Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Beautiful Sakha...The Yakutia of Siberia

 It's hard to believe that there is a river port with such beauty of Orthodox Cathedrals and traditional Russian dachas in one of the coldest places on Earth, but Yakutsk, in the Sakha Republic in Siberia is amazingly that.  Summer here is actually harder to weather than winter.  The river is only passable by car in the winter.  It's an amazing and puzzling world that makes the rest of us wonder, why on Earth would one ever go there?

The fact is, it looks like most Russian cities.  It's full of blue and white buildings, yellow and white buildings, mass transit, crowded streets, big signs advertising everything everywhere, and lot's of people.  It doesn't appear that different until winter.

In winter, even Lenin is frozen.  Yakutsk is one of the coldest cities on Earth.  Temperatures reach -40 Celsius sometimes and occasionally even colder.  The winters are long and the weather is brutal.  It's windy, it's snowy, and it's dark.  That's the way life is in Yakutsk in winter.  So, here's the question; do they have tourism?  The answer is yes.


You can fly right in from other regions of Russia.  You will have to book a tour of some kind to visit anyway, just like the rest of the country.  It's easy.  There are companies that specialize in trips to the Sakha Region.  You can fly in from the west through Moscow or from the east through Magadan.  If you want, you can drive in from the east, but if you want to drive in from the west or south it will be trickier.  There are no trains that far north in Yakutia.

But really, why would you visit such a place?  Most of us want to go south, take a cruise, sit on a beach, have a Margarita, and relax.

This one is pure adventure.  The Sakha Region and Yakutia has a very interesting history.  It is the largest land area region in the world.  It has been inhabited for thousands of years.  It was used as a place to exile people during the Soviet Era and some before that.  It's famous for it's gulags, gangsters, diamonds and gold.  The Kolyma area was once a gold mining area run by local gulags.  There is a large Jewish population to this day here, from when they too were run out of the more populated western parts of the Soviet Union.  It makes for a very fascinating melange of cultures and peoples.


The Pole of Cold is one of the places that you can visit.  This is known as the coldest place on Earth.  Is it?  I don't know, but they have festivals celebrating it and a museum with all kinds of exhibits that will explain why.  It's certainly one of the coldest places I've ever encountered, but I'm not sure that it's colder than Antarctica.  The people here will be some of the friendliest you've ever met, and the experience is well worth the visit.

Also on this trip, you can see the world's biggest diamond mine.  Mirny Diamond Mine is Russia's biggest diamond mining operation.  The giant hole that is the diamond mine would shock the western world, but in Siberia, it really isn't harming a thing.  You can book tours of specific areas of the diamond mine and see how it all works.

Around Yakutsk there are several museums of all kinds.  There is even an outdoor museum outside of town where you can see what life was like in the past for the peoples of the area.

The Mammoth Museum is one of the Yakutsk must sees.  As you can expect, a lot of permafrost means a lot of things got frozen in there in the past.  This area has a huge collection of Woolly Mammoths that popped up from the frozen areas throughout history.

But there are many things to see and do in Yakutsk.  The list is enormous for such a remote area, but you would be shocked.  These people are just used to the cold.  Their lives are as normal as anyone in New York, just way colder most of the year.  The Sakha are a proud people.  They are proud of their lives, their history, and their traditions.  Just meeting them is something that makes the trip worthwhile.

Here's an idea...take a cruise.  That's right.  You can catch a river cruise that will take you to see the Lena Pillars.  Lena Pillars are a natural phenomenon that is found in other places around the world but not normally to this size and extreme.  It's very old volcanic rock and here, it's formed large cliffs overlooking the Lena River.  They are an amazing sight and the cruise is a wonderful way to spend some time.

But, what is it that drew me to this place where you will hear music played on Jews Harps and find huge strip mines in the ground?  What is it that made this place an adventure for anyone?  It's true that it's one of the coldest places on Earth.  That in itself is an adventure.  It's true that everything there is big like in Texas, from the river to the lava rocks to the mammoths to the mines to the land itself.  But, Yakutia has something in bulk that most places don't have that much of.  Permafrost.


Yakutsk has the Kingdom of Permafrost.  It's hokey, but it's original.  This place is connected with the institute for research of permafrost, but it's the fun side.  They have it set up so that the tourist can enjoy their time inside the tunnels underground where you can see how permafrost really works.

The tunnels are full of ice sculptures that make the trip more beautiful and a lot of fun.

The locals sometimes have weddings there amongst the ice sculptures.  Permafrost is part of the culture and makes for a very traditional local wedding.

And amongst the woolly mammoth exhibits and permafrost exhibits and ice sculptures you will run into Father Christmas.  This is one of the most out of the way places I've ever seen that you can visit Santa Clause.  It's an amazing tourist attraction, no matter how hokey it might look.  There is a lot of good work going on here in the research to see how permafrost lives and dies, and how we can live with it without destroying it.  The Kingdom is there to help fund the research, which is a great thing.

I know it sounds crazy, but come to Yakutsk.  This is a one of a kind place with people to match.  It's cold, and the best time to visit is actually not the summer.  It's for hearty souls, but it's worth it.  In summer it's good, but in the winter it's amazing.  So, anytime anyway, come and visit the wild and wonderful arctic area of Yakutsk, Siberia.  When your friends ask why on Earth you went there, you can tell them that they need to see it for themselves to understand why it's so fascinating.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Indian Casinos...What are They Really Like?

I live in Connecticut, so I have grown accustomed to Indian Casinos and Indian Resorts and all the things that come with them.  Recently, I spent my first overnight at the Quechan Resort and Casino referred to as The Q in Winterhaven, CA.  I found it very different from the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun that I'm used to and it made me wonder, what is this phenomenon really?  How many of these places are there?  How many states have them?  How many of them offer anything but gambling and food?  Well, here are the answers that I found.

There are currently 479 Indian casinos, some of them also hotel resorts, some not.  They operate in 28 states.  There are 565 federally recognized Native American tribes in America and 242 of them operate some kind of a gaming center.  This sounds like being a Native American means running a casino, and it seems as though they've cornered the gambling market.

Well, they did pull down a combined $28.1 billion in 2012.  That seems like a lot of profits.  It's an unimaginable amount of money to me.  But, unlike some other corporations and so forth around the country, the Indian Casinos can say something besides just how much money they made.

The Indian Casinos around the country employ approximately 679,000 people and pay over $9 billion in taxes and shared payments to federal and state governments.  The shared payments are complicated, but largely the tribes are voluntarily giving a portion of their profits back to the community.

Most Indian Casinos have a small museum about their tribe.  These cultural centers are a great way to educate ourselves in the lives and history of these tribes.  I have visited casinos run by tribes that I'd never heard of before my visit, like the Quechan of southwestern Arizona.  I learned a great deal about the tribal heritage and their origins on my visit, just from visiting the tiny museum outside the arcade.

I liked the Quechan resort in Winterhaven, CA.  The landscape outside the hotel was otherworldly and quite beautiful.  The dunes were amazing.  The pool with the lazy river was great.  The hotel was comfortable.  The restaurants were good.  The people were friendly.  And, according to my mother, the slots pay pretty good.  Would I visit again?  Yes.  Do I gamble?  Not really.  An Indian resort hotel, is someplace that you can enjoy without playing one single slot.

But the Quechan was tiny by Indian Casino standards.  I live right down the road from Foxwoods.  This is the ground breaker that made all the rules as it went along.  It wasn't the first.  That honor goes to the Seminole Tribe in Hollywood, Florida who first opened a bingo hall in 1987 after an eight year legal battle for their rights to do so.  But, Foxwoods is the standard for resorts.  You can take your kids here.  You can see IMAX movies, play laser tag, go to museums, see shows, go shopping, swim, play, and the adults can go and gamble.  They have several hotels with all kinds of services.  They even have the Schimitzun every year that brings together tribes from all over the country for a pow wow.  It's hard to complain about the gambling when they've given back billions, helped their local community combat a depressed economy, and provided a high speed ferry for Long Island Sound.  It's the Connecticut version of Vegas.


There was a time when Foxwoods was the largest casino in the world, but it's been surpassed.  Currently, the Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is the largest, and it's all state of the art.  This one doesn't even have a hotel--yet.  It opens in the fall this year.  The place is enormous though, and a great place for adult entertainment.

The Q is tiny when compared to such mammoth sized casinos, but does that make it less fun?  Does that make it not worth your time?  No.  The place is great.  And I think that's the thing about the Indian Casinos.  I think that it doesn't really matter which one you go to.  I think they're all beautiful, friendly, and fun.  I do think that you should know what your casino of choice will be like.  I think that you should always check one out online before you go.  Make sure that your choice suits you.

Be aware of some things though.  Over half of the casinos in the United States that are run by Native American Tribes don't have a hotel.  Just because it's a casino doesn't mean that it has lodging.  Check before you take a road trip.  Also, look at the prices of the hotel.  Foxwoods will charge you an arm and a leg to stay at one of their hotels, but a little guy like The Q will send out coupons and give great prices to get you to come.  If you have trouble with the concept that I'm talking about just look at Vegas strip vs. Atlantic City in the off season.  Find a deal.  You don't always have to go to the big names to have a good time.

If you have kids with you, however, look for activities.  There must be something besides gambling if you are to bring your children.  Nothing irritates me more than seeing parents with their kids in some casino where there's nothing for the kids to do.  Check it out.  Make sure.  It needs to be the kind of place you're going to enjoy.

The Indian Casino is here to stay.  It's become part of the American Culture, and we should be proud of it and enjoy it.  There are almost 500 of these relaxing, fun, and beautiful resorts around the country, and we should embrace them.  So, check it out.  Make a reservation.  Go, eat at the buffet, play some slots, have a drink by the pool, and sleep in luxury.  Take some time to check out the cultural center and learn about the tribe.  It's a real treat that anyone can love.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Getting Glasses in Mexico...I'm Not Joking

I recently went to visit my parents.  They live in Sun City, Arizona, and they are old.  Therefore, in this country with it's out of control medical costs, and prescriptions that are absolutely unaffordable, they had to find a solution to their problems of medical care.  This is the most amazing thing I've ever seen when it comes to meds and doctors.

Welcome to Los Algodones, Mexico.  This place is only seven miles from Yuma, Arizona on the Mexican border in Baja California.  This is where people go to handle their auxiliary medical issues.  This place is full of opticians and optical services, pharmacies, and dentists.  There are lots of dentists.  You can get your stuff done for a reasonable price, and still have a good time.  All you need is a passport.

The Purple Pharmacy is probably the biggest one in town.  Here you can find all the top dollar meds at one tenth of the price generally speaking.  Some of them are even cheaper.

So, is the care and product as good as the states?  That's always a question, so we put it to the test.  I took my son to Gala Optical to get an exam and possibly some new glasses.  He was about due for an exam anyway, and when in Rome...well, we tried it out.

Javier was our optometrist.  He was educated in the states.  He actually just moved back from Winterhaven, California where he used to live and only commute across the border.  He finally decided that it was just easier to move back there.  He looked at my son's eyes, finding that his old prescription was just a little off.  My son picked out designer frames and transition lenses for his new glasses.  They were a way higher quality than his old glasses.  Javier sent the whole job out to their local lab to have the glasses made.  Two and a half hours of my life was all this cost me until the glasses were done.  My son said that he liked them better than the ones that had cost me a fortune at Lens Crafters at home and the whole thing only cost me $85.00.  Beat that.  Nice people, good service, and prices that you cannot match at home.  What's the problem with healthcare?  Maybe it isn't the insurance.  Maybe it's us suing doctors all the time.  That's why they practice here.  They don't have to pay all the malpractice insurance, because they don't get sued.  Think about it.

But medical stuff is merely part of the adventure for anyone in Algodones.  You can get your hair cut, get liquor cheap, party, eat and shop.  It's a great little place sitting right on the border.

Do you like to shop on the street?  In my travels I've found that shopping from the street vendors is one of the most fun parts of the trip.  In Algodones, the vendors are amazing.  They love to haggle, they want to make you a deal and they are really nice.  If you buy something from them, they will tell you the whole history of the town and how it became what it is.  I have a ring that got me just that story.

Los Algodones is an old town.  Many years ago, there was nothing there but a border crossing.  It wasn't nearly as well known or popular as Tijuana, and the locals were barely getting by.  They had nothing.  As Americans began to pay more and more for healthcare because of the lawsuits, and research costs for the pharmaceutical companies to make the FDA happy, the world started to change.  Someone got the idea to offer the doctors and pharmacies a solution.  So a successful and growing town was born.  Now, people come from all over the country to get their medical work done.  You don't need a prescription to get your meds.  You won't find a lot of pain killers hanging around there, but if you have high cholesterol, breathing issues, heart problems, erectile dysfunction, etc.  you can get your meds for cheap.  Real cheap.

It's easy to go there.  All you need is a passport.  They have a parking lot all set up at the border that will cost you six bucks for the day.  Then you follow the fence to Mexico, and you are in town.  There are no checks going in.  There are checks coming out of Mexico.

While you're waiting for your glasses or whatever, make sure you check out all the local shopping.  I saw everything from a shop full of leather gun holsters to gelato.  There are t-shirts and other clothing, including the brightly colored embroidered blouses and dresses that you would expect to see in Mexico.  They have beautifully painted vases, plates, rocks, and so forth that are painted right in front of you.  They will make your kids a name bracelet.  The shopping is great.  They know that the Americans love their sports teams too, and that football heads the list.  You can get almost anything form a rock to a backpack to a ceramic skull all designed with your favorite football team's logo on it.  They also have jewelry, sun catchers, blankets, mailboxes and a ton of other stuff for football fans.

But don't think that trinkets are all you can get.  The wall art is amazing, made from metal and ceramics.  They have furniture, clothing, and everything imaginable.  Most of it is made by hand.  It's wonderful, and if you know how to haggle, it's reasonably priced.

Eventually, you will want a Margarita, or a beer, or some food.  We stopped a couple of times at El Paraiso to do this.  El Paraiso has been around since 1947 and has sprawled all over the place.  There is the restaurant, but it also has a huge court out back that's part of the restaurant.  I wasn't quite sure where it all ended to be honest.  But, no matter how big the place really is, the people there are fabulous.  Just like all the people that I met in Los Algodones, the folks at the restaurant are nice and friendly.  They don't seem to mind us Americans sucking up their time and air at all.

We had a huge bowl of nachos to go with our Coronas and Margaritas.  This is my first foodie picture.  I don't go much for it, but it was a really pretty giant bowl of nachos.

At any rate, the doctors are good.  The pharmacies are good.  The glasses are good.  The people are friendly.  The shopping is great.  The artwork is plentiful.  The football lobby is well represented.  The food and drink are good.  It's a great experience and everyone should give it a try.

The one thing that you have to be prepared for is the reentry into the United States.  You go through a labyrinth of gates and fences and a building.  You are checked out to make sure you didn't bring anything stupid across the border.  Your passports are scrutinized before you are allowed entry.  It's the most intimidating border crossing I've ever made.  For anyone that says that we aren't doing enough at the border, you may be wrong.  This one here closes at night with the biggest locks on the sturdiest gates that I've ever seen.  This border crossing is secure.

All border crossing experiences aside, come and spend the day in Los Algodones, Baja.  It's a wonderfully light and happy experience, and you can get some great medical services too.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Branson...Something a Little Different for Resort Visitors

It seems as though the country part of the US is turning up with Titanic Museums.  The one in Branson, MO looks a lot like the one in the area of Dollywood in Tennessee.  So, what else can one expect when visiting Branson, MO?  Not the normal resort stuff.  For one thing, they aren't Vegas, although the lights might be deceiving.  They are a more family friendly venue.  One thing I can tell you is that some flood control dams, some Ozark Mountains, and a small town of only about 6,000 folks has turned into a vacation destination that is simply unforgettable.

Silver Dollar City is one of the oldest attractions in Branson.  It's the local theme park that brings theme back into it.  They do have some great rides, but they have a whole lot of other fun and entertaining things to do.  They have some water rides.  They have great food and some shows.  I don't think you can go too far these days in Branson without some kind of a show.  But there are a couple of things that you don't see much in other theme parks.  The first one is the crafters.  There are artisans there that are helping to preserve the old arts by practicing them and sharing them.  Not only can you see what they are doing, but most of them will let you join in and give it a try for yourself.  You don't get that kind of hands on experience in most of that type of location.   The other thing that they have is Marvel Cave.  Marvel Cave is one of the first things that the good folks of Branson discovered that they thought might be of interest to the traveler.

Marvel Cave is a stunning underground wonderland and a great deal of fun for just about anyone.

Another of Branson's claims to fame is Harold Bell Wright's "Shepherd of the Hills."  The Shepherd of the Hills Farm and Homestead is a wonderful place to spend some time when you've had enough of shows and shopping for a while.  Here you can see buildings from older times, take a trail ride and just relax and enjoy history.

Now if you do like the hustle and bustle, you must spend some time on Highway 76.  This is where so much of it happens.  Here you can find water parks, amazing go kart tracks, dozens of mini golf courses, shopping that makes Branson the third largest outlet shopping area in the country, all kinds of hotels and restaurants, and everything that makes a place touristy.  If you need family fun, this is your road.

Let's get this one out there.  You can do all the stuff that you can do in other locations right here.  There's Ripley's Believe it or not.  There's Hollywood Wax Museum, there's IMAX, there's Duck Tours, there's the Branson Belle Showboat, and there are stage shows of all kinds all over town.  It's what the place was built for.  The difference between this place and someplace like Las Vegas is simple.  It's built for families.  The shows aren't full of half naked dancing girls.  The streets aren't full of casinos.  It's family fun.  The shows are more of a country theme, so if you're looking for hip hop don't come here.  If you would like to see world famous country stars, this is your spot.

There's not much you won't find in Branson.  The landing even has performing fountains that were created by the same people who did the ones for the Bellagio.  Everything in this town is set up for the tourist.  It's all a lot of fun, right down to the beautiful Branson Scenic Railway.  You will not be bored in this town.  You can go see an Elvis impersonator, or Yakov Smirnoff the comedian who has made this town his permanent home.  There's so much to do that you can't do it all.

Then there are the lakes.  There are three of them that were formed when three flood control dams were built in the Branson area in the early 1900's.  These are wonderful vacationlands as well.  Here you can boat, ski, swim, scuba dive, sunbathe, hike, picnic, sail, para sail, camp, jet ski, bike, and fish.  That's the adventure for anyone here folks.  This one's for you, fisherman.  There may be the country's biggest international festival in Branson every year.  There may be at least a dozen golf courses including PGA tour ones.  There may be more country shows that you can shake a stick at.  But, for the fisherman in the family, this is a Mecca.

Here on these three lakes and the rivers that feed them is some of the best fishing anywhere.  The lakes and streams are stocked.  There are fishing lodges all over the place.  You can rent all kinds of equipment from boats to fishing gear for your visit.  Branson has all kinds of fishing stores from bait shops to Bass Pro Shops.  You can go to seminars to learn how to tie flies.  You can enter any one of numerous fishing competitions held throughout the year.  This is a huge fishing venue.  People come here from all over to fish and fish in contests.  Some of the best shopping for fisherman is here.  Some of the best conditions for fisherman is here.  Some of the best lodging and deals for fisherman is here.  You can take a fishing tour with one of the local companies.  It's a great place to fish, hands down.  You will not regret coming to Branson if you love to fish.

Don't forget, I've recommended this place for the fisherman and there's a two purpose reason for this.  I write for people who do not travel alone.  For the fisherman looking to do nothing more than get away with a couple of his fishing buddies there are lots of places to go in this world.  Branson is the perfect place to go with the family and get in some great fishing time.  As I've said, there are tons of things to do.  You can go and get in some fishing time and then spend some time with the rest of the family.  You don't have to pray that your kids will grow up to want to go fishing with you in Branson.  You can all have fun things to do all in the same location.  It's a great thing.

So, come and check out Branson.  There's so much to do that you can't do it all.  Fisherman take your gear so you can fish while your family is watching Herkimer over at Baldknobber's.  It will be a family vacation that no fisherman or anyone else will soon forget.