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Cambodia (October 2 – 5)   1 comment

Angkor Wat

Six kilometers outside the tourist town of Siem Reap sit the ruins of Angkor which were built mainly in the 12th century by the Khmer Empire. As Magan and I peddled our bikes along the humid road filled with tuk-tuks and locals on bikes we were thankful for the area’s lack of hills. Even on the bus ride in from Thailand we were struck by the flat rice paddies that stretched to the horizon punctuated by the odd collection of palm trees or stilted houses.

The first temple we visited was Angkor Wat, built between 1113 and 1150. This is the largest religious structure in the world and a symbol of national pride as is evident by Cambodia’s flag. To reach the temple we first had to cross a 190 meter wide moat ending at a large stone gate. On the other side we found ourselves on a long causeway stretching out towards the main temple with its iconic three towers. The path was lined with smaller temples, but it was hard to tear our gaze away from the main attraction. Inside the temple we were in awe of the size and detail of the structure. Everything was covered in bas reliefs depicting buddhist and hindu tableaux. In the center were a series of steep stairs leading up the central tower. Once up the stairs an impressive new level of rooms, corridors and carvings opened up.

Angkor Thom

Continuing through the large complex of temples we headed toward Bayon which sits in the Angkor Thom complex. This impressive temple is famous for its carved faces. On our way to this temple we crossed a bridge lined with carved statues culminating in a massive gate topped with a large carved face watching all approaching visitors. Once through the gate we cycled along a shady road passing other temples that, if not in the shadows of Bayon and Angkor Wat, would be main attractions in their own right.


Bayon really brought out the awe factor for us in this area. The complex containing this temple is gigantic. Just pondering the logistics, time and energy necessary to build the walls surrounding this temple, as well as the temples themselves, is enough to impress. But climbing this giant structure with dozens of faces looking in every direction was unforgettable. It’s what you would dream of finding if blazing a trail through a remote rain forest in some un-explored jungle. The surreal nature of the temple’s construction, primarily the faces, makes you think of something in a movie or video game.

Farther through this complex we rode visiting large temples that, while immensely impressive, simply pale in comparison to the famous Angkor Wat and Bayon.

Ta Prohm

Another few kilometers down the road we came to the temple complex of Ta Prohm. It was towards the end of our second day but still early morning as we headed to the last large temple complex. On the map Ta Prohm is listed as the Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones temple because it is over grown with vegetation. The trail had turned to mud, but our biking skills had been forged on Bolivia’s death road and honed through hilly southern China. Eventually we came to the entrance which was a small stone gate  lined on either side with a crumbling wall. While walking through the initial gate we were impressed but were beginning to get templed out. Entering we found a short trail leading to a stone building at the end of a stone bridge over a swampy marsh. Through this building we entered a small open area with a stone walk leading farther into what looked like a small complex of short stone temples. The surrounding area was impressive with trees growing near the walls and vines covering sections of the temples.

My high expectations were beginning to falter as it seemed this would be an underwelming experience. However, as with the other temples in Angkor I grossly under estimated the size of this complex. As we entered the stone hallway or narrow doors and crumbling walls we emerged in an enormous area unseen from the outside. Inside this complex were dozens of interconnected temples all dilapidated and partially reclaimed by the jungle. This truly was a great experience as well as our favorite temple.

Tall trees were growing out of the side of the walls of buildings. Everything was covered with moss and grass. A few places were wrapped in the roots of trees that were either holding them together or had knocked them down. Because it was still early in the morning and the complex is so large we were virtually alone. It truly was as though we had found abandoned ruins.

Twisting down the claustrophobic corridors we would come to a sudden dead-end due to a collapsed ceiling only to find an escape through one of the collapsed walls. When completed the temples must have been confusing, but in there present state  they act as a labyrinth. Each open courtyard was beautifully constructed by nature containing buildings covered in green moss with trees punching through or growing over them blending chaotically together to create an environment where it seems time has stopped and forced the past and present to become one and freeze in its current glory. The beautifully constructed temples and the reclamation of the Cambodian jungle have formed one of the best sights we have seen on this trip.

The Angkor temple complex not only has masterfully crafted temples created from giant stones, covered in bas reliefs and architecturally stunning, but is also spread out over a massive area. These factors elevate this region into the category of man-made wonders alongside the pyramids of Giza, Machu Picchu and Petra.

Posted November 6, 2012 by Magan and Brenden in Asia, Cambodia

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Great Wall (September 24)   Leave a comment

China

A couple hours outside of Beijing leads to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. This area is completely rebuilt and full of tourists. A few more minutes drive and we arrived at a section of the wall where part has been restored and the remainder sits in ruin. While there are other sections of the Wall that are a little more authentic, this area gave us a full view of what the wall looked like when it was built as well as how it looks after centuries of weather and invasions. On top of that, we had the whole wall to ourselves.

As you can see from our pictures Beijing residents love smog. Eastern medicine states that the smog is good for your lungs, so they do all they can to promote this philosophy. Regardless of the hazy atmosphere we thoroughly enjoyed our day at the Great Wall. The first couple of hills that the Wall climbs over are completely rebuilt. While it is interesting to see in its restored condition Magan and I longed to see a more authentic section.

Climbing along the Wall as it rolls over the hills we soon reached a part of the wall that is partially restored just to help with walking. It wasn’t long after this that we reached a part of the wall where it was almost completely dilapidated and over-grown. This was by far the best portion of the wall and made for a great day hike.

Damn Mongolians:

http://youtu.be/K66NRulGS48

Posted October 18, 2012 by Magan and Brenden in Asia, China

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Mongolian Steppe (Sept 14 – 19)   Leave a comment

Mongolia

The train from the Chinese border to Ulaan Baatar passes through huge tracts of undulating hills covered with green grass. With Mongolia averaging only 1.7 people per sq. kilometer it is hard to imagine how these people produced such numbers as to conquer almost the entire Eurasian continent. Ulaan Baatar is a modern city full of all the shops and amenities one would expect from a world capital. The food here is particularly good, especially the Mongolian hot-pot, which abounds in meat. A welcome treat after a month in meat deprived China. Ulaan Baatar is by far the largest city containing about 45% of Mongolia’s 2.75 million people leaving the remainder of the people spread out over the 1,564,116 square kilometers of the country.


From the capital we headed out on a 6 day tour of central Mongolia. Our first stop was the ancient capital of Karakorum. This capital was created by Kubali khan and lasted a brief 40 years before being moved to Beijing. All that remains today is a dilapidated monastery (destroyed by the Manchurian Ming dynasty and purged by Stalin) and a small but interesting museum. Leaving this city we headed for the more remote areas of the central Mongolian steppe where we encountered beautiful scenery along our jeep ride over some very rough terrain.


Our tour had us Ger hopping over large distances through wind, hail and rain. While the weather is capricious it is also ephemeral in its inclemency. The majority of our days were sunny and cool (avg. 17 C) with dramatically lower temperatures at night  (avg. 0 C). A few hours drive from Karakorum brought us to an area where a river has cut deep through the valley plain leaving behind a large canyon supporting a few deciduous trees with yellowing leaves. The only other trees out here are pines that grow oddly in only small specific areas on the surrounding hills. At the end of our journey was the nice Orkhon water fall.


The next day we drove 400 km, half over rough terrain, to White Lake. Along the way we enjoyed the shallow mountains covered in green, brown and yellow grass. A few of these mountains have reached such a height to have snow-covered peaks, but the majority in this region remains at such a shallow incline as to allow the copious goats, yaks and cows to graze on their slopes. The lake and surrounding area are beautiful especially when we were able to climb one of the nearby hills and sit in peace and watch the sun and clouds over the lake with the foggy mountains in the distance. Truly a zen moment. While in this area we also took a horse trek to a nearby extinct volcano that has clearly left its mark on the surrounding area.

Video: Mongolian weather and our Ger

Our last day before heading back to Ulaan Baatar took us to a small section of the Gobi Desert that covers most of southern Mongolia. There wasn’t much to this desert other than a few bactrian camels and sand dunes, but the interest in the landscape is that the dunes seem to be completely surrounded by thick green grass.

By far the best part of this journey was the scenery, particularly the sun sets and starry night skies. I suppose it is because there are no trees or buildings to block your view, but the sky feels much larger here than anywhere else we have been.

Tibetan Plateau (Aug 28 – Sep 2)   Leave a comment

Horse Trekking and Monasteries

The land of snow, the roof of the world, the third pole. No matter what you call Tibet, it is China.  The communists have made damn sure of that. Many parts of the region have been flooded by ethnic Han, but many more areas remain Tibetan such as that around Xiahe, Langmusi and Tongren. There are occasional demonstrations, riots and monks burning themselves alive in the Tibetan regions, but for the most part the people are docile. Regardless of their more serene nature most Tibetans long for freedom. I suppose it’s fun to dream.

Leaving Chengdu, Magan and I boarded a train headed north-west toward the Tibetan plateau. As we climbed in altitude the hot, dense fog gave way to cool clean air, the tall skyscrapers were replaced by large rolling hills covered with tall green grass, and the cars were slowly replaced with herds of yaks and sheep. An interesting side-note: the word ‘yak’ perfectly describes the animal’s smell, taste and appearance.
Unfortunately we were unable to visit the Tibetan Autonomous Region due to government restrictions. Although we missed Lhasa and the Potola Palace we were able to visit the traditional Tibetan Amdo region. Here the people have flatter faces and slimmer eyes and are, by vast majority, Tibetan. The towns are small and cold and while there are some mosques with interesting architecture the main theme is the Buddhist monasteries and red-robed monks.

After a train and bus journey to the middle of no where (slightly reminiscent of Bolivia) we arrived in the town of Langmusi. Situated half in the Sichuan province and half in the Gansu province, the town is split by a small river and competing monasteries. At the gold roofed monastery on the Ganshu side we experienced one of our most memorable and authentic Tibetan moments. Approaching one of the large buildings of the monastery we came to the entrance surrounded by two rows of colorful columns carved and painted in various Buddhist images. After removing our shoes we entered the building and found dozens of monks lined in rows chanting their esoteric mantras. The temple was filled with images and statues sacred to the Tibetan Buddhists including a wall of 1,000 painted Buddhas and another wall of 1,000 Buddha statues.

Later that day we headed out on a two-day horse trek to experience the nomadic life style practiced by many in this region. The nomad life itself is pretty horrible, but the experience was amazing. Starting out we rode into the mountains that roll on forever covered with dark green grass. After a few hours of riding we reached a large plain of grass sitting in a valley between the mountains that sit at 3,600 meters covered with yaks and sheep.  On this plane were a few tents pitched near each other where the nomads lived and watched over their livestock.

The family we stayed with were a very nice Tibetan couple. The tent itself was nothing more than a few poles  covered with a canvas and a plastic sheet. Inside was a straw floor with a stove, a pile of dried yak dung for the stove, and an area for sleeping. The bed area took up about 1/3 of the tent and was simply an area with more straw covered with a thin blanket. The nomad life begins at 4am when the women go out to milk the yaks. After this breakfast is cooked and the rest of the day is spent herding the yaks (for the men) and collecting yak dung and laying it out to dry (for the woman). It is a hard life, but they seem to be happy in what they do. The temperature was near freezing at night, in August, but it was an amazing experience with beautiful Tibetan scenery.

Posted September 28, 2012 by Magan and Brenden in Asia, China

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Southern China (Aug 16 – 22)   Leave a comment

Yangshuo

Our Chinese adventure began in the bucolic southern region of China. The temperature was high and the humidity was out of control, but the beautiful country side, idyllic villages and friendly people make this area a must visit for China. The first stop was in the small town of Yangshuo. This small city sits along the Li river surrounded by tall karst peaks that stretch for miles in every direction. Once we arrived a driver picked us up and took us out of the city where we spent the next few days enjoying the scenery.

The first thing we did was rent a bike and head out into the rural areas surrounding the city. Crossing bridges and riding past the cliff-faced mountains we were able to see the locals out in their fields and rice paddies. The next day we took our bikes out and found a tall karst mountain called Moon Hill where a woman showed us a back entrance for a small tip where we could climb to the top for a view over the surrounding area. Up many many stairs we climbed until we finally reached the top covered in sweat where we were rewarded with a magnificent view. In each direction we could see scores of tall karst mountains stretching into the distance.

Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terrace

A few hours away from Youngshuo we reached the small minority village of Dazhai. This tiny village sits in the middle of one of the most impressive feats of agriculture I have ever seen. Dazhai, and a few other small villages, sit surrounded by mountains that have been terraced for rice. Not just small sections, but entire mountains have been carved up for growing rice.

While here, Magan and I hiked around the trails that wound through the mountains where we were afforded great views. Each terrace is fed by streams that flow between the mountains and ingenious irrigation systems. Built around 500 years ago it is hard to imagine how these people accomplished this without the use of heavy machinery. The dark green rice climbing its way up the mountains over impressively constructed terraces is certainly one of the best things we have seen on our trip.

Posted September 20, 2012 by Magan and Brenden in Asia, China

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Central Europe (July 22 – Aug 6)   1 comment

Central Europe

Our trip to Switzerland took us through central Europe where we visited some of Europe’s most beautiful cities and some of the best landscape we have seen on our entire trip.

Austria

Vienna

Through Austria we stopped in Vienna, an often overlooked capital that rivals London, Paris and Rome. The former rulers, the Hapsburgs, created an opulant capital for their empire with beautiful buildings, museums and concert halls. One of the highlights of the city was the Hapsburg summer palace. The palace itself is quite large, but it is the grounds where the palace is situated that awes its visitors.


The large manicured flower gardens and shaded walkways stretching from the palace are flanked by shaded trails and hedge mazes. Half way from the palace to the top of a large hill overlooking the city is an enormous water fountain of Neptune and his entourage.

Salzburg

The city of Salzburg is a beautiful, albeit small, city full of baroque architecture in northern Austria. The best thing in this region is not the city itself, but the surrounding sights.


In the nearby town of Werfen, 1600 meters up on the side of a mountain, sits the largest ice caves in Europe. Equipped with lanterns we entered the sub-zero caves where the floor is completely covered by a thick layer of ice. Through the cave there are large columns of ice, walls covered in ice as well as ice stalagmites and stalactites (or ice cicles). There were also large ice formations that our guide would illuminate by burning strips of magnesium. This trip also gave us a great view of the surrounding mountains and taste of what was to come in Switzerland.

Another trip took us deep into the German Alps where we visited Hitler’s private get away, the Eagles Nest. Now a tourist trap restaurant, this building gives you a great view of the surrounding area and tourists are still allowed to use the original bronze elevator that takes you up 124 meters through the center of the mountain.

Germany

Munich

Munich was a great city. I suppose it is touristy to say that the best thing about Munich is the beer-halls and beer-gardens, but we are tourists and those are the best things. Magan, Matthew and I jumped from beer-hall to beer-hall drinking the delicious German elixir that comes in 1 liter glasses. One particular beer garden was even kind enough to give us a few of their large 1 liter glasses as souvenirs.  The city itself was nice and had a particularly nice clock tower with a 10 minute show at 5pm complete with jousting knights and spinning dancers.

Just outside the city is the large Neuschwanstein Castle that was the inspiration for the Disney castle. Even though it was under construction at the time, it was still a magnificent sight to behold.

Swiss Alps

Interlaken

As our train winds deeper into the Alps we are surrounded by steep green mountains and azul lakes which Magan, Matthew and I move from one side of the cabin to the other trying to get a better view of the magnificent scenery. Our train pulls into the Interlaken station in the center of the Jungfrau region, a contender for the best scenery in the world. Our tent hostel is situated in a valley surrounded with towering alps including one massive snow-covered peak known as Jungfrau.


Our first adventure was canyoning in Chli Chilere canyon. **(Click here for a video of the canyoning)** This six-hour trip took us down a river that has cut through the mountain to create a unique environment perfect for rappelling and jumping into pools of water. Through the trip we had slides, rappels and jumps up to 10 meters high. After our adrenaline filled, but exhausting day in the canyon we headed out for a hike through the large snow-covered Alps.


For this hike we took a train to Lauterbrunen then a cable car and another train to Murren where our hike towards Shilthorn began. This 4 hr hike may have been one of the steepest I have ever done, but it was certainly the most beautiful. We were surrounded by dark green mountains with towering peaks in the distance. At the top we watched paragliders take off and enjoyed an awe-inspiring view seldom rivaled.

Words cannot do this region justice, so enjoy the pictures:

Western Yugoslavia (July 13 – 22)   Leave a comment

Croatia

Arriving in Zagreb Magan and I met up with John, Sharon, Mary Grey and Matthew. While it seems John has a habit of meting us in every continent, we hadn’t seen the others since January. It was great getting the family together and spending some time with everyone. While in Zagreb we climbed one of the nearby mountains which was a nice day-trip and good way to get some exercise near the city. The next day we took off in our Hyundai Santa Fe for the Plitvice Lakes.

These lakes are one of the top spots of natural beauty in all of Europe. They are surrounded by lush green forest and filled with clear blue water creating a unique landscape. The park has easy hiking trails and wooden plank walkways crossing over the lakes and through the wooded areas. Every direction we looked we saw immaculate natural beauty. Every waterfall or lagoon seemed to have distinct features making it different from every other location, but still flowing seamlessly to form an incredible hike. This landscape is certainly in the top 5 ‘best natural beauty’ category.

After the lakes we headed south to the Dalmatian coast where we spent time in Dubrovnik and Split. Dubrovnik is a true tourist town, but rightly so. It is the quintessential medieval Mediterranean town. Sitting with a steep mountain to its back and the deep blue Mediterranean to its front Dubrovnik has a postcard appearance no matter where you view it. The high walls surrounding the city provide a great walk with views from every angle. Walking through the city we felt as though we were seeing the city as it looked hundreds of years ago, except for the fact that the city was heavily damaged in the 1991 Croatian war of independence.

Returning to Split we spent out last day on the coast relaxing at the beach. The Mediterranean was a nice respite from the hot sun and gave everyone a chance to rest from the constant traveling that plagued our short trip. That night we finally met up with Robert, completing our family reunion, who joined us in an already packed car back to Zagreb the next day. The reunion, even though rushed, was a great time. We were able to see some amazing scenery at Plitvice Lakes and enjoy each other’s company at the walled port city of Dubrovnik. From Zagreb the Johnson clan once again scattered to the winds. Me, Magan and Matthew headed to Slovenia; Sharon headed for Barcelona to meet up with the Davies clan and Jenny White for a booze cruise on the Mediterranean; Mary Grey and John headed back to Estados Unidos for Wilmington and Dunn respectively; and Robert headed to England since he can no longer go to Germany because he was kicked out for running through Alexanderplatz with a “damn jew cap“ no doubt ranting about Nazis or Zionists.

Slovenia

Magan, Matthew and I arrived in Ljubljana (you’re saying it wrong), Slovenia the next day and went to one of the largest caves in Europe: Skocjan. This cave complex in the karst region of Slovenia stretches for 3.5 kilometers and is between 10 – 60 meters wide and 140 meters tall. One chamber in the cave is the largest underground chamber in Europe and one of the largest in the world. As we began our descent we noticed the dropping temperature that settled around 18 degrees C. Farther into the caves we noticed the giant stalagmites and stalactites that decorate the initial part of the cave system. As we wound downward we came to a large open area that led us to a large room called the cathedral, decorated by gigantic columns and stalactites\stalagmites. This room makes you wonder how you can be hundreds of feet below the surface of the Earth and in a room that has a floor to ceiling open area of 140 meters.

Farther we traveled into the labyrinth, through other impressive rooms filled with decorative structures formed over hundreds of thousands of years (the cave itself is over 5 million years old) until we reached the most impressive room in the cave. About the same size as the cathedral this room has a large chasm that is crossed by a narrow foot-bridge elevated hundreds of feet above the cave floor yet still hundreds of feet below the cave ceiling. This room is truly awe-inspiring and gives you the feeling of being in another world or on an Indiana Jones excursion. Exiting the cave the temperature began to warm and we saw a few more interesting formations before passing the hordes of bats near the exit. The final portion of the trail wound through a partially collapsed section of the cave leading us over, around and through parts of the remaining cave.

Back in Ljubljana Magan and I bid Matthew farewell as he headed to Rome via Venice while we headed toward the small picturesque town of Bled in the Julian Alps. Bled is an area not often heard of, but seems to have been created for post cards. The town sits on the edge of a clear blue-green lake with a small island in the middle adorned by a lone church. Across the lake, atop a cliff, sits Bled castle. In the background the Alps jut up surrounding the town giving it what Magan calls an ‘enchanting fairy-tale vibe’. The 6 km trail around the lake gives you a view placing Bled in a category for most scenic town in the world; one that rivals Cinque Terre and Fjaerland. Since we happened to come during a festival we were treated to an air show over the lake and a laser show on the cliff below the castle. Around the lake the locals had set up stands selling handy-crafts and food. Our second night we saw the culmination of the festival where, according to our host, 30,000 candles were released into the lake creating a beautiful scene. Later an amazing fireworks show signaled the end of Bled-days.