In Awe of Kyrgyzstan’s Nature

Indeed, and with a renewed hope for the planet. Following the news one is apt to believe the Earth is on the brink of collapse. The glaciers are melting, the oceans are choked with plastic, rivers dead and forests infected. No wonder young people are depresed and without hope for the future.

They should come for a week to Kyrgyzstan, trek in the pristine nature of the mountains, wade through mountain streams and eat fresh fish from the lakes. Yes, there is an occasional eye sore of plastic refuse on high mountain passes left by the many truck drivers and there are traffic jams in the capital but all in all this country is Nature’s Paradise.

Worshiping at Jeti Oguz

And people live in harmony with nature and animals. Seems like the nomadic blood of their ancestors still flows through their veins unabated and calls them to the summer jailoos in the mountains.

While grazing sheep and cows are the main contributors to the economy it is the horses that are the love and pride of every Kyrgyz male. It is true that horses occasionally complement the menu of this carnivore nation at the family table or restaurants. This is a habit more common here than in the West but it is still relatively rare among the line after line of beef and lamb culinary marvels you can usually select from the menu.

Horses are everywhere and everyone has them. And rides them. It is a hobby. It is a right of passage. They naturally learn riding like crawling and walking.

Born in the saddle

It is something they are born with in their DNA. They ride them as they manage their sheep, goats and cows. Those people are for me like Central Asian version of American cowboys. Watching them makes me feel like being back in the American Wild West. How could it not with a backdrop like this?

One afternoon we followed the river to a small village to our homestay. We stopped by a footbridge that leads over the fast flowing river.

It is late afternoon, time to bring herds home.

My Kyrgyz cowboys are doing their job with grace. They do what I see my wife doing whenever she is around horses. Touching them gently on their heads above their nostrils, hoping to mount them and ride them away into the wild. Is it not funny to think about your wife in those terms?

Cowboy Volod: “See you at the local joint later tonight?”

My wife: “Or maybe at the animal market in the morning?”

Horse area at the Karakol market

When planing our trip to Kyrgyzstan we had hoped to be in Karakol on a Sunday to be able to experience their weekly animal market. And wouldn’t you know it, we arrived to this pleasant town on the shores of Issyk Kul on a weekend.

We love markets anywhere in the world. People are busy doing what they do at a market – buying, selling, meeting their friends and don’t pay much attention to foreign visitors soaking it all in.

Sheep corner

It is essential to get to the market early and we had a good warning from a traveller we met who missed most of the action. So we got up at the crack of dawn and found that the market was indeed already in full swing when we arrived. Many people have brought their animals from afar and some spent the night at the site.

It was a cold morning after a rainy night. The surrounding mountains were sprinkled with fresh snow. What a setting! With two crazy travelers gleefully lost in the see of animals and people.

Tradition and modernity – smartphones are common

There was a lot of action.

Frisky stallions
Nursing colts
When in Rome… Mirek checking the fat content of the “tail”

It was, by and large, a men’s affair

but occasionally women were involved as well.

There was a considerable quantity of animals gathered, but surprisingly we saw very few sold.

Fast money counting skill we did not manage to acquire

We would have stayed till the last animal was loaded up again, but our stomachs reminded us we didn’t have breakfast so as a bonus for getting up so early we loaded up with freshly baked bread on the way back to our hotel.

It was to be expected that spring weather in Kyrgyz mountains will be changeable and rain possible. We were actually pretty lucky with the weather and never got wet or hindered in our activities.

The one day we decided to go on a hike to Atlyn Arashin valley it was sunny, but weather didn’t prove to be the issue.

There are certain bitter elements in our travels which had been and still are an integral part of our life together. We never traveled in groups, relying mostly on each other, if I disregard traveling with our kids when they were growing up. Our children now travel on their own to the mutual relief of both generations involved.

For many years, we have managed to find a a good balance between our interests and abilities in physically demanding disciplines. I preferred mountain trekking and scuba diving and my wife horse back riding. Rafting was fun for the whole family. As the years went by the balance was exposed to the test of time. After my back surgery which led inevitably to my retirement I suddenly had to face the fact that my lovely wife could still be jumping like a foal around me over the mountain streams and easily dealing with rough rides in the 4×4 vehicles, some of them old enough to match my age.

It all came crashing down around my ears as we boarded one of those former Red Army vehicles to get us on the unpaved valley road above the tree line for a hike amongst the peaks. The road reminded me more of a training site for old T-72 tanks than a road.

Terrain full of boulders, with remnants of last winter’s avalanches, and potholes the size of our house’s living room.

Avalanche blocking the road

My best intentions got a forceful reminder that my dreams may have survived those 50 years since I first tried to come here, but my back and surgically stiffened spine are way too fragile for this adventure and think otherwise.

It was a bitter moment of recognition that my time of hiking with sixty pounds heavy backpack (half filled with essential bottles of beer) is long gone and finally over and I had to let it go.

We sent the driver back with half his fee and started walking slowly

by the fast-flowing mountain river enjoying flowers and green meadows and chirping birds.

We walked over a bridge to the first human dwelling,

while our guide flew his drone.

On the other side the verdant spring has reached the high summer pastures where a few cows were contentedly nibbling on fresh grass.

The majestic peaks with snow still plentiful on their steep slopes were watching quietly over the herders taking care of their animals and summer gardens.

To my big disappointment, I realized I could get no closer to the mountains. I could not make it any further and we had to turn around and walk back down to the first village to call a taxi for the rescue.

Next time up only in a chopper, oh my!

Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Splendor – Part III Tashkent & Fergana

There’s more to Tashkent than meets the eye, I am sure, but there were only two things on our list during our short stop in the capital: Tashkent Metro and the Museum of Applied Arts.

First was the cheapest private tour we ever undertook. We bought a ticket for like 15 cents and just rode the metro, stepping out at different beautifully decorated stations.

Metro train leaving the station

Someone had done the work for us and posted an extensive blog about all the most interesting stations including a handy map. Thank you, Google and Cynthia!

Credit: https://www.journalofnomads.com/best-metro-tashkent-photo-guide/

A nice passanger seeing us study the map told us that the metro had been extended and suggested we ride all the way to the end. So we did.

Mirek catching the metro back from the last station

We like to ride public transportation on our travels (well, one of us really does…)

The Gafur Gulom metro station named after G’afur G’ulom, a famous Uzbek poet, writer and translator.

That one of us takes special joy and pride in figuring out how to buy a ticket and read the map. The other one likes to observe the people and make up stories about who they are and where they are going.

Grandma, Mom, and daughter leaving Alisher Navoi station going to buy tickets for a performance at Alisher Navoi theater?

The majority of people were dressed in Western styles, certainly all men. Women showed more diversity, but we saw no covered faces.

Texting her friends? First time meeting her pre-arranged husband? Going for a magazine fashion shoot?
Going to mosque for Friday prayers?

Or just looking for lunch options?

KFC or Canadian Chicken Wieners?

We definitely couldn’t miss the Kosmonavtlar metro station built in 1984 in honor of the cosmonauts of the Soviet Union. Luckily one can now take photographs of the station which was prohibited until recently as the station was designated as a nuclear bomb shelter.

The blue ceramic medallions on the walls feature some of the historical figures of space dreams and legends and greatest pioneers of the Soviet space program, such as Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first man and woman in space.

Twin Russian girls in front of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Still kicking at 85 and in Russian politics no less.

Some stations were very contemporary.

Beruniy station with crystal chandeliers

And some really harkened back to the communist era with their red stars decor.

We preferred the more folksy decorations with colorful ceramic panels of country life.

Chilonzor metro station

One could spend the whole day riding the metro, but we did want to make it to the State Museum of Applied Arts before closing time. The building itself is interesting as it was originally a palace of a rich late 19th century Russian diplomat Polovstev, adorned in colorful oriental decorative style by his male Russian-Uzbek lover. Ah, if those walls could talk!

Unfortunately, for once no one could be found to talk and guide us through the museum. For a while, we pretended we were part of a British tour bus group, but then decided we will strike it out on our own.

I have already waxed poetically about spectacular suzani embroideries, so let me just mention a few of the other 4000 exhibits on hand.

There are exquisite lacquer boxes

Daniel in Lion’s Den

Detailed miniatures

Intricate wood carvings

Every inch of the door carved

What is fantastic looking at these masterpieces is knowing there are people here and now that still have skills and know how to do this with their own two hands and simple tools.

A good place to find them is Fergana Valley and that is where we headed next. We jumped into the train and immediately made new friends. A lovely group of ladies traveling for days to get to a wedding in Kyrgyzstan.

When we told them we will cross over the border too, they immediately invited us to the festivities. Alas, we were not going to get there on time as we were planning to make a few stops on the way.

We jumped out in Kokand. It is a tiny place and certainly not able to compete with the Big 3 on the Silk Road, but we had it all to ourselves, not counting the guest soccer/football team that stayed in our small hotel, preparing for the weekend tournament.

Kokand was situated on major ancient crossroads of two trade routes and at the end of the 19th century Khudayar Khan built a huge royal residence with 113 rooms set around seven courtyards. The ruler wanted his mother to live in one of the palace’s grand buildings, but she refused and set up her yurt in a courtyard.

Tiled front of the palace

These days only a few rooms remain and only one is in perfect condition.

The Kokand Friday mosque is luckily very nicely restored and inviting with a large green courtyard that has a 300ft (100m) long iwan supported on 98 gorgeous slender columns.

Some of the original carved redwood columns, brought from India are still there.

We knew Fergana valley was famous for silk weaving but we were not prepared for what we found in one of the small one-man workshops in the mosque.

Iridescent shimmering hand woven and tailored silk coat

It took our breath away. Nothing ever anywhere after or before has been so close to perfection. As the proud weaver turned the coat it caught the light and the surface undulated into different patterns. Mesmerizing… Like swimming underwater in a tropical sea. Wow, just wow!

The chain-smoking wood carver on the other hand couldn’t be bothered to even look up from his work.

All in a day’s work

There was a small museum, too, with two other visitors, students from a local University that delighted in being able to practice their English and of course take a picture.

They gladly explained the strange wooden implements found exhibited.

Pipe, flute…?

Weeell, they are part of this ensemble.

It is a cradle-potty chair combo for little babies.

No need for changing diapers in the middle of the night. Scroll back and try to guess which is for boys and which for girls! The thing is, while this is an interesting ethnographic exhibit, many mothers, including our female guides are still using it nightly. (now that is also why I prefer female guides).

We were doing these stops on the alternative, longer way from Kokand to Margillan with the craziest, fastest, and friendliest taxi driver. We called him Oscar(chik) and he called Mirek (E)mirek. He had nowhere else to be, so he was happy to stop on our way and a few hours drive turned into a whole day of fun and exploration. With a break for lunch at the best shashlik place (our treat of course).

He spoke great Russian and about 10 words of English, despite his sister being an English teacher. But he was sharp as a tack and kept doubling his vocabulary every 20 minutes while laughing and gunning his car down country roads. “Oscarchik smart,” he would say tapping his finger on his forehead. “How do you say…”

We had a communication snafu as I kept insisting that he has to take us to Rishtan’s famous ceramic workshop of Master Rustam Usmanov while he kept advocating for a ceramic workshop of a different guy. Turns out he was talking about Usmanov’s son.

Rustam and his son at the gates to their workshop

Both were most welcoming and took time to show us the whole process. I was a bit apprehensive before coming as I was worried about it being too touristy. We were the only people there and every piece they had in their huge production was a masterpiece. When we bemoaned the fact that we traveled with a small carry-on only and couldn’t buy a whole set of dishes they GIFTED us a little pomegranate vase.

Before and after the kiln

It is Margillan that is the center of silk weaving. We asked our Oscarchik to first take us to the local market but only a few stalls with silk could be found.

Friendly silk merchant

Most of the market was cheap Chinese mass-produced clothes.

Interesting take on denim

The visit to the Yodgorlik Silk factory was a disappointment. It is supposed to produce enormous amounts of hand woven silk but most of the looms were abandoned. As elsewhere we found girls jumping to do work only when a tourist poked their head in.

Still, we soon had fun taking portraits of the girls.

Remember the eyebrows? Definitely unmarried girl!
Leftover henna from recent Ramadan

We finally said goodbye to Oscarchik in front of Margillan’s Ikat House Guesthouse.

It was a carpet-studded homey place and immediately we felt like in the good old days of young travel with interesting travelers from all parts of the world hanging out and sharing experiences and tips. Especially cherished was the discussion with a group of young Russian motorcyclists. They left Russia for a long trip anxiously awaiting Putin’s May Victory speech afraid he might conscript young men. Tentatively at first and then more freely, they expressed their opposition to Putin and the war in Ukraine.

Our last stop in Fergana Valley and Uzbekistan was in the city of Andijan.

The city has a famous historical figure to be proud of as it is the birthplace of Babur (=Tiger in Persian). He was the great-great grandson of Timur and ascended to a much diminished throne of Fergana at the age of twelve. Following a series of setbacks, he finally succeeded in laying the basis for the Mughal dynasty and became the first Mughal emperor.

Babur is considered Uzbeki National hero

We had another important reason to visit Andijan. Through the power of the internet and Instagram, I got connected to Gulkhumor, the owner of Inter progress School, teaching children foreign languages.

Of course, I promised we will visit them. I thought we would pop in and say hello to the students.

The littlest students

Who was I kidding! We were treated as VIP dignitaries, starting with a big bouquet of fresh flowers.

With Ghulkhumor (L) and her head teacher

Speeches were delivered and the children in their Sunday best prepared songs, dance, and recitations in English.

Parents were invited to this event of the year.

Countless selfies were taken

And invitations for tea, dinner and overnight stays extended. Alas, we were bound for Kyrgyzstan border the next day. But what a farewell to incredible Uzbeki people!

Saying a final goodbye to Uzbekistan with this fun oldie, but goldie couple. Is it time to change our name to CrazyGrandparentsTravel? Nope, but it is time to cross the border to Kyrgyzstan! See you on the other side.

Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Splendor- Part II Samarkand

The fast and comfortable Afrosiyob train brought us from Bukhara to Samarkand in the evening.

There are all levels of trains and they cover the whole country well. The fancy business class is cool and all, but it is also fun to take a regular train and share a welcome cup of tea with friendly Uzbek travelers.

In vain we searched for the downtown bus and then negotiated a ride with the driver of a beat up taxi to our little hotel close to Registan. Thank goodness for any and all remnants of Mirek’s school Russian! Yes, you can operate with simple English, but fluent Russian is spoken by everyone. After we dropped off our bags and took a look at the lovely green courtyard and colorful furnishings

Traditional Uzbeki hotels have their unique charm

I made Mirek go out again. We walked a few minutes to Registan, the heart of Samarkand, as I couldn’t wait to see it all beautifully lit in a flood of golden light, just like in the many pictures I saw.

I nearly started crying when I beheld the gaudy light show with loud music. To each it’s own, I guess, but I don’t appreciate this kind of “artistic licence” with world heritage.

Cheapening the elegant crowning achievement of Islamic architecture
Even worse close up

The next morning we met with Anora, our guide for the day and I was still traumatised and refused to go back. We took a taxi instead to Bibi Khanum mosque. It is still impressive today, but in the 15th century, it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world. We started our guided tour by walking through the Siyob Bazar where my soul was soothed by the lovely colors of first spring fruits; orange apricots, red cherries, unripe green plums

and mounds of luscious strawberries

The blue-green tiles of the domes beckoned

and a goofy boy in a blue shirt with green eyes smiled at me and all was good with the world again.

In the back Mirek and Anora discussing life. Her husband left her when she was pregnant with their first child to become a bus driver in Moscow and never came back, taking all her gold wedding jewellery along.

Walking around the enormous mosque we heard plenty of stories. Guides love legends and tales. We were told the well known story of Bibi and the impudent architect who demanded that she allowed him to kiss her on the cheek in order to finish the mosque in time for her husband Timur’s return from war. The kiss left a permanent stain and the architect lost his head when Timur found out. It is in truth Timur that built the mosque in honor of his wife Sara Mulk aka Bibi Khanum (really just a honorific title of “Lady, Khan’s daughter).

A miniature painting found nearby. It might not be Bibi and the architect, for the wings and all… Call it poetic license.

Perhaps this is a good time to say a few words about Amir Timur, because Samarkand’s biggest treasures are inextricably connected to this larger than life figure. He was the first ruler of the long and ilustrious Timurid dynasty. He is going down in annals of history as one of the most ruthless conquerors (killing an estimated 17 million people) and at the same time a huge patron of the arts (even if many of his artists and architects were captives brought from afar).

Did you know he had a red beard?

Timur (Iron) or Timurlenk (Timur the Lame) anglicized as Tamerlane was born on the steppes close to modern day Samarkand as a Turkified Mongol. He was quite tall but indeed lame in his leg with a withered arm due to injuries. (Sustained either stealing sheep or in battle – take your pick.) That drawback did not prevent him from conquering the world atop a horse

Amir Temur’s statue in Tashkent

and taking many wives. Many were widows of rulers of conquered lands, killed by Timur. It was customary to take on the harem of the enemy you defeated. Nobody asked the ladies, but I guess they thought it was a pretty good alternative to being raped and slaughtered.

Beautiful Bibi was one such case and she became Timur’s most favored wife. It did help that she was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan which solidified Timur’s leadership legitimacy. So you see there was much more to picking from the harem of defeated enemy than just a conqueror choosing beautiful spoils of war for himself. In general women, married to or taken as concubines by high powered leaders were always of high birth themselves and offered alliances and diplomatic powers to the men. They had wealth of their own and built and endowed mosques, schools, and hospitals.

Ode to Women, Park of Tigers, Samarkand

For anyone interested in this subject I recommend a fascinating book: The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford, about the impact and legacy of Genghis Khan’s daughters and Mongol queens.

For the arial view of Bibi’s mosque,

View of Bibi’s mosque from Hazrat Khizr mosque bellow the mausoleum

we climbed to the mausoleum of the former president Islam Karimov. Here is another of the controversial leaders, ruthless communist authoritarian and the father of Uzbeksitan independent nation. The many devoted visitors there and especially school children on field trips most likely subscribe to the latter notion.

Nearby lays the important Shah-I-Zinda necropolis where many of Timur’s female relatives have been entombed. Normally quite keen on graveyards of all sorts, this one somehow failed to impress. Rather than trying to remember the nieces, wives, and even Timur’s wet nurse, we enjoyed people-watching.

As was a daily occurence we were again besieged by members of a school trip for a group photo.

I quickly took advantage of the situation and asked for some portraits. Every girl was keen to have hers taken and they enjoyed seeing them on my iPhone screen.

Uzbekistan is a riot of colors and patterns. Somehow, magically they work well together.
And can be quite stunning in black and white.

Timur himself is NOT buried there. He wanted to be buried in a simple structure in his nearby home town of Sahrisabz but since he died in winter during his military expedition to China and passes were snowed in they put him to rest in Samarkand. He is interred in a mausoleum that was originally intended to be the tomb of his beloved grandson and heir apparent Muhhamad Shah who died young just two years before Timur. It then became a Timurid dynastic mausoleum.

And what a splendid place it is. The outside is just another one of the pleasing brick-tile combos, but it would eventually inspire the glorious Taj Mahal, built by Timur’s descendants who established the Mughal (the very word a corruption of “Mongol”) dynasty in India.

But, oh, the inside… a breathtaking shimmering blue and gold jewel box

cocooning a collection of different sarcophagi from the male Timurid line. Remember, the ladies had their own individual pretty mausolea at Shah-I-Zinda?

It is one of those places that defies description, one simply has to experience it. Preferably without the crowds and loud guides. If I was in charge I would prohibit all guided tours. Explain anything you want outside and then let people just savor the harmony of the space and the deep sense of history. People come here to pay respects.

and say a prayer.

If there was one thing that I absolutely wanted to see in Samarkand it was Ulugh Beg Observatory. He was the grandson of Timur the Great but loved astronomy and mathematics a bit more than conquering and pillaging.

Sixty astronomers and mathematicians were invited to work at the observatory and the celestial measurements they obtained were extremely accurate. Don’t ask me how, there is of course a perfectly logical explanation, but despite going through the excellent museum on site I can not explain any of it. Still, wow, to do that kind of astronomy in 15th century without powerful telescopes and computers and space probes!

The model of the observatory.
The magic of big brainiacs. And I mean it, because they did dabble much in astrology, too.

The observatory was destroyed by Ulug Beg’s own son soon after he had his father killed on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Very pious, these guys, really!

The rediscovered and restored remnants of the underground part with the stone sextant

Married for the first time at 10, Ulugh Beg became a governor of Samarkand at 16, after his own father’s death. He had 13 wives and lots of enemies. When did the dude find time to build observatories and universities?

The University I am talking about is his madrasah in the Registan complex that was known as one of the best universities of Muslim world. It transformed what was medieval Samarkand’s large and vibrant commercial centre where camels unloaded their precious Silk Road cargo into educational center as well. Ulug Beg himself taught astronomy there.

Ulug Beg’s Madrasah on the left , Sher-Dor on the right and Tillya Kari in the middle

So we have come full circle. After initial evening disappointment I did return to Registan and not only once but thrice: once with the guide, once with Mirek and once by myself. At different times of day with the sun illuminating different parts of the three buildings it revealed many faces and hidden corners.

Upper floor of inner courtyard of Ulug Beg’s madrasah

Opposite Ulug Beg Madrasa an early 17th century governor Yalangtush built its near mirror image – the Sher Dor madrasah. The facade is striking (and memorable) for the two lions/tigers/fantastical cats and human-faced suns chasing two deer that guard the portal, an unexpected return to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian symbolism.

Daring indeed as Islam prohibits depictions of animals or human faces. To get away with it we were told the lions were seen as symbols of students with a hunger for knowledge, the deer as knowledge and the sun as enlightenment. There are also reverse swastikas, which symbolized abundance and fertility in ancient times.

A live grapevine growing inside, another contradiction as Islam prohibition drinking of alcohol

To enclose the square in pleasing harmony, Yalangtush had a third madrasah built on the ruins of a mosque constructed by Bibi Khanum.

The intricate interior of the huge qubba (=cupola), a symbolic representation of the vault of heaven where stars, leaves, and flowers spiral into eternity.

Because of its lavish interior, swathed in golden leaf, very much reminiscent of Timur’s mausoleum, it is called Tillya Kari (“the gilded one”). It was to become the city’s main mosque.

We were glad to have structured our trip starting in charming little Khiva and culminating with the lavish Samarkand instead of the other way around.

With the foreign tourists scarce, the interactions with local families were precious.

Leaders with Confidence, one and all!
In their Sunday best.

Before saying goodbye to Samarkand we should not forget to mention the friendly encounter with some special Servas people. For some of you who have been following us from the beginning of our empty nest adventures you might remember our stays with Servas members in New Zealand and Australia. Servas International is an organization that brings together people from around the world to promote peace and understanding.

After many emails exchanged and 2 year delay in our arrival to Uzbekistan we finally met up with Anatoly and Irina who in turn introduced us to their Servas friend Rafik. It felt like we were a living poster child for the international (and local) peace and understanding as Anatoly was of mixed Armenian and Russian ancestry, his wife was Tatar and Rafik Tajiki.

With Rafik, our generous host

We spent a lovely afternoon at his fruit farm being plied with food at a traditional Uzbekistani or should we rather call it Central Asian feast. The table was overflowing with sumptuous homemade dishes that magically appeared from the kitchen, hidden to our eyes and occupied by the elfin hands of Rafik’s wife and daughter-in-law.

A wonderful send off to the last part of our Uzbekistan travels to Tashkent and Fergana valley.

Madeira – The Little Island that Could

… Surprise, Deliver, Enchant, Redeem.

Not Patagonia, but quite a resemblance

When our long longed for Patagonia trip had to be cancelled for the third time, not many easy replacement presented themselves in wintry February Europe. At the end it was a choice between Oman and Madeira. Madeira won because I remembered our dentist telling me once that he dreamed of moving to Madeira and opening a dental clinic there. Did I mention we really like our dentist?

Funchal airport is considered the most difficult European airport to land. Note the flag of the autonomous republic of Madeira.

While it is easy to fly to Madeira’s one and only Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport directly from Prague it most certainly isn’t easy to land. While our landing was a bit cramped with one wing dipping into the sea and the other scraping the nearby hills, we only realized how lucky we were when we talked to other travelers. We arrived on Monday afternoon but all flights on Sunday and Tuesday were returned or rerouted because of high winds.

And high winds there were. We did look at the weather report before we flew out and were so taken aback by basically 7 days of predicted rain that we paid no attention to the wind. Luckily the high winds also scattered the clouds some, so the first few days it rained just at night and we had great skies for photography.

While Madeira is well known for its subtropical climate and warm sunny weather it was a foggy forest up North that I was most interested in. After a great big breakfast in our cosy B&B we drove up to the hills of Fanal first thing in the morning.

Just a quick stop at the viewpoint of

and hard break for some out-of-nowhere itinerant cows

Bundle up, it is foggy and windy, indeed.

Ksenija nearly blew over by the sheer force of the wind
Mirek worshiping the hundreds of years old laurels
Mystical and magical

I have seen superb photos of these gnarled Madeira trees in a magazine once and they didn’t disappoint in real life. Clutching my iPhone with frozen fingers I was more than excited for wonderful iconic images of our own. Every day for the rest of the week I debated whether we should go back, but the first impression was so special and strong I didn’t want to disappoint myself.

On the way down the sun started to break through and we soon went from this:

Holding on for dear life

to this:

Sunbathing under a giant foxtail agave flower

Certainly, the sea is not warm enough for swimming in the winter, but still great to admire.

From up high at Cabo Girao viewpoint
Or up close at Ponta de Sao Vicente
Or through the many flowers at Arco de Sao Jorge

As you can imagine getting up to these viewpoints isn’t easy no matter what but especially in a car with a MANUAL transmission. The roads are not only narrow but so steep that I had to fight the thought of failing breaks numerous times a day while driving down and close my eyes when the trucks or buses were hurtling towards us on the uphill. Due to Mirek’s many years of driving in crazy places around the world, we escaped unscathed.

One of the few roads we didn’t drive – it was closed for reconstruction.

It would only take about 4 hours to drive all around the island. The island of Madeira is a temporary dormant volcano about three times the size of the U.S. island of Nantucket, twice the area of the British Isle of Wight, and slightly larger than Singapore island.

It has a fantastic network of roads and unbelievable multitudes of new tunnels that make travel easy. But it also has many deep canyons and ridge roads and portions of old coastal roads that one can still drive. This means fun old narrow one-way tunnels and sometimes a free car wash when you drive under a waterfall.

Now, if you are not lazy old farts like us you have another network to explore. There are more than 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas that you can walk and many people come to Madeira for exactly this purpose. Levadas are irrigation channels used to bring water to the fields in olden times and many do so till today. But they also offer great exercise and views and some people return each year to walk different ones. There are books and apps and guided levada tours.

We only did a short little levada walk on the last full day of our stay but it was so pretty and full of colorful flowers I was sorry we hadn’t considered doing more.

We probably would have if we didn’t have a few days of pouring rain in the middle of our stay. So we did some inside activities like the Whale and Wine museum, not both under the same roof.

Yes, Madeira is the home of madeira (wine).

We did skip the native son Cristiano Ronaldo’s Museum. The closest we came to this soccer idol was parking in the garage of his CR7 hotel. I did make a fool of myself asking what CR7 stands for. That’s how much I know about soccer: zilch, zero. (Just in case you, too, are on my team, it is his initials and his jersey number.)

That meant we had to go to the marina of Funchal, the capital. To our surprise, we found there a perfect replica of Cristopher Columbus’ Santa Maria ship.

The famous ship and one of the many rainbows of Madeira

Turns out Columbus spent a little time on Madeira, more precisely on Porto Santo, the small island next to it. Long enough to get married and sire his only son. And learn about navigation from the charts of his father-in-law.

45% of a quarter million of inhabitants of Madeira live in the capital, so you can imagine it is pretty dense. Not to mention that pre-Covid nearly a million tourists came in and most stayed in Funchal or close by on the Southern sunnier beaches.

Houses climb up the hills from the port in all directions

We didn’t spend enough time in the old town to give you a proper report, but it does have the historical charm.

The sad part was that we encountered a small group of Ukrainians protesting the start of the war.

At that point, none of us knew how truly horrendous it will become.

It certainly made the rest of our trip soberer and we felt guilty enjoying the simple luxuries of free life.

Speaking of old, not much of old is left on Madeira outside the historical center. Even the further-flung villages mostly have fancy new houses, some built by Madeirans working hard in other EU countries

Tiny spruced up traditional house with a fancy large new one in Santana

or owned by foreigners and foreign retirees. life is very affordable for those, but that, unfortunately means the service industry salaries are kept very low. We had quite a lot of conversations with the young people who all dream of leaving for England or the World.

The sweet cook from a restaurant in Funchal who came to toast us and chat with us. His girlfriend just dumped him so he needed a pep talk.

As a traveler, I have always loved the Portuguese the best. but Madeirans are even a notch above in their friendly, kind, and welcoming ways. From free drinks to free room upgrades they couldn’t do enough to make us feel at home. Our B&B ladies were absolutely darling, our day trip jeep driver was willing to answer any and all personal questions, our car rental attendant made sure we got the best car on the lot.

This lady offered to share her birdseed

One evening we were driving “home” when we noticed a beautiful new quinta vacation compound. We stopped to ask for availability. Turned out they were just getting ready for the grand opening the next day but of course, we had to come and try some of their homemade Madeira wine. We ended up staying for an hour talking and laughing with the family and of course, they invited us to the grand opening, too.

We would be amiss not to mention the yummy food. Again, we were plied with huge amounts of side dishes and or extra seafod in our Portuguese version of paella “because we like you”. When we returned for our last meal to the same local restaurant, where they pointed out the local policeman having his dinner and beer, they must have doubled the seafood again.

One portion!

Madeira is often called The Flower Island and rightly so. Even though the high season and the Flower Festival are held in April or May, already in February flowers were blooming everywhere. From tiny roadside flowers to grand tropical birds of paradise

and clivias there are swaths of color brightening the lush green of the island. The land is at a premium so terraced vegetable gardens are clambering impossibly high and banana plantations are squeezing around the homes.

Many public and private gardens be on for a tour. We managed only one, the Monte Palace Tropical garden, but it was a great relaxing morning excursion before our flight out. At times Madeira reminded us of California or Hawaii, and this garden visit surprisingly brought us back to Japan and the Japanese gardens that we love so much.

They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We say when travel life gives you maddening Corona restrictions make Madeira. It will welcome you with open arms, this Little Island that Could.

Land of Ice and Infinite Raw Beauty

Iceland, we have done you wrong! Please forgive us, we will sing your praises, in repentance, forevermore.

CLICK ON THE VIDEO of the Skogafoss Waterfall !

Iceland was never high on our Bucket list.

So true for Iceland!

And there were good reasons for that. Firstly, it was, like other Scandinavian destinations, always exceedingly expensive. Secondly, it became excessively crowded, peaking at 2,3 million visitors in a country of only 360,000 people.

Well, not anymore. In this crazy 2020 year of travel, Iceland was empty,

Immense parking lots devoid of tourists

like every other country around the globe. Except that Iceland was incredibly successful in fighting COVID-19 and hence poised to open up to tourists first.

And your intrepid crazyparents were on the first flight from Prague to Keflavík international airport on June 17th.

Despite much trepidation (will the flight go, or the airlines file for bankruptcy first, will they let us in…?) our one and only plane was met with efficiency and speed. After two quick COVID swabs, yes, unpleasant, but free and totally worth it, we were in.

For once Hertz was there, the only rental company opened at night. The girl at the desk was so excited to see us, her only customers, that she gave us a triple upgrade.

And off we went into the late sunset, or actually early sunrise.

That’s the thing, with June days so very long we could drive to all late hours of the night on totally empty roads.

The few local cars we met, whizzed by, or overtook us immediately, stupid tourists following the limit signs.

Well, not only were we forewarned about the speed traps, more importantly, it was lambing season and the sheep moms with their cute little twin babies often wandered into the road.

Our plan was to drive the main Ring Road or Route 1, the only road that goes around Iceland.

Theoretically one could drive its mere 1,332 km (828 miles) in a few days, but with the awe struck photographer on the passenger seat the stops were exceedingly frequent. How could they not be?

We added two days on the Snaefellsnes peninsula and minimized our Reykjavik stay to one last day. A few extra days would have been good, but then, aren’t they always?

Never have we slept so little on any of our travel explorations because even when we finally got to bed, it was impossible to close our eyes. The show outside of the panoramic windows was ongoing and ever-changing.

Just when you would think that the sun has finally set in a blaze of pinks and purples and oranges, there would be a burst of sun rays from the clouds or fog and the sun would start rising again.

Despite the catastrophic weather prognosis of 10 days of 80% rain, the Norse gods smiled upon us and all together we only had two days of drizzle.

We had plenty of sun and dramatic clouds often chased by cold blustery winds.

One day there was even a record-breaking 24 degrees C (75F) which to us seemed a good time to peel off our puffy jacket layer,

while the tough Viking descendants stripped down to shorts and spaghetti straps. No wonder…

5C=41F

As the country’s name denotes we did expect plenty of ice, but found the presence of glaciers so close to the road astounding. It would have been cool to take a super Jeep and go walking on the glaciers, but even with a short hike one could get really close.

For those of you who haven’t met a glacier up close, there is often a lot of black mixed with white, especially nowadays with global warming and pollution.

The one place that was top on my Iceland list was the Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón)

and especially the unique Diamond Beach at its mouth.

I was looking forward to spending some creative fun time photographing the many pieces of ice on the black sand. Alas, this was our one day of rain, so the stop was very short.

Still, a few fun shapes emerged from the shots taken from under the umbrella.

Ice Salmon?

or

Big Haired Ice Lady sniffing perfume on her wrist?

Snow and ice for sure, but what really surprised us was how green Iceland was. From the large swaths of green pastures

munched on by sheep and horses to moss-covered glacier-fed stream banks, glorious green was jumping at us.

And there were many different colorful flowers. Some were tiny, brave, alpine flowers growing in tough rocky conditions

and some were surprisingly scarce radiant Arctic poppies.

The biggest surprise was seeing the enormous areas of blue and purple lupines by the sides of the roads or creeping up the mountains.

Lupines are a nonnative plant, considered by some an undesirable invasive species. It was introduced in the 1970s to help combat soil erosion. When Vikings came to Iceland from Norway in the late 9th century, they found a land so thick with woods they could only explore it by ways of rivers. Very soon they managed to cut all the trees down to build their homes and keep them warm in the long winters. The few forests of trees now standing were replanted only some 120 years ago.

Weeds or no, lupines are an impressive sight that we enjoyed again and again.

Now, where are the famous Icelandic waterfalls, you might wonder and why have you kept us waiting? Well, I guess the waterfalls are an Icelandic cliche, but honestly, they were indeed exceedingly beautiful and each unique, so we never tired of them, even though we are not real waterfall chasers. There are hundreds of waterfalls, small and big, gushing off of the side of mountains and canyons.

Gulfoss waterfall

Because of the sunny weather we were treated to rainbow shows in many places.

Skogafoss waterfall

Yeah!

Some waterfalls show two different faces, front

Butter cups of Seljalandfoss

and back

Seljalandfoss waterfall cave

Some are easy to get to, like Godafoss, where the pagan gods’ statues were thrown into the water, if not oblivion, after the switch to Christianity.

Others demand an early morning hike, like Hengifoss.

Halfway up

We have to share all this wild beauty with just a few other travelers, and it feels like we are back in the golden olden days when travelers were few and everyone actually talked to each other and asked for advice on closed roads and opened coffee shops.

Comparing notes is helpful indeed because sometimes road signs have not been removed after winter.

And the roads have not been repaired either… still, we bravely press on and after a lot of bouncing, we arrive at Detifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.

I guess that is enough waterfalls for now. Then there are other phenomenal sights like geysers and more.

Saving those for the next installment.

99 Best Toilet Signs on the Wall

Or did you think it was 99 Bottles of Beer on the wall?

Get it?!

It is our 99th post, believe it or not. No worries, we won’t make you scroll through 99 beer bottles, nor 99 toilet signs, though we have collected that many and then some on our travels.

Finding 99 local bottles of beer or 99 good restaurants is easier, but much less important than locating the very vital nearby toilet in time of need. And when you are on the road, that time of need can become urgent, possibly depending on what restaurant you had your dinner at.

While in many “civilized” countries you will find clear signs declaring Restrooms for customer use only, in “less developed” countries kind shop owners or even a local family will graciously let you use their own private facilities.

Queue for the loo?

I still remember this one time many years ago in India, when I desperately searched, stomach-churning, cold sweat running down my face, for a toilet. “My kingdom for a toilet!” cried king Richard III. Or was it a horse?

A merchant seeing my need opened his door and without a word ushered me to the back. Kind sir, your generosity and empathy will not be forgotten.

A strange juxtaposition

It is always so very helpful in foreign lands when important signs occur in a familiar language and/or alphabet.

And if the alphabet fails, representations come into play.

Yet at times human forms are not helpful at all.

Maybe the locals can see the difference between the man and the woman here, but we sure can’t.

And if you are not local and don’t know the language,

this smart play on words won’t help you either.

These guys at Hoggie’s restaurant were trying to be cute, but also informative.

If you are from a country that calls toilets very squeamishly Restrooms, Bathrooms or Facilities (talking to you, Americans!),

you will struggle with this one: WC= Water Closet in British English, used widely in Continental Europe, too, for the toilet. Unless it says FIFA in front of it and then it might be World Cup soccer/football.

Some signs, on the other hand, can be very creative, but maybe kind of too specific.

Or, really, TMI

And some totally out there and definitely not for the faint of heart. Way, way too graphic.

Just like a shag carpet your home, a toilet sign can date your establishment. Right?

A lot. Like, these children were put up when I was a kid.

These ones, I think are timeless:

While these ones are just plain fun:

And these from a national park Down under very ethnic:

Are these two classical or a bit sexist?

Marilyn squatting in the bushes…
James Dean smoking in the john…

And these ones too far in the opposite direction?

How about this one from a restaurant called Garage?Just right?

We share the work and the toilet equally.

Hmmm… big talk, but maybe just a little bit condescending? Humor me!

The true sign of equity is this opportunity for both, moms and dads, to have a chance to attend to their parenting duties.

But what do you do when you have a baby and you need to attend to your own pressing needs? The Taiwanese have the perfect solution:

The corner child seat… anyone ever left the toilet and forgot the kid behind?

We love the instructions found in toilets around the world.

Some are very simple and straightforward…

Some are open to interpretation…

Others are perfectly clear as for expectations…

Then others are a bit more long winded…

This sign is Gluten Free

This one on a farm in the outback gives a fair warning about the toilet lid:

The matter of the proper position of not only the toilet lid but also the toilet seat, should be addressed in any and all religious prenuptial courses and possibly added to prenuptial agreements, lest it is grounds for justifiable divorce. Of course, the toilet seat has to always be in the down position unless you want to be murdered in your sleep after your queen unexpectedly sits on the cold porcelain throne in the middle of the night in the dark. She didn’t want to turn on the lights, because she didn’t want to wake you up, you moron!

There might be one exception to this rule. You could possibly want to keep the seat up at all times if you had a charming toilet like this:

Pescadas… Washout… closet, huh, interesting!

I see the barmaid in this urban setting found a special solution to her toilet seat conundrum.

We do appreciate clarity in the area of toilet paper disposal.

In many countries, you are asked to never ever flush the toilet paper down the toilet as it will clog the antiquated or inadequate piping. You DO have to put it in the bin.

Though some toilet paper is just too cool to throw in the toilet. Or maybe even use…

As for the buildings in which the toilets stand, let me mention just three:

The most opulent ever golden toilets at the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in Chang Rai, designed, built, and owned by painter Chalermchai Kositpipat.

The most colorful and quite famous toilets designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in Kawakawa, Northern New Zealand.

The weirdest and darkest toilets we have ever set foot in were at the Baan Dam Museum (also called Black Temple) outside Chang Rai designed by the artist Thawan Duchanee.

Hitchcock would feel at home here with the birds.

I do hope you enjoyed our toilet saga. Here is a Post Scriptum on special toilets in Cambodia:

For the last ten years, I have been involved as a volunteer with the Cambodian Community Dream organization. We have brought education, health, nutrition, and clean water to tens of thousands of people in the countryside. It is always a special privilege to visit the village families in the shadow of Angkor wat temples. Yet no other time was I so gratified and touched than when we visited a family who built an outdoor toilet – a brick latrine, with our help and sponsorship. A mother excitedly ran out of the meager thatched dwelling, carrying a disabled boy in her arms. Through our interpreter, she thanked us profoundly for helping her care for her child. We have made her difficult life just a little easier since now she could carry him to the latrine close to her home instead of hauling him into the bushes behind the house. My eyes still well up with tears now, remembering. At that moment I felt I have arrived as a human and that my life was not in vain. Since I was a teenager I tried to live by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

I am sure you have had your successes and touched many lives, but if you are so inspired to help a family with a much-needed latrine please reach out to me or simply check this link:

https://www.theccdo.org/building-latrines

Thank you!

My young Californian friend Taby in front of the latrine donated by her family.