See Kyrgyzstan and Die

Some 60 years ago I tried to get on any hilltop in the neighborhood and later, with my college buddies, further on beyond my neighborhood into the world. Our beyond was limited by the thin wallets of student years and the impenetrable Iron Curtain era of Big Brother governments. This lethal combination pushed many of my hilltop climbing dreams into the memory files marked NTH (Never To Happen). Such was the unfortunate fate of my dream to trek the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia, as the very un-friendly administrators of the now-defunct U.S.S.R. didn’t give us the necessary permits.

I was lucky that some of those NTH dreams were double filed in another drawer as well, the drawer called NTF (Never To Forget). It had been a long wait… but here I am with my travel buddy/adventure partner/wife re-hashing one of those NTF dreams, one of those never-to-die. You can see us arriving in the early morning hours in a cab from the last Uzbek railway outpost city of Andijan to the only open land crossing border post to Kyrgyzstan.
From Uzbekistan historical paradise with the fingers of its eastern arm tickling the flanks of the mystical Shangri-La of 20,000 plus foot high peaks, difficult to cross passes,

and breathtaking colorful lakes – the land of 40 tribes: Kyrgyzstan we walked into a teeming mass of people jostling for position in front of two grim immigration officers. “You are foreigners, you are our guests, please go before us.”

After another short cab drive, we are in the City of Osh. We have 24 hours before our guide with his Land Cruiser reaches us from the capital Bishkek. Looking at a map and consulting with our hotel staff we decide to hire a taxi for a ride to the nearest village towards the mountainous south.

Exciting first, yet soon disappointing. Because further south there beckon the ranges on Tajikistan and Chinese borders. A short bargaining session ensues over a greasy meal and a pot of tea in a local joint. Our side is full of fast, and extremely enticing US$ arithmetics (all in my rusty high-school Russian, mind you!) and the driver employs Oscar-nominated quality moaning over rising gasoline prices. In the end, we triple his scope of work and double the price. The driver has never been there and does not know the condition of the road, but once a local confirms it is asphalted, he caves in. The deal is made and without further ado we jump in the car and the driver presses the pedal to the metal.

“Go South, young man! Go South!”, and
“Push as close as possible to the border!” so we can see the highest peak in this area.

And after plowing through endless herds of sheep, goats, and the occasional horse going to the summer pastures and getting over the 11,650ft (3,550m) elevation mountain pass,

Beginning of a trend where every mountain pass has to be photographed.

the plains below us finally opened up to the view we came to this country for.

OK, it was me; my wife came here mainly for horses, people, Golden Eagles, and yurt interiors.

The first sight of the second highest* summit in the Tien-Shan (=Heavenly) mountains, the massive Lenin Peak 23,405ft (7,134m) high, from the road leading to the Chinese Uyghur Province (another still impossible-to-get permit and visa required), was indeed– heavenly.

*The highest Tien-Shan mountain, Jengish Chokusu, formerly known since 1946 as Pik Pobedyi (Victory Peak), is 24,406ft (7,439m) high. Located in an inaccessible area of the Kyrgyzstan border with China.

Artistic view of it on a stamp issued in 2000

You may now think: “Mission accomplished!” And on the first day, no less. But there was so much more to be seen and our fabulous guide/driver/fixer/soon-to-become-friend Begaly, who showed up on the dot the next morning, made sure to prove it afresh every day: another mountain range, another mountain lake, another mountain pass, another waterfall, valleys, canyons, rivers, yurts, horses, Golden Eagles. Just you wait!

From now on we were zig-zagging across this country as it was slowly waking up into the beautiful spring after a long cold winter and two-year nightmare of the COVID pandemonium.

The mountain lakes enchanted us with their beautiful colors and clear waters.

Sary Chelek Lake

The shores ringed by wild apple trees in full bloom made us

jump with joy

Wild tulips

over so much beauty, as flowers of all kinds and colors winked at us from fresh green grass..

Flower or Fairy? Flower Fairy!

I could not help but take a (skinny) dip, as it was customary in my younger years, in no matter how freezing any body of water.

With melting snow in the mountains, the waterfalls were gaining strength.

The weather in the higher altitudes could still be cold and not every day dawned with blue skies but pastures and meadows were exploding with colors.

Kara Javadz (= Black Woods)

Poppies mixed in on the edges and popped up at the sides of the roads.


Even where the land was barren on the lake shores, lake colorful water with the help of dramatic cloudy sky and sun delivered.

To make the landscape come alive there were horses to be seen everywhere.

It was Song Kul (Song=Last Kul=Lake), that was the tricky one. It is a high alpine lake situated at an altitude of 3016 meters in central Tien Shen Mountains. Till the last moment we were not sure if the mountain pass will be open and as it was we were only the second car to pass.

The windy steep road over the Thirty-Two Serpentine Pass (another 3,000 plus meters high) still held some sun

Made it over the hump! Thank you Begaly and car!

But on the other side things deteriorated quickly.

The iffy bridge over the fast flowing river

Ominous clouds with rain turning to snow rolled low.

Yet our every positive guide pressed on in hopes of sun breaking through at the lake.

Ksenija photographing the horses

It wasn’t quite sunny but for short moments the clouds lifted enough so we could see the lower layer of the ring of mountains even if the lake stayed steely gray. And the first herd of horses has made it up to their summer pastures, while summer crowds were still far back.

Mares with their foals as I try to approach them – you can see me between horses and the Song-Kul lakeshore

On the way down on a different road we could not miss the opportunity and visited a yailoo (= summer pasture) with two yurts and local shepherd family.

Husband, wife and young daughter were taking care of large herds of 1,200 sheep, 200 cows, four horses and a few dogs. Cordially invited for a cup of tea at five and a tour of
their two yurts, one perfect traditional hand made from felt and the other a now unfortunately common new plastic Chinese import.

The traditional yurt ceiling free of internal supports provides for pleasant and spacious
ambience.

Comfortably seated we were served many local snacks. Some of them I tried, while my wife bravely partook of all. Our conversation proceeded with help of hands, fingers and other bodily extremities, my rather laughable Russian and my wife’s, as per usual, magically discovered gift for the rudimentary version of the local dialect.

In a friendly atmosphere of mutual understanding, photos of other family members were presented.

In a few moments it was established that on our family side we still had one unmarried daughter. On their family side, the big family guy, clearly a successful herder with remarkable resources, indicated his younger brother was still lookingng for a suitable match for life. We were just a little taken aback when pater familias started without hesitation a serious negotiation on the size of the dowry. What amount was I keen to entertain as the father of a daughter of obvious beauty, fluent in English, with good education, decent cooking experience, and possibly willing to relocate to the groom’s homeland?

I could not convince him while he upped his bidding in numbers of sheep and cows that both my wife and I could not legally represent our sweet child in this contract. It came as a shock for the eager and well-meaning brother of the potential groom that our non-negotiable stance was that personal contact between the bride and the groom was a pre-requisite for further progress in this matter. In spite of his clear disappointment we parted on very friendly terms.

Better luck finding a match for their little one!

We took from this visit a very strong desire to try this traditional accommodation at the first possible opportunity. And it was served to us on a silver platter when we reached the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. Here we discovered a number of yurt camps.

The yurt of our dreams, old farts that we are, had to have one important element: a rarely offered private bathroom. Lo and behold our all-knowing Begaly had heard about a newly opened establishment and there we drove as the sky darkened.

No matter the season hadn’t officially opened yet, no matter we were the only guests, they welcomed us with open arms. We were taken through a grove of apricot trees

and given a tour of a beautiful King size bed yurt villa exquisitely furnished with homemade elements. (Oh, please, no Chinese crap smuggled across the border two mountain ranges away!), with heating, latest 2G level internet,

and grand reveal of en-suite private bathroom with running cold and HOT water AND western FLUSHING toilet!!!

As it started sprinkling, my wife was offered a special blanket made of wolf pelts. A home made dinner was thrown in for good measure.
Not a chance to refuse such an offer!

Dinner and breakfast were served in a large yurt where I was kindly offered (to accommodate my spine’s limited flexibility) as a special favor a straight-backed chair reducing the necessity to criss-cross my legs according to the local custom of sitting at a low table. It was our dream come true scenario to be remembered for the rest of our traveling days!

So perhaps the title should be changed to See Kyrgyzstan and sleep in a yurt!

To be continued…

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.

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.

Your Own Slice of Paradise

Where do you go in your mind when instructed to close your eyes and imagine a perfect place where you feel safe and happy?

I am immediately transported to a green meadow with a rich tapestry of blooming wildflowers encircled by buzzing bees, surrounded by tall spruce forest, edged by white birch trees. And enhanced by the occasional visit from the local beauties… This green meadow is a real place in a quiet corner of the Slovenian Alps. Here my parents have built a wooden log cabin and my children spent their carefree childhood summers.

We are here now and again in between our different travel adventures. Every morning we wake up to the silence enhanced by the trills of the meadow birds, measured by the steady coo -coo of the cuckoo from the forrest. The fresh mountain air wafts in through the half open window and the sun streams in, illuminating the wooden planks of our bedroom. I count the burs in the ceiling, remembering my dad and uncle putting it up plank by plank every free weekend.

In my mind and my life this place has always been a refuge. I counted the days till the school holidays began so I could take our girls to a place where they could run free, picking flowers and wild berries and climbing trees, and I, relieved of the stresses of modern-day parenting, could sit on the deck, overlooking the meadow, book in hand and a pot of tea at the ready.

In times of struggles, just the thought of this place gave me strength. If everything went to hell in a handbasket I would pick up the pieces and go to this cottage by the woods.

In the rare times of really dark mood, probably just after lost elections or when watching really depressing news I would imagine WW III breaking out and me and my family heading up to the mountains, living off wild berries and the potatoes and vegetables grown in the small garden my mother so skillfully tends to every summer.

Having been traveling for the third year in a row, I realized how important it is to have a little slice of paradise, a temporary refuge from the vagaries of nomadic life. Even when we returned to California for the first Christmas we didn’t go home, for our home was rented to a lovely Australian family. I only stopped by once to pick up some itinerant mail and introduce myself to the tenants, that I have only met on Skype once. It was strange to step into our old house, I felt like an intruder into someone else’s home. It was their home for the year, with their children draped over couches and their shoes and books and musical instruments scattered about.

I don’t know how real retired nomads do it? The ones who sell their homes and all their worldly possessions and go traveling around the world permanently. Perhaps a few years down the road we might get to that stage, too. For now, our home is still awaiting our return, the plants in the garden are still (over)growing and the neighbors ever so rarely drop a line.

While I am happy to plan new and better adventures all the time, I do realize what a blessing it is to have an occasional break in a safe heaven. Besides the stops to see my family in Slovenia, we also regularly drop by to see our loved ones in Prague. We are lucky to have a use of a family apartment where we keep some of our things and slowly fill the blank walls with exotic finds from our travels, hand woven textiles and masks and wild boar necklaces. It is a most special regular stop on our travels for we have two little Czech grandkids that are always excited by our arrival, and we sometimes even cross paths with our American kids traveling around Europe.

In the world that went crazy with Coronavirus fears we were so grateful, we could make it to this slice of comfortable and safe paradise to wait out the crisis. Some of our travel friends got stuck on the road for months in much less pleasant places and circumstances. We have never spent such a long time in one place on our travels, but after initial self quarantine and gradual lessening of restrictions we were able to have some interesting in depth adventures discovering glittering Prague and history-rich Czech countryside devoid of any and all tourists.

Our Asian worry free slice of paradise on Koh Samui is at the guest bedroom of our generous friend Jenni’s beautiful home. We have stopped at her colorful home a few times on our travels through Asia to rest, recoup, and plan in peace the next steps on the journey. To have a familiar face pick you up from the ferry or airport, to drop your jet lagged body into a familiar bed with fresh linens, to not think where you will find a late night dinner is such a welcome break.

Somebody asked me the other day where do I most feel at home? Is it Europe or United States? I didn’t have to think twice, the answer was just there, clear as day. I feel home wherever I drop my bag and pull out my pajamas. Sure, I am happy to return ”home” be it to the Alpine cottage by the woods, the Prague city apartment or the California house. But it is with the slightest tinge of regret and a whole new level of excitement that I lock the door behind me when I hit the road again. For many many people, it is difficult, nay impossible to understand the deep-seated desire to travel. They love their home and their community and they are happy to stay put. Great for them! For the rest of us, the world is our temporary playground or permanent home.

I believe some travelers are bitten by the travel bug (often when quite young) while many of us are born with the “wandering shoes” on. Sometimes we can trace our desire to explore to a family branch. I am sad I never got to meet my grandfather on my dad’s side to hear his stories about his vagabond life building water wells and repairing all things that needed fixing in villages on the way.

In fact, crazy as it may seem, the inherent urge to travel can supposedly be traced back to one gene, which is a genetic derivative of the gene DRD4, which is associated with the dopamine levels in the brain.

The gene itself, which is identified as DRD4-7R, has been dubbed the “wanderlust gene,” because of its correlation with increased levels of curiosity and restlessness, for the most part.

Wanderlust, the very strong or irresistible impulse to travel, is adopted untouched from the German, presumably because it couldn’t be improved upon.

It consists of two words:

wander

Verb

a passionate or overmastering desire or craving

What are the things people lust after besides of course sex?

Some are gluttons, or as it is more acceptable to eat just for fun today, they are called – “foodies”.

Some women might lust after handbags or shoes.

Some people are adrenaline junkies.

I freely admit that I am a travel addict. This fact became abundantly clear during the two months of COVID shelter in place. Even though we were not forced to stay inside like many other people, and we roamed abundantly within the borders of the Czech Republic, it was the knowledge that the borders were closed that really vexed me. That and the uncertainty of future travel. The thought that we might never be able to travel again was devastating to my psyche. I was on edge, irritable, and depressed. Life without travel had no meaning.

I scoured the news on countries with the best COVID outcomes and the possible reopening of borders. I figured Iceland would be one of the first countries to welcome tourists back, as they had very few cases and a great testing scheme. And with tourism being 10% of their GDP and 30% of their export revenue, I gathered they will be itching to get it going again. And voila, when they made the announcement that they will reopen borders to European tourists on June 15 we were poised to buy a ticket to Reykjavík from Prague. It was the drug fix I needed. Immediately the feeling of wellbeing spread through my veins. The need to get out of the apartment diminished. I would gladly sit at home, reading my Iceland guidebook and digging on the Internet for the best waterfalls the whole next month, just knowing that Iceland is awaiting our arrival.

I got the travel bug early in life and after every travel adventure I would come back to visit my beloved grandma. In her little kitchen I would find my colorful postcards prominently displayed and proudly shared with family and neighbors. For the rest of her life she would ask me, “Haven’t you had enough of traveling? Haven’t you seen everything?”

No, Grandma, people like us never have enough. The more we see, the more there is to see and discover. My Bucket List gets longer and longer. While in the beginnings there were great European cities with museums and galleries galore

then exotic countries with ancient temples and ruins, now there are secret tiny slices of paradise scattered wide and far. And besides beautiful places, we also enjoy different immersive experiences like native festivals or camel fairs or adventuresome scuba dives and horseback rides.

The longer we travel, the more important is the people connection. We enjoy meeting other travelers and sharing our experiences or tips from the road. On our last South American adventure we met a number of interesting and inspiring couples that we still keep in touch with. Here’s to you, bird watchers from Chicago and camper van vagabonds from Brazil!

We like staying in Airbnbs not because there is often an added comfort of a kitchen and washing machine, but because they are often run by warm, welcoming and chatty people. Here’s to you Anne France in Argentina and Bette in Brazil! We have had some wonderful welcomes from volunteer hosts Servas International members around the world. Here’s to you Stan and Marion in New Zealand and Ita and Avram in Israel. And here’s to the random strangers who shared a warm moment of connectedness!

(note: click on this video)

We don’t often have guides, but when we do they really bring a heightened level of understanding. I can easily find all relevant historical or geographical information in a guide book or online, but to have a chance to ask personal questions about life and family is a huge bonus. In that we find that hiring a female guide is a huge plus. Here’s to you Yuli on Sumba and Heba and Gigi in Egypt!

When people hear about our travels around the world, we often get asked a silly question: Which is your favorite country? We have favorite places for unspoiled beaches, tall mountains, blues lakes, vast deserts, green jungles, or depth of history, layers of culture, ancient civilizations, animal kingdoms, vanishing tribes, exhilarating adventures, or just best fishing.Tell us what defines your secret travel paradise and we will direct you to one or quite possibly more places.

If we were young again and looking for a new home as we did so many years ago, we would probably make a different choice. When we speak with young people wishing to leave their home and country we always say, “Try to go to New Zealand. Right now it is the best country in the world with most progressive policies and amazing young woman prime minister.”

But really, the truest answer to the question which is our favorite country in the world is simple:

The next one!

 

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.

Romanian Rhapsody in Blue

Through futuristic sunflower fields sown thickly with sleek New Age wind mills we slipped into Romania. On small country roads, only occasionally passing a horse and cart loaded to the brim with fresh hay, we sped towards a tiny village of Plopul on Sfante Gheorghe arm of Danube. There we had arranged for a private boat tour and a stay at a restored traditional house. The house was absolutely charming in its authenticity and simplicity except for a crucial detail: it did not have the promised air conditioner. With mosquitos descending with the evening we hightailed it out of there. “No worries, there are plenty of other accommodations on Booking.com,” I said as we turned towards the bigger village of Murighiol. “I am not booking anything until I see it,” my husband was adamant.

Well, let me tell you, only at the height of Sakura season in Japan did we have such a hard time finding a decent bed. I will spare you the crazy details of being turned away from guest houses that showed availability online to people not calling us back with directions to their place. The first night we ended up in a ridiculously overpriced old communist resort where an International conference of Fisheries was in its final stages with a “traditional” music group performing. With the secure knowledge of the air conditioner humming away in our drab room and an introduction to excellent Romanian dark beer I was able to join in the festivities with a few rounds of kolo circle dance. Afterwards I transferred my enthusiasm to killing some nearly frozen mosquitos on the ceiling of our room. Do you know what is the most effective way of their extermination? You take a bed pillow and you throw it up at them with all your might. Compared to a hand or actowel, the large thick pillow surface prevents their escape.

The next morning our search for accommodations continued. It was only through an accountant at a very fancy resort kindly calling her friend that we got a cute apartment at a place that was actually sold out. Our disappointment continued with surly slow services, and mediocre food, including the boniest fish in the world. When we recounted our frustrating experiences to traveling Romanians, they had no good explanation.

“It is the Delta,” said a young chap on vacation with his family. “We don’t get treated any better. Please do not let this spoil your Romanian experience. You will find it much more developed and tourist friendly anywhere else. ” And he was right. At the end Romania was our favorite Balkan country and the Delta, too, redeemed itself at the end.

I absolutely fell in love with the sweet little white and blue thatch covered village houses, many dating back centuries and some beautifully restored. Folk architecture of perfect proportions with lovely hand carved details. In our wanderings through the countryside we came across white and blue churches, too, with gleaming cupolas and golden altars.They were quite a richly adorned apparition in otherwise poor Delta villages.Turns out the blue communities are the descendants of Russian-Ukrainian Lipoveni, the dissenters (Old Believers) from the Russian Orthodox Church, who in the 18th century wanted to escape the persecution of their sect.

But it was the early morning boat trip to the Delta that sealed the deal. To avoid the tourist trail and explore the smaller channels we first drove a good way on the banks past old homesteads and haystacks to the edge of the water. As we climbed into our small floating boat all the troubles were forgotten and our hearts expanded reveling in Nature’s beauty. We soon turned into smaller and smaller channels Some were so narrow we had to watch for reeds and grasses hitting our faces. We saw water snakes and otters, but it was the abundance of bird life that Delta is famous for that had us transfixed. We were in good hands with our naturalist guide Alma, who seemed as excited for every even small encounter as us. The Danube Delta is where river Danube after flowing through nine European countries ends its journey and flows to the Black Sea. It has the third largest biodiversity in the world (over 5,500 flora & fauna species) spreading over 5,050 square km offering a sanctuary for birds, fish, and animals. Even for non binocular clad non birders the bird encounters are easy and frequent. From small colorful bee eaters to large white tailed eagles birds abound in the quiet of the morning. There are around 300 bird species – and among those, we saw flocks of pelicans, cormorants, wild ducks, geese, storks, herons, ibises, and swans. The Delta is a pleasant resting stop for the migratory birds.  It was especially joyous to observe proud papa swans protecting their young by puffing up and patrolling the waters. Did you know nearly 30 bird species mate for life, amongst them three kinds of swans? Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 60% of the Delta is protected from human development and indeed we encountered nary a human being except for a few fishermen. After an exciting day in the Delta appetites are sated by all fish specialties: sliced, diced, smoked, pickled, fried and rolled into phyllo dough. How lucky we have been with the weather! Looks like some rain is coming in. Leaving the Delta it catches up with us just before the Moldova border in the town of Braila on the Danube River. We watch the bride and bridesmaids quickly ushered into a limo and are left with the umbrellas just (singing and) dancing in the rain…

Spectacular Sumba Surprises

It doesn’t happen often, but I am rendered speechless. I don’t even know where to begin. Sumba has proven to be much more than we hoped for- our kind of Travel Paradise.Still replete with old traditions and original village architecture, vast tracts of untouched beaches and unspoiled nature, yet dotted with a few good hotels with hot shower and cold AC. Just enough to make an exploration base and wash off the grime and sweat from the whole day exploring on dusty roads. No Western tourists, (we met less than a dozen in our 8 days on the whole island ), yet a modern 4 wheel drive car with a safe driver, working AC and a decent suspension. And a fabulous local English speaking guide, Yuliana Leda Tara, personable, sharp witted and funny. She made us laugh and she laughed hysterically at our lame jokes. Together we spend many, many hours in the car on some surprisingly straight and good roads and then some pretty curvy and bad roads. Oops!One of the few expats we met (it looks like there are also less than a dozen) said, “One time I drove my family to camp on a beach. It took me 2 hours to go 8 km. But it was worth it!” Yup, totally agree! There are very few cars on the road, but plenty of other traffic, including crazy motorcycle drivers, most of them helmet free, sometimes transporting strange loads, like huge bamboo poles, stacks of bricks or live pigs.

When we would hurl towards yet another one overtaking on a blind curve, we would scream and Yuli would say,

“Old men drive slowly, young fly.”

To which Mirek would reply,

“You have no old drivers on this island. They all die young.”

When an ambulance would pass us by hurriedly, we would ask,

“Why don’t they use the flashing lights?”

“Oh, they only use them if someone is dead.”

And Mirek would say with his typical sense of humor,

“Why? He is not in a hurry, he is dead!”

Then Yuli would howl with laughter and translate for the driver. Then they would laugh together and come up with an explanation,

“We need to know if someone is dead, because there will be a big funeral with free food for everyone!”

Since we first laid eyes on our first sumptuous Sumba ikat weaving, we wanted to go and meet the weavers. I have coveted a particular shell encrusted woven Sumbanese tapestry for some years now. I saw it in the research collection of the Threads of Life Gallery in Ubud and was immediately besotted. I took a photo of it and vowed to find another one. In their public sales gallery I also read the interesting life story and saw a picture of Sumba Queen and weaving legend Tamu Rambu Hamu Eti and said to myself, “One day I want to meet her.”

Stay tuned to see what happened.

So, it was the weaving that enticed us to Sumba and we were prepared for the quality and beauty of this still widely practiced craft, seriously verging on major art. But we were certainly unprepared for the quality and beauty and variety of Sumba beaches.I mean, we just came from some seriously spectacular beaches on New Zealand and Australia but wow, these beaches are something else. Coupled with the fact that there is usually no one else on the beach, but an occasional fisherman or a kid looking to supplement the breakfast offering of rice and water spinach. For miles and miles and miles.

While we never tired of beaches we were in serious danger of getting a traditional village overload. The first one we came to was a surprising travel back in time shocker. Prehistoric megalithic settlement-live! All the museum dioramas and artists renditions in history books we grew up on were coming to life all around us. In a reverse culture shock we strolled around while furtively looking around the back to see where Indiana Jones might emerge from.

After a while the novelty would wear off and yet, just as we said no more villages, no more bloody tombstones, we would come upon another one, a perfect village set perfectly over a lagoon and we would stand there dumbstruck all over again. For a relatively small island the variety of landscapes was astounding. In the drier East Sumba we climbed up to a plateau and a golden savannah opened in front of us. Any minute now we were expecting a giraffe or an elephant popping by. Sorry, just freewheeling falcons and wild horses.In the wetter West Sumba there were rice paddies galore. As we arrived just after the end of the Wet Season the rice harvest was in full swing,

yet some padis were already planted anew and flooded or growing fresh young vibrantly green stalks.

While Sumba is sparsely populated, along the roads there was plenty of life. I am not sure whether there are more horses, buffalos or pigs on Sumba, but cumulatively there are likely more than the human population. Horses are very important to the Sumbanese men and there is a famous Pasola event, that brings together the best and the fiercest of horsemen. Some call this racing and spear throwing, blood drawing orgy a thinly veiled excuse for tribal warfare.

The buffalos are tremendously important not only for farm work but especially for sacrifices. New house, new wife, dead relative, buffalos are to be sacrificed. Pigs were everywhere, under every house in the village. Big potbellied sows walking around jauntily through the village and across the road, little piglets playing together. Dogs, chickens and roosters rounded the picture, and in the absence of toys they were constant play toys for the boys.In fact children on Sumba are likely one of the last free range kids in the world. In the whole time we were there we have not seen one single toy. Not even made out of wood. Sticks, stones, flowers, shells, sand, water. Typically they are also not mollycoddled, they work and help, too. Herding buffalos, washing horses, carrying water, wood and younger siblings. They go hungry at times and they are poor but they cry little and laugh a lot. Is it because they don’t want anything? They do not even know what to want. Outside of main towns there are no TVs, no advertising, no stores, nothing to buy. A few simple stalls here or there by the side of the road sell petrol by the bottle, some tomatoes or a few bunches of bananas. You bet those kids never complain when they get a bowl of rice and on a lucky day some dried fish on top of it.With the houses dark and hot, all the life is lived outside. There is a lot of sitting around on the front porch and watching the world go by. Or Happily waving at us as we pass by.

I think Sumba has the best light, that bathes everything in a special glow. With not a single factory on the island and few cars it could be the lack of pollution? I can’t explain it. It also has fabulous clouds. Maybe it was the tinted windows on the car that made them pop. You be the judge.