Tag Archives: Travel

My UNESCO World Heritage sites to date

One of the greatest measures of my travel has been the UNESCO World Heritage sites that I have been to.  I like their list because it really hits the gems of UN member states.  I first tallied a list for myself in 2009.  I revisited the list through 2012 (where I reached 37).  …and here is the list through the end of 2013 (I had hit 38).  I now have visited 42 of just over 1000 UNESCO sites.

We didn’t travel too much since that list, but since we just stopped at four sites I thought it was a good time to update my list.  Here are the UNESCO World Heritage sites that I have been to through the middle of April 2014.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India
  1. Mesa Verde, USA
  2. Yellowstone, USA
  3. Grand Canyon, USA
  4. Redwoods, USA
  5. Pueblo de Taos, USA
  6. Changdeokgung Palace Complex, South Korea
  7. City of Cuzco, Peru
  8. Machu Picchu, Peru
  9. Lima, Peru city center
  10. City of Quito, Ecuador
  11. Chichen-Itza, Mexico
  12. Banff & Jasper in Canada
  13. Great Wall, China
  14. Imperial Palace, China
  15. Temple of Heaven, China
  16. Longmen Grottoes, China
  17. Angkor, Cambodia
  18. Historic Center of Prague, Czech Republic
  19. Antigua, Guatemala
  20. Tikal, Guatemala
  21. Historic Center of Rome
  22. Holy See, Vatican City
  23. Copan Ruins, Honduras
  24. Þingvellir National Park, Iceland
  25. Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape, Mongolia
  26. Victoria Falls, Zambia
  27. Lake Baikal, Russia
  28. White Monuments of Vladimir and Suzdal, Russia
  29. Kremlin and Red Square, Moscow, Russia
  30. Saint Petersburg historic sites, Russia
  31. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
  32. Dambulla, Sri Lanka
  33. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
  34. Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
  35. Kandy, Sri Lanka
  36. Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
  37. Galle, Sri Lanka
  38. Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, India
  39. Taj Mahal, India
  40. Red Fort, India
  41. Humayun’s Tomb, India
  42. Agra Fort, India

As always, whenever I make this list I realize that I have a huge backlog in blog posts to write!

UNESCO World Heritage sites through the end of 2013

As I tend to when looking back at my travels, I also look at the important sites that I have been to.  Earlier in 2013 I documented the locations through January.  So here is the list with one update for the rest of 2013.  (Links are to related blog posts of mine.)

  1. Mesa Verde, USA
  2. Yellowstone, USA
  3. Grand Canyon, USA
  4. Redwoods, USA
  5. Pueblo de Taos, USA
  6. Changdeokgung Palace Complex, South Korea
  7. City of Cuzco, Peru
  8. Machu Picchu, Peru
  9. Lima, Peru city center
  10. City of Quito, Ecuador
  11. Chichen-Itza, Mexico
  12. Banff & Jasper in Canada
  13. Great Wall, China
  14. Imperial Palace, China
  15. Temple of Heaven, China
  16. Longmen Grottoes, China
  17. Angkor, Cambodia
  18. Historic Center of Prague, Czech Republic
  19. Antigua, Guatemala
  20. Tikal, Guatemala
  21. Historic Center of Rome
  22. Holy See, Vatican City
  23. Copan Ruins, Honduras
  24. Þingvellir National Park, Iceland
  25. Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape, Mongolia
  26. Victoria Falls, Zambia
  27. Lake Baikal, Russia
  28. White Monuments of Vladimir and Suzdal, Russia
  29. Kremlin and Red Square, Moscow, Russia
  30. Saint Petersburg historic sites, Russia
  31. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
  32. Dambulla, Sri Lanka
  33. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
  34. Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
  35. Kandy, Sri Lanka
  36. Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
  37. Galle, Sri Lanka 
  38. Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, India

Bangkok, Thailand

Last winter, pepper, Jordan and I made a trip to Myanmar with some time in Thailand.  Even though it has been about 16 months, I have not written about our experiences.  Well, I’m trying to catch up!

Last year, for our three week break we decided to go to Myanmar.  That wasn’t so easy.  America was, at the time, still putting Myanmar (Burma) in the same category as North Korea, Cuba, and Iran.  However, many other “first world” countries didn’t consider it quite so forbidden.  Granted, that list of countries also coincides with Coke’s list of countries they didn’t do official business in, we certainly experienced “westerners” there.  Weeks after our trip, Hillary Clinton went to Myanmar and tensions between the US and the country were quickly relaxing.  In fact, our guidebook, merely 6 months after the publishing date, was so woefully out of date that we really had to readjust our approach to the country.  But I’m getting ahead of myself… Back to Thailand.

We arrived in Bangkok, Thailand on December 18th.  Pepper and Jordan had both been there a few times, but this was my first trip to the kingdom.  Right out of the airport things are different.  There are statues and billboards celebrating the King’s birthday.  King?  Yes, this country loves it’s king.  If you go to a movie, be prepared to stand up before the flick starts in recognition of the king.  It’s cultural.  I had one Thai citizen tell me about how the king encouraged rolling your toothpaste to get the last bit of usable toothpaste out of the tube.  My god, if every country had someone in charge that could throw around little tips that improved life for everyone… “turn off the water when you brush your teeth” and “spay and neuter your pets” and “turn off the light when you leave the room”… then the world would certainly be a better place.

We spent a few days in Bangkok.  Enough time to apply for a Myanmar visa, pick it up the next day and go and see the major highlights.  Then we went to the beach for a few days to celebrate Christmas.  Details from that trip will be in a separate post.

 

Things to carry with your passport

In the last two years, I have gone through some country’s immigration process over 40 times.  I have been fine-tuning my passport handling and have some tips that might make transit easier for you.

Passports

  1. If you travel as a family or in a group where one person handles the passports (on my last trip I had mine and nine students!) then it is very nice to have some external difference so you don’t have to open every passport to see whose it is.  I have stickers on the back of mine.  our son has a small sticker with his name on it.  Some students in the past have had fancy covers but some immigration stations don’t like them.
  2. Put a couple of sticky flags in the passport.  Immigration agents sometimes spend more time flipping through your passport trying to find the visa than they do actually scrutinizing your passport.  Speed things up by placing one of the removable tabs on the pages they most likely need to see.
  3. A pen.  Many places require filling out an immigration form for arrival and departure.  Often, flight attendants will distribute the forms while on the plane.  Keep a pen handy.  You may want the boarding pass available as well – they’ll probably want to know your flight number and sometimes even the seat you’re in.
  4. A binder clip or rubber band.  This is nice if you have to carry your departure card at all times with your passport.  Many hotels need your passport on check-in and they might drop that card.  Some countries have a hefty fine to replace those – others you can just fill out a new one at the airport for free.
  5. Your emergency and backup kit.  Carry with you but not in the same bag.  A few spare passport-sized photos.  These are necessary for many visa applications.  A photocopy of your passport and any critical visa pages for your trip.  If you don’t want to carry these around, then at least scan or photograph your passport and those pages and have them uploaded to a secure area you can access or saved in an email to yourself.  If your passport is lost or stolen these will really help get going again.

The strangest foods I have ever eaten – to date

This is bound to become an annual post which I try and build on. Well, this and the upcoming sister post about the strangest drinks I have ever tried. This is one of those topics that comes up from time to time especially with well-traveled folks. What is the strangest thing you have ever eaten? I’ll go in chronological order.

  1. Sharp-Shinned Hawk.  Yes, this is actually probably the most exotic (and illegal) food I have ever eaten.  But before you skewer me and try my flesh cooked over your scorn, hear me out.  I was driving my 1988 Chevy S-10 pickup and saw a bird dash across the road just ahead of my red truck.  Then BAM!  I popped a larger bird with the plastic grille of my ride.  I stopped and looked and a piece of the grille was busted out.  Then looked a hundred feet back on the road and saw the bird laying in the street.  Sharp-Shinned Hawks predate on smaller birds, and I just happened to interrupt the natural cycle but gave one bird a new lease on life.  Yeah, we’ve probably all killed a thing or two by accident with our cars.  So why did I eat it?  Because I was driving to the location for my three day wilderness survival college course.  I saw that poor bird laying in the road and decide that I’d rather eat it than have it become a feather-fringed greasy spot on the road.  Lucky for me, I knew where there was a large patch of wild leeks and also the best spots for cattails which the root is a bit starchy and the new growth is like asparagus.  Sharp-Shinned Hawk and leek stew for the first night of survival?  Luxuriously exotic.  Of course, it tasted a bit like chicken with really dark meat.
  2. Muktuk.  That’s whale blubber to you non-Inuit speakers.  I was in Alaska at a native potlatch and emissaries from around the state brought many regional foods as part of the celebration.  One of the plates that was passed around had small cubes on it.  Whispers were that it was whale blubber.  Well, that’s not something you have passed to you very often!  So  I tentatively grabbed one.  Popping it into my mouth, it was chewy.  Like chewing the densest fat of a steak.  But it tasted fishy.  Honestly it wasn’t very good.  But it is supposed to be high in vitamins.  It was likely that this was bowhead whale that I was trying.  It is legally harvested in only nine Alaskan villages.
  3. Crispy Bird’s Nest.  As far as I can recollect, my eating habits were relatively tame for over a decade.  Yes, I ate moose meat, caribou, and alligator.  I regularly looked forward to harvesting shaggy mane mushrooms or the aptly named chicken-of-the-woods shelf fungus.  I even ate Herring eggs on kelp.  At the time, they all seemed quite odd and somewhat adventurous.  Then I went to China and saw and tasted a huge range of oddities such as the Kiwi flavored Lay’s potato chips.  But then I walked along the Donghuamen night market of Beijing looking at the street foods there.  Scorpions writing on a stick.  Whole roasted starfish.  They were more odd than the boiled sheep feet I saw in Xian.  I have no idea what kind of nest this might be.  You can get birds nest drink in Vietnam – oh wait, I was going to talk about drinks in a different post.  Anyway, how was the crispy bird’s nest?  Crispy.  Deep fry just about anything and it is good, right?  No.  I wouldn’t say this was good.  If you want good stuff here, get the fruits that have hardened sugar glaze on them.  Mmmm!

    Crispy bird’s nest
  4. Crocodile Caesar salad – While in Zimbabwe at a fancy hotel we ate at the restaurant with a view of the spray from Victoia Falls.  From the menu; “Crocodile Caesar salad with thyme croutons, Parmesan shavings, Caesar dressing and cracked black pepper.”  Who can resist that?  I forgot I had even tried it until Brooke reminded me a few months ago.  Crocodile isn’t a very good substitute for chicken though.  It’s greasier.  But otherwise it actually isn’t that bad in a Caesar salad!   I should have pictures of this which I’ll add later.
  5. Fermented shark meat.  I read that this was awful; so had to try it.  We had just arrived in Iceland, spent hours enjoying the Blue Lagoon and then went to find Hákarl which is probably a Greenland shark that has been decapitated and gutted and then stored underground for a few months to fester.  Wikipedia says “Those new to it will usually gag involuntarily on the first attempt to eat it due to the high ammonia content.”  Further details on Wikipedia from Foodies…

    Chef Anthony Bourdain, who has traveled extensively throughout the world sampling local cuisine for his Travel Channel show No Reservations, has described hákarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten.

    Chef Gordon Ramsay challenged journalist James May to sample three “delicacies” (Laotian snake whiskey, bull penis, and hákarl) on The F Word; after eating hákarl, Ramsay spat it out, although May kept his down. May’s only reaction was, “You disappoint me, Ramsay.”

    On season 2’s Iceland episode of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, Andrew Zimmern described the smell as reminding him of “some of the most horrific things I’ve ever breathed in my life,” but said the taste was not nearly as bad as the smell. Nonetheless, he did note that hákarl was “hardcore food” and “not for beginners.”

    Yeah, what they said.

  6. Whale steak  and puffin – Yes, these are different foods.  But we had them in the same sitting, so we’ll lump them together here.  Still in Iceland we found another opportunity for an odd food.  Whale steak.  Minke whale specifically.  Iceland and Norway are two countries that still harvest whale and the environmental activists seems to leave alone.  Maybe they have dined there.  I guarantee the shark meat didn’t win anyone over.  Honestly, the whale steak won’t either.  It is strong flavored and only slightly fishy.  (Of note, in my experience, the older fish gets the more fishy it tastes.  I don’t know if this is the same for mammals like whales.)  The puffin appetizer we had was delicious!   
  7. Horse – I didn’t really ever imagine that when news stories broke about “horse-tainted” meat in Europe that I might utter “what’s the big deal?”  But the truth is that most foods I will only experience because of local customs.  I’m not interested in developing a tourist trade based on exotic foods if they are unethical.  And I’m an omnivore so don’t berate me for my meat eating.  Saying that I have eaten a banana that was 18 inches long or a few other exotic fruits just isn’t as interesting to most as saying that I have eaten horse intentionally.  In Mongolia there are probably more horses than people.  They are not all animals used for labor or transportation either.  The milk for mares is used.  And with that many animals, using them for meat is natural.  Horse is on the menu at our favorite hot pot restaurant.  It isn’t much different tasting than beef.  Very lean beef.  There isn’t much fat on horses.  The truth is, horse meat is a much more healthy option for meat-eaters than the fattier meats that are preferred by many.
  8. Bull penis.  I have had hot pot before moving to Mongolia.  We went often last year – probably averaging at least once a week.  And we frequently saw the “bull penis” on the menu and kept promising ourselves that some day we’d try it.  Well, last year Pepper decided that the conditions were right.  A number of our friends were out and we gave it a try.  It was chewy. Even when you let it boil in your hot pot for a long time.  That’s ok – we tried it!

Yes, this list seems to be more accurately called the most exotic meats I have eaten.  I’ll keep that in mind as I add to it in the future though.  What have you tried?

Retro Auto – Listvyanka, Russia

Auto Retro

One great little side visit if you’re ever in Listvyanka, Russia is to hit the St. Nickolas Church. I didn’t get any good pictures of the church. But one of the reasons we wanted to go there was to see the obscure Retro Auto museum that is just a few minute walk from the church. If you go out the front of the church and cross over the ditch, turn left down the dirt road (ok, path) and just follow the signs.

The creator of this collection of vintage soviet vehicles and sculptures welcomes people into his yard to check out his creations.  Leave a donation to support his creativity!

Applying for a Chinese visa in Mongolia

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I have applied four times for Chinese visas at the China embassy in Ulaanbaatar in the past year and a half.  Things have changed a little and are bound to change more.  As of right now here is what you need to do to apply for a Chinese visa if you’re not a Mongolian citizen.

  • You will need to fill out two different forms.  The standard visa application form and the supplemental form.  Be sure to fill out all of the sections as accurately as possible.  On the supplemental, you need to fill out the last section since you are applying for a visa outside of your home country.
  • A photocopy or printout of your flight itinerary.
  • A printout of your hotel reservation.
  • A letter of invitation.
  • For expats in Mongolia – a photocopy of your Mongolian resident alien card.
  • A passport-sized photo.
  • So far not necessary but probably wise – a photocopy of your passport ID pages.

They will give you a bill which you then take to the Golomt Bank (Голомт банк) that is just around the corner.  Exit the embassy, turn left until you get to the corner, cross the street (continuing south) and the bank is to the left a few hundred feet.  They will give you a receipt you’ll need to present to receive your visa-fied passport.

The embassy is open to visa applications from 9:30-noon on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Pickups are done after 4 PM on the same days of the week.  Normal visa processing time is one week from the submission.  An additional $40 and it can be ready the same day or $20 gets the visa ready not the next day they are opening, but the following opening.  Fees are $140 for Americans regardless the number of entries.  Sometimes you need to provide evidence of multiple flights and associated accommodations but the most recent time I applied I was offered dual entry without that documentation needed.  Residents of other countries (except Mongolia and Romania) are $30 per entry.

Of special note is that starting in January of 2013, Beijing and Shanghai both allow 3 day entries without a visa.  You can just fly there and receive the visa on arrival.  I would have printouts of the departing flight and hotel confirmation and not just something on your mobile device or laptop to show them to minimize hassle.  Up until then you could get a 24 hour transit visa as long as you had proof of continuing flight although many American ticket agents were not aware of that and would scour our passports looking for a valid visa to enter China.  Calmly asking them to ask further up the chain worked well for us – someone on the other end of a phone call knows that it is acceptable!  I hope word of the three day visa on arrival has spread.

The map below pinpoints where the embassy entrance is that you need to use for the visa application and pickup.

Russia trip – day 9 and 10 – Moscow

We had very little time to spend in Russia.  Pepper’s sister was having a 10th anniversary party so we had to be back in the US just 13 days after school got out.  So we had two days in Moscow to catch the highlights.  We rode the subway to get around a bit – the stations truly are beautiful.  We spent quite a bit of time in the Kremlin and then in Red Square although Lenin’s tomb was closed.

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Sure, I took lots of pictures of the tops of buildings… but they are awesome!

My UNESCO site list as of early 2013

I compiled a list of UNESCO sites I had been to in 2009 when I had visited 16 of the over 900 sites.  Then last year I updated my list, having added 9.  Here is the list now with links to any blog posts on my site about these places.

New in the last year:

One I need to add that I went to in 1991…

  • Changdeokgung Palace Complex, South Korea

That puts me up to 37!  There are quite a few places that are on the UNESCO tentative list – Bagan and Inle Lake of Myanmar, Petrified Forest in USA, Amarsbayasgalant Monastery, Bogd Khan mountain and Gobi desert in Mongolia… and quite a few more I am sure!

Dambulla cave temple

One consistency on our few week trip in Sri Lanka was that nearly every stop ended up being better than we expected.  That’s certainly a nice aspect of taking a trip that you let someone else put together for you.  Menaka Arangala arranged our trip although we never met him.  Our driver, Ashoka did a great job of keeping us safe on the road, advising us of scams, and even keeping us moving at a good pace.  There were times when we felt like we were being rushed and then an hour later would arrive at a better destination and we were thankful for being ushered around.

When we pulled over at Dambulla we were all thinking the same thing.  Why are we at this amusement-park style temple?

Dambulla Golden Temple

Then we walked up a path off to the left of this building after our guide purchased tickets.  It was a fairly long series of steps and steep walkway with some people selling flowers, fruits and just hanging out and offering a hand to those climbing up the stairs.  (They wanted a tip for their help of course.)

Then we arrived at the top of the path, left our sandals by the entrance and went into the site actually worth seeing…

Dambulla Sri Lanka

 

This cave temple complex has five separate caves featuring over 150 sculptures, vast murals, stupas, and offering-thieving monkeys.  It is a Unesco World Heritage site.  The lighting wasn’t good in the caves and I didn’t have my flash so the color is off on these and some are quite blurry but you get a good idea of how neat the place is.