Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Outback is Something Truly Fascinating...Welcome to Oz

It's an iconic image.  It looks like any of thousands of small towns across the heartland of America.  I grew up in one that had scenery just like this.  It's not unusual.  But, if you've ever wondered what it's really like to make a life in Australia's outback, you might want to check this out.  This is Broken Hill, held by many as the capital of the outback.  It looks pretty common, but it's a little different than most small towns.

Here's the thing that I've learned fast.  The outback of Australia does things they're own way.  Where I live, they would be considered eccentric at best.  But as a traveler, I love these places.  Broken Hill is home to many things that you won't see much anywhere else.  You can stay in a regular hotel and eat at great restaurants, and drive on paved roads there.  It's not as outback as some spots.  It's that the atmosphere is different.  There's so many things to check out.
You can fly to Broken Hill from most cities in that region of Australia, but it's what you can see at the airport that's different.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia has a major hub in Broken Hill.  These are the outback doctors, baby.  They cover thousands of miles of outback with fly in medical services.  Bruce Langford Visitor's Centre at the Broken Hill Airport is where you can learn about this amazing service that helps patients in up to %80 of the country.  There is also a museum there that tells you the history of this amazing service.
At the Broken Hill Visitor Center you can learn about School of the Air.  This is an internet system to help teach children over an area of 1 million square kilometers.  There are less than 100 children in the area, and this system is designed to reach them all.  You can sit in on a class and see how it works if you like.
But, just because Broken Hill and the surrounding area over 1,000 miles from Sydney, is remote, doesn't mean that they're lacking in culture.  There are many art galleries in the area from the massive sandstone sculpture garden just outside of town to the world's largest acrylic painting on canvas.  There's even a place where you can get money that's been made into jewelry.
The area is full of galleries as well as museums of all kinds.  The area is known for it's mining history, whether it be opals, lead, zinc, or silver.  There are a few mines that you can tour and see how they extracted these minerals and gemstones from the ground.
Now, why did I mention Broken Hill?  Of course it's unique and gets you out of the city, like I'm always preaching for travelers to do.  However, just up the road a piece from Broken Hill and all it's civility, even though there are more sheep roaming around there than people, is Silverton.

Silverton might look familiar.  The Silverton Hotel might seem like de ja vu.  The black rally car/muscle car/mutant car in front will probably look familiar.  It certainly will to the movie buffs who will enjoy traveling to this area the most.  This one is a movie lover's dream.  If you've ever seen The Road Warrior, Madd Maxx II, that black car in front of the pub will look familiar.  It was filmed here.  The car was one of them used in the movie.
But that's not all.  Over 50 movies have been in part, filmed here.  The landscape lends itself to exotic settings and there aren't many people to get in the way.  There are only about 50 people left living in Silverton.  They virtually all were in the Road Warrior.  The Silverton Hotel is really a pub, and has great hot dogs.  It is a piece of living film history where you can sit down and enjoy it.
But, they have a list of all the movies that were filmed in the area.  They even had Tom Cruise and crew come by to film parts of Mission Impossible II.  If you wander around the area, you will find pieces of film history and old sets.  It's all very interesting.
Mundi Mundi Lookout is a great vantage point just outside the ghost town, and this is where we all saw Mel Gibson staring off into infinity.  It does double as a fabulous place to take photos of the landscape.
Now, if you haven't had enough Madd Maxx after looking over old sets, visiting the pub, checking out Mundi Mundi Lookout, and hearing the tales from the locals, there's a Madd Maxx museum.  This place has a lot of the cars, costumes and other things representing the movie franchise.  It's a monument to the movies, and a must see for anyone who ever enjoyed Madd Maxx.
There are many things of interest in and around Silverton, but even though there are trails around the reservoir, and there are mines like the Day Dream Mine to go down in, remember that it's still arid like a desert.  Well, it is primarily desert.  That's why a safari can be the best way to tool around the area.

A camel safari is something that you wouldn't really expect to encounter in Australia.  It's not ingrained in our views of that country, but here they are.  They take you on short tours of the area on the back of a camel.  It's that something that you would almost expect to do in some parts of Africa or in the Middle East, but here it seems more exotic.  It's a lot of fun and it just adds to the wonderful day that you can have in Silverton.  There are also mines to tour, and shops to browse.  It's a wonderful little ghost town that is really worth a look.
Can you stay here?  Well, yes you can, but...  There is a cottage for a single group.  There is a hostel with minimal amenities.  There is a campground that accommodates RV's.  That's why I mentioned Broken Hill.  That's where the day tours to Silverton run out of, and that's where the food and lodging really are.  The easiest way to do it is to do that.  I know that I should be saying that the experience is what it's all about, but you can go camping anywhere and stay in a hostel anywhere.  It's not that singular experience that I often advocate.  Do yourself a favor and stay in the city.  Be comfortable and don't risk ruining a truly wonderful outback experience by delving too far into outback lifestyle.  Remember, you're here for a look, not to join the community.

So come and check out the red landscape around Broken Hill, see an old silver mine, visit the sets of movies, and take a camel for a ride.  It's an amazing area to visit.  It's rustic to say the least.  It still seems to signal a trek back in time in most places, even though in Broken Hill they are building brand new movies studios to accommodate all the commercials and movies that are filmed here.
The movie guys like it because it's remote and beautiful.  You'll enjoy that about it too.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Travel Tips for Things That Most People Never Knew

There are many things that most people aren't aware of in the world of travel.  Some of them I've mentioned in this blog, but there is a lot of trivia out there that can be helpful.  I know, that sounds like an oxymoron, but it's true.  So, here's a list of things that you probably never thought of, didn't care about, or would never have thought could be for real in the world of travel.

1.  You can travel by container ship.  It's a fact.  Check the GoNomads site for listings.  You get to see a ship in operation, travel to exotic locations pretty much anywhere in the world that has a port, and  it's less expensive than a cruise ship.  They only have limited rooms on the ships, so there are no excess crowds, and you can spend time with the crew and really learn and experience a lot.  The crews live on board while they're at sea, so they have dining rooms, lounges, theaters, pools and exercise centers and everything.  It's a great way to go.

2.  There are more ice hotels in Canada and Finland than there are in Norway or Sweden.  That's right, if you're trying to get a room at the famous hotel in Sweden and can't, because of the waiting list, then try one of the others.  They seem to be cropping up all over the place.  There are ice hotels in Fairbanks, Alaska; Montreal and Quebec City, Canada; Romania; Austria; and even in the Alps.  I presume that there are even more of them starting up around the world, because they are so popular.  So, if you want to stay at an ice hotel, check out all of them before making any decisions.  They range from hotels to castles to igloos.  They have all kinds and in all kinds of locations.

3.  Have you ever wanted to visit the Kremlin?  It's one of the most iconic places in Moscow to visit, and you'd be crazy to miss it if you're there.  But, do you know what a Kremlin actually is?  It's a fortress in the Russian world, and they have them all over the country.  If you like, you could also visit the Kremlin in Novgorod or Kazan.  There are a few of them around, and the one in Moscow is simply the most famous.

4.  Did you know that the best way to go on the Trans Siberian Railway is as a local?  There are several tour companies that take advantage of the idea that we don't have a clue how to take a train by ourselves.  It is true that to visit Russia as a tourist these days, you need to contact a tour company, but if you go with a local Russian company, you'll get a cheaper trip, and riding a train doesn't take any special qualities if you speak the language.  It's all about the culture.  Sometimes it's better to take a trip like a local, because you are more a part of the trip.

5.  Did you  know where the largest canopy zip lines in the world are?  They are at Banning Mills, Georgia.  That's right, thrill seekers.  You don't have to go to New Zealand, or Africa to find the best, because they are in Georgia.  They have 6 levels to choose from and over 9 miles of zip lines.  This place is in Carroll County Georgia, and they have a lodge to stay in and a historic area to wander through as well.

6.  Did you know that learning to fly a seaplane and getting an SES rating and becoming a bonded sea plane pilot is way easier than getting a regular land plane pilot's license?  Sea Plane Adventures has been flying since 1947, and has a three day program where you can learn to fly one of these super fun planes.  You'll get ground school, flight time and an okay to fly from an examiner in as little as three days.  You can't beat the time or the price.  If you don't want to learn to fly, you can just take a flightseeing tour and enjoy the scenery.  There are other flight schools of this type around, but they are the best known.

7.  Did you know that on the top 10 scenic drives in America, Skyline Drive and the Pacific Coast Highway, two of the best known drives in the world, are 9 and 10?  Imagine that.  There are better drives.  Of course, the Hana Highway in Maui is number one.  I'll give them that, but check this out.
Number 2 is the Turquoise Trail out of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Number 3 is the Columbia Gorge Road out of Portland Oregon.  Number 4 is the Pig Trail Byway out of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  Do not always go for the best known.  My favorites on the list are the Columbia River Gorge Highway, and the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys.  Always do research before taking off on an adventure.  Make sure you're doing what you really want to do.

Queen of the Mississippi paddlewheel river boat cruises
8.  Did you know that you can still take a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River?  Most of the older riverboats along the Mississippi have been permanently docked and turned into floating casinos to get around gambling laws in the heartland.  While the casinos are a lot of fun, if you want to travel back in time a little bit, you still can aboard the Queen of the Mississippi.  This is a once in a lifetime style trip that you won't ever forget.  There are several cruises to choose from so you can go to the ports and areas that you want.  It's a great little adventure.

9.  Did you know that in most countries you don't really need anything but a driver's license to rent a car?  Most car rental agencies will let you rent a car with your American Driver's License as long as you stay in the country and don't cross any borders.  The best thing that you can do though is get an international driving permit, just in case of problems with the locals.  They come in handy even if you aren't driving as a form of identification that is easily understood in most countries.  There are several agencies that can help you obtain an international driving permit, but the easiest way to get one is to take your valid driver's license to the closest AAA office and get one.

10.  My last bit of advice for this little piece is to learn before you go.  If you just land in a place or a country, and you have no contacts, no education on the place and people, and no idea how to speak the language, then you are an idiot.  Do you need to take a tour company to a lot of countries, yes.  But, if you want to travel like a local to Spain or France, or many other countries, then just try to be prepared.  Book your trip way in advance, learn about the area through an insight guide or video.  Contact people who live there on Facebook or some other social website, and make a contact.  Don't give them too much information, because it's hard to trust people these days, but learn what you can.  Get a program to learn at least a little of the language.  Look on the government sites to find out local laws, exchange rates, and other useful information.  Do as much as you can to get a feel for the place before you go.  And, by all means, be open to trying new things.  That's why we travel.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Kunming, The Beauty and Culture of China

There are many things that I will never learn about China.  It's a subject not only on travel, but also culture, politics, and history, that would take much longer for me to study than the time I have left on this Earth.  It's one of those places that are always full of surprises.  I like surprises.
Kunming is one of the best surprises that I've seen in China.  It's a bustling overpopulated city, with great food, good shopping, lots of traffic, and fairly cheap hotels.  It's a balance between old and new, and I'm not sure which one is winning.

Dianchi Lake is on the south side of the city of Kunming.  This is a place of beautiful gardens and something called the Yunnan Ethnic Village or the Minorities Village.  This place showcases 25 different ethnic groups from the Yunnan Province.  They have food, crafts, lifestyle displays, and even music and dance.  It's an organized way for you to get to know the ways of their ancestors.  In a country that's modernizing at an uncanny speed, this is a good thing.  It keeps the system going.  It keeps the people attached to their roots.  It's also a lot of fun for the tourists.

Now, if you like shopping, Kunming has got it.  There are high end stores downtown.  There are market areas, like Nanping Business Street, and they have a couple of other open market areas as  well.  Each area is a little different from the others.  Nanping is one of the oldest, but not in the best shape.  These places don't care much about hours either.  They're open well into the night, and at night, people selling stuff out of the trunks of their cars are everywhere downtown.  As far as the eye can see.
Kunming is a bustling city, with a bright modern future.  It is also a great place for history and the past.  There are skyscrapers here and there are ancient temples.  It is rumored that not only was this place temporarily ruled by Genghis Khan, but it was also visited by Marco Polo.  It's not that this place is out of the way.  It's just that this place is nice and it has a few activities and other attributes that no place else has.
Now, why do I mention it on my blog?  Well, it has some very unusual features.

First and foremost, there is the Stone Forest.  This place reminds me of Tsingy Park in Madagascar.  There are hundreds of acres of these naturally formed spires.  Here the locals will tell you that many of them remind people of animals or other items.  One of them is a hanging rock, which precariously hangs as suggests its name.  The myth here is that if you truly love your lady, you will risk all and stand under the rock to prove your love.  It's a good thing that chivalry and proving oneself hasn't gone out of fashion.

Regardless, there is nothing like a labyrinth of stone spires to make for a very interesting day out of the city.  You can normally book a tour that drives you out on a bus for the day.  It's a nice ride and a fascinating look at mother nature.  There are also some caves in the area with some amazing formations, and one of them has a lake in it.

Not far from Kunming City is a wonderful ancient religious site called Dragon's Gate.  It is a thousand steps or so up.  The good thing about this is that there is also a cable car that you can catch in Haigeng Park.  There are also two wonderful old temples in the area to visit, Huating and Taihua.  This is a wonderful country visit from the city, with views that normally only angels have.  It's well worth the visit.

Now, there are many things to do in the area.  There are influences from a lot of different cultures.  That alone would keep you busy for quite a while, what with some of the cultures in the area being influenced by nearby Myanmar and Vietnam.  But, this is the modern age.  This is the time when China is moving ahead, modernizing everything, and keeping its economy going in some very strange ways.

Not far away is the city of Chendong.  This city was farmland not so long ago.  There are quite a few of these cities cropping up in China, and they are fascinating.  The government is building them to offset a possible real estate bubble.  The thing that strikes me about these cities, which are becoming more and more well known, is that there are little to no people there.  There are empty apartment buildings, empty shopping malls, empty houses, even empty subways.  It's eerie and worth the visit outside the box just to take a look.  How often do you get to see a vacant large city?
So, if you want a place that has reasonable hotel prices and a lot to see and do that you won't find anywhere else, come to Kunming.  Take a look at the past and the future.  Have some Over the Bridge Noodles, see some cultural dance and crafts, visit some temples, take a walk on the wild side, and enjoy a unique place with a lot to offer.  And remember, this is one of the lesser crowded cities in China, and the pollution is less than in a lot of areas.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Traditions in Japan...Kyoto

Kyoto is one of the most beautiful spots anywhere. Kiyomizudera Temple is a beautiful place where ancient meets modern.  The grounds are beautiful. The temple is beautiful.  The Buddhist religion is alive and well, and you can drink to health, wealth, and wisdom.  Or, according to the locals, long life, success in school, and a good love life.

Otowa Falls is the place to drink to your good future.  Here the water runs down in three separate streams, so you can choose what you wish to drink for good luck with.  It is considered in poor taste to drink from all three, so make your decisions wisely.

This is an amazing place.  It's not just a building.  There are many buildings, temples, garden structures, bridges.  It is a peaceful and tranquil place to spend the day.  If you've ever wanted to get away from it all, this is a great place to spend some quiet time and enjoy the beauty that the world has to offer.
Now, why did I mention this place?  Well, as usual, it's exotic, it's something that almost everyone can muster up the strength and energy to do, and it's cultural.  Culture is the best part of travel.  There was one other reason that I brought it up.

Kyoto, the location of the temple and grounds, is a cultural hot spot.  If you want to learn about ancient culture in Japan, here's your spot.  The gardens are amazingly well designed.  The trees are bonsai.  The waterways are beautiful.  The cherry blossoms are abundant.  The temples are plentiful.  There's not much here that you haven't seen in the movies.  This is where the traditions live on.
This is where modern meets tradition, and this is where you might just see a Geisha in the subway.  It's a way of life.  Here in Kyoto, the world of the Geisha is alive and well.  And if you want, you can go to a dinner club and see the Maiko perform.

Maiko are apprentices to become Geisha.  They spend years learning the art of pleasing people.  They learn to serve tea, dance, and perform for others.  This is the life of the Geisha.  Now, long since they have been noted as prostitutes.  That is not the case for the traditional Kyoto Geisha.  These girls are business women.  They perform for their customers.  They escort them to functions when asked.  They are subservient by trade, but do not confuse this with any kind of weakness.  These girls work for their clients, but their love lives are their own.  They do date and have relationships as would any other woman.  The only catch with her life is that when she gets married, she has to retire.  They are not prostitutes, but they are single women.  When they marry, they are retired.

Gion is the neighborhood where you can experience the Geisha culture.  There are restaurants where the Maiko perform for your entertainment.  They will even teach to you and play traditional drinking games with you.  There are places where they will dress you up like a Geisha and photograph you to impress your friends back home.  There are lots of different ways to experience the Geisha/ Maiko culture.

Kyoto is old world, with tea plantations, Geisha and Maiko, temples, castles, gardens, and canals.  The cherry blossoms in the spring add that little something that makes it like no place else on Earth.  Now, this is a popular tourist destination.  This isn't one of those out of the way places that no one knows about.  That said, make your plans in advance.  There are many tour companies that will help you out.  There are many places to stay.  There are many places to see.  There are many things to do.  This is one of the places that my mind kept coming back to so often that I finally had to write about it.  Enjoy!