Packing your bag

 

Chinese huge backpack

Travel lightly, told me someone

So you have decided that you wanna go travelin’. You have chosen your destination, a route more or less planned and a gap of time to expend. The day to go is getting close and you have to think about what to put in your bag. And you thought that for the long time you will expend, maybe you will need a lot of things. But just remember one thing: you don’t need more for a two year voyage than for a weekend trip. Even more, you should bring fewer things.

When you are planning a long time trip, you must think that you will be expending everyday with your bag for the (for example) next year, so you should get downright passionate about it. Choosing the right luggage is crucial for your comfort while you are traveling for a long time.

Choosing your backpack

Let’s begin for the bag you choose. The shape and capacity of the bag is what will dictate what you put inside (and shouldn’t be the opposite) and is what will impose the intensity of the pain in your shoulders for the next period of time, which will be presumably long. Here go some tips:

  • The Bison Test: Would this pack survive being tossed by a bison stampede? If you think it wouldn’t, don’t buy it. You must think that you will put your pack under stress many times. You’ll have to toss it to the shore when you want to descend from a ship, you’ll want to throw it into a moving train, you’ll leave it fall to the ground when you are tired, you’ll try to make it fit inside a ridiculously little locker… yes, and even you’ll try it with your feet. Also, at some point you’ll try to put three times as much stuff into the bag as it was designed for. And not all the packs will survive this daily abuse. It can be a little thing if your bag breaks up in the middle of a big city, but it’s not so funny when it happens in the middle of the desert. Some of the best packs are the ones designed for rock climbing: if it’s built to handle being slammed against rocks, probably it will survive everything.
  • The Full Bag Theorem: It doesn’t matter the size of your bag, you will fill it to the top. So your pack needs to be small. Even littler than what you are thinking right now. As the theorem says, travelers quickly fill any size of bag that they bring with them. So it’s not okay to bring a large pack that is only half full. If you travel with 35 liters you’ll have a very full 35 liter pack, which is easy to carry on. But if you bring a half full 80 liter pack, you’ll soon be struggling with a pack that you can barely lift onto a train.
  • The One Shoulder Test: the pack needs to be easy and comfortable to handle, carry on and move. You can try the one shoulder test: if a pack fits comfortable casually thrown over one shoulder, then it’s a good size one.
  • The Basketball Test: What about throwing your backpack 3m away? Does it have a good handle? As said, you won’t often need to throw your pack, but it’s possible that sometime you need to toss it to the roof rack of a dusty four-wheel drive, throw it towards an unstable waving boat, and more often just to move it around the room or lift it into the overhead bin. Of course, this is a minor matter, you will survive anyway, but if you have to buy a new bag, considering the handle is not too bad.

Apart of this, there are some more things to care about. A front loading bag is usually better than a top loading one, as you won’t have to fill the train station floor with your clothes if you want to look for something at a certain time. You will be thankful if your bag has a good suspension, as it’s probable that sometimes you have to walk a long way with the bag on your shoulder. And if you like mountains, a bag with comfortable shoulder straps and hipbelt for weight distribution becomes dramatically better. Finally, the backpack is better if it’s simple and dark. Don’t choose a modern-design colorful bag, as it’s the first to be stolen. Dark hides in the shadows and tends to give the appearance of being cheap and nondescript. But, of course, if you think a bright color fits better with your personality and you will feel cooler with it, just go for it; don’t stop by this little matter (my backpack, for example, is light green).

What to pack?

And this is the damn question that all the travelers have asked themselves at least one time in their life. Given a limited space, which thing is more important than other? Well, of course, underpants. But thankfully our bag is big enough to fit something more.

There are many matters, being the most important your destination. You’ll need different things in a Siberian winter than in a Greek summer. But we can think in an average summer thing, mostly hot with some cold days and nights. So here comes an approximate list of what to pack for a long time trip:

  • Clothes:

    Pet Laptop Backpack Case

    Each one chooses what to pack

1 x shorts

1 x travel pants that convert into shorts

1 x long trousers

3 x T-shirts

1 x nice shirt

4 x pairs of socks & underwear

1 x swimsuit

1 x jacket or warm clothes

1 x extra-small waterproof

1 x hiking boots

1 x small travel towel

1 x hat

  • Gear:

Swiss Army climber with scissors

Headlamp

Compass/thermometer

Small tiny rope and safety pins

Sunglasses

Lighter

Bottle of booze

A little game

Mosquito net (depending on your destination)

Security pouch(es) with the important stuff: Passport, Vaccination Record, Cash, ATM Card, Credit Cards, Plane Tickets, Travelers Checks, Passport photos, etc.

A camera and a cellar phone, with chargers.

Guidebook(s) – Better in PDF format inside a pendrive.

A couple of books

Small notebook and pen

Toiletry Bag (with toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, and hygienic stuff. Apply here the “Full Bag Theorem”)

Sunscreen and insect repellant

Condoms

First Aid bag

  • Optional items:

Sweater or fleece

Tent

Sleeping bag

Mat

Keyring with luggage key

Extra-small laptop

Buy it there:

Flip Flops

Sarong

Pajamas of some sorts

Amoxicillan or any antibiotics, just in the case you go to places far from doctors.

Malaria pills (only in Africa, the best choices are Doxycycline and Arsumax; definitely not needed in South East Asia)

Antihistamine

Iodine

And that should be enough. But Although you have here an approximate list of what to pack, every bag and every traveler are a different issue. If you are mad about weight reduction, visit One Bag, which rocks in this aspect.

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Hire

 

Hire Oriol!

Oriol Ràfols, the writer of this website and the writer of Catalonia Travel Guides, is a guide for tours in Barcelona and Catalonia offering a great knowledge of geography and history and a 6-guest-seat car that can carry a small group straight to the destination (for larger groups there will be more cars). Tours can be personalized as your wishes or you can choose a standard one among these:

  • Barcelona highlights (Barcelona)
  • Following the Gaudí path (Barcelona)
  • Thematic tour in Barcelona at your choice (museums, tapas, wine, etc.)
  • Medieval Catalonia: the Cistercian monasteries route and the Kings of the Crown of Aragon (South-Central Catalonia)
  • Medieval Catalonia: Girona, Besalú, etc. (Northeastern Catalonia)
  • The surrealism of Dalí (Northeastern Catalonia)
  • Amazing beaches and towns in Costa Brava (Northeastern Catalonia)
  • Aigüestortes National Parc and Romanic Art in Vall de Boí (UNESCO W.H.S.) (Northwestern Catalonia)
  • Kayak and water experiences around Sitges and Garraf shore (Central Catalan shore)

We can take you from/to the airport or any station, recommend you nice hotels or book it for you, arrange home-stays, etc. Just tell us what you would like and we’ll try our best!

Tours outside Catalonia:

  • Uzbekistan and the Silk Route: highly recommendable 1 month experience in Uzbekistan following the highlights of the country, most of them explained in the Uzbekistan Travel Guide written by us.

Languages spoken:

  • English
  • Español
  • Français
  • Pусский язык
  • Català

And if you want some advice when visiting Barcelona and Catalonia, we’ll give you some orientation FOR FREE!!

 

Contact us at rufutravel@210countries.com and tell us your wishes!

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Jul 042012
 

Chisinau to Tiraspol, Transnistria map

Chisinau to Tiraspol

I decided not to hitchhike that day. A marshrutka was heading to Bender and I decided to take it. We drove for an hour or so through the flat central Moldova, thinking about not important things as I was looking through the window, when Nikolai showed some interest in me.

- Iedich na Priednistrovie, da?

- Da, I answered.

Well, my Russian was quite bad. Although when you are alone in a foreign country you improve fast, I had been only for three days in Moldova, and even Moldova isn’t a 100% Russian speaking country. I would say, maybe, 45% of the people I met spoke Russian. But this doesn’t matter. Nikolai was talking to me and I had to please him, I wanted to cause a good impression despite my broken trousers and my dirty bag, so I asked him questions like where was he from, if he had kids, wife, horse or dog.

And then I was there, applying for some sort of transit visa to the unknown Republic of Transnistria, an auto-proclaimed state, a de facto republic, the Russian area by the Dniester River that didn’t want to become a region of Moldova and gained their independence by the power of weapons. But being still a communist country, the new state was not recognized by any other state, and just got the sympathy and protection of Russia, giving a Russian passport to all Transnistrians. Now the Republic of Transnitria is still called a communist state, but the only thing left from that is the unique party regime, while the economic system is a fierce capitalism with Soviet symbols and Lenin statues here and there, extended corruption and Russian soldiers controlling the strategic points.

Mime and Alberich, Dniester River, Bendery, Transnistria

Mime and Alberich by the Dniester River in Bendery

In the border, they gave me a thin paper with some writings in it. It was my visa. As a non-recognized state, they cannot stamp the passport, so a paper is all they can do. It all ran without hassles and all the stories about corruption I heard about Transnistria vanished in the happy face of a kind policeman. I had a visa for stay in the country for several hours and I got into Bendery. You can hear many awful things about Transnistria, but there the market looked like a normal market, the streets were the same as in the neighboring countries and the people looked more or less like everywhere. I realized how many writers’ exaggerations about this land made us have a wrong image of it, because the corruption and criminal affairs may be true, but most of the people in the country have nothing to do with this; they are kind, well-dressed, polite and a little bit abject, more or less, like everywhere. I had read Nikolai Lilin’s book Siberian Education¸ with many criminal matters about this land, which made me expect another thing.

But maybe it wasn’t that normal, possibly Transnistria still had something unique and special.

Lenin statue in Tiraspol, Transnistria

Lenin statue in Tiraspol

Just when I got down the bus I saw a war tank turned to a monument that welcomes and warns everybody not to mess with this land. Bendery was a normal ex-communist city, wide alleys and short houses combined with huge concrete buildings, the market with the typical products and policemen with wide hats. But the things changed when I saw then Dniester River and the bridge. As a result of the war between Moldova and Transnitria in 1992, the Russian army took positions in the area, being the bridge linking the two sides of the Dniester River one of the places permanently controlled by the Russian Army.

The soldiers asked me for papers, information and so on. After a while, I stopped being a fun, and they left me go and put the attention to a couple of vans. I passed walking over the river remembering how far the Dniester seemed during the geography classes when I was in school. I was pleased to be in a mythical geographical feature like that. As pleased I was that I decided to take a trolleybus to Tiraspol and use my first Transnistrian rubles, getting down just when I had enough of it. The river made a long detour by the city, and I was again not far from it. There was a promenade and some aquatic attractions, just by a muddy beach where the people was swimming and sunbathing. I got there and extended my little travel towel, emulating them and laying over it. Some people’s attention turned to me. They came and we maintain a little conversation. They all decided I would have problems with police getting out of the country and wanted to help. They catch my notebook and wrote something in Russian I couldn’t understand.

- Show it to the police in the border – they said.

After a short bath and thanking them, I went to look for the station. I had only a couple of hours left to leave the country. I passed through Tiraspol center, with the opportunity of making some photos to those Lenin’s statues and war cars decorated with the Transnistrian flag and the inscription “Za Rodinu”.

Just there I found Andrei. I asked him how to go to the bus station, and he wanted to go with me. He was a mathematics student who became very excited when I told him I was from Catalonia. He knew a lot of things about my place, the willing to be independent, the political events of the past years, the differences with Spanish, the language, football and so on. I made him note that the realities here and there were somehow similar.

- Yes, the way to understand identity maybe it’s similar -he said-, but the situation is different. Very different. Here, the politics…

And he looked up at the sky and exhaled a deep sigh.

And I agreed.

Za Rodinu, War Car, Tank, Tiraspol, Transnistria

Za Rodinu! (For the motherland!) says a tank in Tiraspol

After a couple of typical Eastern-Europe-bus-station-drunkards, I got into a bus heading to Ukraine. It was a pity: my dreamed stay in Transnitria had been too short; a six hours visa was not a big thing. But it didn’t disturb me for a long time. After a while I would be again in Ukraine, one of the countries I’ve visited more times. And I’ll have never enough.

Bendery Fortress by the Dniester, Bendery, Transnistria

Bendery Fortress by the Dniester

Test your extremes in Quttinirpaaq National Park and Ellesmere Island, Canada

 

Glaciers and Ice cap in Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada

Glaciers are one of the highlights in Quttinirpaaq National Park

In the northernmost part of Canada, in Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut State, stands the northernmost national park in the world, Quttinirpaaq National Park. The park is placed within Ellesmere Island, the northernmost island in the world, containing the northernmost human settlements in the planet. And northernmost by northernmost, we would never finish. The northernmost musk ox population, the northernmost caribou, the northernmost mountain range… and if you bring there an octopus disguise it will be the northernmost octopus disguise in the world, surely, and you could feel like the northernmost stupid man on Earth. Here everything is the northernmost, just because we are in the damn northernmost part of the world. And by this time you may know which the main challenge of going there is.

Ellesmere Island is part of the Queen Elizabeth Islands and comprises an area of about 200.000 km2, more or less the size of Senegal. Even if you consider it to be tundra or a polar desert –and most likely both- the nature is imposing, less snowed and with more vegetation than you could imagine for its latitude. The distances are enormous; huge extensions of nothing expand until the horizon line, while the perpetual ices of never-ending glaciers show up their ends between the mountains slopes. And yes, there are some mountains there: Barbeau Peak, with its 2,616 m, is the highest mountain in Nunavut region, and the British Empire Range, the most northern mountain range in the world.

Air Force Glacier in Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada

Air Force Glacier

Quttinirpaaq National Park

In Inuktitut language, Quttinirpaaq means “top of the world”. It has an extension of 38.000 km2, being the second largest park in Canada, just after Wood Buffalo National Park. The main attractions of the park are the numerous glaciers and the glacial landscape at one side, and the arctic flora and fauna on the other side, as well as the ice blocks and icebergs that can be seen floating in the surrounding calmed sea waters.

Quttinirpaaq National Park and Ellesmere Island LocationThe park is often visited within the region comprised by the Tanquary Fiord, part of the bigger Greely Fiord and where there’s a human settlement, the Lake Hazen (the world’s largest lake north of the Arctic Circle by volume), Turnabout Lake and the Garfield Range, acting as a barrier to reach the higher peaks of the British Empire Range and the United States Range. To the northwest, there are other camps is in Hare Fiord and Otto Fiord, but for now we’ll focus on what you can find around Lake Hazen and Tanquary Fiord, with a bigger concentration of wildlife due to its milder climate in comparison to the surrounding ice cap-covered mountains and valleys.

Just arriving to the Tanquary landing strip you will notice the impressive “Hand of God”, the foot of Gull Glacier with a shape that reminds a hand descending the narrow valley between the mountain slopes. Maybe then you’ll focus on the aspect of the camp: a few can-like tents in the middle of a truly inhospitable environment and the immensity extending all around.

But just a few meters away you’ll be able to see what you was looking for. Bad smelling musk oxen wander around eating the scarce short grass that grows in this desolated land, fearless arctic hares run through the rocky terrain while arctic wolves are hidden somewhere waiting to chase a lemming. The small population of caribou will be probably more difficult to see, as well as the most majestic animal in those latitudes: the polar bear.

Polar Bear in the Arctic Sea, Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada

Polar Bear in the Arctic Sea

Listed as an endangered specie, the largest carnivore on Earth is a beloved and mystified creature. Their huge territorial needs and the ice melt due to climate change is threatening their habitat, so the difficulties for them are getting strong. In the most visited region of Quttinirpaaq National Park it’s not common to see polar bears, but as it’s within their  habitat, you can never discard an encounter.

Easier to see is the gyrfalcon (or gerfalcon), the arctic kind of falcon and the biggest falcon of all kinds, as well as other species of arctic and migratory birds like semipalmated plovers, arctic terns, red knots and long-tailed jaegers. The flora is composed by dwarf willow, arctic cotton, grasses and lichens.

Tanquary Fiord base camp and Gull Glacier, also called "Hand of God", Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada

Tanquary Fiord base and Gull Glacier with the “Hand of God”

Hiking is the main activity for visitors, as the nature is stunning and there’s not much more to do. The hike to Lake Hazen from Tanquary Fiord base camp, rounding through Air Force Glacier, is about 250 km, which can be easily made in 10 days. The animals here are fearless of humans, which is one of the most amazing things in the trip. Arctic hares and wolves (not dangerous for an adult) will come to see you, and musk oxen will wander around. Don’t disturb them as they can be aggressively defensive.

Fort Conger

Built in 1881, Fort Conger was a military and scientific post in the eastern shore of the Ellesmere Island, in Quttinirpaaq National Park, now designated as Classified Federal Heritage Buildings.

In Discovery Harbour there was a base camp used by the British Arctic Expedition in 1875 that was reused and rebuilt as Fort Conger by USA as a research base. At its highest occupation point it rounded the 50 inhabitants, but the research lasted only for two years. Being used later by several expeditions, some of them heading to the North Pole, some said it was “grotesque in its utter unfitness and unsuitableness for polar winter quarters” and probably that’s why it was left abandoned until the Canadian authorities protected it as a Heritage Building.

Fort Conger, Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada

Fort Conger was unsuitable for polar winter…

Alert

Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world. It lies outside of the Quttinirpaaq National Park, some 12 km from the Cape Sheridan, on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island, on the shore of the ice-covered Lincoln Sea. It lies just 817 km from the North Pole and has been, together with Ward Hunt Island, the most popular stop for adventurers and explorers heading to North Pole.

With a low temperature record of -50 ºC, an average  of -18 ºC during the year and 5,9 ºC in the warmest month -July-, it was established as a weather station in 1950 and a military post came in 1958. But it takes the name from a British ship named HMS Alert, which wintered here during a failed attempt to reach the North Pole in 1875.

Plane in Alert landing strip and the symbol of Nunavut, Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Canada

Plane in Alert landing strip and the symbol of Nunavut

The census in 2006 reported to have 5 permanent inhabitants, workers of the Canadian Forces’ radio station, the weather station and Alert Airport.

Musk Oxen, Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada

You’ll see plenty of musk oxen!

Ellesmere Island

Meaning “Land of Musk Ox” in Inuit Language, Ellesmere is the most mountainous island in Canada and the third in size (world’s tenth). The Arctic Cordillera mountain system extends over most of the island, and a permanent ice cap lays over it, now threatened by the fierce climate change.

Treasured by geologists for its numerous and various deposits, it was firstly inhabited by hunting tribes about 2000 years ago, mostly living from the meat of caribou and musk oxen. After it had been abandoned, it’s believed to be reached by Vikings from the Greenland colonies for hunting and trading purposes (with Inuit), though there wasn’t any permanent settlement. Nowadays, the island houses some 150 permanent inhabitants: 145 people in Grise Fiord, 0 in Eureka (with no permanent inhabitants but a temporary population) and 5 in the northern Alert.

Although Alert is the northernmost base in Ellesmere Island, Eureka is the most cold of all, with an average temperature of -19ºC, and only 5ºC in the warmer month, July. The lowest temperature recorded arrive to – 55º C, still not as cold as the Pole of Cold (the coldest inhabited place in Earth).

Iceberg off D'Iberville, Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada

Iceberg near D’Iberville, an abandoned base in the island

Grise Fiord, meaning “pig inlet” in Norwegian and “the place that never thaws” in Inuktitut, stays on the southern shore of the island, being the biggest human settlement in the island, and the northernmost civilian settlement in Canada. Created during the Cold War in order to reaffirm Canada’s claims to Ellesmere Island, it’s now inhabited mostly by Inuit people.

Arctic Wolf, Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada

Arctic Wolf

Getting there

The principal entrance point in Ellesmere Island is the airport at Grise Fiord, as for Quttinirpaaq National Park the airport placed in Tanquary Fiord does the work. The only connection for both is from Resolute Bay airport. For Grise Fiord there are some scheduled flights, but for Quttinirpaaq only charter flights that have to be hired by travelers are flying there. So this is not going to be cheap. Every year an average rounding the 100 travelers are heading to the park, so contacting other expeditions going there is a crucial factor in order to make expenses lower. Unlike Antarctica, if you thought about getting there by sea, you better forget it.

Iceberg at Eureka, Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada

Iceberg near Eureka

Dangers

By this time, you may suppose which are the two main risk factors in Ellesmere Island: climate and remoteness. Although it’s obvious that someone who plans a trip there is not going with a pair of shorts, some t-shirt and a straw-hat, everyone who writes about this must put some emphasis in the gear question. And I’m not saying this only for cold isolation. Fall in the water can be a mere accident in any other part of the world, but here it can be fatal if you have nothing for dry yourself. Absence of vegetation means you’ll not be able to start a fire, so warming up yourself will be a difficult task. And as we said with climate, we can say for isolation. Overrating your physical capacity in another part of the world can result in a broken leg. Overrating your physical capacity in Quttinirpaaq National Park and Ellesmere Island can easily suppose death.

As close to the North Pole as Quttinirpaaq National Park is, the compass does not work; GPS will work better for your orientation. Satellite phones are also a good idea if their action range cover those latitudes (check this as most of them don’t), because otherwise you’ll be completely isolated. And finally, Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) are a must to access the park. You have to rent or buy one at Resolute Bay before heading to Quttinirpaaq National Park, together with your mandatory registration. In case of some life-or-death emergency, you can activate the PLB and Canadian Armed Forces will come to rescue you if the weather conditions allow it.

As said, Hazen Lake and Tanquary Fiord are not a common place for polar bears, which prefer to stay at the shoreline, but sometimes they can be seen there. Read the advice of the Parks Canada authorities for more information about encounters with polar bears.

Floating ice at Otto Fiord, Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada

Floating ice at Otto Fiord

And I’ll say again: remember that you are in an extremely remote place with extreme weather conditions, so act always with precaution as any little accident can turn to a fatal one.

Stay safe and enjoy the northernmost part of the world!

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Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen

 

Shaft 12 Winding Tower, Zollverein, Essen, Germany

Shaft 12 Winding Tower in Zollverein

It’s not made by baroque rock carving, nor it’s decorated with amazing paintings, neither it’s part of a stunning landscape, but we wanted to include the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in this site because it’s an example to all the tourism industry and the institutions that work for the memory preservation. After the mining complex of Zollverein closed down, the authorities didn’t leave it to rust and fall to the weather inclemency, nor sold the terrains to build new apartment buildings. Instead, the German authorities’ chose to redesign and restore it to a huge memorial complex containing art, historic museums, conventions centers and housing some of the world leading companies in the field of design, without ignore good recreational, sportive and teaching activities. And this approach is what made it to become part of the UNESCO World Heritage List in the year 2001 and one of the neuralgic points of the European Route of Industrial Heritage.

Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex (or Zeche Zollverien Koolhas) is located in the city of Essen, in North Rhine-Westphalia Lander in Western Germany, right in the Ruhr Valley, which is characterized for the huge coal deposits and the mining and steel development during the boom of the industrial revolution in Germany. The first mine began to be drilled and explored in 1847, with the first extraction made in 1851. The last rock that was extracted came out from the underground in 1986, being in 1993 the definitive closing of the mines. From 1950 to the final closing, the two main parts of the site, Zollverein Coal Mine and Zollverein Coking Plant, were ranked among the largest mines in Europe and one of the largest of their kind in the world. And Shaft 12 (Schacht 12 in German), opened in 1932, is considered an architectural and technical masterpiece, often called to be the “most beautiful coal mine in the world”.

But let’s look closer to the history of the place.

Pact - Zollverein Dance and Choreography Centre, Zollverein, Esse, Germany

PACT Zollverein is now a dance and choreography centre

History

The Zollverein Coal Mine was founded by Franz Haniel, an industrial entrepreneur who needed coke in order to satisfy the needs of his steel production. Named after the German Customs Union (Zollverein), the coal deposits around Essen were found to be very rich, and their exploitation began soon after the research in Shaft 1, where a big layer was discovered in 1847 some 130 m under the surface. The first rocks were extracted in 1851 and Shaft 2 was opened in 1952, sharing the machine house with Shaft 1. In 1857, the ovens began to produce coke and by 1890, Shaft 3 was already working, rising the Zollverein production to 1 million tons per year, consolidating it as one of the biggest German mines.

Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex View Map, Essen, Germany

Zollverein View

The ending of the 19th century brought the boom of the German industry, specially around the iron and steel industries of the Ruhr Valley, which made the coal demands to grow. The mine was extended and modernized, and by 1914 it had 10 shafts extracting 2.5 tons per year, providing Germany a big part of the power needed to start the World War I.

As some shafts were closing down and coking plants were replaced by modernized ones, other structures were built. Shaft 11 opened in 1927 and Shaft 12 in 1932. Built in Bauhaus style, it was projected by the architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer, for whom both functionality and aesthetic qualities mattered. Now, Shaft 12 is considered a huge technical innovation for the time and an architectural masterpiece which showed how an industrial equipment could also look good. Its characteristic Doppelbock winding tower became a symbol of the industrial legacy in the Ruhr area, and by extension of the whole German industry.

Shaft 12, Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, Essen, Germany

Shaft 12 in Zollverein

In 1937, the Zollverein mines had an output of 3.6 milion tones and 6900 workers were employed there. Naturally, it became a key industry during the World War II, overpassing it with only minor damages, and succeed to maintain its leading position after the war. 11 shafts were closed in 1967, leaving Shaft 12 as the only open one, but its expansion and mechanization in the 70s, placed it again among the most productive coking plants in the world.

The last exploited layer was opened in 1980, but in 1983 Zollverein direction decided to completely close the mining complex. Being the last coal industry to close down around Essen, it extracted its last raw material in 1986, while the coking plant closed its doors in June 30, 1993.

A bright idea

Like most of the industrial complexes that close down, Zollverein was supposed to become a wasteland of rust, dirt and dangerous unstable structures until somebody would decide to build over it, making the old mines get forgotten under a new residential district. But just as the center was closed down, the Lander of North Rhine-Westphalia bought the entire complex and took the compromise of providing a good maintenance until some solution was found.

After some failed negotiations with a Chinese company in order to sell the factory, the complex was threatened with demolition, but another project of the North Rhine – Westphalia State emerged. With the aim of making the old mines an official Memorial of the Ruhr industry, an exhibition centre and a recreational area, the project began to take form and remodelings were done.

Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, Essen, Germany

Illuminated stairs in Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex

Enjoying the Masterplan

When Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex was postulated to become an UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Masterplan was projected. Firstly under the direction of Rem Koolhaas, the Masterplan attempted to foster cultural heritage into the site by housing a number of museums, new business corporations and activities generally based on design. But there’s much more.

Red Dot Design Museum and Design Center, Zollverein, Essen, Germany

Red Dot Design Museum and Design Center, built in Bauhaus style

The more characteristic buildings are maintained to be visited as they were before, with museums explaining the times of the mines and their impact on the territory and people’s life. And apart of it –and what makes this a different place-, a big number of exhibition spaces can be found. Modern design shows are often on display, as well as some buildings allow world leading industrial design studios, artistic studios, cinematography studios and even the Folkang University of Arts, the Institute for Magnetic Resonance Imaging and a solar power plant. Most have been placed in the old buildings, respecting their original architecture and giving a new usage to them. A good example is the Red Dot Museum and Design Center, one of the world’s most influent design exposition centres and a meeting point for industrial designers placed in one of the biggest buildings in Shaft 12.

But Zollverein turned also to a recreation area. The Coal Washing plant is transformed into a leisure area with cafes and restaurants. The former water channel of the Coking Plant has been adapted for ice-skating in wintertime, while in summer it allows swimming facilities. Jogging paths have been marked along the complex and bicycles can be hired to visit it, or if you prefer a cooler mean of transport, the conveyor belts that once were transporting the coal now have been adapted to allow visitors to walk inside them.

You can find a good plan (or map) of the whole complex in its official website.

Skating in Zollverein water canal, Essen, germany

Skating in Zollverein water canal

Getting there

Located in one of the most populous zones of Germany, getting to Zollverein Coal Mine Complex is not a big challenge. The big cities of Düsseldorf and Köln (Cologne) are well connected by road and railway to Essen.

From Essen, you can take the bus or tram from Essen Main Station to the mines. In the map showed above, you can see the connections to the complex.

Around

If you don’t have enough of monuments about the industrial legacy, in the Ruhr area you have plenty of them. Landschaftspark is a public park located in Duisburg, very close to Essen, that will please your taste with their iron and steel factories. Zollern II/IV Colliery is also a good attraction in Dortmund. And, truly, along the Rhine you can find many more.

If you want something more artistic, Köln (Cologne) is your place. Located some 60 km South from Essen, it houses the Cathedral of Cologne, one of the most impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site that was for a lot of time the highest cathedral of the world. Düsseldorf, with its impressive new era buildings, is not too far, as well as cities like Dortmund, Monchengladbach, Leverkussen or even Bonn. And the city of Brühl, with the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Castles of Augustusburg and Falkenlust at Brühl, is not so difficult to reach.

And what we want to do now is to desire you good luck. Enjoy Germany!

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Jun 102012
 

Hincesti - Chisinau map moldova

Hincesti - Chisinau. Click to enlarge

Those who say Chisinau is a beautiful city are basically lying. Or maybe they have a very strange taste. A central neglected park called Parcul Catedralei, with a couple of churches forming the Nasterea Domnului complex and the City Hall in front of them are the main attractions of the city, followed by the monument to the Memory of the Word War II and the “Doors of Chisinau”, two huge soviet apartment buildings, one in each side of the main entrance of the city that remind an open door. But no one can say it’s not an interesting city. The people are open and talkative, not done to see many foreigners, so they easily come to see what’s happening when they see any of them.

This was what happened when I was in the central park lying calmed after an easy hitchhiking from Hincesti, carried inside a minibus that was taking students to Chisinau city centre. Irina was the most talkative in the bus, a Russian-speaking girl, blonde good-looking and that Russian shabby dressing taste, she had learned Spanish by looking Mexican and Venezuelan telenovelas and wanted to practice a little bit with me. She showed me the place to get down of the bus, and I stayed lying down in Parcul Catedralei waiting for something to happen.

Nasterea Domnului Cathedral complex, Chisinau, Moldova

Posing in front of Nasterea Domnului Cathedral complex

After chatting a little bit with some curious, I left the Parcul Catedralei and I began to walk along the Stefan Cel Mare Avenue, former Lenin Avenue and central axis of the city. I had a paper in my pocket containing the address of my first couchsurfing experience. Before, I tried Hospitality Club with nice results, so I supposed this was not to be different. I headed to a damaged suburb of Chisinau, and stopped in a bar. There were some people looking at a football match of the 2010 World Cup, Spain against somebody else. They got quite surprised when I told them I wanted Spain to lose.

Not without problems, I could find the apartment of my guest in one of those Soviet buildings. It’s quite difficult to find addresses in such system, at least if you are not done to it. Alexandra received me with interest and generosity, and even with a delicious traditional meal consisting in some yellow mass made from (I suppose) corn, with smetana and scrambled egg. She was a 25 years old girl with Russian or Ukrainian origins. She was living with her sister Tatiana, a young eastern beauty, and Tolik, the little nephew, running up and down without stop. That was a very pleasant time there, easy and full of new things, and I could even chat with the cheerful mother, who wanted to made a toast to desire me good luck.

Garlic in the Central Market of Chisinau

Garlic in the Central Market of Chisinau

Next morning, his little sister Tatiana made me a tour through the city. She didn’t spoke many English and my Russian was not a big thing, but we manage to understand each other. She was so happy that the day before she got a new boyfriend, so I could only congratulate her. We went to an old wheel at the top of a nearby hill. Rusty iron and a strange sound transmitting instability made me feel quite uncomfortable, but that was it. We ended the day with the “amazing” sight of the so-called doors of Chisinau.

After a delicious dinner cooked by Alexandra’s mother, consisting in fried zucchini with garlic, two French last-minute couchsurfers came. Some exchange of opinions and the bed. As I was laying down, some strange feeling came to me. What was I doing there? Why? I could be wandering the roads of that amazing country, I could be meeting new picturesque drivers everyday! I should enjoy Moldova a little bit more! I was supposed to stay one more night in the house, but the road was calling me. And the road is my Lord. And nobody can betray his god.

I told Alexandra I was going next day. She put a strange smile, but I calmed her down telling that it was not her fault, that her generosity and kindness had been splendid and I was very thankful to her. Yeah! She was a wonderful guest. But it was the fault of the road.

Next morning, I was in a van heading to the unknown and mysterious lands of the Republic of Transnistria…

The Doors of Chisinau or Chisinau Gates, Chisinau, Moldova

The Doors of Chisinau or Chisinau Gates

Badain Jaran Desert – 巴丹吉林沙漠

 

Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Dunes and lakes in Badain Jaran Desert

Can you imagine a place where the highest stationary dunes in the world rise up to 500 m and descend to loads of lakes unaccountably dotted in the middle of the desert, as if them were little oasis here and there? Badain Jaran Desert is one of the most beautiful deserts on earth, paradise for photographers, site of singing sand dunes and a wonderful place for camel crossings.

Extremely dry, the average rain is about 40 mm/year, but despite this, at least 144 lakes spread all over the surface between dune and dune, some of them with fresh water, other ones extremely saline. These lakes give the desert its name, which in Mongol language means “Mysterious Lakes”.

And how is it possible that one of the most arid regions of the world is full of lakes? So these waters come, according to recent hydrogeologic investigations, from Qilian Mountains, situated approximately 300 km away. The water from snowmelt flows under the surface, through fractured rocks, and rises up in this amazing place. The underground water is also responsible for the dunes size. In this arid and windy region, the underwater filters up and humidify the dunes, which can resist the wind erosion.

Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Beautiful Badain Jaran Desert

Geography

Badain Jaran Desert (bā dān jí lín shā mò 巴丹吉林沙漠) covers an area of 50.000 sq. kilometers, spanding over the south-central part of of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Nei Mongol) and the north of Gansu. Being the third biggest desert in China, it’s located in the Alxa Plateau, about 1200 meters above the sea level.

Camels in Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Camels are important in the desert

Both the Badain Jaran Desert and the Tengger Desert (located to the east and merging with Badain Jaran due to desertification of the zone) belong to the Gobi Desert, the 3rd biggest desert in the world (5th considering Antarctic and Arctic as deserts). Badain Jaran is bounded to the north by the Gobi Desert (gē bì shā mò 戈壁沙漠) itself, characterized in this area by blackened gravel; to the east by Mount Lang, which separates the Badain Jaran Desert from the Ulan Buh Desert (wū lán bù hé shā mò 乌兰布和沙漠); to the southeast by Mount Yabraishan (yǎ bù lài shān 雅布赖山), which separates the Badain Jaran Desert from the Tengger Desert (téng gé ěr shā mò 腾格尔沙漠); to the southwest by the He Xi Corridor; and to the west by the Ruo Shui River (ruò shuǐ  弱水, Mongol for “Weak Water”, so-named because it sometimes dries up) or Ejina River (é jì nà hé 额济纳河) in Chinese, which separates the sandy Badain Jaran Desert from the rocky Taklamakan Desert (tǎ kè lā mǎ gān shā mò 塔克拉玛干沙漠).

China Relief Map - Badain Jaran Location

Badain Jaran location

As with other large sandy deserts, the dunes in Badain Jaran are constantly migrating, but there are also a number of them which are static and only the shallow surface is shifting. The middle and lower layers of the highest dunes has been compacted for more than 20 thousand years, causing the grains of sand to be lightly “glued”. In addition, the high moisture levels inside the dunes contribute to maintain them fixed. This rather rigid subsurface structure is what gives these dunes (technically “barchan megadunes”) their shapes, which bring to mind mountain features such as peaks, cliffs, gullies and even caves.

Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, ChinaSinging sand dunes

As in other deserts, the dunes of Badain Jarain emit a sharp loud noise. Known as “singing sand dunes”, “whistling sands” or “booming dunes”, the dunes of Badain Jaran Desert emit a surprising amount of noise, generated as the wind pulls the top layer of the sand down the dune slope. Although this phenomenon is not widely understood, it’s believed that this action creates an electrostatic charge that produces the noise, a low pitched rumble that can reach the 105 decibels. A booming sand dune manifests itself by initiating an avalanche from the leeward face of a large dune.

When you move a hand through the dry sand of a booming dune, you shear the upper layer and generate another acoustic phenomenon, the burping emission of short bursts of sound.

Booming dunes are silent in the wintertime when humidity is retained in the dune. In summer, when the larger dunes produce their music, the smaller dunes in the dune field remain silent. This indicates that structural properties of the dune are critical for the generation of the singing sand. Also, booming can only be generated at slopes over the angle of repose (30 degrees), on the leeward face of a dune; the same sand on the shallower windward side cannot generate the music.

Badain Jaran Desert Lake, Nei Mongol, China

Lake in the desert

Lakes

As said, Badain Jaran Desert is decorated with about 140 scattered lakes. They are placed in low areas between the dunes, and suppose the life sustenance in the desert. Camels, goats and horses depend on them, as well as the sparse vegetation that paints a green belt around the water, making the whole sight a dreamlike oasis that will challenge your photography skills.

Due to algae , brine shrimp and mineral formations inside the lakes, some lakes get coloured at certain times of the year. Also, evaporation makes other ones turn to hypersaline waters and form a salt crust. And even get dried.

Red Lake in Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Red Lake due to algae and brine shrimp

History

Appart of older dinosaurs’ fossils and traces of other animals such as ostriches, the firsts human rests date from the later Paleolithic. The firsts documented Tangut (táng gǔ tè 唐古特) tribes resided here during China’s earliest dynastic period, the Xia Dynasty (xià cháo 夏朝, BCE 2000-1500). Trading between China and Bactria, they contributed to the exchange of goods and knowledge between the center and the east of Eurasia, and even the present-day camel of the Badain Jaran Desert is a descendant of the Bactrian camel.

With the rise of the Silk Route, the He Xi Corridor became an important path for the northern tracks. The city of Alxa (Alashan in Mongol) became an important base, even mentioned in Marco Polo’s diaries and in some Chinese poets’ epopees. But it was frequently raided by horsemen from Mongol desert tribes and with the Mongol invasion of China Badain Jaran was one of the firsts areas to be conquered. The Black City of Khara Khoto was also an important base in the desert (see below).

Sights

Badain Jaran Temple (bā dān jí lín miào 巴丹吉林庙) is a well-preserved Tibetan-Buddhist temple in the middle of the desert. Built in 1868 at the side of a lake, its isolation let it survive untouched since now, allowing you to visit its 300 squared meters filled with Buddhist frescoes, statues, wood and brick carvings, artifacts and a modest library. A white pagoda completes this pleasant sight.

Badain Jaran Temple, Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Badain Jaran Temple

The highest dune in the desert, Bilutu Peak (bì lǔ tú fēng 必鲁图峰), which rises about 500 meters from its foot and 1609m above the sea level, is also a great place to climb just before descend to the nearby pond. Other peaks, called Badajilin peaks, of which there are numerous, rise about 200 meters above the surrounding terrain.

On the northwestern side of the desert, near the Ruo Shui River (Ejin River in Chinese), the ancient Black City, Khara Khoto in Mongolian, can also be visited. Located close to the new city of Ejin (capital of Ejin Banner), it was a Tangut city founded in 1302, becoming one of the centres of the Tangut Empire. Genghis Khan conquered the city and it succeeds to flourish under Mongol rule, even appearing in Marco Polo’s diaries with the name of Edzina. Located at the crossroad to Karakorum, Xanadu and Kumul, the city triplicated its size during Kublai Khan’s time, but it fell to the Chinese armies in 1372, during the Ming dynasty. It was abandoned and left in ruins, just as it is now, except for the paintings and valuable objects, taken to Russia by Russian explorers in the 19th century.

Between the Khara Khoto and the newer Ejin, particular and photogenic vegetation can be found. Some call it strange forest; the wind give a ghostly shape to the dry vegetation and green and yellow leafs give the final contrast upon the blue sky. When water and dunes appear, amazing photos are assured.

Also don’t miss the beautiful nature near the Ejin River or Ruo Shui:

Juyanhai Lake, north of Ejin, Nei Mongol, China

Juyanhai Lake, north of Ejin

North of Ejin, you can see the the end of the alluvial plain of the Ejin River, the Juyanhai or Juyan Lake, an inland delta where you will see birds, camels bathing and a lot of water. Unfortunately, two of the three lakes at the bottom of the Juyan Lake Basin dried up recently.

Out of the desert but not too far, heading southwest, you can find the remarkable sight Jiayuguan Pass in Jiayuguan city, the first pass on the west end of the Great Wall of China, one of the biggest and most well conserved ones.

Visiting the desert

With the rise of Chinese economy and domestic tourism, the masses from Eastern China are heading to Badain Jaran in their holiday time –very little in China. Camel and 4×4 safaris are organized from the capitals, but it’s still possible to visit the place with certain independence. Basically, what you should do is getting to Alxa Youqi and contract there a local guide and a mean of transport that can arrange a tour according to your possibilities and wishes. Make sure to hire off road vehicles with best drivers and guides.

The best time to get to the desert is September and October, just after the hot summer and before the hard winter. But anytime you go, be sure to bring warm clothes for the cold nights, and sunglasses and sun protection for the intense sun. Be sure to respect local ethnical customs and traditions.

In the website holachina.com will find a more or less useful explanation about how to get there but yourself. BEWARE!, they incorrectly talk about Tengger and Badain Jaran Desert as only one. Alxa Youqi is in Barain Jaran Desert; Alxa Zuoqi in Tengger Desert, offering similar things to Barain Jaran but not as stunning as this.

Zài jiàn!

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Route 66

 

Route 66 sign

Route 66 sign

The Main Road, the Mother Road, also called Will Rogers Highway; the main trail for migrations, East–West travels and hipsters without anywhere to go; the Route 66 still holds its status as the most magical route in North America. Inspiration for writers, singers and poets, object of films and deposit of runaway dreams, it was during quite a time the exhaust valve within the USA and object of devotion for engine lovers. After its decline beneath the newest interstate highway system, it’s recovering some fame thank to road wolves, Cadillac and Corvettes enthusiasts and other kind of long distance travelers.

The original route runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, crossing the States of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, but not everywhere there’s so much left from the original path, which covered a total of 2,448 miles (3,940 km). The longest stretches left from the original road can be found in West Arizona and East California, just near the Mojave Desert. There the road is filled with attractions about this magic road, and there are plenty of motels, road bars and old car hiring stands, just as it was once. The road passes through the desert, not far from the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and Sedona Rocks, among others, so it’s a great excuse to explore some of the USA’s biggest highlights.

route 66 map

History

“…and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads, 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.” — John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath”.

After some road projects along the 35th parallel, mostly built independently in the beginning of the 20th century, entrepreneurs from Tulsa, Oklahoma and Springfield, Missouri conceived the idea of linking Chicago to Los Angeles and began to promote the new highway. The road was established in 1926, and road signs began to be erected the following year. But it took several years, until 1938, before the whole track would be continuously paved between Chicago and Los Angeles. Firstly the highway was to be named Route 60, but some discussion took it to be finally designated 66.

Tribute to Route 66 at Painted Desert - Petrified Forest National Park

Tribute to Route 66 at Painted Desert - Petrified Forest National Park

It was a flat path between the east and the west, so it quickly became a popular route, especially for trucks. For decades, this historic path served thousands of people who were migrating west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930′s, when hundreds of people from the Mississippi basin were heading to the Californian promised land due to severe dryness in their motherland.

As the years were passing, the Mother Road underwent many improvements and realignments, changing its original path and overall length, and even moving its endpoint further west to Santa Monica. The World War II brought several war industries to California, pushing more immigration to use the route of dreams, as well as the route was used to move war material from shore to shore. By the 50s, with the economic growth, the Route became the main road for vacationers heading to Los Angeles.

In 1956, the signing of the Interstate Highway Act marked the beginning of the end for the Route 66. In the newer highway net, somewhere the new paths incorporated stretches of the old route, in other parts bypassed it or paralleled it, and although the US Highway 66 Association tried to defend the people who was about to lose their business, it was removed from the United States Highway System on 1985.

Interstate 55 covered the section from Chicago to St. Louis; Interstate 44 carried the traffic on to Oklahoma City; Interstate 40 took the largest chunk, replacing 66 to Barstow, California; Interstate 15 took over for the route to San Bernardino; and Interstate 210 and State Route 2 carried the traffic of Route 66 across the Los Angeles metropolitan area to Santa Monica’s seashore.

Now it’s impossible to drive Route 66 uninterruptedly, but many stretches and alternate roads are passable with a good planning. Some states have kept the 66 signs for parts of the highway; others who had removed them, now are replacing them.

Around the 90s, Route 66 associations began to appear. The State of Missouri declared it “State Historic Route” and the first “Historic Route 66” marker was erected in Springfield, Missouri. Soon, they were followed in other states, markers such as paintings in the road surface spread all over the drivable stretches remaining and it returned to appear in road atlases. A section in Arizona was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the whole route was added to the World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund in 2008.

 

Route 66  establishment and iconography

Route 66 establishment and iconography

Places

Along the road you can find many of the United States main sights. Not far from the path, you’ll find places like Grand Canyon, Sedona Red Rocks National Park, the Hoover Dam (or Boulder Dam), Las Vegas, Meteor Crater, Painted Desert and the Mojave Desert. And of course the biggest sight of all, as absolutely nothing beats the first view of the Pacific Ocean as you follow Santa Monica Boulevard to the end.

Apart of the great attractions, there are those places that made the Route 66 a close place. The most famous of them is probably Cadillac Ranch, a surrealist public art installation in Amarillo, Texas. Created in 1974 by the art group Ant Farm, it consists in a line of half buried old Cadillacs at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Old and junk Cadillacs were used to build the sculpture, representing the evolution of the car line. It was moved to a nearby field in 1997, but it’s still reachable. It’s encouraged to get there by the private owner, as well as graffiti and spray-decorating the cars, which are wildly decorated and repainted frequently. Just play the famous Bruce Springsteen song as you get there.

Cadillac Ranch, Route 66, Amarillo, Texas

You are encouraged to paint the half-buried Cadillacs of Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas

The official beginning can also be a place of pilgrimage. It’s located right in the middle of Chicago, at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue. Other sights include Railsplitter Covered Wagon, a gigantic covered wagon in Lincoln, Illinois; Meramec Caverns, a very popular sight in Missouri; Petrified Forest National Park, in Painted Desert, is home to the largest collection of petrified wood in the world; and the town of Flagstaff, one of the best towns along the byway for reliving the original 66 spirit. Oatman, a mining town in the Mojave Desert, very proud of its Route 66 connections, was the steepest part of the road, with some hairpin turns getting up to Sitgreaves Pass. It’s still open to traffic, and the turns are waiting for you.

Sedona Red Rock, Arizona

Sedona Red Rock, Arizona

Some restaurant or gas stations also contributed to the myth of the road. Artison Café, founded in 1924 in Litchfield, is believed by many to be the oldest restaurant on Route 66. In Shamrock, Texas, one of the most famous was the U-Drop Inn, also known as Tower Station and Tower Café, built in 1936. The image of a nail stuck in dirt was one of the firsts examples of art-deco architecture applied to a gas station and restaurant. It got abandoned after decommission of the US 66, but the inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places gave it life again, even inspiring the film Cars in 2006. Big Texan Steak Ranch made its own legend by serving a 2 kg steak, which was free if customers could eat it in less than one hour. You can find also the fast-food cradles of Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, the first place with a drive-through restaurant, and the first McDonald’s, in San Bernardino, California.

Apart of the fetishist Mother Route sights, visiting some museums is usually not a bad idea. You can find some museums about the road itself, but other ones like Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, Illinois, housing the world’s largest collection of artifacts and papers from Abraham Lincoln, is also well worth going. Jesse James Museum in Stanton, Missouri, can be a good stop too.

Look for these and more sights at Route 66 News, with a good compilation of Route 66 sites.

Route 66 climbing  Black Mountains near Oatman, Arizona

Route 66 climbing Black Mountains near Oatman, Arizona

Concluding

More than any other American highway, the Mother Road is the symbol of the runaway American Dream; it symbolized a new positive outlook that spread through the nation’s post war economic recovery and until now it holds a special place in the collective consciousness as the herald of a new era of travel.

My advice is to get a couple of really good Route 66 books, some maps and hit the road. Here and there, some places will give you a road sign when the road veers off the interstate, but mostly not. Even with a few good maps, you will take a wrong turn in many crossroads without doubt, but this is part of the adventure. And this is part of the fun.

Enjoy the ride!

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Uzbekistan

 

Uzbekistan mapLost in the immensity of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is one of the forgotten gems of the world. Despite the amazing history of the Silk Route connecting Europe and Asia, its numerous splendid monuments sank in the oblivion of the tourist masses and just now is fighing for some attention. Without any doubts, the beautiful cities of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara are the main highlights of Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is the country of the blue palaces and huge mosques and medrassas, built in oasis along the mighty Amu Darya River in the vast Kizil Kum Desert; green valleys near high mountains and the sad story of the Aral Sea. The Uzbeks, the most religious people in Central Asia, are proud of their rich history, their heroes like Tamerlane or Ulugh Beg and their Turkic connection. Uzbek itself is a Turkic language and, in fact, Turks from Turkey come from Central Asia.

And they are also proud of their food. Plov, mantys, samsa, laghman and shurpa are some of the main dishes you’ll find, without forgetting the venerated shashlik, often reserved for great occasions. Taste the delights of this extraordinary cuisine in the cozy chaikhanas, accompanied with a cup of tea or a gulp of ayran, and head to the beauty of the fantastic Uzbek cities. Here we go!

Brief History

Tashkent

The capital of Uzbekistan is the biggest city in Central Asia. And although it doesn’t have the old relics and peaceful ambiance as other destinations of Uzbekistan, it has some decent sights, busy markets, nightlife and the enjoyable movement of masses that all the big cities have. Even more, if you are planning a trip to more than one country, it’s very probable that you´ll need to stay in Tashkent for some days in order to get visas or catch flights, so it is better to know what to do and where to go in this city:

Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

You'll find everything in Chorsu Bazaar

If you look at Tashkent map, you will probably think that Amir Timur Maydoni, with its Timur Statue, is the neuralgic center of the city. Well, that’s maybe true for the cars, but like a traveler you can consider Chorsu Bazaar to be the place where you’ll find everything you need. The Bazaar itself is a huge circled green dome occupied by farmers and traders trying to sell their products, it’s nice to take a walk among the color of the stands and enjoy the taste of new food and spices you can’t find home. Not far from there, you’ll find Juma mosque (Friday’s mosque) and Kulkedash medrassa, built in 15th and 16th century respectively.

Further north you’ll find Khast Imom, a Islamic religious center where lives the spiritual leader of the country. Within its premises there are Telyashayakh and Barakhon Mosques, the Mausuleum of Abu Bakkr Kafal Shoshi, Imam Ismail Al-Bukhari Islamic Institute and Moyie Mubarek Library Museum, where you’ll find the famous Osman Quran: a Quran from the 7th century made of deerskin and brought to Samarkand by Timur and stolen by the Russians for a some time.

After having a walk in Navoi Park, you can head to Yunus Khan Mausoleum, where the corpse of Babur’s grandfather is resting. And finally you could choose between going to Mustaqillik Maydoni (Independence Square), where you can find a mix of soviet and new-made monuments, or visiting some of the numerous museums of the city.

But all these things can be seen quite fast, so if you are here waitng for a plane, a visa or anything else, a good idea is head to Chimgan and take a hike in Ugam Chatkal National Park, one hour away from Tashkent in the Tian Shan Range, with summits until 3700 m.

Tilla-Kari Medrassa in Registan - Samarkand Uzbekistan

Tilla-Kari Medrassa in Registan

Samarkand

For history lovers, Samarkand is somewhere to go at least one time in the life. Praised by both Alexander and Marco Polo, the mighty city of Central Asia proudly shows its great treasures: the huge medrassas and mosques left by the Timurid Empire and its successors.

Historically a Tadjik city, Samarkand was founded around the 7th century BC as Marakanda, and soon became a Persian center and one of the wealthiest cities in Central Asia, until Alexander came and conquered it. The development of the Silk Road and the geographical placement of the city –a must-stop place between the desert and the mountains-, gave it the richness that made it grow as one of the most populated cities in the word, even bigger than it is nowadays.

Genghis Khan pillaged the city in 1220, but for 1370 it had already recovered its splendor with the enthronement of Timur the Lame.  During his reign the city became the capital of one of the largest empires in world history, the Timurid Empire. Under Timur, Samarkand became a mythical city and Central Asia’s center.

Timur was followed by Ulugh Beg, a great astronomer who made the city a capital of science and knowledge, building a huge sextant to observe the sky. But due to his secular perception of the world, the sextant was destroyed and he was killed by religious fanatics in 1492.

Samarkand had never recovered the importance of those times. First, due to navigation discoveries the commercial routes moved to the sea and the Silk Route fell in decadence. Then, the capital was moved to Bukhara and the Russians came. But the majesty and magnificence of the past has been preserved in Samarkand. And can be seen for all of us.

Samarkand Registan

Registan complex is the main symbol of Samarkand's spledorousity

Registan ensemble is the centerpiece of the city. Three huge and well-proportioned medrassas stand in three sides of the Registan Square, giving a solemn and imperious majesty to the center of the city. Ulugh Beg Medrassa, the oldest one and built under Ulugh Beg reign, stands on the left side of the square. Opposite of it there’s the Sher Dor Medrassa, decorated with two lions, which is prohibited by the Islamic law and cause the laugh of the not-so-religious Uzbeks. In the middle of them, Tilla-Kari Medrassa is remarkable for its indoor mosque recovered with gold to make everybody remember the splendorous times of the city.

A little further there is the even bigger Bibi Khanum Mosque. Timur ordered to build a huge mosque with the name of his spouse. When he saw the mosque built, he said he wanted something bigger, and ordered to hang the architects. The newer mosque, one of the bigger in the Islamic world, was as big as unstable and had been slowly falling until finally collapsed during an earthquake in 1897.  In front of the restored mosque stands the 14th century grave of the woman that gave name to the mosque: Bibi Khanum Mausoleum.

Not far from there,there is Shah-i-Zinda: a line of mausoleums climbing to a nearby hill. The place is an important Islamic center of pilgrimage, probably containing the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, cousin of the prophet Mohammed, who brought Islam to Central Asia. The tomb existed before the Mongols’ pillage, what made Timur and Ulughbek and other emperors to bury their family there. A controversial restoration of the complex under Karimov government has been called to be a disaster, however it is worth visiting. Dress respectfully.

Guri Amir - Tamerlan Mausoleum - Samarkand Uzbekistan

Guri Amir Mausoleum, where Tamerlane is buried

On the other side of the monumental zone, Guri Amir Mausoleum is a must-see for all travelers to Samarkand. Tamerlan’s mausoleum is also the resting place for Ulugh Beg and other royal family members. The azur dome is decorated with golden, red and blue ornaments, in the middle of which lays a dark green block of jade marking the tomb of Timur (in fact, the real tomb is in a crypt beneath). Around Timur’s stone, there are blocks of white marble, marking the points for the other inhabitants of the mausoleum. The one to the left of Timur is Ulugh Beg. Two more little mausoleums stand in the same square.

Northwest of the monumental center you can find Afrosiab, the ruins of the ancient Marakanda, the legendary city that Alexander conquered. The ruins are not so well maintained, but you can visit some excavations at Afrosiab Museum. Not far from there, the tomb of the Prophet Daniel, a character from the Old Testament, is a restored building containing a 18m tomb. The legend says that the prophet corpse (supposedly brought from Persia to Samarkand by Timur ) grows some centimeters each year, so the tomb has to be enlarged regularly.

Past the end of the ruins, in the north side, Ulugh Beg Observatory well deserves a visit and some respect. With his huge sextant and observatory Ulugh Bek determined positions of hundreds of  stars, which makes him one of the most important astronomers in the history. Now only remains a 30m curved rail, some archaic form of mechanic stairs used to move along the sextant.

On the other side of Afrosiab you can visit Hazrat-Hizr Mosque. Actually all over the city you can find more mausoleums, mosques and even a soviet styled statue of Yuri Gagarin.

From Samarkand it is recommendable a trip to Hoja Ismail (more or less 30 minutes away), a complex including Ismail al-Bukhari Mausoleum, one of the greatest scholars and lawyers mentioned in Quran. Like in all the centers of pilgrimage, dress respectfully and stay calm.

Aq-Saray Palace, Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan

Aq-Saray Palace in Shakhrisabz

Shakhrisabz

Un-Russified Shakhrisabz is Tamerlan’s hometown, with some ruins left from the times of the monster. Once it was called Kesh, but Timur gave it its present name ( “Green Town” in Tadjik) and ordered to build him a mausoleum which finally was not used due to snow in mountain passes at the time of his death. The historical monuments of the city are enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The legacy of Shahrizabz can be seen in Ak-Saray Palace, former Timur’s Summer Palace and probably the most ambitious project of  his life. Nevertheless, it’s almost in ruins except of pieces of the gigantic 65m gate-towers and some left mosaics where you can read “If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!”.

Kok-Gumbaz Mosque, Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan

Kok-Gumbaz Mosque

UlughBek ordered to build Kok-Gumbaz Mosque near Dorut Tilyovat to honor his father and Timur’s son Shah Rukh. Near it he built a mausoleum for his family, Guymbazi Seyidan. On the other side you can see the Mausoleum of Sheikh Shamseddin Kulyal.

East of Kok Gumbaz, Hazrat-i Imam Complex is another mausoleum complex built for Timur’s son. And behind it there’s a simple crypt discovered in 1963 that was destinated to be Timur’s Tomb. In the middle of it there is an impresive decorated stone on which should have been placed the body of the great leader who, as said, was finally buried in Samarkand.

Other places of interest in Shakhrizabz are the old baths, the 18th century bazaar and the Amir Timur Museum.

Bukhara (Bukhoro)

If Samarkand is the Imperial capital of Uzbekistan, Bukhara is its spiritual cradle. Unlike Samarkand, Bukhara preserves an untouched old center with narrow labyrinth streets, plenty of mosques and medrassas, a well preserved royal fortress and a once-big bazaar complex. It all gave to the city a place in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Located on the Silk Route, the city has been always a center of trade, culture and religion, as well as a caravanserai city. Like Samarkand, Bukhara has been historically a Tadjik city, joined to Uzbek territory during the Russian rule.

Kalon Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Kalon Mosque is one of the highlights of Bukhara

Also named Bukhoro-i-Sariff (Noble Bukhara), Bukhara has been one of the pillars of Islam and its most important city in Central Asia, especially in two moments of history: during the Islamic Renaissance and after the Timurid Dynasty in Samarkand, when the capital was moved here. The decline of the Silk Route by the 16th century brought Bukhara back to the ground, but its past splendurousity can still be seen nowadays.

The neuralgic point of the city is Lyabi Hauz (or Lab-i Hauz, tadjik for around the pool), a square built in 1620 around a pond. Pleasant chaikhanas offer Central Asian specialties in this peaceful place surrounded by Nadir Divanbegi Medrassa (built firstly as a caravanserai and decorated by two forbidden birds), Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka and Kukeldash Medrassa. Under the trees on the eastern side of the square, you can find the statue of Hoja Nasruddin, a sufi character from mythical tales.

Kalon Minaret and Kalon Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Kalon Minaret and Kalon Mosque

Po-I Kalon Complex is where you will find Bukhara’s masterpiece, the 12th century Kalon Minaret. Once the tallest building in Central Asia, its 47 meters of decorated bricks astonished even Genghis Khan who left it untouched. It was also the first place were the typical Central Asian blue tiles were used, and for centuries the criminals were executed by being tossed off the top. Near the minaret stands the huge delightful Kalon Mosque, dating from the 16th century, and on the other side of the square Mir-i-Arab Medrassa shows its two blue domes completing a beautiful envirointment.

Ismail Samani Mausoleum, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Ismail Samani Mausoleum

Don’t miss the beautiful covered bazaars, topped with low domes and offering a precious shadow in the cozy streets of the old city between Lyabi-Hauz and the Kalon Minaret. Near them, Ulughbeg Madrassa and Abdul Aziz Khan Medrassa are good options to take a look. North of the Kalon Minaret, you will be gratefully pleased in the carpet bazaar.

Of course, from there you should go to Registan Square and visit the Ark, the fortress of the city, and a little town itself. About 80% of it are in ruins, but you can still find the Juma (Friday) Mosque, the Reception & Coronation Court and plenty of buildings turned to museums in Soviet times. In front of the Ark main gate, Bolo-Hauz Mosque was the emir’s place of worship. On the other way, behind the Ark, Zindon was the main jail of the city, now turned to a museum.

Not far away you will find Ismail Samani Mausoleum, the oldest bulding in Bukhara which managed to survive till our days due to its 2m thick brick walls, a joy of old architecture honoring the founder of Samanid dynasty, the last Persian dynasty to rule in Cental Asia. Near it, Chasma-Ayub Mausoleum, meaning “Spring of Job”, erects to mark the place where Job (Ayub) threw his stuff on the ground and a spring appeared. You can drink the water, which it’s believed to heal.

Chor Minor, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Chor Minor

The city has loads of other medrassas, mosques and minarets, which you can see by loosing yourself  in the narrow streets of the old town. And it’s quite possible that by doing this you arrive to the last sight you must see in Bukhara, the Chor Minor, four photogenic minarets build together.

Around Bukhara you can find several interesting sights. The most recommended is Bakhautdin Naqshband Mausoleum, a holy place for Sufism. Here was born and died Bakhautdin Naqshband, the founder of the most influential Sufi orders in Cenral Asia. Take a look at the beautiful mosques and minarets, make three anticlockwise rounds to the tomb and make the same with a petrified tree in the gardens: tradition says it’s auspicious for your luck and procreation. As a holy place of Sufism and Islam pilgrimage, dress and act respectfully.

Ichon Qala walls, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Ichon Qala walls

Khiva

When you walk for the first time inside Khiva’s Ichon Qala (Old Town), you feel as if you have entered into a dream of the past. In the history of Khorezm, Khiva was not as important as Konye-Urgench (now in Turkmenistan), but it’s very well preserved, just as if the time had stopped infront of the walls of the old town and hadn’t entered inside.

After Timur defeated Konye-Urgench and the later decay of his empire, Shaybanids Uzbeks came to the area and founded a new state in Khorezm, making Khiva their capital in the 16th century. The town was famous for its slave market, where Kazakhs, Karakalpaks and other nomads were sold to rich Persians and Tadjiks, being the biggest slave market in Central Asia for more than three centuries.

After some treasals and betrayals between Khorezm and Russia, a few Persian invasions and the “Great Game”, Russia invaded the city in 1873, and in 1924 it was annexed to the USSR.

Kalta Minor Minaret, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Kalta Minor Minaret

When you will firstly pass the stunning Ichon-Qala walls and gates, you will understand that you have moved back in time. From the asphalted city outside it turns to a world of bricks, turquoise tiles and delightful architecture surrounded by the calm of the pedestrian zone only disturbed by the chant of the imam.

The first thing you will notice is the turquoise Kalta Minor Minaret, an unfinished minaret which Mohammed Amin Khan ordered to build. Had it been finished, it would surely have been the world’s tallest building of the time, but the Khan died and it was never finished. As the legend says, he wanted to see Bukhara from the top of the building. Near the Minaret you can find Sayid Alauddin Mausoleum and Qozi-Kalon Medrassa.

Kuhna Ark mosaics detail, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Kuhna Ark mosaics

Just a few meters away (everything is a few meters away inside Ichon-Qala) Kuhna Ark was the khan’s palace. Inside, take a look at the Summer Mosque, the throne room, in front of which was placed the royal yurt, and the many stances and rooms, finishing with the harem, where locals say the khan had 65 concubines. Most of the outside rooms are decorated with blue and white mosaics and wood carved columns with different degrees of restoration. To go up to the top of the Oq Shihbobo bastion, the oldest part of the Kuhna Ark, probably you’ll have to bribe some guard, but it’s worth the money (they will tell you). Finally, near the entrance you can see the Zindon or khan’s jail, and some steps further a camel is waiting to pose with tourists in front of the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medrassa.

The next important sight is Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, housing the town’s patron saint, poet and philosopher, as well as the loveliest tiling in the city. From the door of the Mausoleum it’s speacilly wonderfull the view of Islom-Hoja Minaret and Islom Hoja Medrassa, the newest Islamic monuments in the city, but maybe the most beautiful. Get impressed by the turquoise and red bands of the 57m tall minaret, Uzbekistan’s highest one, which you can climb bribing someone.

 

Islom-Hoja Minaret, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Islom-Hoja Minaret

Another remarkable sight in Khiva is the Juma Mosque, with its 218 wooden columns, where you can also climb to the Juma Minaret. Within its proximities you will find Matpana Bay Medrassa, Abdullah Khan Medrassa, Aq Mosque, Anusha Khan Baths and Tosh-Hovli Palace, holding some of the best interior decoration in the city.

Follow with the Alloquli Khan Medrassa, Kutlimurodinok Medrassa and Alloquli Khan Bazaar and Caravanserai, a real working indoor market that will lead you to Dekhon Bazaar, the same market continuing outdoors. Take a look at the black market money traders with their huge bags full of Sum notes (Uzbek money).

You can see all the sights in Khiva buying only one ticket in Eastern or Western Door. Usually, you can climb every minaret or high building paying something to the guard or the caretaker: it’s good to take a view of the city from the top, but maybe one time it’s enough as it will always look more or less the same.

Usually, one day is enough to see everything, but the place is worth to stay for two or even three days. More than three is too much due to the little dimensions of the city. Or maybe you can spend this last day making an excursion to the old fortress or Elliq-Qala which can be found in Khorezm. Some examples of them are Ayaz-Qala (the most visited), Qoy Qyrylghan Qala, Guldursun Qala, Toprak Qala or Qyzyl Qala. You can make it complete by staying in a yurt that will surely be offerd and taking a camel ride.

Aral Sea and Karakalpakstan

“When Allah loved us,

brought us Amu Darya;

when He stopped loving us,

sent us Russian engineers”,

preys a newly made Karakalpak song. The home of the Karakalpak people was once a prosperous and wealthy land. And it probably got better in the first years of the Soviet irrigation program, but it didn’t last for quite long. The water from the Amu Darya River was used in its totality to irrigate the cotton fields that nowadays are still the main industry of the region, and the Aral Sea got dried. Hundreds of fishermen and sea-related workers lost their jobs, and towns that were lying by the seashore now find themselves in the middle of an arid desert.

With the Aral Sea almost totally dried, the cotton is the only industry left in the land. That’s why this industry that brought the poverty to the region is impossible to leave. With this cruel dilemma, you’ll arrive to desolated Karakalpakstan.

And knowing all this, who would think that in Nukus, the poor Karakalpak capital, there’s placed one of the best art collections in ex-Soviet Union? So that’s it, the repudiated artist and ethnographer Igor Savitsky, with some help, succeed to bring here most of the early 20th Century Russian art that was not according to Soviet Realism standards. You can find a rotating display of the collection in Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum.

But if you did it to Karakalpakstan it’s surely to head to Moynaq and the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea has been called the biggest ecological disaster in the world, and Moynaq was its second port (the first one was in Aralsk, Kazakhstan). With a surface of 68000 km2 in 1960, it was only some scarce 5000 km2 in 2010. And without any source of constant water it’s estimated to be completely dry in less than 10 years.

Beached ship, Aral Sea, Moynaq, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan

Ship beached in the Aral Sea bed, near Moynaq

Before placed in a peninsula penetrating the waters, now Moynaq stands 160 km away from the shoreline. The new desert brought sand, salt and dust storms, giving the inhabitants no end of health problems and pulmonary diseases. Not surprisingly, everyday more people are leaving the town. The only inhabitants that still want to stay seem to be the rests of the former fishing boats that are still lying in the sands around the town. Some of them were taken in front of the War Memorial that before occupied the top of a cliff with the best views to the sea. It has been converted to an Aral Sea Memorial, with more or less a dozen of beached ships lying in the former sea platform in front of it. If you explore a little the sea layer further, you can find more rests of ship structures, some of them already eaten by the desert sand dunes. The writer of this article was talking with the driver of one of these boats, listening to his sad explanation of how it was before, while tears in the eyes smudged his view of that nonexistent sea.

A nearby lake was artificially created trying to restore the climate of the city, but it didn’t work so much. It looks like in Moynaq everything that can work badly, gets worst. And the only ones who can find some fun in it are the children who can happily play pirates jumping from vessel to vessel.

Fergana Valley

Conscious that Fergana Valley is the most populated and with the strongest ethnic consciousness in Central Asia, Stalin played a diabolic game with its borders, trying to divide and isolate the places where some ethnicity was strong. The result is clear: as some routes have up to 4 border crossing, they are completely abandoned. Also, the little “islands” of one republic within other’s border, help to make it difficult to normalize the diplomatic relations between the different countries, as the country surrounding a foreign territory always try to claim it. And some say the recent conflicts in the Kirguiz city of Osh between Uzbeks and Kirguizs are another result of the Stalin’s politics of mixing ethincities.

It’s difficult to say the Fergana Valley is actually a valley, as it’s mostly flat. Nevertheless, in the extremes of it you can find stunningly high mountains. In the north, the Tian Shan Range reaches the 4000 m, and in the south the Pamir Allay Range, 5000 m.  The melting snow from the mountains in nutrishing the upper Amu Darya descends through the valley making it the most fertile area in Central Asia.

Bazaar in Andijon, Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan

Bazaar in Andijon

Andijon is the largest city in Fergana valley, and apart of the Juma Mosque it’s worth seeing its numerous bazaars. Also, don’t miss Babur’s (Mughal emperor) royal apartment, now turned to Babur Literary Museum.

Placed southwest of Andijon, Fergana is the most russificated city in the valley. It has not so much to see, but the accommodation and services are the best in the region, so it’s a good base-town to explore the entire valley.

The best sight of the valley is the Khan Palace in the western city of Kokand, completed just three years before the Tsarist troops conquered the city. Half of the palace was occupied by a harem, inhabited by 43 concubines. Now this part of the palace is in ruins but 27 of the 114 original rooms are used as a museum. Another highlight of Kokand is Narbutabey Medrassa, containing some remarkable tombs in a venerated graveyard. And finally, you can explore some Russian buildings and a couple of mosques and medrassas left.

Angren and Chadak are good places to prepare some hiking up the Tien Shan Range, though you will see better mountains out of the valley, in other places of Uzbekistan, for example  if you head to south to Zaamin National Park or north to Ugam Chatkal National Park. And even better if you look for higher mountains in Kirguizstan or Tadjikistan.

 Old Uzbek woman in silk

Border Crossing, registration and corrupt policemen

Crossing borders is part of the fun in Uzbekistan. If you arrive by plane, the hassle shouldn’t be so big. Also, when entering the country, it shouldn’t happen nothing apart the long waiting times and some eventual search. The fun comes when you are leaving the country, specially by land. Long queues are made, registration papers are asked and declaration of goods is religiously checked. But it’s nothing you can’t success with some tips:

By first, your visa must be correct. Second, it’s very important that you declare your goods at the entrance of the country and keep the customs recipe (yes, that stupid paper you must fill in a lot of countries) with yourself until the exit border. You must declare everything supposed to have some value, like cameras, laptops and more importantly, money. And that’s a problem. Nobody likes to take with himself a paper saying that he’s carrying, for example, 2000 dollars. Some people declare only 200 or 300 dollars, and it’s normal that they do. But if you are checked when you are leaving the country with more money than you declared in the entrance, police will keep the difference. This is because Uzbek currency policy (read some lines below for more).

The third question you should solve before leaving the country, especially by land, is the registration. You must register to the OVIR (a sort of Foreign Affairs Ministry) everyday you stay in Uzbekistan, except for three days per month (data from 2010). It means that if you had a one month visa, you can stay three days without sleeping in a hotel, where checking-in means automatic registration. You can stay also in a private house (friend, etc.) and register at the OVIR providing the required info, but the hassles are huge and probably you will have to bribe someone, so it’s better to bribe a hotel directly. Honestly, I haven’t met anybody who tried to leave the country without the needed registers. But as you could understand, Uzbekistan is a country where bribes work well.

Another question are the corrupt officials (not in the border).  Since some years ago, when the reports about the mass abuses to travelers from officials in Uzbekistan reached the western books and specialized magazines, the dictator Karimov wanted to give a better image to the exterior. He put strict penalties to the policeman with bad behavior against tourists and the police got immediately more affable. But nevertheless you still have the chance of getting in touch with croocked officials; here you have a guide about how to act in such cases.

Moving around

Uzbekistan has an acceptable net of buses and marshrutkas. Train connects the main cities at pleasant fares. For everything else, shared taxis are not expensive and work well.

40 dollars in Uzbek Sums

40 dollars in Uzbek Sums

Currency

Uzbek Sum is a funny money. The biggest note, 1000 Sums, is something equal to 0.30 €, so when you change money, for example 50 €, you will get a huge amount of notes. But apart of this, the currency is tricky, as the government fixed an exchange rate different than the “market” rate. Known this, it’s much more profitable to change your money in the black market. You will see people with huge bags full of Sums in the market, nearby those who are selling apples or carrots. Well, maybe the best option is to change via black market, but do it better in your hotel or somewhere not as public as an outdoor market. If you ask your hotel staff, they will provide you a dealer for sure.

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Socotra Island in Yemen

 

Bottle Trees in Socotra

Bottle Trees in Socotra

Right in the Gulf of Aden, in front of the Horn of Africa, the Socotra archipelago is one of those unique and mysterious places that attract our mind making us dream about other times. Within its four islands, you’ll find one of the most fascinating and weirdest natural diversity in the world, a place where the cucumbers become trees, and the trees tap an intense red resin. Due to more than 6 million years of isolation and a specific climate very scarce in water, the flora and fauna of the island evolved separated form everything else in the earth, presenting plants and trees with shapes apparently coming from another planet.

Although it’s situated in front of the coast of Somalia, Socotra is part of the territory of Yemen, and the capital city is Haddibo. The principal island (also named Socotra) is 125 km length and 45km width, being the biggest island in the Middle East. The population is about 40.000 people who speak Arab and a unique Semitic language, the Soqotri. They live mostly from fishing, date cultivation and farming.

Socotra map

One third of the 900 plant species in the island are endemic, including the famous Dragon’s Blood Tree or Dracaena Cinnabara (known for its red resin, used as dye since antiquity and very appreciated by European Renassance painters ) and the cucumber tree or Dendrosicyos socotranus (also called bottle tree or desert rose), without doubt the most strange of all. But not everything is nice in being unique and rare: Socotra’s ecosystem is one of the most endangered in the world. Not in vain it was listed in the UNESCO World Site Heritage as World Natural Patrimony.

But it’s not only about plants in Socotra. You’ll also find gorgeous beaches and immaculate white sand dunes, beautiful and rare endemic birds, mountains ready for some hiking and unique diving and snorkeling possibilities.

Flora and fauna sightseen

Dragon Trees Socotra

Dragon Trees

Probably, hiking the Haggeher Mountains (1600 m high) is the best way to see the flora and fauna of the island, and there are plenty of places to head for. Good ideas are the ascension to the Dixam plateau, where you’ll find some forests of Dragon Blood Trees and nomads grazing their cattle. Homhill protected area is also an awesome place to see wildlife: here you’ll find forests of Dragon’s blood trees, frankincense trees and bottle trees, which are all around the island in the cliff zones. Rokeb Firhim and Momi are also good places to see the Dragon trees.

Other nice trekking opportunities are the Ayhaft Canyon –excellent for bird watching-, or the Dirhor Canyon near Firhim, as well as the beautiful Wadi Deneghen, just outside Hadibo.

Bottle Tree Socotra

Bottle Tree

Beach Socotra Yemen

Socotra's clear waters

Beach and dunes

Socotra’s stunning beaches are other main attraction of the island. In the north side, bathed by the Arabian Sea, Delicia is a sandy beach not far from Hadibo, with some dunes and a quiet sea. Further, to the East, Dihamri is a protected coral reef that offers excellent snorkeling and diving possibilities, probably the best in the island with its waters filled with coral, parrotfish, morays, rays and 200 more species of fish. Continuing to the east, Rosh and Arher beaches are also a good idea not far from Homhill, with silver sand dunes and a calm environment far from the onlookers.

On the Southern shore, in the Indic Ocean, you’ll find the big beach of Aomak, a good place to go before reaching the pristine white sand dunes in Noged, Zahik and Hayf.

Finally, in the western part of the island, you’ll find maybe the most splendid beaches in Socotra. From the picturesque fishing village of Qalansiya, with its traditional houses and narrow alleyways, you can reach the protected area in Detwah Lagoon, renowned for its spectacular landscape and expansive endless beach with clear crystalline waters. From there, you can take a boat to Shoab beach (not reachable by land). While in the boat, you are likely to see dolphins and other fishes, as well as heron birds flying around the cliffs. Finally, you’ll arrive to the clear turquoise waters of the Shoab beach. Look at the pictures of this impressive beach:

Water pool Socotra Yemen

The biggest water pool in the island

Water pools and caves

Water pools come to the surface in the karstic areas all around the mountains, and represent a vital source of water for the wildlife, the shepherds and the exhausted tourists tired from hiking. The biggest one is between Momi and Kalysan, but you’ll find also in Daerhu Canyon, Wadi Al Shifa, Wadi Dirhor and Wadi Ayhaft, among others. And if you didn’t have enough with the “outside-wells”, you can try to explore the Hoq Cave and the Dogub Cave.

Hadibo

In Hadibo city there’s not much to see. It’s a dirty and noisy city, with frequent water and electricity cuts, but you’ll be able to find good restaurant serving local dishes made mostly of grilled fish, beans and rice.

Socotra landscapeHow and when

If you are thinking about a trip to Socotra, you must have in mind that it’s not an easy destination where you’ll be able to plan everything. Flights are reasonably frequent and the hosting possibilities in the capital are enough with its 2 hotels, but out of there it will be difficult to find everything by your own. Hiring a local guide or an organized tour is probably the best option.

The best time for going there is from January to May, as it’s the best season to see wildlife, but from October to December it’s also fine. Avoid the monsoon season from June to September.

Another good advice is to bring some cash with you, because there is no ATM in the whole island.

Finally, if you want to reach the other islands, Samha and Abd Al-Kuri, or the uninhabited Darasah, strength yourself!

And we’ll finish the post with a gallery of freaking beautiful images of Socotra Island in Yemen. Enjoy it!

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