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A Holiday From My Holiday

Day of rest at the trip's midpoint

overcast 75 °F

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Today, I am at the halfway point of my month-long trip to Georgia, Armenia and Karabakh. I rented a room in a nice, air-conditioned hotel and gave myself most of the day off from running around sightseeing. When it's done, this will be the 3rd longest trip I've taken in my life, so far. The longest was my six months backpacking through Europe and living on a kibbutz in Israel I did after from graduating high school. Next in line is my six weeks in Scotland with my friends Tom and Russell. So, I wanted to make sure I didn't burn out. The morning I left Yerevan for Karabakh, I had said to myself, "traveling can be hard." So, today is my sunday from my normal go-go-go schedule.

It began with a walk down from my hotel in Shoushi to the hilltop town's old city walls. I found a spot to climb up and strolled along the crumbling, weed-infested parapets. The view of Stepanakert below was shrouded in early morning haze. My feet and pants quickly were soaked by the dew. It was hard to get a good photograph of the walls, but I snapped away, anyway. Afterwards, I paused to look at some of the historic buildings being slowly renovated. All of Karabakh seems to ring with the sound of electric saws, hammering and the grumble of construction equipment. Streets are routinely blackened by 1950's-ish, Soviet era dump trucks spewing clouds of diesel exhaust.

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Back at Hotel Shoushi, I rolled my clothes and stuffed them into the backpack, yet again. Laundry time is coming soon - especially after yesterday's hike to Tigranakert TKO'd a fresh, clean shirt. I dropped off my room key and walked to the bus stop, fortunately catching it shortly before it left. On the winding drive down, I tried to take some photos of Stepanakert spread out below. I doubt they'll come out, though. From the bus station, I took my usual pleasure in saying "no" to the taxi drivers, and hoofed it to my hotel (which I'd scouted out and booked yesterday). I checked in, unpacked, and relaxed for an hour or so.

Once I was done with my Internet work and answered all the emails and Facebook posts, I decided to head out and see the museums I had picked out. The first was the State Museum of History. It traces settlement in this area from prehistoric times to the late 1800s or so. There is a definite attempt to paint the inhabitants as independent and part of Armenian civilization as much as possible. The museum was small, 3-4 rooms, and lit by flickering bulbs that were turned on by older Armenian women who essentially tailed you during your entire visit.

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It was a challenge to find the next two museums, which deal with the Karabakh War against Azerbaijan. One focuses on the missing and dead, and is plastered with photographs, personal possessions and equipment of the fighters who died in the war. The other tries to tell the story of the conflict in general, but there is a lot of overlap and similarity. Looking at all the photographs, I was struck by a couple things. First, many of the fighters looked so young. I swear some could not have been older than 16. Next, in the snapshots of the fighters at the front or taking a break, you immediately notice how tired they all look. War does not follow a 9-5 schedule and seldom gives enough rest or comfortable beds. This fit with what I'd read of WW II and other conflicts. The weariness of the men and women sinks in as you walk along, scanning photograph after photograph.

My final objective for the day did not meet with success. I was hoping to find a cool souvenir shirt, so went shopping along the main street in Stepanakert. As I mentioned yesterday, Karabakh does not get a lot of tourists, so no souvenir market has really sprung up. I was disappointed because I could really use another shirt about now! I probably packed one too few - accidentally counting the one I wear to bed as one of my shirts to wear around. Failing to find one, I returned to the hotel and washed one in the room's sink so I'd have something to wear tomorrow that wasn't too ripe...!

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The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent relaxing, updating the blog, and having a nice barbecue dinner at a restaurant down the street. It may seem like a strange thing to do, to spend a big chunk of the day in a hotel room when you're half a world away in a scenic, interesting place. But I want to give my body a chance to recover. I've been driving it pretty hard the last two weeks. I have a blister that won't go away on my left heel and could just fee my energy level wearing down. So, a mid-trip holiday was just what I needed. And if I'm going to just kick back for the day, I may as well do it in style...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:42 Tagged museum war walls karabakh shoushi Comments (0)

End of Armenia

My last 3 days in Yerevan

sunny 82 °F

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I'm sitting in my first class sleeper train compartment from Yerevan to Tblisi. The first class compartments are for two passengers, second class four, and then third class is the ordinary seats you're used to seeing on a train. I wasn't paying much attention when I booked this, though. It is supposed to be the night train, arriving in Tblisi, Georgia, sometime before noon. Sleeper compartments are more expensive, but I look at them as my hotel room for the night. However they recently changed the times and it didn't dawn on me until after I bought the ticket. The train now it leaves at 3:15 pm. This means I will be getting into the train station between midnight and 1 am. So, what the heck am I to do in the middle of the night once I get to the city? I guess I'll find out!

The last several days have been my last in Armenia. I arrived on the marshrutka from Karabakh Wednesday afternoon. For most of it, it was my least comfortable marshrutka ride so far. I got stuck in the back row of seats next to a guy who wanted to spread out half into my seat. I fought off channeling the old days of riding in the back seat of my parents' car to visit grandparents. "Mom! Tony's touching me!" or "He's on my side of the seat, Mom!" Partway through, a passenger got off, though, and I leaped at the chance to move my seat. The ride was scenic - especially Karabakh's portion of hairpin turns and switchbacks. Once again, we had kids on board whose stomachs couldn't take it and they hurled a number of times on the ride. At least the mom was prepared with grocery bags to use as "barf bags"!

I checked into my hotel in Yerevan, sorted my clothes and turned in a huge batch of laundry. I decided to take this chance to wash everything over the next two days. I also went online, caught up with my blog, and got ahold of Sigrid to see if she'd have any time to finally get to the Genocide Museum. By the time I got sorted out, all the museums were closed (most close at 4 pm). I did get to the train station to buy my ticket for this ride. Once back at the hotel, I planned my next day and a half of sightseeing.

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Thursday began with me finally getting to the Manuscripts Museum. The building is a huge, 4-story structure. However, most of it is devoted to preservation and restoration work. Only two rooms of the building are actually for visitors. There was quite a variety packed into those two rooms, though! Everything from strips of birch tree bark with early Russian religious writings through Islamic manuscripts to Renaissance era map atlases. The highlight of the museum is its medieval era illuminated manuscripts. The pictures in them were still bright and colorful. I took numerous photos (without a flash) and no one objected.

Next up was the State Museum of History. I was told "No photographs!" There was an unsmiling Armenian matron on hand in each room to enforce it and redirect you if you appeared to want to explore the museum out of the proscribed order. To spite them, I decided to see the second floor before the third. You are supposed to start at the top and work your way down. It is arranged chronologically, earliest upstairs to modern stuff on the ground level. The second floor, where I started was the medieval and Renaissance era artifacts. Almost none of the information was in anything but Armenian or Russian. It was mostly bright glazed ceramics from Persia or other Middle Eastern sources. Pretty to look at, but not what I'd really came for.

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The third floor had the Bronze Age artifacts from the early kingdom of Urartu. Armenians trace their descent from that kingdom. There were huge, inscribed bronze shields, helmets, axes and maces, and even bronze scale armor. One thing that surprised me was the ritual burial wagons. Theses were not designed to move, but to bury an important person inside. They had two reconstructed from fragments there and I SO wanted to take a picture of them. But Olga was keeping a stink eye on the decadent Western tourist, so I held off. However, when I got to the massive stone blocks inscribed in cuneiform, an Italian tour group provided the distraction I needed. God bless my kin from the "old country," but they tend to travel in packs and make a scene in museums or at historic sights. All of the Armenian former KGB matrons closed in around them like sharks. They were sure they would do something wrong, so I was left momentarily unobserved. My camera was out in a flash, and with my body shielding what I was doing, I snapped a few shots. The Italians made enough noise to mask the "beep-beep" of the camera's auto-focus. Who knows? Maybe after I finish teaching I have a future with the CIA!

The bottom floor was a snore, being mostly carpets with no English explanations. Oriental carpets are neat, but really? How many can you look at? I checked out the gift shop, but didn't find anything interesting. For lunch, I decided to try out a supposedly American style restaurant with free (but weak) Wi-fi. The receptionist at my hotel, Lilit, said it wasn't that good, but it was close and I was hot, so I ducked into its air conditioning. The food wasn't great, so I probably should have listened to her. She was incredibly helpful to me over the course of my two stays there - negotiating my taxi excursion to Garni and Geghard, writing down in Armenian what I needed for my train ticket for the cashiers at the station, and giving me insight into Armenian culture and current trends.

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After lunch, I took the 25-cent subway ride and 1.50 taxi to Erebuni, a hill on Yerevan's south side that contains the ruins of a Bronze Age citadel. My guidebook had slammed the fort's museum, but they must not have visited it since its upgrade. I found the exhibits interesting and thoroughly described in about five languages (including English). Turns out that Lilit had done the Italian translations for the museum in a previous job. There was a reconstruction of a Urartu chariot, along with ceramics, weapons and armor, actual frescoes cut free from the ruins of walls, and more.

The highlight, of course, was the climb up the the ruins of the citadel on top of the hill. Although Erebuni is not the most picturesque set of ruins I've visited,it is always cool to poke around buildings, walls and artifacts 3,000 years old. The walls were reconstructed by Soviet archeologists, who then poured a layer of concrete on top to hold it all together. They're about eight feet high through most of the complex, but I found portions where I could scramble on top of them and give myself a better camera angle. For the most part, I had the entire complex to myself. I took my time, looking out over Yerevan spread out beneath me, and tried to picture it in its glory.

Museums are hard on my back, for some reason. I think it is walking along for hours with a slight hunched over pose to look at items in glass cases. So, three museums in one day pretty much wiped me out.

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Lilit had arranged for my last half day in Yerevan to be less stressful. She said I could stay in my room and not check out until it was time for my train. So, after breakfast, I walked about a mile or so to the Blue Mosque. Built in the 1700s, it is the last functioning mosque in the city. The fiercely-Christian Armenians endured centuries of rule by Muslim Turks, Arabs, or Persians, when there were many more mosques in the country. The mosque's courtyard was a peaceful enclave off of a busy street, with trees and gardens. The tiled dome and minaret were a splash of bright blue amidst the gray and apricot colored stone of most Yerevan buildings. Although the mosque itself was closed, it was neat to wander inside the courtyard and photograph the buildings.

Next, I hopped a cab for my long-delayed visit to the Genocide Museum. When Sigrid and I had tried to visit last week, it had been closed for a holiday. I arrived before it opened and waited around until 11 am. There was a huge group of Americans from various Masonic lodges visiting, all decked out in suits and ties. Although the museum staff tried to rope me into a group tour, I broke free immediately to visit it on my own. The main part of the museum consists of two rows of impressively laid out glass cases with various documents, photographs, books, newspapers and magazines. They all document the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians that was carried out by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. There are reports from ambassadors, military personnel, aid workers, and even official Turkish government drafts that document the atrocity.

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Why did they do it? First off, the Turkish government has never officially acknowledged or apologized for the massacres. This is unlike Germany, which HAS come forward and tried to make amends for Nazi persecution and execution of Jews during the Holocaust. At this time in Turkey's history, it was suffering a long decline from its Renaissance era power. They were losing provinces left and right. They had already lost the Eastern part of Armenia, and the other world leaders were clamoring for them to surrender the Western part so Armenia could have a unified nation. As you can imagine, the Turks weren't crazy about chopping off another chunk of their empire. So, some within the government thought that if it was the Armenians that were the problem, they could solve that. "No Armenians, no problem." So, they sent out their troops to round up all the Armenian men and take them into custody. The Armenian women and children were forced to march out of their villages into the deserts of the Middle East. There, thousands died of starvation and disease. The men, on the other hand, were simply taken to remote locations and shot. The museum documents all this mainly through observers from all nations - European, eastern and American. Although the museum is smaller than the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.,the effects the same. The thing I wondered after my visit was not how this could have happened. Instead, I wondered how many other times in history did this happen, undocumented, without the modern media of the world to call attention to it? How many other empires and kingdoms have slaughtered people because of their race or culture? It is kind of chilling when you think about. Do those dead photographed and enlarged on the museum walls have countless silent sisters and brothers in mass graves on every continent?

Perhaps this is too morbid a thought to ponder on a sunny train ride through the Armenian hills. It is what the museum made me think, though, which is perhaps the true purpose of these types of monuments.

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:22 Archived in Armenia Tagged museum genocide manuscripts erebuni urartians Comments (4)

Day Trip To Gori

A cave city and a leader who belonged in one...

sunny 86 °F

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Cave city of Uplistsikhe

One comparison I'd make between Georgia and Armenia is that Armenia seems more "up to date" and Western. The downtown area of Yerevan is nice, very walk able and has lots of shops and amenities. The Old Town area of Tblisi is more torn up, you have to watch where you're stepping all the time on the uneven and missing pavement, and amenities for travelers are less developed. The case in point was there are a host of competing companies in Armenia offering various excursions to cultural sights far and wide in Armenia. In Georgia, you have to contact a travel agency and set up an expensive, individual tour, or manage on public transport. You can't join affordable, pre-set trips like you can in Armenia.

Which is why I was heading off to the town of Gori in a marshrutka that morning. I had a day to kill, as Jenny's flight wasn't arriving until midnight. I wanted to go to Davit Gareja, an important UNESCO world heritage church and monastery complex. However, at more than $100 for an individual tour, I wasn't buying. In Armenia, Sigrid and I paid less than $40 and joined an 11-hour excursion to three important sights. In Georgia, they just don't have those kind of things set up.

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Countryside around the cave city

So, what was in Gori that made it second choice? Most people think of the museum there to Josef Stalin. That wasn't my primary draw nor my first stop once in Gori. Just outside of town, there is a cave city that was inhabited from prehistoric through medieval times. Where Vardzia was more of a monastic community, Uplistsikhe was a town, in essence. Being a Georgian town, there were churches and chapels, of course. It's focus though was not on religion - but instead on being an ordinary town where some people happen to live in homes dug out of the soft tan-colored sandstone that makes up the hills along the river bank.

Fortunately, the marshrutka driver dropped me off right in front of Gori's Tourist Information Office (across from the Stalin museum). They were incredibly helpful, and arranged a taxi to take me to the site, wait while I explored it, then bring me back for 20 Lari - about $12. I've found that if you can get a local (hotel, tourist office, etc.) to arrange your taxi trip, you get a fair price.

Uplistsikhe was very cool. The site is more spread out than Vardzia was, and even though there were several tour buses worth of people there, I usually explored individual caves or rooms by myself. There are guides if you want them, but I opted not. The map and information boards a the beginning, along with the handful of placards on site, were enough for me. I admit I would likely have learned more with a guide. Just as often, though, I've had them rush me through sites in the past. They almost akways interfere with me losing myself in the history if the place. I've also had them give me less information than was in my guidebook or feed me bogus facts. And since the only thing NOT hit or miss about guides is their price, I usually opt out of having a guide.

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One neat thing was a local group was filming a movie on site that day. They were camped out in one of the really atmospheric caves, with a carved stone column in the center of the room. They brought in props like candles, table, wall hanging, etc. the actors were dressed in medieval costumes and you could see them pacing around prepping themselves for their scene. I ducked my head in to watch one scene and it looked like a neat historical epic. The lead actor, a burly, gray-bearded man who reminded me of Peter Ustinov, was portraying a great Georgian king, I believe. I think it was a community or somewhat amateur production, as many of the actors were very young and their costumes weren't very elaborate. However, I would like to see a subtitled version of it, someday.

My taxi dropped me back off at the tourist office. From there, inset off the climb the hill in the center of town with its medieval castle. It was maybe a 15-minute walk and climb to the top. It was another gorgeous, sunny day. The wind was whipping that day, especially on the edge of hilltops! I climbed around on the walls, patrolled the perimeter of the castle, and looked out over Gori beneath me. Two French tourists visited the castle briefly at the same time, and there were two Georgian policemen on duty up top. Other than that, I had Gori castle to myself. The walls are in partial ruins and you can't climb inside any of the structures, but it had a nice, lonely feel to it. Judging from the empty beer bottles littering the grassy hilltop, most of its visitors we're not tourists, but locals looking for somewhere to kick back.

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My final stop was the much-heralded and way overpriced Stalin Museum. Entrance was more than $10, but it did include a guide. It wasn't compulsory to go with a group, but none of the signs or labels were in English, so I relented. At the beginning there is a piece of puffery that says the museum supposedly looks at both the good (lead USSR to victory over Nazi Germany in WW II) and bad (had, oh, maybe 20 million of his own people put to death) of Stalin. The only things I saw were glorifying him. Here were photos of him as a young Bolshevik revolutionary, there photos of him encouraging the Soviets to persevere in the war. In another room were gifts given to him by other nations in honor of his birthday. No balance was seen at all...unless it was in those Georgian and Russian captions I could not read. Our guide mentioned nothing about gulags, executions by the secret police, or starvation of millions of Russians through forced collectivization of farms. Even the house Stalin was born in is preserved underneath a temple like structure outside the museum. The only part I honestly enjoyed was his armored train he used as a mobile office in WW II.

After the tour, I decided to head to the bus station, and get back to Tblisi. My sense of direction bombed on me and I merrily marched off in the wrong direction for about 15 minutes before I discovered my mistake. I not-so-merrily retraced my steps and found the station, and my marshrutka. On the way out, I'd had to wait 45 minutes before it departed. I got lucky this time and it left 5 minutes after I climbed aboard. I was soon headed back to slightly ragged and run-down Tbilisi. It may not always be pretty, but for tonight it was home.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 10:22 Archived in Georgia Tagged museum castle yerevan stalin tblisi gori uplistsikhe marshrutka Comments (0)

It's not so cold...well, it's kind of cold, here...

Day 1 in Reykjavik, Iceland

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Lake Tjornin in downtown Reykjavik

So my first thought was, "Nah, it isn't that cold here in Iceland!" Later in the day when the sun went away and we were exposed to the frigid blasts of Icelandic winds, I changed my tune a bit. It is definitely nippy here in Reykjavik when the winds catch you. And as our sunny day turned overcast about mid-afternoon, the hood was up and the alpaca wool gloves were on.

We arrived about 7 am on Saturday morning in Keflavik airport (about 40 minutes away from Reykjavik). At 4:45 minutes, it was my shortest flight to Europe, yet. I never sleep well on planes, but tried to squeeze in at least a couple hours. The only rough part of the trip was transferring in Boston from our USAirways flight to Icelandair. Logan Airport is still in the 1970s, with slow, inefficient buses between terminals. I predict a missed connection next week when we return, but that is just me being pessimistic, maybe...

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Statue of Leif the Lucky (as he is known here) donated by the U.S.

Anyway, once in Reykjavik, we caught the Flybus from the airport to the empty bus terminal to a minivan to our hotel. About 5 other parties got off at the same stop, so Jenny and I hustled to be first through the doors. Hotel Klopp is well aware that many tired travelers show up in the morning and has a "milk 'em for some cash" scheme in place. "Normal check in time isn't until 2 pm, but for an extra 30 Euros we have a room ready for you right now!" Heh heh...the Viking spirit lives on in Iceland! Jenny and I took the bait just like the Midgard Serpent did when mighty Thor went fishing for it. Our room - about the size of a Benedictine monk's cell - was clean, warm, but a bit cozy for Jenny. The cost to upgrade to the Abbot's size is $200' so my guess is that we will remain there in hopes of being spared further furies of the Norsemen.

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Another view of gorgeous downtown Reykjavik

After unpacking and a brief strategy session, we headed down to the extremely helpful Tourist Information Office. I had a long list of questions for them. Most were whether destinations were feasible in late winter and if places could be visited by public transport, or whether we needed a rental car or to buy a packaged day trip. The staff fielded all my questions well, and Jenny and I made plans to return later once we'd made our decisions. We then headed out into the bright northern sunshine to take a look around town. My day one plan after a transoceanic flight is to do outside things. And since the day was sunny, I pieced together an itinerary on the fly. We had a good time, checking out scenic views of Reykjavik around its downtown lake and from the top of Hallgrimskirkja church. Yes, that is all 16 letters of a typical Icelandic word. The view deserved all its vowels and consonants, but boy, was the wind whipping up there!

Our next big destination didn't work out that well. We were misdirected to the incorrect bus stop and missed the ferry to the island of Vithoey. The sky had clouded over, and the wind was biting harder, so it is probably a good thing. So, instead, we took the time to master the bus system (we think) and dash off to the Saga Museum. Iceland has a number of interesting museums. My thought was to save them for times when the weather proved nasty. We were stretching it a bit to call the afternoon nasty, but it was out of the way enough to justify doing it at a different time than the other ones. In the long run, I'd have to say I'm a bit underwhelmed by the Saga Museum. It was a bit...well, cheesy, to put a word on it. The wax mannequins were realistic. (creepy, almost - to use my 7th graders' favorite word). It just seemed a bit over the top. Too much drama and too little solid history. The gift shop was even cheesier. You'd think a museum with the name of "saga" would have copies of those Icelandic masterpieces of medieval literature for sale, but no. Why do that when you can sell cheesy fur hats, cheesy "Viking jewelry" and fluff books with Viking "recipes"?

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Viking mayhem on wax figures in the Saga Museum

All is well that ends well (doubtless in the Viking Phrases book the gift shop had for sale). Jenny and I made it back to the hotel in time for happy hour and a much deserved Viking brand beer. Really. It is good....I swear - no sarcasm! The next 3 days are probably going to be the heart of our trip. We are making like Vikings and hacking up our silver jewelry to pay for 1 package tour followed by two days of a rental car. Toss in a Northern Lights watching package, and the next three days should be awesome if all works out like we've planned. Keep an eye out for my updates because the wireless Internet here kicks Georgia and Armenia's butt like Snorri Sturluson writes a mean saga!

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Important safety tip from the fine folks at the Saga Museum...but shouldn't it be preceded by a No..."?

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:41 Archived in Iceland Tagged views hotel museum reykjavik saga hallgrímskirkja flybus klopp Comments (0)

Museum Day in Reykjavik

History, history, and guess what else?

overcast 38 °F

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Golden brooch in the National Museum in Reykjavik

So, to illustrate how the weather has cooperated so far on this trip, consider today. We had several museums we'd planned to visit, along with some other indoor sights. Every day prior to this one has been sunny, but today was cloudy with drizzle off and on. Perfect museum weather! We were able to sleep in a bit today, and didn't get out and about until after 10 am. We did find out that the free breakfast is packed with the "sleep in" crowd.

Anyway, we began with the Reykjavik City Museum. They have taken a Viking era farmstead that was uncovered in downtown Reykjavik and designed a museum around it. The ruins lie in state, with only bare minimal reconstruction by archeologists. You walk around the outer edge of the bowed out rectangle. On the outer walls are exhibits and computer reconstructions of what the area or the farmstead looked like at that time. Towards the center are the actual ruins themselves, with explanations and strategic spotlights that point out what the text is talking about. Sound effects play, so you hear sheep bleating, bird calls, and even the graphic death throes of an auk - a flightless bird the Viking settlers quickly hunted to extinction. It was a high tech, clever exhibit. I wished it was brighter, though. It was so dim down there it bordered on out and out dark. Pictures were impossible - even if they were allowed (I never found out).

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Viking era horns from the National Museum in Reykjavik

The best museum of the day was the next - the National Museum of Iceland. It covers the history of Iceland on two sprawling floors. My favorite parts were from the Viking era of course. In addition to weapons like you'd expect, they had actual graves, tools, carved wooden doors, church vestments for when they converted to Christianity, and much, much, more. The most amazing part was looking at my watch around 2 pm and realizing how much time I'd spent in there already! The upper level contains most of the 1800s to modern era exhibits, and was less interesting to me. There were lots of computer and video screens throughout the exhibits with audio-visual presentations on Viking halls, political infighting in the Viking age, and other interesting topics.

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Viking swords and axes in the National Museum in Reykjavik

After lunch, we stopped in the Domkirkjan, which used to be the city's main church until they outgrew it. The inside was pretty, as our guidebook promised. From there, it was on to the Cultural Center, which has an exhibit on medieval manuscripts. The layout is very cool, with massive enlargements of manuscript pages, illuminated drawings, and other visuals. The second room had the actual book pages themselves, and because of that, no photos were allowed in the exhibit, of course. It focused mainly on the Icelandic sagas, but also dealt with medieval bibles, later reproductions of the sagas and other fictional versions, and so on. Visually, it was a very well done and cool exhibit. I know it wouldn't necessarily be everyone's cup of tea, but I liked it. I am certainly inspired to read the sagas, now (which I had wanted to do before I came here but ran out of time). I bet the online Gutenberg Project has online versions of them I could download for free.

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interior of Domkirkjan church in Reykjavik, Iceland

We did a little souvenir shopping afterwards, but didn't buy much. I'm going to pick up some inexpensive stuff to give as prizes for my students. I thought about getting my Mom an Icelandic wool sweater, but if she found out I spent $200 on one (the going rate) she would NOT be happy. Tomorrow is our last day in Reykjavik, and we plan to visit one more museum, but aren't sure what to do for the rest of the day.

Stay tuned to see...!

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Medieval era bible from the National Museum - not the Cultural Center's manuscript exhibit (where no photos were allowed)

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:42 Archived in Iceland Tagged museum national medieval iceland reykjavik manuscript exhibit settlement Comments (5)

A Curtain of Rain to Close Out Taiwan

Finishing up in the capital of Taipei

rain 85 °F

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Scenery in Taiwan rushing by my train window

In the week leading up to my trip to Taiwan, I'd checked the weather every so often. Every day showed rain, which made me worried about what would happen once I got here. Luckily, it had been sunny virtually every day. For my final day, I took the High Speed Rail from Kaohsiung to Taipei, the capital. I had only this day do sightseeing, which I realized didn't really do the city justice. Then again, does only one week enable you to really see the entire island? I decided to sacrifice relatively expensive Taipei and reduce it down to one day's worth of sightseeing.

I transferred from the rail station to the metro, and finally to a taxi to my hotel. It took me awhile to embrace taxis in Taiwan, but with the average trip costing only US $3 or so, it makes more sense when looking for an unfamiliar place with all your luggage. The Hotel Imperial was gorgeous, but my room would not be ready for two hours, unfortunately. I checked my luggage with the concierge and headed out the door to visit Taipei's UNESCO World Heritage sight, the Bao'An Temple.

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Wall paintings at the Bao'An Temple in Taipei, Taiwan

My guidebook raved about the wall paintings and the overall quality of the decorations. It was impressive, but then again, I'd seen lots of cool temples during my week in Taiwan. I focused in on some high quality decorations, and snapped photos of them. Worshippers crowded the various shrines in the temple, bowing, kneeling, and lighting joss sticks as offerings. here and there, you heard the clatter of moon stones being tossed to foretell futures.

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Gorgeous mask in a shrine at the Bao'An Temple, Taipei, Taiwan

Returning to my hotel, I checked into my room and did a very abbreviated unpacking. My flight for Vietnam left at 8 am, and after weighing my options, decided to arrange a taxi for the 30-minute drive to the airport. The alternative was a bus that got mixed reviews on the internet. And considering my own lick so far with buses in Taiwan, I decided to go by the "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" philosophy. If I had done more research ahead of time, I could have booked a later departing flight, which would have allowed me to use the high speed rail and shuttle transfer to head from Taipei to the airport.

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Exterior of the Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

When I went back outside, I saw that'd it had begun raining. The spell of good weather was broken. It would rain off and on for the rest of my day in Taipei. Honestly, though, it was perfect timing. Next up was an indoor attraction and Taipei's premier sight: the Palace Museum. This massive collection of the artwork from China's long and interesting history, is housed in a huge, three story complex. For all its space, the exhibits are often thronged with a staggering number of tour groups. My guidebook had warned me about it, so I went in mentally prepared to be jostled, elbowed, and nudged aside by large numbers of tourists from the Chinese mainland. Speaking of which, this collection of imperial Chinese treasures is in Taiwan because the Nationalists lugged it with them during their retreat from the Communists during the post-WW II struggle for control of the country. You have to wonder how many of these priceless treasures might have been destroyed during the excesses of Chairman Mao's cultural revolution. The world (and Chinese culture) probably owes the Nationalists a debt of gratitude for taking the trouble to secure these links to their civilization's past.

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Bronze charioteer helmet in the Palace Museum -- one of the few photos I took before if fin out it was forbidden

I'd been keeping my eye out for signs about photography. I hadn't seen any saying it was forbidden, despite museums like this usually being adamant about it. I saw others snapping pictures with their cell phones, so I discreetly began to take a few shots. I felt awful when a young lady, watching me do it, took out her phone and snapped a shot. She was immediately accosted by a worker who threatened to take her to the office and make her delete all the photos shed taken. She was obviously mortified. To her credit, she did not rat me out, and I was able to come away with a whole 3-4 shots from the museum's exhibits. I think my favorite part were the landscape paintings. I've always loved those minimalist images with their delightful details of mountains, villages, travelers, famers, and all the little snippets of rural Chinese life they depict. It got me thinking how cool it would be to decorate a room of my house with those as a wallpaper or something. I'll probably never get around to doing that, but it would be very atmospheric, I think,

Elsewhere in the museum, the massive bronze cauldrons, statues, and weapons were cool, too. The exhibit on ivory carving had a number of magnifying glasses set up so you could see the amazingly intricate details. I had to chuckle when I saw the unfortunate photographer again. She was looking through the magnifying glass at one ivory carving of a tree with individual leaves. When a face was pressed up against hers to also look, she thought it was her boyfriend's. Her look of amazement when she turned to see a random, elderly tourist cheek to cheek with her was priceless.

The displays on European style snuff boxes and the Jade exhibit did get a little old after a couple rooms, though. My hours there went by quickly, though. Before long, it was closing time. I half expected us to be shouted out of the facility by harpies like the anti-photography enforcer. It was very civil and low key, though. From there, I took a taxi back to the nearby metro station (I ignored the guidebook's recommendation of a bus). I hunted around and found a place for dinner. Yes, I "ate local," and did not wimp out like the night I had KFC in Kaohsiung. My Yunnan spicy chicken and rice was good. The bean sprouts that came with it were so-so, the tofu chunks unappetizing, and I have no idea what the sticky orange stuff was. I wasn't going to try it...were you going to try it? And my name is even "Mikey" -- for those who remember the Life cereal commercials.

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Taipei lit up at night from the observation deck of Taipei 101 -- the tallest building on the island

My last sight for the trip was to ascend Taipei 101 -- the island's tallest building for a chance to view the city lit up at night. For the world's fastest elevators, the very short line seemed to take forever. The view from the indoor platform (the outdoor one was closed due to the weather) was nice. The rain clouds that drifted in beneath us from time to time obscured the view. However, when it cleared, it was neat to see the metropolis all lit up with colorful lights. Taipei is no Las Vegas with its neon colors, but it was worth seeing. The exit though the jewelry store was a tad forced, I thought. I saw only one unfortunate man with his wallet out and a resigned look on his face, as his wife seemed insistent on buying.

The metro ride back to my hotel went smoothly, and I called it an early night. With an 8 am flight, my wake up time began with a "4" -- never a pleasant number to see on vacation in the morning. My week in Taiwan had been very pleasant, though. Before I decided upon going, I had no idea how much natural beauty the island has. The central spine of its mountains, cloaked in their dense green vegetation, makes for an exotic landscape. Throw in some amazing temples to light up your sightseeing with gold and smoky gilded interiors. And finally, organize it all with prompt, modern and efficient public transportation (well, except for maybe the buses...), and Taiwan becomes quite the nice package for an enjoyable week or more.

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Photo of the night market in Kaohsiung, which I didn't mention in my previous entry

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:29 Archived in Taiwan Tagged night temple palace museum taipei taiwan 101 bao'an Comments (1)

Hanoi's Test

A lesson in traveling to big cities

sunny 88 °F

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Hanoi, lit up at night, around Hoan Kiem Lake

I'm not the type of traveler who lives for the vibe of a big city. The crowds, the hustle, and the urban landscape is not a draw for me. Give me a smaller historic town, a scenic area, or something more manageable, and I'm happy. Part of the reason I'm traveling north to south In Vietnam is to put off the teeming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City till the end. Of course, Hanoi is no slouch, either. A city of 6.5 million, it has its crowds and bustle, too. I was staying in the Old Quarter, too, which is probably the most chaotic area in the city.

So, my first night in Hanoi I was determined to walk around and get a feel for its rhythm. The first thing I discovered is it is Taiwan's twin on using the sidewalks for everything except walking. Mom and Pop restaurants set up tables and chairs, racks of merchandise are pulled out onto the sidewalk, and of course, scooters park there. I took it easy on myself and simply walked one direction on my street until I found a cafe that looked nice. After a drink, I walked back. It was pretty crazy, with people, bicycles, cars, and scooters all in motion. I'd read that to cross the streets you simply walk out into the street at a steady pace. The traffic will flow around you. I cheated a bit on that and waited until one direction was clear, and then made my move. It worked, and I felt fairly confident crossing the little side streets after my first evening of walking.

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Hanoi's outdoor vegetable markets

My second day in Hanoi was after my Ha Long Bay cruise had dropped me off around 430 pm. I wanted to squeeze in some sights in the later afternoon and evening, and maybe in the morning before my 1 pm flight. Back home, I'd made a list of things I wanted to see, but you know what they say about how plans survive contact with the enemy! The only things still open after 5 pm on my list were the Don Xuan covered market and Hoan Kiem Lake. I would be doing more than just walking back and forth on my hotel's street today, so I studied the map. I took a wrong turn almost immediately but realized it and adjusted on the fly. I was able to find the market with no problem. My guidebook said it stayed open till 6 pm, but at 530, most of the stalls were closing up.

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The Hoan Kiem Lake temple at night

The challenge would be to navigate from the market (which was maybe 5 minutes from my hotel) to the lake. The lake was a good 20 minutes away, through twisting turning streets that sprayed forth a never-ending fountain of scooters. So, how did I do? Remember, I consider myself to have a relatively good sense of direction. To use my 7th graders' terminology, it was an epic fail. Don Xuan street was supposed to be a straight shot to the lake, but every block it did a slight jog. By always veering left on those jogs, I ended up going east instead of south. When I ran into an elevated roadway that was obviously impassable on foot, I gave up. That's when the Hanoi Humbling began. The Old City's streets are not on a squared grid pattern. They are a geometry teacher's dream, with more angles and diagonals than you would think possible in 360 degrees. I proceeded to spiral in towards my hotel, going first north, then west, east, south, west again, until I'd probably drawn a Spirograph of rings around it. I always felt I was one last turn away from my street. Like the mirage of the water patch on a summer freeway, it kept receding into the distance. Of course, since I am typing this, I did eventually find my way back. I am not still wandering out there in the Old Quarter today, like a modern day Captain Ahab hunting the elusive white hotel.

The most amazing thing to me, though, was after refreshing myself with a cold drink in my hotel room, I was ready to regroup and try again. I picked out a new route and was determined not to be defeated by Vietnam's streets. Yes, I could have hopped in a cab and said, "Hoan Kiem Lake, Jeeves..." The point was to get my bearings, to hope for serendipity, to find not just my way around, but the lay of the land. And this time, I was victorious. Along the way, I stopped and purchased a couple souvenirs for my friends Allen and Joel, but within 25 minutes, I was walking along the shores of the lake. It was dark by that time, but that was a bonus as it gave me a chance to get some shots of the city lit up at night. There is an island in the center of the lake with a temple, and it was floodlit a rich golden color. I set up my mini tripod as curious Vietnamese watched me. Joggers, walkers, and strollers all circled the path running around the lake. I looked at the restaurants, cafés, markets and such in the area and realized this was the area I should have stayed in. It is a perfect mix of amenities and sights. I double-checked my map and plotted a new route back to the hotel. My favorite moment came when a group of French tourists were hovering nervously on the street corner, unsure when to cross -- like wildebeests wary of crocodiles lurking in the river. I sailed past them, and could hear their voices murmuring as the traffic flowed around me while I crossed to the other side. It was hard not feeling smug, but I admit I'd did. A little. And I would pay for that tomorrow morning. My minor league victory would soon meet a major league challenge In Hanoi.

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The Don Xuan covered market

My hotel said I should head to the airport at 11 am, so that gave me a few hours to see Hanoi's sights the next morning. Most opened at 8 am, but the Temple of Literature (what middle schoolteacher could resist?) opened at 730 am. I decided to do taxis for the most part to save time. At a few dollars a pop, there's not a lot of reason NOT to use them in Hanoi. The air conditioning and no chance of getting lost is an added bonus. The temple complex takes up a huge city block, with a brick wall around it and a series of courtyards going from the front progressively further back. It is dedicated to the great teacher....Confucius -- not me -- in case you're confused. It was peaceful and used wide pools and gardens to add to its air of tranquility. Not only Confucius was honored, but a number of acclaimed scholars and even three kings who'd supported Confucianism and embodied his ideals of a ruler taking care of his subjects like a loving father had monuments or shrines in their honor.

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The Temple of Literature inHanoi, Vietnam

The Military History Museum looked a short walk away on the map, so I got my bearings upon exiting the temple, and headed that way. While walking alongside the walls of the temple complex, Vietnam sunk to a new low, in my book. Seeing the traffic jam ahead of them on the street, a steady stream of scooters drove up on the sidewalk to crowd towards the intersection..I was sorely tempted to clothesline a few, but figured a tangle with the police could cause me to miss my flight. But seriously! Where do you draw the line if you're going to take away the sidewalk and make it simply another lane? It is arrogant and rude, considering your own personal schedule more important than the safety of others. It is too easy to fall back on being "tolerant" of other cultures, and say, "Well, that is just the way they do things..." No. Were scooters part of Vietnamese culture in the Middle Ages? During Chinese rule? Heck, during French rule in the early 20th century? No. The Vietnamese need to simply say "enough is enough" -- like they are currently doing with drunk driving -- and stop it.

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Next to the Military History museum is a tower built to honor the country' s defenders

Okay, I warned you that I would have a "Major League" test crossing the street. It happened when I got to that jammed packed intersection they were driving on the sidewalks to get to quicker. It was a big intersection...wide -- about six lanes, back in the States where there ARE lanes. But that's when I saw it: my first crossing signal in Vietnam! A little red lit guy telling me to wait. I thought, "Maybe this won't be as hard as I thought..." The little guy turned green and it was as if Poseidon had open the gates and released the Kraken of all traffic. A veritable torrent of scooters, cars and buses poured across my little white striped crosswalk. The little green guy seemed to be shrugging his shoulders at me, saying, "Sorry, dude..." There was no waiting for a gap -- none was in sight. I thought of those French tourists watching me cross last night. I could almost hear them snickering, "Where's your silly American bravado, now? I taunt you a second time!"

So, I took a breath. Then I stepped into the intersection. I moved steadily across the street, hesitating only once to avoid walking into a motorbike. I would estimate I crossed a dozen streams of intertwining traffic before I stepped up onto the sidewalk on the other side. What a rush! It worked...reading those guidebooks and watching travel channel shows had truly prepped me for a test I would have failed otherwise. Damn! I wished I'd gotten that on video! I could hear my fellow teachers at Orange Middle School cheering, "WorldWIDE!" Ha, ha! Seriously, that is half of the addiction of travel. You set challenges for yourself, strange new cultures, exotic lands where you don't speak the language, grueling hikes to see places of wonder...all of that is a test for yourself. Can you rise to the challenge? The confidences that overseas travel gives you is one of the benefits few people talk about. It is there, though, and I felt it as raw adrenalin-fueled triumph surged through my veins as I stepped up onto that curb.

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The tower next to the museum

I had braved the Hanoi traffic for its Military History Museum. It turned out to be a confusing, sprawling complex of buildings. As expected, it focused on Vietnam's struggle for independence from the Chinese, Mongols, French, Japanese, and it's war against the "puppet regime" supported by the United States. You could easily spend a full day here, if you're the type to read every caption to every exhibit (which were in Vietnamese, French, and English). I'm not, though that may surprise some. The best part was the collection of military equipment outside on the grounds of the museum. These included a Soviet jet fighter, armored vehicles, artillery, missile batteries -- you name it! I took more photos than I would for the benefit of my friends, who are at times even bigger military history buffs than I am.

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Soviet jet fighter at the Military Museum

My last stop in Hanoi was the prison where U.S. POWs were kept during the Vietnam War. I had not realized it was also the place the French kept Vietnamese rebels ("patriots" is what the museum called them, fairly enough). There was definitely some propaganda going on. The Vietnamese prisoners were depicted in shackles, being tortured and starved, and generally mistreated. I believe that happened, of course. That is the French colonial track record. Read up on what they did during the Algierian revolution. It became propaganda when the U.S. prisoners (which include Sen. John McCain) are portrayed decorating Christmas trees, playing volleyball, and generally enjoying a country club atmosphere. We all know that wasn't the rule. We learn no lessons when we distort the truth.

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The Military Hostory Museum in Hanoi

A quick cab ride back to the hotel, another shower, and it was off to Da Nang. Will Hanoi end up being my favorite part of the trip? Of course not. I think I will never forget that feeling, though when I waded into that intersection full of traffic. Equally, I will always remember the exhilaration when I stepped up onto the curb on the other side. The big city had tested me, and I had embraced its challenge.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:05 Archived in Vietnam Tagged military temple history museum hanoi hilton literature pows Comments (0)

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