Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

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.

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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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The Holy Land (June 16 – 21)   Leave a comment

Jerusalem

Old Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims sits behind high stone walls and contains a diverse cross-section of the faithful. There is an obvious religious and spiritual presence felt throughout the city and the animosity between the Jews and Arabs is palpable. The city within the walls is divided into Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters. Just outside the east gate sits Mount Olives with Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic churches marking everything from the final resting place of the Virgin Marry to Jesus’ first sermon.

Entering the gate begins the Via Dolorosa that marks Christ’s journey from condemnation to crucifixion. Winding through the Muslim section into the Christian section are various ‘stations’ marking the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried. The large church is an impressive sight and home to many uppity factions of Christians that often have confrontations over who has what duty. The keys to the church are kept by a Muslim family.

The Jewish quarter is filled with men in yamakahs and curly sideburns walking along side Israeli military up and down the winding allies. The most famous sight here is the western wall, a large open air synagogue at the western retaining wall for the temple mount. Here women and men are separated and sent to their respective section of the wall.

At the wall Jews stand vehemently rocking back and forth at the waist often with a Torah or Talmud praying and lamenting while everyone else places sheets of paper with prayers on them into the cracks of the walls. High above, almost in a sense of mockery, sits the Dome of the Rock.

Reached via a wooden ramp the Dome of the Rock is a Mosque that sits on the Temple Mount. While most Jews adhere to the law and stay off the temple mount, those less devout, as well as us other infidels, are allowed into this area a couple of hours each day. The Mosque is large and beautifully decorated adorned with a large golden dome. An impressive sight especially when you look over the city and see bell towers and minarets protruding from every corner.

Bethlehem

Heading through the large concrete walls into the city of Bethlehem really shows how the Israelis have isolated the Arab Palestinians from the rest of the region. Regardless, hundreds of tourists come every day to this holy city where Jesus was born. The main draw is the Church of the Nativity where Jesus is said to have been born in the grotto beneath the altar.

Acre (Akko)

This coastal city in northern Israel served as the docking point for all crusaders coming across from Europe. Its old city sits in the stone walls and still maintains a medieval feel. The city also houses a large Templar fortress with tunnels running beneath the city.

Dead Sea

Taking a day-trip from Jerusalem we headed to the Dead Sea, which sits 423 meters below sea level (lowest point on Earth without being under water). The water in the lake has 33.7% salinity which creates an extra buoyant lake and a shore with rocks covered in a salt coating. Entering the water almost feels like entering a lake full of oil. The thick water held us up where we didn’t need to use of hands or feet to stay afloat. Even holding rocks you only dip a couple of inches down into the water. It is more like sitting on a fluffy cushion than swimming in water.

The Rose-Red City and Crusader Castel (June 13 – 15)   Leave a comment

Petra

The rose-red city, half as old as time, sits in a large complex of valleys surrounded by tall cliff walls. As you start down the main valley you are led through a narrowing valley that slopes down flanked by carved dwellings and temples. While most of these are small it is impressive to see how they are carved into the mountain side, many of them with intricate detail. Although Petra was established in the 6th century BC (as the capital of the Nabataeans) it has withstood time and nature, even earthquakes, extremely well.

Towards the end of the initial valley sits a tall natural gorge known as the Siq. This is a 1 km long trail, at places only 3 meters wide, with tall cliff faces on both sides. Walking through here in the early morning with no one around gave us a sense of exploration and the thought of stumbling upon a long forgotten civilization.

As we meander down the Siq we suddenly find ourselves staring at the famous Treasury through the remaining gorge. As we walk out we are able to appreciate the full scale and detail of the structure. The most amazing part is that this building is carved right out of the cliff face. After marveling at the Treasury we continue along the narrow valley and find a large open valley with the walls covered with carved structures.

To the left we climb a long series of stairs and switch-backs rising above the valley floor to what is known as the High Place of Sacrifice. While there isn’t much up there, it did give us an excellent view of the ancient city below. Once back down we continue through the valley to a large amphitheater carved into the side of a mountain. Farther along we come to another section with multiple, very intricate, structures carved along the cliff wall on a tall hill. Viewing these structures also gives you a view of the surrounding area where we were able to see many other carvings in almost every mountain face in the area.

As we continued to follow the valley floor we find a stone road constructed by the Romans after they had conquered the area. This road is flanked by the few remaining columns that once lined the path. On both sides sit the ruins of once large temples. Towards the end of the road, where the valley begins to narrow again, the path to the Monastery begins. This long and winding path led us up to the top of the mountains where, carved out of another large cliff face, sits the Monastery. This structure is just as impressive as the Treasury and was used as a Monastery during the Byzantine period.

Petra is an amazing sight and one of the most unique places on earth. The bright red, iron rich sandstone that the city is carved from shines in the morning and afternoon sun. Many of the dwellings and structures show layers of rock that look like paint swirls of dark and light red, orange and white. The entire area is huge and it is easy to picture the large caravans of camels bringing goods from Asia and Europe and finding shelter and a place to trade in the valleys of Petra.

Shobak

Shobak was built in 1115 by king Baldwin I of Jerusalem. After the success of the first crusade the christian armies extended their empire into what is today Jordan with fortifications to protect pilgrims and merchants. This particular castle sits on a steep hill and is  surrounded by hilly, yet fertile, terrain. In 1184 the Muslim commander Salah-ad Din besieged the castle and it fell two years later.


The castle itself sits primarily in ruins but enough remains to allow the imagination to fill in the gaps. Three walls surrounded the inner keep that all sit atop a steep and at some points cliff face mountain. Multiple levels are still standing and the lack of ropes, guards or tourists gives you the feeling of discovering a long abandoned fortress. It is great to stand atop the ruins and imagine the muslim hordes perched out side with their siege engines pounding the walls while your troops fire back with trebuchets, ballistas and arrows.

Our tour ended in an escape tunnel that, starting in the center of the fortification, winds down into the mountain at a steep angle. This pitch black tunnel seems to go forever until we finally saw a shimmer of light that leads up a ladder and onto the road that leads to the castle.

Posted June 21, 2012 by Magan and Brenden in Asia, Jordan

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