best bird reserves, Keoladeo Ghana National Park. We passed 5 days here in a cute family-run guesthouse, where grandma had to sweep a path through the sun-drying barley in order for us to get to our rooftop room. Two of those days we spent wandering (and once getting dreadfully lost) in the park, which is flat and somewhat reminiscent of African savannah with tall grass and scattered trees. The wetland areas that should attract beaucoup migrating birds from Siberia and Mongolia were mostly dried up due to a crummy monsoon this year, but we still saw plenty of birds, some deer, antelope & a pack of jackals no less. To our delight, after walking far enough away from the main path, we noticed that we could look in any direction and not see or hear even one other human being – an exceedingly rare circumstance in a country of 1.14 billion people…we soaked up the P’s & Q’s for a good while beneath shady trees.

Informal cricket action in a dusty Bharatpur field

Saras cranes stopping over from Mongolia

Next, a couple nights in the “pink city” of Jaipur (went to see a Bollywood flick at a snazzy theater, got a shave, otherwise nothing worth commenting on) before heading to the small town of Pushkar, a pretty place built around a tiny-yet-holy lake (sadly, the non-monsoon left it bone-dry this year). Pushkar has a friendly populace and good vibrations. This perception was only slightly spoiled during a sunset hike down from a hilltop temple overlooking town, where we had a brief but shocking encounter with a middle-aged Indian flasher. Apparently a universal pastime!

Veg & art for sale in Pushkar. Check out the moustache on the upper right painting.

Sikh men. Nevermind those daggers, they're nice!

Deep-fried somosas with spiced potato filling, wrapped in newspaper. Ubiquitous & tasty.

A half-day trainride south took us to Udaipur, another city set upon a lake (this one surprisingly not dry). This is where James Bond’s “Octopussy” was filmed, utilizing an island palace and hillside fortresses as sets. The fairytale city is pretty as all-get-out, and we were mightily impressed by a particularly chatty and mustachioed restaurant owner who made it a point to demonstrate how he does push-ups to stay fit. Our guesthouse room here was a tad unorthodox in it’s electrical design, featuring a full 18 switches scattered among the four bare walls, though only five of those switches seemed to operate anything. We also saw a great Rajasthani dance and puppet show before leaving town, the grand finale of which featured a plump sari-clad woman who could dance and spin to the drum beat and even bent over to pick up a handkerchief with her teeth, all while balancing 6 large pots on her head. Jen was, needless to say, like totally jealous.

Udaipur on the lake

Dance performer lady, here balancing something or another on her head but not nearly as impressive as the stack of pots that was to follow.

Dan with supposedly the World's Biggest Turban!

Back north by bus to the beautiful old blue city of Jodhpur, one of our favorites. Why so good? Well, the hilltop 15th century Mehrangarh Fort – massive and looming 400 feet high over the twisted lanes of the old city below – is like nothing we’ve ever seen. But perhaps more importantly, Jodhpur is home to undoubtedly the world’s best omelette shop. This roadside cart, located at the base of a gigantic gate through the ancient stone city walls, is about the size of a twin bed. But the uber-friendly owner (affectionately known as “The Omelette Man”) claims to serve up to 1,000 eggs a day from his single cast iron pan, and has worked doing this exact same thing every single day for the last 35 years. A slightly-greasy-yet-uncontrollably-scrumptious veggie omelette served atop 4 pieces of miniature-toast costs a reasonable 15 rupees ($0.30). We ate nearly every meal in Jodhpur at The Omelette Shop, sitting on plastic stools with crazy traffic zipping all around, and it was magical.

Mehrangarh Fort above town - it's huge.

Egg heaven. Note the rock stepping stool he needs to reach the cooking pan.

Bangles!

Camels are just another form of horsepower here

One more train ride, with dust pouring in through the gaps in the windows, and we arrived in Jaisalmer, near the Pakistani border. Also dominated by a stunning old fort, Jaisalmer was our launching point for a 3-day camel safari into the Great Thar Desert. Beginning about 60 km from town, we and 4 other travelers each rode our own dromedary camel and were led by a friendly team of 5 camel drivers. Nothing to it, really…just pull the reins to steer and try not to fall off into a thorny shrub when the camel gallops or lies down. We wandered through the desert, stopping occassionally at mud-hut villages and wells so the camels could get a drink while we and the villagers smiled awkwardly at each other. At mealtimes, we’d rest in the sparse shade of a sangri tree, while the camel drivers made chai, veggies, dal, and flatbread chapati over a small campfire. We played UNO, helped with dish duty (no soap or water required, just scrub the stainless plates with sand), and relaxed before mounting up again to ride onward. The best part was at night, when we set camp on a small dune, watch the sunset, eat, chat & sing around a fire, sleep beneath the quietest and starriest sky of our lives, then watch the pink sun slowly emerge from the opposite horizon in the morning. Way awesome and a great end to our time in Rajasthan.

Jaisalmer Fort is like a big sandcastle, built on a mount of rocks above the surrounding village.

Homes in Jaisalmer's fort all sport cute doors and colorful murals of Ganesh

Dan with our camel driver team

Lunchtime

Jen and her steady steed "Buda"

Village girls

Shepherd boys with their one-day-old baby goat. One or two of these dudes would always hang around our camp in the evening, waiting to collect and take our used water bottles to their families so they can use them for milk storage.

Cooking up dinner at our dune camp

Post-camel-safari, we took a bus back to Jodhpur, from where we embarked on a 24 hour train ride east to Varanasi. As with all our train rides, this one was solidly second-class, which involves substantial overcrowding on the bench seats during daytime, and then 3-tier high bunkbeds for sleeping. “Sleeping” is used figuratively here, given the symphony of unabashed snoring, farting, throat-clearing wretching, cell-phone MP3 Hindi music playing, and near constant blowing of the engine whistle. Yet, ’twas a fun and memorable experience, and one which we’ll certainly miss.

This is the train before we reach a big city and it fills up. Then add about 50 or 60 Indians to this picture and you'll have the right idea.

Varanasi is an epic destination, and fitting to be the last stop of substance on our Indian tour. The city is built along miles of ghats (concrete steps) lining the west bank of the Ganges River, and is probably the holiest city in the Hindu universe. Pilgrims come from afar to bathe and cleanse their sins in the stale, toxic, holy waters. But more importantly, the faithful believe that dying here, and only here, will break the endless cycle of reincarnation for one’s soul…kind of a big deal! So throughout the day and night, chanting groups of “untouchable” caste males carry the deceased overhead on bamboo stretchers through the twisting and turning alleyways down to the riverside ghats, where the bodies are burned in public on giant open woodfires, and the ashes scattered to the river’s currents. Enormous piles of logs line the sooty streets near these ghats. Giant metal scales are used to weigh the logs used to cremate each corpse, and the family must pay accordingly before the flames are lit. But most of the ghats are used for less grisly purposes…clothes washing, bathing, kite flying, cricket playing, prayer and meditation, and strolling. We spent several days just wandering up and down the bustling riverside, taking in the scene, plus took a misty pre-dawn rowboat ride. If anyplace can be generalized as the “soul” of India, this is it…surprisingly peaceful and surreal, and a world away from the ubiquitous honking capitalist mayhem.

Varanasi's ghats as seen from our rowboat

This group of pilgrims assembled just below our guesthouse, each man producing one split coconut that he'd brought from afar as an offering to the Ganges. Then they lit a small coconuty bonfire.

Jen eating streetside uttapam - vegetable-filled savory pancakes

Another view of them holy ghats

Our time drawing nigh, we hopped another overnight train back west to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We are probably the only tourists in India who chose not to pay the ridiculous entry fee, but found some good views of the outside from a nearby park and the opposite bank of the river for free! That same day we took one last train back to Delhi, and two days later we were on a plane back to the States.

The Taj Mahal from our free vantage point.

Back to Delhi - an old Delhi market scene as viewed from the steps of the Jama Masjid. Massive walls of the Red Fort loom in the distance.

So, that’s it we suppose.

Was it worth it? You betcha. What’s next? Not sure. For now, we’re just content to be reunited with our families (and dog) for the holidays. With time, maybe we’ll be able to reflect more poignantly on how the trip changed our perspectives and future dreams.

P.S. A few words of thanks…first to Nancy and Steve Felmley for taking little Omar under their gracious wing for a whole year(!)…Second to our families and friends who showed such enduring support for our hairbrain plans…and Third to anyone else who actually kept up with our wordy blog (or at least read this post) … we really appreciate it and think you are a champion! Merry Christmas to all!

Hello yet once again, our dearest readers. This post entails our most recent 4 or 5 weeks in North India. But this time has been quite different from the rest of our journey, in that we spent the whole time settled in one place…the village of Mcleod Ganj.

Tibetan prayer wheels

Mcleod Ganj mountain surrounds

Why so long without succumbing to the call of the wild yonder? Well, not only is the area very beautiful – high in the Himalayan hills, with cool weather and ample hiking through rhododendron and pine forests – but mostly we were enchanted by the Tibetan refugee community that predominates the town. And with some good fortune, we happened upon some great volunteer opportunities that justified staying put with the hope of helping these amazing people in some small way.

Tibetan lady selling scarves & blankets, streetside

Small group of monks, big picture of The Dalai Lama

Jen must have told a funny joke to this little Tibetan girl

But first, for those who need a brief refresher in “what the heck is a Tibetan refugee,” as we did upon arrival, please click HERE. But for those with no time to spare, the basic idea is thus: Newly Maoist China invaded the previously independent country of Tibet in 1950. Since that time, general shock-and-awe misery has ensued for the Tibetan people, mostly in the form of over a million people killed, over 6,000 monasteries destroyed, and systematic eradication of their traditional culture. Fearing imminent assassination, the Tibetan spiritual and political leader, “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama”, fled into exile in 1959 to India, where he still resides in Mcleod Ganj. Due to continuing persecution in their motherland, several thousand Tibetans cross the Himalayas each year (it takes about 35 days on foot over high altitude snowy passes, carrying all their own food, sometimes while being shot at by Chinese mountain patrols) to reach the relative safety of India…most of them very young and knowing they will probably never see their families again, but hoping for a brighter future.

Protesters demand the release of a Tibetan filmaker, who was thrown in prison years ago for secretly filming a documentary that Chinese authorities found objectionable.

At the insistence of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation has been almost uniformly nonviolent. When China assassinated 4 Tibetan political prisoners a few days before we left town, the Tibetan exile population here responded with only a hunger strike and prayer session.

But Dan and Jen, we just wanted to read your blog, not some crazy wikipedia article! How do you fit into all this tomfoolery, anyways?” Patience, my dear friends, patience…we think all will be made clear by revealing something below called a “routine” that we assumed while staying in Mcleod Ganj. You see, a “routine,” as known in Western cultures, is a pattern of activities, often repeating similar activities day after day! A novel concept for us after so many months of incessant nomadic activity, but we thought we’d give it a try. So here goes, a typical day for us over the past month:

6:30 Wake up. Shower if variable water pressure allows. Get dressed – always sweaters and woolen caps due to brisk mountain temperatures.

Chilly mornings and evenings, warm sunny days. Here, Jen improvises a shade hat during a tea break.

7:30 Breakfast. Alternate between Tamgyhal Peace Cafe (good banana pancakes) and Shangri-la Restaurant (run by one of the Tibetan monasteries, good tsampa – barley flour porridge).

The proud grandpa-owner of Peace Cafe with grandaughter packed and ready for a stroll.

8:30 Take long walk through the surrounding hills.

Pink flowers on a morning walk

More prayer wheels at the residence of the Dalai Lama (another favorite morning walk destination). Tibetan Buddhists believe that each rotation of the wheel releases a "mantra" prayer (written on the cylinder).

10:00 Jen goes to her volunteer position at the Environmental Desk of the Tibetan Settlement Office. She helps prepare curriculum and provides other guidance and assistance for two Swedish long term volunteers who are working to promote environmental responsibility in local school kids – a revolutionary concept for India. Meanwhile, Dan prepares for afternoon classes (see below) and/or takes a nap.

Even in Mcleod Ganj, one of the cleanest cities in India, litter prevails. The green sign says something like "This is not a garbage dump, please keep it clean".

12:00 Lunch of 4 steamed momos (Tibetan vegetable dumplings) each.

The streetside "momo ladies"... Jen would buy her momos from the lady on the left, and Dan from the lady on the right, to ensure fairness and equity in the momo-vending world.

More momos - a plate of 4 steamed dumplings, some filled with mixed veggies, others with seasoned potatoes, both served with chilie sauce. About $0.20 for a healthy lunch. We took a cooking class to learn how to bring momo magic to our friends and family when we return home.

12:30 Dan teaches beginning and intermediate computer classes to new Tibetan arrivals at Lha Charitable Trust. This begins with simple concepts like “what is a computer” but within a few weeks these young adults can send email, use Word, and surf the web with surprising ease.

Teacher Dan's Friday-afternoon internet exam

4:00 Dan runs down the hill to meet Jen for an sugary coffee at Cafe Oasis, where we chat with several friendly monks and help them with their English class homework for a bit.

Dan amongst new friends at Cafe Oasis

4:30 English Conversation Class at Tibet Hope Center. Probably the best part of our day, where the group of about 30 Tibetans, eager to improve their English skills, and a handful of English-speaking volunteers is split into small groups, so each volunteer has 3 to 5 students. The assignment is simple – have a conversation about anything, the point being that each student gets to practice speaking and has someone there to encourage/correct them. At first we were admittedly skeptical – why do they want to learn English, anyways? They were happy to explain that when they arrive in India, they can speak only Tibetan (and usually Chinese) but are starting new lives that will require a combination of Hindi and English to survive. Also, some are desperate to share their traumatic stories with the west, in the hope that someone with more power will help their country become free again. In any case, the conversations are always riveting and unexpected, and the open, peaceful nature of these people is inspiring. Ah, but we’re waxing poetic – back to the “routine”!

Dan leads his group of Tibetan students in a performance of "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" to the amusement of the others at English Conversation Class.

6:00 Beginner Tibetan language class, also at Tibet Hope Center but now we assume the role of students. We spend about an hour botching the strange alphabet and pronunciations. For example, Tibetans have about 9 letters that, to our, ears all sound like “kha“. But after a couple of weeks we can at least say “Tashi delek” (hello) and sing “Chim Chim” (The Tibetan version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”). The class was very casual and usually held around a campfire – perfect! This was also where we received our “Tibetan names” from the teacher – Gyalpo (Dan) and Seldon (Jen). We think these mean “king” and “golden light” respectively, but we’re not positive.

Tibetan language class for foreigners - this night we studied at a restaurant. That's the class teacher Kunsang attempting to lick Dan's head.

7:30 Dinner. Usually thukpa or thenthuk (veggie-packed Tibetan noodle soups) with bread and a pot of black tea. A nice and healthy change from greasy Indian fare.

Thenthuk and Tibetan bread - idyllic!

9:00 Usually just reading, studying our new Tibetan vocabulary, and early to bed. On occasion there will be a dinner & movie night at one of the local NGOs or excellent guitar music played by local kids at the coffee shop, usually classics like Elton John and John Mellencamp.

Guitar night at the coffee shop

We, of course, also had some free time to explore the surrounding area and even had the opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama speak on a couple of occassions. Here’s a photo sampling…

Tibetan folk anxiously await the homecoming of the Dalai Lama after his speaking trip to the US and Canada

OK, so after the hour-long wait, his entrance was a little anticlimactic, consisting of a caravan of security vehicles speeding down the street. But it did offer a quick glimpse of his smiling face waving to his admirers, and as evidence we present this photo - that's him in the crimson robe! We got a much more up-close and personal view a few days later when he spoke in town, but sadly no cameras were allowed.

Tibetans have set up special schools for kids-in-exile, many of which left their parents behind in Tibet, so they don't lose their traditional language and customs. Here we see an impressive display of synchronized calisthentics in celebration of the school's 49th anniversary.

Our favorite hike was to the ridgeline encampment of "Triund", made more magical by fog

Bahhhh

Tibetan nuns serve up potatoes and rhododendron juice to volunteers at a litter pick-up event

Freaky masked doll at the Norbulingka Institute, which teaches refugees skills in traditional arts

So there you have it. Boring? Nay! The last 5 weeks have been a delightful experience, with so many unexpected new friends, and beyond compare the saddest we’ve been to leave someplace and move on.

Well, we’ve arrived. India – our final stop, with 3 months here before returning to the States. Quite sad that the end of our journey is now feeling tangible. Serendipitous, however, that we saved India for last, since it is surely one of the most interesting places imaginable.

Posters advertise the latest Bollywood blockbusters in Delhi

We arrived in Delhi during the dark of night on September 8. India is a difficult place to “ease yourself into,” as we discovered during our taxi ride from the airport. Honking, honking, all around, as each vehicle accelerated at maximum achievable pace, weaving into whatever minutia of lane or sidewalk that remained unfilled, only using brakes as a last resort to screech to a halt before imminent impact. Not 10 minutes had passed before we clipped the back wheel of a moped carrying two women…clearly our cabbie’s fault, as he was trying to squeeze between the moped and an adjacent rickshaw at an intersection. But this did not stop our driver from pulling up beside the rickshaw, rolling down his window, and shouting Hindi curses at him for perceived blame. Luckily the women remained upright, and within moments everyone sped off as though nothing had happened. Welcome to India!

Typical street scene – quite an obstacle course for human, vehicle, and animal alike

We only passed a couple of days in Delhi before moving on. But this was enough time to get a feel for it…plump cows (considered sacred by Hindus) wander casually and sleep in the crowded streets without fear, as traffic and pedestrians divert politely around them. One such bovine blocked the entrance to our hostel when we tried to step out for breakfast on our first morning. Some minutes later, as we sat on small plastic stools drinking chai in front of a teastall, a diminutive older man nearby was repeatedly kicked and slapped by a tall policeman for unknown reasons – no one around us seemed the slightest bit concerned. Urine smell is pervasive (as nearly any vertical surface is considered fair game for relieving oneself), generally mixed with the pungent scents of simmering curry, diesel exhaust, sandalwood incense, and an array of mysterious spices. After a downpour, the potholed streets become minefields of large puddles filled with opaque, contaminated muck. Even with our accumulated travel smarts, we almost succumbed to a fake-ticket scam at the train station. Pestering flies must be constantly batted from one’s legs, arms, and plates of food.

A slender cycle-rickshaw driver hauling a considerable load

However, it must be emphasized that for each filthy or despicable thing we witnessed, there have been twice as many wonderful, fascinating moments. Such as a spontaneous Krishna birthday parade celebrated with blaring trumpets, singing, and flower petal confetti; a cycle-rickshaw modified for use as a “school bus” for 8 or 10 tiny uniformed children; a rainbow of bright colors and smiling faces everywhere we look; a group of sari-wrapped women in our train car, chanting lovely songs for hours. And naturally, the food is dreamy…but we’ll get to that later.

The wheels on the bus go round and round…Delhi youngsters travel to school in style via bicycle-pulled carriage (with bookbag storage on top).

Celebration of Krishna’s birthday with a raucous street parade. Remember that street shot above? Now add “Krishna Birthday Parade” to the scene and imagine what it’s like to get around Delhi’s narrow streets.

A quick train ride north from Delhi took us to Haridwar, a holy city located alongside the Ganges River (the Ganga, in Hindi), the holiest of Hindu rivers. Like other pilgrimage sites in India, this is a place where monkeys thrive on handouts, cows delve into the piles of rubbish in the streets, raptors circle perpetually overhead, religious knick-knacks dominate the market scene, and life revolves around the Ganga. Most memorable for us were the mind-boggling variety of people, mostly pilgrims who have come from far and wide to bathe at the ghats (concrete stairs that line and extend down to the river)…from pale-skinned English speaking urbanites, to legless beggars dragging themselves along the cobbles, to turbaned and bearded Sikhs, to plump women adorned in gold-thread saris, to extraordinarily dark-skinned and shabbily-dressed families living beneath ensembles of tarps and scrap timber. A small and particularly determined begging girl latched onto Jen’s leg and required significant encouragement to relent her grip. It was, needless to say, an unforgettable (and sometimes exhausting) experience every time we stepped out of our guesthouse.

Hindu pilgrims bathing at the ghats along the Ganga

We took the “ropeway” gondola up to hilltop Mansa Devi temple. The temple turned out to be a bit of a carnival scene, but the view of Haridwar and the Ganga was magnificent.

We suppose this is as good a place as any for us to touch on the food situation…Indian food is great, as you likely already know. A ubiquitous and cheap option any time of the day is the thali, a large steel platter with two or three hefty spoonfuls of different curries or dahls placed, alongside a pile of rice, sometimes yogurt, a smidgen of chutney, and 3 or 4 chapati (small Indian flat bread, fresh from the wood fire). Fingers are preferred to utensils, and it is perfectly appropriate to consume in messy fashion. Some places keep refilling your platter until you insist that they stop, though one serving is usually more than adequate. Sinks are sometimes available for pre- and post-thali handwashing, but best to maintain a supply of hand-sanitizer and wet-naps around just in case. Restaurants vary considerably, from western-looking establishments with laminated menus, to small shacks alongside the road with rough wooden walls and tarp ceilings all blackened by the incessant woodsmoke. We’ve adopted plenty of other favorite dishes already but we’ll save some of those for a future post.

A very common Indian breakfast – Pooris (deep fried Indian flatbread) served with potato masala (spiced potatos, as shown here), dahl (lentils), channa masala (spiced chickpeas), or some other type of curry. Combine with a glass of chai and you have a tasty morning pick-me-up. On the greasy side, but for 25 rupees (about 50 U.S. cents) how can you go wrong?

From Haridwar, the end of the train line, we traveled by bus to Rishikesh, another holy city, located in the foothills of the Himalayas. For you baby-boomers out there, you may remember Rishikesh as the place where The Beatles came back in 1968 to study at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram (now abandoned, but still a tourist attraction) and where they wrote most of the songs for the White Album. Also located alongside the Ganga, Rishikesh still overflows with yoga, meditation, and spiritual seekers of all flavors. The most striking are the sadhus…skinny wandering Indian mystics with massive beards, fantastically painted faces, and zero material possessions. The town is conspicuous for it’s two long-span pedestrian bridges over the river, constructed by the British during colonial days. And by “pedestrian” we of course mean motorcycles, cattle, street vendor carts, and anything else that can possibly fit onto it’s width.

A view of the Ganga from one of Rishikesh’s suspension bridges.

Family bath time at one of Rishikesh’s ghats.

Sure, Rishikesh was another fascinating place…unfortunate that the inevitable Delhi-belly sickness hit us here. Dan felt better in a day or two, but Jen took a good week to recover, most of which was spent prostrated in misery beneath our small room’s ceiling fan. Also unfortunate that both pairs of our shoes (well-worn Chacos, to be specific) were stolen when we left them in a big pile of other shoes outside of a temple we were visiting. Although we miss our trusty sandals, and it was slightly undesirable to walk back to our hotel barefoot in the dark through alleys strewn with animal feces, we have hence adopted the perspective that whoever took them very likely needed shoes (or more likely, the money from selling them) much more than we did. C’est la vie.

 

Finally recuperated from sickness, we headed further north into the hills, up, up, up winding roads to the ridge top “hill station” of Mussoorie. Carved out amongst pine forest at an elevation of over 6,000 feet, the weather was cool, clouds poured over and enveloped the ridge daily, and once in a while it was clear enough for a glimpse of massive Himalayan snow-covered peaks in the distance. Many Indian honeymooners flock here after a grandiose wedding. And apparently, what Indian honeymooners enjoy doing in their spare time are wholesome activities such as rollerskating, paddle boating, shoot-the-balloon-to-win-a-prize games, magic tricks, and eating popcorn cooked in giant street side woks. Outstanding! We met some nice travellers here – Kristina (from Finland), Sonu and Vivek (Indians from Delhi) – and took some great long walks outside of the carnival-esque town center…the best of which took us to a settlement village of Tibetan refugees, where we sat with magical views of sunset over the dark valley below, beneath thousands of fluttering prayer flags, and chatted with a pleasant Tibetan man…our first of many such conversations (note the blatant foreshadowing here).

Our first glimpse (albeit a modest one) of the Himalayas…can you see them in the distance?

A foggy hike to George Everest’s (yes, of Mt. Everest fame) house with Kristina, Sonu, and Vivek

Okay, so we hate the idea of a young boy pulling us around by bicycle (something just seems very caste-system about it) and we prefer to use our leg-power to explore anyway. But, cycle-rickshaws are the only affordable and non-petrol-powered way to travel long distances around Mussoorie. Admittedly, pretty fun too.

Tibetan prayer flags wave in the wind above the Tibetan refugee settlement outside of Mussoorie. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, he and the Tibetan government first settled here. This hill is said to be the spot where he performed his daily meditation, though there seems to be some disagreement about the validity of that rumor. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful and peaceful spot.

The Dalai Lama was gracious enough to take a moment out of his busy schedule to pose for this shot with Dan at Shedup Choepelling Temple (actually it’s just a cardboard cutout, but the Dan part is real)

Vacationing Indians are, as a rule, obsessed with taking “snaps” of foreigners. We’ve (okay, mostly just Jen) had ourselves “snapped” about a hundred times, usually by eager 20-somethings wielding shiny camera cellphones. Here, Jen poses with this man’s blushing new wife (a girl with a firm grip).

Next, we traveled a ways northwest, to our present abode of Mcleod Ganj. Getting here was not as simple as it sounds. Two full days of uncomfortable bus travel, most of which was spent in wide-eyed amazement that we were still alive, given the reckless blind passes around every cliffside hairpin turn. One first bus burned out a clutch and we waited for a replacement, while our next bus got two flat tires. When they pulled the tube out of the humongous bald tire, we couldn’t help but notice that it was already covered in patches, like it had chicken pox. But as you can see, we made it.

Our first of two flat tire repairs. All the male bus riders get out and observe the tire-changer’s technique, sometimes shouting suggestions. The next flat, of this same tire, occurred only a couple of hours later.

We’ve been in Mcleod Ganj for a couple of weeks already, volunteering with organizations that help Tibetan refugees who fled here from their Chinese-occupied homeland. We are planning to stay put for a little over a month in total. Details will have to wait for our next post, but so far our help seems very appreciated and we’re enjoying the experience immensely.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves here, but couldn’t help but share one photo of where we currently call “home” – here Dan enjoys a view of the valley from atop Bhagsu waterfall.

We’ll leave you with an awesome video clip we took at the Municipal Gardens in Mussoorie…a good icon for India we suppose. Thanks again for reading!

Human-powered ferris wheel. Does this guy have the coolest job, or what? (Sorry it’s sideways…just turn your head)

Cambodia, in Pictures

Hello once again and welcome to our way overdue blog post on our couple of weeks traveling through Cambodia. We are currently in northern India, and uploading photos here has been unbearably tedious. Lucky for you, we’ve decided to forego most of our wordy commentary and stick with pictures & captions to tell the story this time. Hope you like it.

We've seen a lot of perplexing signs over the last 9 months, but this one takes the cake

A typical zany street market scene in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh view from the rear window of a tuk-tuk. Don't be fooled by all those beautiful fruits - sidewalks are typically reserved for motorcycle traffic and streets are often flooded (this was one of the few places that wasn't shin deep with water).

Typical breakfast in Cambodia consists of noodle soup with mystery meaty chunks in it. We were excited to find one of the very few veg restaurants in the country, which served us this delicious bowl with nary a rooster comb or lung in sight.

Two things of note here: 1. Holy moly, it's roasted bananas on a stick! and 2. Yes, Dan finally got a haircut. ($3, which included straight razoring, powdering and an enthusiastic albeit unnecessary application of hairgel.)

Street kids in Siem Reap - when they eventually take a break from begging or trying to sell post cards to tourists, they're just normal kids that have fun playing games. Like many Cambodians, the one on the left lost his leg to a landmine left over from bygone wars.

We spent 3 days touring Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire, by bicycle. This civilization ruled all of Southeast Asia from about 800 AD to 1430 AD and produced some of the most impressive stone structures the world has ever seen. There are over 1,000 temples scattered throughout 3,000 square kilometers that define the one-time extents of the city. Righteous!

Hey, what's this boring lake picture doing here? Glad you asked, as it's not a lake but a small portion of the 200-yard wide moat that surrounds Angkor Wat - the largest religious structure in the world. Thousands of people dug this moat by hand...the scale is hard to believe. The trees beyond hide the outer wall of the temple.

Typical Angkorian apsara (Hindu and/or Buddhist celestial maiden) stone carving...some temples have thousands of these, each one unique.

Despite their relatively advanced civilization, the Angkorian people had relatively little concept of stair safety. Most of the temple stairs must be climbed using your hands, like ladders.

Two of the 216 creepily smiling stone faces of the Bayon temple

Many of the statues and carvings are being reconstructed by archaeology teams from all over the world (like this bright grey head in front). The second head looks strangely familiar for some reason.

As we've said, the scale of the Angkor temples is hard to describe. We were really impressed by the "bas-relief" wall carvings that depict epic battles and mythological stories...some temples have over 1,200 lineal meters of wall carved in this fashion, with umpteen gazillions of individual characters making up the scenes.

Some temples, like Preah Kahn, lie mostly in ruins.

A temple guard, relaxing. For you engineering enthusiasts out there, note that the Angkorians never perfected the Roman arch (they stacked blocks as shown here instead), so they couldn't make large clear spans.

Taking a smoke break in an Angkor Wat courtyard.

The children of Cambodia are ridiculously cute. It's no wonder Angelina Jolie adopted one.

Several of the temples are being engulfed by giant tree roots.

If we learned anything in Cambodia, it's that mopeds are almost limitless in their versatility. It was not uncommon to see a smiling family of 5 zipping around on one, or, in this instance, a delivery of mattresses.

Monks receiving their morning alms from shopkeepers. All the food they need for each day is provided by the local people, and when their bowls are full they return to their "wat" for prayers and breakfast.

Ready-to-gnaw-package of chicken feet. These contain 45% of USDA recommended iron, 80% of recommended calcium, and substantially over 100% of recommended grossness.

Welcome one and all (however few that may be by this point in our trip) to our blog update on our recent month of travel through Thailand and Laos. As usual it’s been a zany ride and it’s hard to sum it up in a tight package. But we will do our best.

Mekong = Awesome

We begin this episode in Bangkok, chaotic capital of Thailand, home-sweet-home to millions. From the airport outside of town, we bused through the morass of gridlock and throat-seizing air pollution to the neighborhood in which our “guesthouse” was located. Finding it was a bit like a treasure hunt, as it involved walking through a maze of narrow sois (alleys) lined with wok-wielding grannies, 9-year olds on mopeds, and well-fed cats. From the rear of the guesthouse we sat with cups of tea filled with twigs and watched rafts of water lilies float by, occasionally jostled by the wake of the long & slender commuter ferries that ply the Chao Phraya River. A very relaxing end to a long day of travel.

Tuk-tuks...noisy, smelly, dangerous? but a fun way to get around

OK, so our mattress consisted of a piece of plywood with a taut sheet stretched over it, and the roof leaked during the monsoon rains so we had to shift the bed over a smidge to keep it dry. Not to mention the mouse tail that twitched from a crack in the ceiling. But hey, this is Thailand! So naturally the food made us forget all those little worries. The best eatery we found was “Mr. Yim’s” vegetarian streetside stall with heavenly red curry over brown rice (all for under a dollar!). Pastries and the like are relatively uncommon here (when present they’re typically stuffed with things like “chicken floss”or mung bean paste) – it took a little getting used but now we have not the slightest hesitation at slurping noodles for breakfast.

Moped-o-rama in Bangkok

Breakfast of phad thai & a cup of sweet tea, this is what we've been waiting for

Blurry Jen splashing through a flooded street after a particularly hard downpour. We were about knee deep in blackish mystery water by the time we escaped to higher ground.

Bangkok has some nice sites too…the world’s hugest Reclining Buddha for one. But our time was short here and focused mostly on errands (getting our Visas for India being the most tedious) and plenty of eating.

Reclining Buddha statue...46 meters long and 15 meters high, it barely fits in the temple

Next we caught an overnight second-class train north, eventually breaking free of Bangkok’s sprawl into endless brilliantly green rice paddies and forested hillsides. We awoke in the morning in the city of Chiang Mai. The first thing you notice about this city is the sheer quantity of ornate wats (Buddhist monastery temples, where orange-robed monks live)…dozens and dozens, sometimes more than one on a single block. Our admittedly touristy highlight in Chiang Mai was enrollment in a full-day Thai cooking class, held at an organic farm outside of town. We got a tour of the local market where our chef teacher explained the mysteries of some ingredients (who knew there were a bazillion different kinds of rice, anyways?). Then we headed to the farm, which had spectacular open-air “classrooms,” each student with his/her own wok and cooking station. Cook, eat, cook, eat, etc…a fantastic belly-expanding day. We have now “mastered” a few dishes each, which we’d love to cook for you (yes, you! the faithful blog reader) when we arrive back home.

2nd-class train to Chiang Mai - she's a bit worn but the seats magically transform into nice lil' bunks.

Jen, whippin' up a batch of springrolls in cooking class. The rest of the pupils were very jealous of her rolling and frying skills.

Monks, wat, dog

Chiang Mai Night Market - this was a "band" of 4 blind guys playing guitar and improvised bucket drums in the middle of the street...they were ridiculously good

Golden stupa encased in bamboo scaffolding, with a Buddha looking on approvingly

After many days exploring in and around Chiang Mai, and a quick stopover in the similar-sounding-yet-totally-different Chiang Rai, we crossed the northern border into Laos at Huay Xai, a tiny village on the banks of the Mekong River. We received a swift introduction to “Laos time” upon our arrival, as the immigration office had just run out of Visa stamps and we spent the next couple of hours huddled with a few other travelers avoiding the pouring rain until an official-looking lad returned with our passports complete with the stickers. It was a serendipitous walay, as we met the fantastic couple Barby & Mauricio from Argentina, with whom we spent the next week or so travelling and rehoning our rapidly fading Spanish skills.

Jen and others getting ready to cross the Mekong into Laos - yes, those are the official ferries

Umbrellas and mopeds...why not?

From Huay Xai, the lot of us set off on a 2-day “slow boat” journey down the spectacular Mekong River. No creature comforts here…rigid wooden benches with the back plank at 90-degrees to the butt plank, and so many people crammed on board that at first we were confident in our impending sinkage and doom. Thankfully we had been pre-warned about the bench seats and bought some cheapy cushions before casting off, and we arrived early enough at the muddy riverbank to get good seats toward the front, as opposed to late arrivals who had no choice but to sit on the wooden floor of the horrendously noisy and fumey engine room. Other than possible permanent nerve damage to our backs and bums, the ride was sublime – almost entirely wild green jungle-clad hills sloping down to the river, broken only occassionally by quick stops at ramshackle villages where locals tied a squeeling pig to the roof and naked kids stared in amazement at the strange farang (white people) packed into our long boat.

"Slow Boats" lined up in Huay Xai

Bathtime is funtime in Laos

The peak of Mekong excitement came on the second day, when our boat pulled a rapid u-turn to rescue a scared and wet Lao family clinging to overhanging shrubs of the riverbank…victims of an all-too-common speedboat crash. Before we found them, all we saw from our boat were an upended speedboat, helmets, and baby-size shoes floating downstream. Naturally, we feared the worst…but all were alive and well, though thoroughly embarrassed amidst the crowd of staring white people.

A typical Mekong village

At the end of our Mekong voyage, we landed in Luang Prabang, a laid back spot and the entire city a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another kooky mattress here: looked like a double, but pulling back the sheet from the saggy edges revealed a twin size mattress, augmented with vast piles of old blankets and pillows to make up the remaining width. How clever these Lao people are! We enjoyed wandering the town’s relaxed open-air markets, eating cheap food ($0.60 all-you-can-fit-in-a-bowl vegetarian buffet stalls, or the same price for mixed fruit shakes), visiting more wats, and took a daytrip via tuk-tuk and water-taxi to the Pak Ou Caves in a limestone cliff-face fronting the Mekong. These caves are famous for their thousands of Buddhas of various sizes, some hundreds of years old. But more memorable were the poor young children, some barely old enough to stand, lined up on the stairs that lead to the upper cave. These kids are forced by their parents to work a scheme of wildlife ransom…begging for 10,000 kip (about $1.20), in which case they will release the small songbird they have captured and are carrying around in a handwoven baseball-size bamboo cage. This puts the tourist in a heartwrenching position – pay or the cute bird dies! But obviously the moral necessity means not giving in, as each bird “bought” and released will just encourage more to be caught. Sigh…

River fish stuffed with bamboo & grilled up real nice-like

Some of the many old Buddha statues at Pak Ou caves

From Luang Prabang we headed southeast by bus to Vang Vieng. This may have been the twistiest rides ever, as we passed through the rough green mountain passes…one tire blowout on our cheapy (broken A/C and no operational windows) bus, but that didn’t sound so bad after hearing reports of “50 to 60% of passengers puking”on the “VIP” bus. Vang Vieng is a pleasant big village, most notable as a base for toobin’ on inflatable tractor tires down the lazy Nam Song River. This downstream float was a real hoot; paddling frantically backwards to avoid the banks, butts submerged in the cool water to offset the tropical heat, gorgeous mountain jungle scenery beyond – that is, once we got beyond the plethora of riverside bars along the first few kilometers that try to lasso you (literally…they have ropes!) in for an icy Beerlao…to which we succombed once or twice…hey, it’s hot here people.

Rickety ol' wooden bridge at Vang Vieng

Jen, Barby, and Mauricio...toobin' the day away

After a couple of unexciting days in the capital of Vientiane, we passed back across the Mekong one last time, returning to Thailand and the pleasant town of Nong Khai, home to the weirdest sculpture park in Asia (possibly the whole world) and an active senior citizen techno-music aerobics scene every evening along the riverfront promenade.

We rented rickety old bikes to visit the sculpture park. Here's Dan looking impressive in front of a nice Buddhist stupa along the way.

Sala Kaeo Ku Sculpture Park, created over a period of 20 years by a man and his followers who invented a strange mixed religion between Buddhism, Hinduism, and who knows what else, is chock full of impressive strange concrete statues up to 8 stories tall, like this one for example.

Our last big Thai adventure was a visit to Khao Yai National Park, one of the world’s best. Difficult to get to without your own vehicle – we used bus, sawngthaew (pickup truck share-taxi), and hitching with Thai families within the huge park to get to and from our camping area. The place was virtually deserted and we were the only campers around on the day we arrived. We rented a tent and bedding and quickly set up camp in the nice grassy area surrounded by jungle. And not two minutes later did we notice squiggly leaches all over our sandals and legs (who knew the little suckers could squeeze through socks?). Yuck! So maybe this is why there’s nobody camping here in the wet season! After 10 minutes of general freak-out and thorough gear inspection, we collected our thoughts and reset up our tent on a wooden platform along the outskirts of the camping area…a leach free safety zone, only breached on quick sprints across the grass to the restroom when necessary. As a bonus to our park visit we are now the proud owners of two pairs of “leach socks” sold at the visitor center, impenetrable by the little critters.

Dan at our camping platform - don't be fooled, that grass is dangerous!

LEACH VIDEO

And we’re so glad we stuck around for a few days, as the trails and wildlife were really incredible…a troop of pig-tailed macaques wandering through our camp, gibbons howling from trees in the early morning, and a veritable bonanza of 3-foot tall hornbills & other spectacular birds. Khao Yai is best known for its elephants, but despite the plethora of poop and fresh tracks in the mud, we sadly (or luckily, depending on how you look at it) missed out on seeing any in the wild. Maybe next time.

Oriental-pied hornbill tosses a fruit into its gullet

Our big loop through Laos and Thailand came full circle as we returned to Bangkok a few days ago, from where we flew yesterday to Cambodia. Thanks again for reading!

Hello once again, this report brought to you from Chiang Mai, Thailand, covering our last month or so spent in Malaysia. It has been quite a whirlwind since leaving Turkey but, seeing as how our previous entry was embarrassingly lengthy, we’ll try to keep this one as succinct as possible (no eye-rolling please).

About sums it up.

After a nice red-eye flight via Qatar, we arrived in Kuala Lumpur (“KL”), Malaysia’s chaotic and sweaty capital. Quite a culture shock – traffic in KL is an absolute mess, and crossing the street is like playing high-stakes “Frogger” (to those of you who remember the Atari days) with mopeds, taxis, and buses sharing no concept of lanes, rules, or pedestrian right-of-way. But the rooms are cheap (about $9/night), the noodles are zesty, and we had a good time visiting a few sights such as the Petronas Towers (the world’s tallest building until a few years ago) and the nearby (and breathtaking) sacred Hindu shrine at the Batu Caves, reached by 272 cliffside steps, through gangs of mischievous monkeys and past a mighty impressive 130-ft high golden statue of the Hindu Lord Muruga.

Weird fruits for sale in KL's Chinatown

Beautiful sculptures adorn the entrance to Batu Caves

Unlike the majority of her troop, this monkey seemed more interested in mothering than stealing tourists' lunches.

One of KL's nice Chinese temples

Lookin' fine in our glasses for the "Captain EO"-esque 3-D movie at the Petronas Towers (Read: 15 minute dramatic-announcer-narrated-infomercial for Petronas Oil & Gas Company). Speaking of Captain EO...how come nobody told us MJ died? As our friends & family you're supposed to keep us abreast of such events!

Malaysia is a young country, not unified until 1963, and contains a substantial percentage of Chinese and Indian residents in addition to Malay, which makes for an interesting mix of culture. Thankfully, the food follows suit, with plenty of variety available from the ubiquitous roadside hawker stalls and small ma & pa restaurants. Some favorites that come to mind: mee goreng (stirfried noodles with whatever other ingredients they have laying around mixed in), roti canai (Indian pancakes formed from doughballs stretched very thin, then filled with bananas, eggs, sardines or any combination thereof), coffee and tea (always served with a healthy dose of condensed milk and sugar – teeth rotting but surprisingly delicious), deep fried banana slices, and “banana leaf vegetarian set” (Indian restaurant fare – a polite server places a reused, but washed, rectangle of banana leaf in front of you for a plate, and then they come by and plop 5 or 6 different curries or other delectable stewish items on it, plus rice, which is then mixed and scooped into your mouth using only your right hand fingers – not the left as that is reserved for another, less-blog-appropriate task…messy yes, but delightful!). For better or worse, quite difficult not to overeat here when most everything costs less than a dollar or two.

Tea (left) and Coffee (right) - note white layer of condensed milk yet to be stirred

Enjoying mee goreng at a typical Malaysian food court full of hawker stalls

The banana roti canai are so good they make Dan's head go all crooked

After KL we headed up, up, up into the jungly mountains of the Cameron Highlands. The cooler weather at this altitude was a real treat, very nice to not have clothes soaked entirely through with sweat for a change. Our big outing here was a jungle loop hike that we pieced together from a touristy trail map. Looked pretty easy…turned out to be one of the steepest and most difficult we’ve ever done, culminating with losing our way on the unmarked trails, and Jen falling on her rump multiple times before we backtracked (using tree roots and limbs to pull ourselves up the incredibly vertical trail) and refound the correct path with not much daylight to spare. We know it sounds overly dramatic…and probably is, but we don’t want to bore you with too many stories of doing our laundry in the sink or eating fried noodles.

Jen, hefting a picker's basket and having a sniff at Boh Tea plantation

We passed most of our 9th wedding anniversary (holy smokes, 9 years?!) on a white-knuckle minibus ride from the Highlands over the mountains to the Northeast coast, where we hopped a boat out to the Perhentian Islands some 20km offshore in the South China Sea. So far on this trip, we have opted to skip most beach destinations, due to our pasty white skin of northern latitudes not being suitable for tropical UV rays. But this was a brief exception, with postcardy jungle-backed white-sand beaches, palm trees & coconuts, and turquoise clear water for snorkeling with corals and fishes. We stayed in a simple hut-type place, with generator electricity from 7pm to 7am only (to run the fan while sleeping), a mosquito net full of gaping non-mosquito-proof holes, frequent sunscreen application, and giant monitor lizards crawling about. Pretty dreamy, but a prebooked upcoming flight hastened our departure after a few days.

Fishing boats in the harbor at Kuala Besut, from where we caught a fast-boat (and we mean FAST) to the Perhentian Islands

Rough living

Back to KL from where we hopped a quick flight over to Malaysian Borneo, which turns out to be even more amazing than all the David Attenborough documentaries combined. First, a brief stop in the big-yet-beautiful riverside city of Kuching (known for it’s large statues of domestic cats), before making our way around the coast to Bako National Park. We spent three days in this spectacular park, with dozens of kilometers of gnarly trails through the rainforest, millions of insect-gulping “pitcher plants”, and at least one flying lemur that nearly crash-landed on Jen’s noggin. But maybe the main reason people come here is because it is swarming – and we do not use this term lightly – with monkeys. “Naughty” (as described by official park signage) Long-tailed macaques that jump onto the canteen tables to steal handfuls of fried rice, Silvered-leaf monkeys (much more polite), and most impressively the bizarre Proboscis monkeys with their big floppy noses and huge pot bellies. We finished our time in Bako with a night hike filled with scarily large and assumedly dangerous insects, plus beautiful luminescent fungi that glow alongside the trail when headlamps are turned off.

Neat old Chinese shop houses can be found all over Malaysia - this one in Kuching's Chinatown

These cat statues are awesome!

A jungly beach, Bako National Park

Carniverous pitcher plants - if you were an ant these would look like the grim reaper

Proboscis monkey - you may have to double-click this one to see how crazy their noses are

Okay, okay, enough with the monkeys! Like we said, the place was absolutely packed with 'em, and we're suckers for monkey grooming.

Most of the rest of our time in Borneo we spent exploring more of the welcoming National Parks, starting with Niah Caves. Getting there was rather exciting, as a large truck heading the other direction on the skinny 2-lane highway gently sideswiped our bus at the back corner where we were sitting. Quite a horrendous noise but surprising little damage so the iPod wielding driver continued on after a brief (and assuredly thorough) assessment of bus condition. Niah’s aptly named “Great Cave”, which turns out to be one of the largest caves in the world, proved fun for spooky exploration via a slippery wooden plankwalk and stairs down into an unlit abyss. The only other people around were a few collectors of guano (bat & swiftlet poop, used by locals for fertilizer) and bird’s nests (highly prized swiftlet nests made from saliva and used as the base for a very expensive soup). These daring nest collectors climb impossibly slender poles over 100 feet high to reach the cave ceiling where they carefully scrape off nests one by one. As you can imagine, this practice has resulted in a marked decrease in the number of swiflets over the years, but collection is now tightly regulated by the government and, encouragingly, numbers are on the rise. At sunset, millions of swiftlets return to the cave simultaneous with a flood of bats pouring out into the evening sky – pretty fantastic.

West mouth of the "Great Cave" viewed from inside - hard to get a sense of scale here, but the opening is almost 200 feet tall and 800 feet across

Lastly, in the northern part of the state of Sarawak, we spent a couple nights at Lambir Hills National Park, where we did jungle hikes to waterfalls and got up early to look for elusive hornbills (kinda like toucans, but not much luck finding them).

A little lazy early morning birding outside our cabin at Lambir Hills

We then flew from the sidewalkless town of Miri back to KL, and then onward to Bangkok, Thailand. Southeast Asia – so far, so good…and as foreshadowing for our next post we can assure you the food section will be even more appetizing. Thanks again for reading!

Hello and happy summer solstice to all! This admittedly long update will cover the second half of our journey through Turkey. When we left you last we were enjoying the worry-free swimming and hiking around the Mediterranean…since then we have traveled to the Central and Southeastern parts of the country, much less touristed and (hopefully for the reader) even more interesting.

By the way, special thanks to Nancy and Steve Felmley, Omar's caretakers, for doing such a wonderful job. As you can see, he's quite happy and has likely completely forgotten about us.

First, to Cappadocia (pronounced “Kapadokya”), and more specifically the town of Göreme. This region is famous for it’s bizarre geology and history, especially the so-called “fairy chimneys” that make it seem like one big Smurf village. Many, many years of erosion have carved the volcanic layers of rock into startling, almost magical, formations…thousands of which were in turn hollowed out by humans over a thousand years ago and used as cave houses and stables and churches. Even today, perhaps half the dwellings in Göreme (including many modern guest houses and hotels) are carved directly into the soft rock of the valley cliffs and towering fairy chimneys – weird we tell you! Aside from staying in our very own cave hostel (unsurprisingly musty and cave-like), this area afforded lots of free hiking opportunities, with necks kinked from the incessant “Holy moly, look at that one!” moments.

Rock-cut houses ın Zemi Valley, Göreme

Nice rock formations in Pigeon Valley

So-called "Fairy Chimneys" in so-called "Love Valley"

A thunderstorm rolls in, Meskendir Valley

Not sure if travel insurance covers this

Uçisar Castle - a whole mountain carved into Swiss cheese

View of Cappadocia from Uçisar Castle

Interior of the huge 10th-century Buckle Church, one of the dozen or so rock-cut churches on display at the Göreme Open Air Museum.

One of the many amazing frescoes in a rock-cut. Here a peeling-away 11th-century Byzantine mural reveals a simpler 8th-century Orthodox cross underneath.

Floating head Jen exploring a cave house in Göreme

One particularly crazy place we got to explore was the Derinkuyu Underground City. First built over 4,000 years ago by the Hittites, it was expanded by various civilizations including early Christians fleeing Roman persecution, and supposedly just rediscovered in the 1960s when a rooster fell into a small hole in the ground and the farmers could still hear it crowing from deep down. The 11 story deep city of interconnected rooms and tunnels supposedly could support up to 50,000 people below ground, and was incredibly genius for it’s time with İndiana Jones-style rolling stone doors, booby traps, fresh air shafts, deep wells, and steep staired corridors so tiny that even Jen had to crouch real low to fit through.

Meeting room in the Derinkuyu Underground City

One more Cappadocia highlight was hiking the Ihlara Valley over two days. This canyon, a favorite retreat of Byzantine monks, has steep cliffs on either side and a pretty river down the middle, and the cliffs are riddled with ancient cave churches and monasteries, many of which still have brightly colored wall paintings from early Christian days. We stopped midway for the night at Belisırma, the one teeny village located along the trail, and enjoyed some ubiquitous Turkish çay (tea) at a restaurant located mid-river on steel and wood platforms, accessed by short wooden bridges from the riverbank. A marvelous idea for a restaurant! That is, until it rains…that evening, a lightning and thunder and hail storm like neither of us had ever experienced blew through the valley, dumping several inches of rain in a matter of hours. The next morning, our platform and dozens more like it were nowhere to be found, washed miles downstream by the night’s flood. The moral of the story is one we can all appreciate – don’t put your restaurant in the middle of a river.

Hiking the 16 km-long Ihlara Valley

Sleepy little Belisırma village in the Ihlara Valley

Ala Kilisi - an 11th-century rock-cut church in Belisırma. Dan too.

Happily enjoying çay on the river in Belisırma

Same river in Belisırma after the rainstorm - where'd the restaurants go?

After a brief bout of food poisoning – thankfully our first of the trip – we headed toward the southeast. Bordered by Syria and Iraq, the southeast population is primarily Kurdish. Not many tourists here, perhaps due to the US State Department’s dire (and ridiculously paranoid) warnings on their website that make this region sound like a war zone. We experienced quite the contrary…including some of the friendliest local people of our journey, none of whom are jaded by tourist influx (yet, anyways).

Lots of little feet beneath us on this busride - people don't want to pay for tickets for kids so some have to lay on the floor.

First stop, the lively city of Gaziantep (or just Antep to locals). Famous throughout the country for it’s fıstıklı (pistachio) baklava, Antep boasts over 180 pastry shops and surely holds the title of Diabetes Capital of Turkey. Other than wandering about the bazaar and piecing together our meals by grazing on tidbits from street vendors, we also really enjoyed the museum here. As we’ve said before, we would not consider ourselves museum fanatics…but this one featured unbelievable Roman-era tile floor mosaics rescued from a newly discovered archaeological site in the early 2000s just before the government shamefully flooded the whole area forever with a new dam. Some of these are up to 20 ft by 40 ft, depict incredibly detailed mythological characters, and are assembled from individually cut colored stone tiles no bigger than a square centimeter each. Anyone who’s ever tiled a countertop can appreciate the apparent insanity of these artists. We also took a day trip to Biricek, a cliffside village on the banks of the Euphrates River. It also happens to be one of the last known breeding sites in the world of the nearly-extinct Northern Bald Ibis…an ugly bird some would say, but we disagree.

Dan checks out one of the huge Roman mosaic floors on display at Antep's Museum

Garlic for sale on the street in Antep

Cliffside bald ibis nesting boxes, part of an effort to re-introduce these birds to the wild, at the breeding reserve in Birecik

Cliffs at left, Jen and Euphrates at right, typical well-utilized truck at center

Thankfully, for the sake of our LDL-cholesterol levels, we moved further east to the holy city of Şanlıurfa, an important Muslim pilgrimage site. But first, if we could diverge for a moment, one aspect of Turkishness that we simply cannot understand is the obsession with unrelenting pillows. It would seem that the pillow cases in Turkey are, by lawful decree, stuffed to bursting capacity with some sort of inelastic wood fiber…it’s like resting your head on a double-high 50-lb sack of dog food, for goodness sake. OK, back to Şanlıurfa…supposed birthplace of Abraham and Job, the central feature of the city is a pleasant green park at the foot of some clifftop fortress ruins, with sacred carp (legend has it that anyone cathing the fish will go blind) swimming in the many pools. We met some nice Kurdish teens who shared their sunflower seeds with us – with the help of our Turkish dictionary we managed to understand that they think Barack Obama is quite “yakışıkı” (handsome).

One of Şanlıurfa's mosques with sacred carp in pool out front

We also visited the assumed cave where Job spent 7 years praying for patience before God restored his family and wealth. Getting lost on some back roads on our way back from the cave, miserable in the heat, our patience was indeed tried by the dozens and dozens of children along the way asking (always the same questions) “What’s your name?” and “Where you from?”, sometimes followed quickly by “Money! Money!”, the cuteness of which wears thin after a couple of hours. Perhaps the most fascinating sight in Şanlıurfa was the clothing of the pious – women often dressed in traditional all-black head-to-toe garments with only eyes showing, others with distinct purple headscarves and tattooed chins. But the older Kurdish men are the most eye catching, most notably for their saggy pant style…trowsers made with a crotch that hangs just inches above shoe level – must be nice and airy in this summer heat! Unfortunately very difficult to photograph without getting in trouble, but for an idea of what we’re talking about click HERE.

Kurdish youngsters flying kites

Onward southeast to Mardin, a pretty hilltop village overlooking the vast, flat, roasted, and seemingly endless Mesopotamian plains extending south into Syria, the border of which lies about 20 miles away. We spent a day wandering around the ancient rock buildings here and sipping çay overlooking those mysterious plains.

The plains of Syria as seen from hilltop Mardin...the horizon is always obscured by distant blowing sand

Next, up to Diyarbakır…home to the PKK resistance movement that tried for Kurdish independence in the 80s and 90s, resulting in tens of thousands of casualties and making the southeast untouristable until maybe 5 years ago. Aside from stirring up trouble, Diyarbakır is also known for the tall ancient black basalt walls that surround the town, second in length only to the Great Wall of China. Our stay was unfortunately shortened by the consistent presence of annoying 20-something guys who constantly approached us on the street and insisted on guiding us around, not to mention the rock and bottle throwing 8-10 year olds atop the aforementioned walls. Really just a few bad apples amidst the overwhelmingly generous people of the southeast…we’ve lost count of the free cups of tea, apricots, cookies, and even baklava received from strangers with nothing to gain from us as tourists.

Jen, taking a brief peek into the labyrinth of Diyarbakır's creepy walls.

Three busrides later (including one where the bus mounted a ferry to get across a lake) we were in the mountain hamlet of Karadut, from where we departed at 1:30AM to hike up to the summit of Nemrut Dağı in time for sunrise…with no civilization around and a new moon, this night hike had stars like we haven’t seen since we were kids. And the sunrise was spectacular, the red-orange orb illuminating the huge statue heads of King Nemrut and the mythological gods he assumed were his brethren, backed by a 50-meter high manmade pile of fist size rocks…supposedly an altar with the king and family buried beneath, but no one knows for sure.

Jen and sunrise

Jen and the stone heads of Nemrut Dağı

And now we’ve come back west a bit to Malatya – proud home of the Turkish apricot – where we are passing time before catching a 27-hour train back to Istanbul. There we’ll have a couple days to recoup before we head off to Southeast Asia.

Thanks for reading, we all really appreciate it!

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