Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Memorable Travel Moments: Hiking to Tolmie Peak Lookout, Mount Rainier, Washington (1990)

My college roommate got married in Seattle in 1990. Having significantly less time off than her new spouse, her new spouse was charged with entertaining me, his sister, and her friend. Since he was a serious hiker (the kind who goes out every weekend and tackles a different mountain trail and never brings a camera because the scenery isn’t the point), he decided to take us on one his favorite hikes on Mount Rainier.

Keep in mind that I only hike for the photo ops and his sister and friend – visiting from England – very likely spend most of their time hiking around the local shops at home. They certainly weren’t used to hiking up a mountainside, especially at 5000 feet. (Neither was I.) But he insisted and soon we were on the Tolmie Peak Lookout/Eunice Lake Trail.

This was the first week of August and there were flowers everywhere, masses of them in brilliant Crayola colors. I’d never seen anything like it - had never even imagined anything like it.

Eunice Lake was beautiful, still and calm in the hot sun, but there were a few mosquitos. They weren't too bad, but my British companions – including the instigator of this hike -- weren’t used to mosquitos and found them dreadfully unpleasant. I believe a bit of unpleasant language and a fair amount of violence (directed at the mosquitos) occurred.

Well, some of the unpleasant language might have ben directed at our guide, as from here we could see our destination: the Tolmie Peak Fire Lookout.   
 He had to be nuts. There was no way we’d be able to hike all the way up there!

But he kept pushing us along on what sometimes seemed like a forced march into the wilderness, prodding us along almost every step of the way, encouraging us to keep moving and frustrated that we were so slow. He did pause occasionally to ask us if we were enjoying the scenery, to which his sister replied: “I feel like I’m on a train, with the scenery whizzing past.”

Exactly.

Actually, he did stop occassionally to take a break, probably so none of us got too far behind. Once the last of us (usually me, since I kept stopping to take pictures) reached his shady resting spot, the break was over. Time to hike some more! Isn’t this fun!?

But it was stunningly beautiful (the lake, the mountains, all those flowers!) and we did have a wonderful sense of accomplishment when we reached the lookout tower.  . . or maybe we were simply lightheaded from exhaustion and the altitude.  

At any rate, at the lookout tower we had a chance to rest, eat lunch, and savor our accomplishment . . . at least until the young woman with the child on her shoulders bounded past us, barely breathing hard. Maybe this shouldn’t have seemed so hard.

At least we had amazing scenery to distract us from the fact that we would soon need to begin the hike back.
This was the first time I’d ever really spent any time hiking in the mountains and I was amazed by the beauty and, especially, by the flowers. I had never imagined that there was a place where flowers grew in wild glorious abundance like this. (Wild flowers in Minnesota tend to be shy, timid things; beautiful, but dainty and delicate.) I was stunned by Mother Nature’s display here and I’ve been on a search for its equal ever since.

It was a truly delightful, if exhausting, day. And all my hiking companions survived their mosquito bites and lived to tackle our next (non-hiking) adventure the following day.

Information on this hike  – with links to more to see and do in Mount Rainier National Park.

Fire Lookouts on Mount Rainier


More Memorable Travel Moments 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Dream List: The Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an, China

Since I just saw the Terracotta Warriors exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, it seems like a good time to think about what I would see and do on a trip to Xi’an. (By the way, if this show comes to a museum near you, go see it! It’s a rare chance to see these beautiful, lifelike figures up-close.)

Not that this is a new dream destination for me. I read about the discovery of the army in National Geographic as a teen, amazed both by the concept (a life-size army of thousands made out of clay!?!) and the beauty of the figures. Someday I would see them for myself. Now I’ve seen a few of them (the MIA exhibit included ten human figures and four horses, a set of stone armor, and replicas of the miniature bronze horse and carriage sets, among other treasures from this period of Chinese history), but that glimpse increased my desire to see them in situ.  

via Wikipedia
The massive army, estimated to have 7000 warriors, 140 chariots, 560 chariot horses, and 124 cavalry horses was created by Qin Shihuang, who ruled from 246 - 210 BCE, becoming the First Emperor of a unified China. Throughout this time, apparently, he was also considering his afterlife and making preparations, including ordering construction of this massive army.

Created to protect his tomb for eternity, the army is aligned in fighting formation in pits in front of his tomb. It was covered over, but damage during rebellions in the years following the Emperor’s death. However, the creation of the army was not documented in ancient records and its existence was unknown and unimagined until farmers discovered it while digging a well in 1974.

The entire burial complex (believed to be the largest in the world) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Excavation of the site has revealed many wonders, including more than 2,000 warriors and thousands of real weapons.
aros M r a z (Maros) via Wikimedia Commons
Much remains to be excavated, including a large portion of the pit containing the main army (damaged during the rebellions) and the Emperor’s burial tomb (where excavation has yet to begin). There is likely more as well, since new pits containing other terracotta figures and life-size bronze birds have been found in recent years. Most recently, the remains of an ancient imperial palace were found. I’m sure there is much more waiting to be discovered – despite tantalizing hints in ancient records, no one really knows what other treasures await here. 
Since only a small portion of the site is likely to be excavated within my lifetime, I’ll never know what lies hidden there. This seems like even more reason to visit speculate on what might lie below the surface.

Most of the surface of the site is open to visitors as the Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Site Park, which consists of two separate components:
  • The Museum of Terracotta Warriors and Horses, which includes the three pits in which these figures are located.
  •   Lishan Garden, which includes the Museum of Terracotta Acrobatics, Museum of Terracotta Civil Officials, Museum of Stone Armor, and Museum of Bronze Chariot and Horse, as well as other architectural areas surrounding the site of the emperor’s tomb.

Most people visit the terracotta warriors as part of a day trip, but I’d like to find a volunteer program that would allow me to spend more time getting to know these guys a little better and helping support their preservation. (There have been some of these available in the past, so I’ll hope that there will be opportunities in the future.)

This rather over-dramatic episode of the PBS show Secrets of the Dead discusses some of the latest (fascinating) scientific discoveries related to the terracotta warriors, including theories on their actual construction. (The show repeatedly claims the army was created in the 11 year period after the unification of China and demonstrates how that would have been possible. Other sources indicate that this project probably began earlier.)



The Dream Trip List

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Photo Thursday: Contrasting Travel Ideals on Display in Paris

This was the scene near our hotel in Paris last October.
I was struck by the contrast between the Eifel Tower and the rugged outdoors scene plastered along the tower in the foreground. (The poster was an ad for travel to Australia.) It was an unexpected juxtaposition of two very different visions of travel, perhaps made more obvious here, in a city that is the focus of many a traveler’s dreams.

For more travel images to spark your own travel dreams, check out Nancie’s Budget Traveler’s Sandbox.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Memorable Travel Moments: Night in the Tsodilo Hills

I’ve written about my 2005 Botswana safari as a memorable travel moment before, but there are lots of memorable moments from that trip, so I’d like to share another one. This one took place during our stay in the Tsodilo Hills
These ancient hills are of great spiritual significance to the local San. This is a spiritual place and has been so for generations. Evidence of this is abundant, as this small patch of quartzite hills has 4,500 ancient paintings. This is a place where you can feel the power of ancient gods. It is also stunningly beautiful.

Despite the ancient paintings and beautiful hillsides, the most memorable part of our trip was an evening windstorm. It was as if the spirits that surely inhabit this place were determined to make their presence known, to remind us that this is a place of great, ancient power.

But we didn’t know that as we prepared for bed on a beautiful evening, the air still, the sky clear and lovely. We had stayed up late talking with another couple, so late that everyone else had gone to bed. Even our late-night loving camp crew have put out their campfire and disappeared, so I expected a quiet night as we settled in to sleep.
At some point during the night I was awaked by a strange noise, a growling and howling that seemed to come from the sky itself.

At first I was petrified and confused. What was that?

It was, I realized in time, the wind. First it was a distant rumbling that growled like untold numbers of far off lions. The intensity would slowly build, until suddenly it changed in tone and came hurtling toward us, a shrieking, howling thing, screeching like a living creature being brutally shredded. As it hurtled past, it would grab the tent and shake it furiously, sifting sand down on us through the closed, but unsealed openings.

Wow.

I listened intently, trying to dissect the physics of what I was hearing, trying to assure myself that it was, indeed, just the wind and not the raging of an angry god.

The wind was blowing in long, regular gusts. The low rumbling was the sound of its journey across the nearly endless grassy plain surrounding these hills. We were camping in what is, essentially, a bowl at the foot of the hills. There was a narrow entrance into the bowl and the wind was picking up in speed and intensity as it forced itself it that opening, hence its sudden lunge toward us. And that bowl, of course, was surrounded by the jagged, exposed rock of the hills, rock that was, literally shredding the wind and it raced along the edge of the hills.

I took comfort in this knowledge . . . and the fact that it was one of our friends, asleep in a nearby tent, who had made a jokingly disrespectful remark on our arrival. It wasn’t me the gods were after. Not this time.

To the Tsolido Hills and In the Tsolido Hills 

All Botswana 2005 posts   

More Memorable Travel Moments 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Worth a Return Trip: Chicago

I love Chicago and it has been far, far too long since I was last there. The problem with visiting Chicago is that is too close: It’s too easy to say “let’s take a long weekend next month and drive down to Chicago.” But then, when next month rolls around with a non-refundable plane ticket in hand, it ends up being “Work is really busy this month, how about we do it next month?”

I’m sure you can see how this leads to years going by without ever actually getting in the car. I’ve considered flying just to make sure we actually get there!

When I do get there, I’ll clearly find more to do than I’ll have time for in a single long weekend!

Architecture
Chicago is a great city for architecture, with a rich architectural history.
By Voogd075 from Wikimedia Commons

Years ago I took an architectural boat tour of the city. It was fabulous and I’d like to do that again. (Of course, the Chicago Architecture Foundation also has a number of walking tours too.)     

 Downtown has a wealth of classic buildings, perfect for walking, but when I get tired of walking the question will be: the Hancock or the Willis (the former Sears Tower)?  I love the bar at the Hancock, with its huge windows and panoramic views of the city. But the Willis has an observation area with a “sky deck” that lets you step out on a glass floor and look straight down at the city 103 floors below.
By Dan Smith via Wikimedia Commons


Chicago’s Oak Park Heights suburb was once the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and a number of his designs can be found through-out the area, and a few are even open for tours. Among those open to the public are his home and studio in Oak Park Heights and the Robie House at the University of Chicago.


from greenroofs.com


Chicago is also national leader in the use of green architecture and infrastructure – it is a city where it is easy to sustainability in action. I might well humor my inner sustainability geek and make arrangements to tour as many of these as I can, including green roofs, green alleys, community gardens,  and other projects designed to bring about a greener, more sustainable urban structure.  
Museums
Chicago is a good museum city, but my favorite is the Art Institute of Chicago. Remodeled since I last visited, I’m eager to check out the changes, but also to visit old favorites. There are other great museums, including the Field Museum with it’s fine natural history and cultural collections, so I'll have plenty to do no matter what the weather is.

By J. Crocker via Wikimedia Commons

Urban parks
This might be the biggest area of change since my last visit, which pre-dated the establishment of Millennium Park. Last time I was here, the area was a wasteland frequented by the homeless. Now it boasts a concert-friendly pavilion, gardens, sculpture, the Cloud Gate (the giant bean), and Crown Fountain. All of which seem as if they were designed especially for photographers!

At least in the summer, the real highlight of Chicago might well be these wonderful urban parks, especially the parks and beaches that wrap along the Lake Michigan waterfront. It sounds perfect for biking.

This year I’ll get there!

More Places Worth a Return Trip

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Dream List: Petra, Jordan

By David Bjorgen via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve wanted to see Petra since I was in High School.

Now I know I want to see a lot more of Jordan, but if I only get to see one more site in the Middle East, I want it to be Petra - preferably at dawn and without a million other tourists! 
By Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons
By Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons
 
 The Travel Dream List

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Driving Around Mahé, Seychelles

The Seychelles is the scariest place we have driven.  (The road around the far end of Viti Levu in Fiji is another contender for this title, but it was under construction at the time and we were driving it in torrential rain in a vehicle that died at unpredictable intervals, so it seems unfair to confer the title of scariest road on it given those additional factors.)  The main roads on Mahé have good solid pavement, so there is no need to watch for potholes.  Nor are the drivers as aggressive as others we’ve come across.
The positive news ends there. The driving reminds me the most of Ireland – if Ireland had more and steeper hair-pin curves and pavement edges that abruptly dropped off into infinity instead of turning into a “hard edge.”
For whatever reason, the car rental agent directed us to our hotel via what turned out to be the long way – totally in the wrong direction, on a road that eventually came to a dead end. While this was quite confusing and resulted in a long delay in actually getting to our hotel, it did provide us with a good tour of the island. Thankfully, a friend navigated while Lane drove, eliminating arguments over directions and allowing me to gawk at the scenery and take pictures from the back seat without having to monitor a map.  
And what scenery it is! The narrow, twisting roads over the mountains virtually tunnel through the lush forest. We are clearly in the jungle!
The road flattens out slightly along the coast. It’s beautiful, but still a bit unnerving to drive.
 Did I mention that we did much of our first day driving with a gas tank that was nearly empty?

The practice in the Seychelles is to rent cars with an empty gas tank, so check. There are only a handful of places on the island where you can get gas and none were located even remotely near our hotel. I can assure you that we enjoyed our touring much more before we realized we were on “empty” and after we were finally able to fill up!

Still, it’s a great way to get out and see the island and we only slipped off the road once.

All Seychelles posts

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Memorable Travel Moments: The Nile from My Deck, Cairo, Egypt, 2007

I went on a college alumni tour to Egypt – without my husband – in 2007. Despite being on my own, I quickly became part of the “singles club,” a revolving group of us who were traveling on our own. Each night one of us would either take a bottle of wine from our private stash (we hit the liquor store at the airport on our way into the country) or would order an extra bottle at dinner to take up to our nightly after dinner gathering. 

In Cairo, we ended each night on the deck outside my hotel room, with the Nile, far below us.  
It was amazing to sit out there, suspended far above the street in the calm evening air, the sounds of the city swelling up and around us. The dinner barges that ply the Nile would slowly move past, sound blasting toward us as each passed by as if in competition with the sounds of the street. . . and then the call to prayer would begin, the broadcast song of dozens of muezzins growing in strength and complexity as it rose from all across the city.

At that time, Cairo was the loudest city in the world, (maybe it still is.) but from my perch high above the street, that was the sound of the exotic music of a magical city.

We stayed at the Nile Hilton (which I’m guessing is now the Hilton Conrad Cairo), an older hotel very near the Egyptian Museum and Tahrir square. It was a fabulous place to stay and I hope to go back some day.



Egypt Trip Journal
All Egypt Posts

More Memorable Travel Moments 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Dream List: Longing for Laos

We visited Laos for a few hours on a Mekong River cruise on our trip to Thailand in 2006. I loved being on the water and was intrigued by this glimpse of Laos.

A return trip to the region, with more time on the Mekong and to explore Laos, has been on my travel list ever since.

It will be hard to choose how to spend my time here, however, as there are so many things to see and do in this small place. Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and cultural capital of Laos is a must, but there is so much to see throughout the country:
By Axel, via Wikimedia Commons
West pagoda in Vientiane, by Mattes, via Wikimedia Commons

The Travel Dream List

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Photo Thursday: Last Glance at the Seychelles

I'm finally just about done editing and posting on my Seychelles trip so thought I would share some of my last views of the island, as seen from the garden outside my hotel room.

Remind me why we didn't stay.

This is my contribution to Nancie's Budget Traveler's Sandbox for the Thursday Photo post. Head on over and check it out for additional travel inspiration.


More Seychelles posts

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Memorable Travel Moments: Three Kings and More in Quito, Ecuador, 2006

The Feast of Epiphany – Three Kings’ Day – passed this weekend. This an important celebration in many Catholic countries in Central and South America. This is especially true in Ecuador, where the celebration of the arrival of the three kings also serves as an opportunity to reenact traditional Ecuadorian folk themes, many of which originated long-ago to mock Spanish colonialism. Rather than a religious event, the celebration of the arrival of the three kings became one part of a larger celebration of culture.

I was fortunate to be in Quito, Ecuador, in 2006 and accidently happened upon that year’s festivities. And I mean, accidently happened upon it – the parade was blocking the route our tour guide was using to take us on a tour of Old Town. He gave us about five minutes to watch and then headed in another direction to continue his tour.

I quickly sized-up the situation and decided there was no way a tour of Old Town was going to be as interesting as this parade, so I instead became a part of the crowd following the parade as it wound through the streets.
  
 
 It was colorful, chaotic, and a bit dizzying. . . and I still got to see Old Town.

A Parade Through Quito 
All Ecuador posts

More Memorable Travel Moments 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Dream List: The Florida Keys

The US has its own bit of Caribbean paradise in the Florida Keys. While most of the focus is on Key West, with its slightly counter-culture take on life, the other keys seem to offer quieter escapes.

The Florida Keys consist of more than 1700 islands (some of which are very small), 43 of which are linked together by the Overseas Highway. The Keys stretch about 200 miles between Biscayne Bay and the Dry Tortugas, ending about 90 miles from Cuba.
Floridakeys-Keywest.com
Shanbin Zhao via Wikimedia Commons
The original link between the islands was the Overseas Railroad, which was completed in 1910 and damaged by a hurricane in 1935. It was replaced by the current highway. While I generally think islands are best reached via boat, the Overseas Highway is an impressive bit of engineering and provides a scenic drive through this watery world.

The Keys are divided into three groups:
  • The Upper Keys: The Keys begin at Biscayne National Park. The park itself is 95% water and a boat is necessary to experience much of what the park has to offer. The Upper Keys include Key Largo and are noted for their diving and sport fishing.
  • The Middle Keys: The Middle Keys include the city of Marathon. Sport fishing here focuses on deep sea species. There are also parks and small nature centers here.
  • The Lower Keys:  There is a change in atmosphere once you cross the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon and enter the Lower Keys. There are no fast food restaurants and few businesses at all in most of this area, as much of the land has been set aside in parks and nature reserves.  Bahia Honda State Park and Recreation Area is noted for its white sand beach.
Marc Averette via Wikimedia Commons
Then, of course, there is Key West, home of the Conch Republic, Hemingway, a multitude of funky shops and bars, and sunset at Mallory Square.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
All of the Keys are part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The Keys are home to four national wildlife refuges (not all of which are open to the public): the National Key Deer Refuge, the Great White Heron Refuge, the Key West Refuge, and the Crocodile Lake Refuge. There are opportunities for bird watching and snorkeling throughout the keys.

For an even more away-from-it-all experience, the Dry Tortugas National Park features historic Fort Jackson and great snorkeling.




A Few Planning Resources
The Florida Keys-Key West.com 
The Florida Keys & Key West 
Road Trip: Florida Keys – National Geographic 


The Travel Dream List