Friday, January 29, 2016

My Fascination With Napoleon Continues...

Corsica is known to most as a French Island in the Mediterranean Sea, and most people have heard that Napoleon was born there.  That's absolutely true.  Did you know that Corsica was ruled by all kinds of peoples and countries before it came to rest in the hands of France?  It did.  It was once even under the rule of Barbary Pirates.  But, most recently, it was Genoese until the 1700's when it was turned over to France by treaty.   Strangely, Napoleon was nearly born Italian, which would actually make sense since the island is closer to Italy than to France, and a stone's throw from Sardinia.  Less than a year before Napoleon was born, Corsica became part of France, and his father was a die hard supporter of the Genoese.  Napoleon was actually named after his uncle that died in one of the last battles before the French took over.  Isn't life strange.

The town is Ajaccio, and it lies in the southern part of the island.  It's a beautiful old city with more of an Italian feel than French.  It's the way on the island.  Corsicans have their own way, and France can claim them all they want.  It doesn't mean that they will change.  The house where Napoleon was born is on the tour route in Ajaccio, and you can look at where he spent the first years of his life.  Interestingly enough, when it came time to exile him for war crimes Corsica was not considered, and instead Napoleon was sent to Elba for his first exile.  When that didn't take, they sent him all the way to St. Helena in the South Atlantic where he finally stayed put until his death.

There is no doubt that Napoleon was Corsica's most famous resident, but the island is a beautiful and amazing place to spend some time.  Corsicans are famous for being independent and tough.  They also enjoy a rugged landscape with cliffs and mountains, yet at the same time the island is surrounded by beautiful beaches.  The scene there is still more Italian, and they have some traditions that are famously Italian like feuds and revenge.  Apparently the idea of going after your enemy's family didn't come from Sicily.  That concept started on Corsica.

Propriano is another of the fine cities in Southern Corsica.  This town has all the old world looks, but is updated for the tourists.  The Notre Dame is the main landmark that everyone visits in this town, but they are far more well known for their beaches and their old world harbor.  This is a great place for shopping, eating, hanging out at the beach, watching sunsets, and catching the ferry to Sardinia.  The landscape is beautiful, and it's a great stop while on the trail of Napoleon.

Sartene is another amazing old town along the southern coast.  It's more of a cliff stronghold turned into a village.  The narrow streets, the walled town, the ancient buildings everywhere are a sure fire winner for anyone who enjoys taking pictures.  You never know what amazing structures will be around the next corner.  This is a somewhat smaller town than some of the others that I mention here, but that keeps it more intimate.  The less people, the better the pictures.

I think that my favorite stop in Southern Corsica would have to be Bonafacio.  This is the town that was built on the cliffs at the south tip of Corsica.  It has some of the most dramatic landscapes anywhere on the island, and the town is perched on top of some super high white cliffs.  They have a castle, amazing roads, amazing walks, and this is the place to hire a boat to go out and see the view from the sea.  It's old, it's beautiful, and it's convenient as in you can catch the ferry there as well. 

There's a national park along the shore of this area and there are rock formations off the coast that you have to see to believe.  This is the fortress type village that you would associate with the Roman's and other great warrior cultures.

The islands of the Mediterranean have been inhabited for eons.  Homer sailed around them during Greek times.  The Phoenicians were here, and so many more.  The Mediterranean is supposedly the site of the lost city of Atlantis.  The stories go on and on from Egyptians to Romans and beyond.  Not far from any of the cities in Southern Corsica are ancient sites that are now open to the public.  There are structures and caves in the area dating back to prehistoric times.  Cauria and Palaggiu are two such places that aren't far from any of the towns along the southern coast. 

So, if you like history, and European History is a thing to you, Corsica has some great things to offer.  The southern shores of Corsica are alive with many histories, and in my case, the history of Napoleon.  Corsica is too big of an area to discuss it all in one shot, so you may see it come up again.  But, if you would like to visit an ancient island in modern times, Corsica is a great spot for you.  The landscape is surreal, the history is fascinating and long, the people are independent and interesting.  It's got a little something for everyone, and then you can go to the beach.  So, is this an Adventure for Anyone?  You bet it is.  Enjoy!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The World's Biggest Ice Festival!

China is one of those mysterious places with lots of ancient history of all kinds.  Ethnic groups are plentiful, politics is interesting and varied, religion is integral, and even region comes into play in making China one of the most diverse countries on Earth.  Most of us don't know much about China, and see things in one way--the way we eat.  Most of us eat Chinese food which is not even Chinese but Polynesian or Szechwan or something.  Basically, we don't know all that much about China.  We do know that they have a huge population, so the cities are crowded.  Harbin, China looks like the average over populated city that we see in China.  The city is home to some 10 million people, and is full of modern businesses, high rise buildings, and traffic problems.  Sounds average, right?  Well, Harbin is one of China's newer cities being just over 100 years old.  Harbin is also China's most northern city being nearly on the border with Siberian Russia, sitting at the same latitude as Montreal, Canada. Long story short, it's cold up there.  So, why visit?

For one thing, Harbin is a unique mix of cultures.  Siberia is not far away and in the early 1900's there was war afoot.  The Russians and the Japanese had a real blowout and Harbin was young and vulnerable and for a while was quite Russian.  Therefore there are little things around that are distinctly Russian, like St. Sophia Russian Orthodox Church.  Sure there are Asian style temples around, but here's a Russian church.  That's different.  It sits right in the middle of the city, so you can't miss it.

Harbin is also very artistic.  Sun Island Park, or Tai Yang Dao is the enormous park in the city.  It's filled with beautiful sculptures, interesting architecture, beautiful lakes and other water areas, and gardens.  It's a beautiful place to spend some time while in the city.  Culture is very important in Harbin, and they have their own distinct culture there with the cross between various Asian, Yakut, Inuit, and Russian cultures.  There is the Siberian Tiger Park and the aquarium.  The Siberian Tiger is on the endangered list, and the people in Harbin are dedicated to helping preserve the wonderful species.  The aquarium has local indigenous animals, mostly arctic, to learn about.   But, Harbin is home to artists and lots of art culture.  You never know what kind of art exhibits you might see along the way.

 Harbin is home to one of the longest pedestrian shopping streets in the country, Zhongyang.  You can find pretty much anything you need there, plus great food and drink.  The architecture is some of the oldest in the area and is more colonial than most areas of China.  It's a really interesting place to take a walk.

But, why mention Harbin in the middle of winter?  Seems like a great place to spend the summer, when a train ride up that way would be nice, the weather would be great, the days would be long, and the topiaries would be blooming.  You see, winter is kind of Harbin's thing.  They have a huge ski resort, that draws skiers from all over the world.  Even Anthony Bourdain has skied there.  Oh yeah, they also have the biggest ice festival in the world.  The Harbin Snow and Ice Festival takes over the entire city during January and February each year.

The parks, Sun Island and other various venues around the city are completely taken over by magnificent ice sculptures created by some of the best sculptors in the world.  You never know what they're going to  make, but rest assured they will be outstanding.  They light them up, which started when they used to call it the Ice Lantern Garden Party.  They make everything.  They carve buildings, animals, scenes of all kinds, temples, slides and so much more.  They hold mass weddings in the castles, and the kids play on the playground sculptures.

In addition to some of the best ice sculptures you'll ever see or play on, there are activities and entertainment to go along.  The festival last for weeks, and the participants have a great time, even though it's not unusual for the temperature to remain below zero the entire time.  No one seems to mind and it's one of the most beautiful and colorful festivals in the world.

Lots of cities around the globe glow at night, but few of them glow because the ice is illuminated.  Proud to be China's northernmost city, proud to be somewhat Russian, and proud of the beautiful art that makes up their city; Harbin really knows how to enjoy winter.  So, for that season that most of us tend to avoid, waiting for spring to come and rescue us; spend it in Harbin.  You'll get a whole other view of winter and what it's really all about.  Enjoy!

It's the Time to go to Antarctica!

Few things provoke the imagination like the idea of going to the South Pole.  The worlds of forbidden travels, the walls and mountains of ice, the stories of Shackleton.  It's been the subject of movies, and the seed that really started the worries about global warming.  Even for those that don't like the cold, there's a mystique that makes us all consider making that trip someday.  Well, I think it's time that we worked it in.

Back in the 1980's and early 1990's it would cost you around $20,000 to climb onto a redesigned Russian icebreaking ship and take a cruise to the land of the unknown in Antarctica.  You might get to stop at McMurdo Station if the weather was promising.  Only around 1,000 people went until sometime in the 1990's.  But, tourism has been on a steady climb since that time.  Now, nearly 40,000 people go down there each year.  Think about that.  There's only a couple of months a year that we can even go.  That's a lot of traffic.

That's not all.  It seems that everyone has some kind of a science station in Antarctica these days.  They come in all shapes and designs, and one of the British collection can walk.  That's amazing.  They build them in all kinds of designs for weather, budget, light reflection and whatever.  My point is that it's getting crowded down there.  Who wants to go to the world's most amazing frontier and find thousands of people milling about?  That's why I say go now before it gets even more out of control.  People worry about global warming, it's effects on Antarctica and the hole in the Ozone layer down there, but let's pump it full of people.  That  will help.  Sure.

These days there are a ton cruises that go to Antarctica.  I don't know of any way to fly to Antarctica unless you are a visiting scientist.  They used to take some tourist flights from New Zealand to Antarctica, but one of them crashed and everyone was killed.  This lead to them being deemed to dangerous and discontinued to this day.  Some of the cruises leave from other places, but most of them run out of Ushauaia, Argentina.  There are a lot of places that you can visit along the way.  I've talked about these trips before, so you can look at previous posts and find out some about them.  Ushauaia is a fascinating spot in and of itself.  This is a huge jumping off point for cruises around Antarctica and the Scotia Sea, but they also have trips specifically to Cape Horn.  Ushauaia is the southernmost city in the world, and it has a flavor all it's own sitting amongst the glaciers of the southern Andes of Patagonia in one of the world's most interesting climates.

The cruises of today go to many locales along the Antarctic Circle.  The Falklands are a regular stop for cruises these days.  These remote islands have been the subject of some of the strangest conflicts I've ever heard of.  The British are the proud owners of these remote islands with harsh weather and virtually no resources.  In the 1980's they actually went to war with Argentina over the islands.  Today they remain British and the Argentinians remain angry about it.  They are a pretty set of islands and Port Stanley is the capital and virtually only city.  There are things to do in the Falklands.  You can see a lot of historic sites, learn all about the war and the conflict between England and Argentina over them.  There are also some great nature spots to go and see.

There's not much on the South Georgia Islands, but there are people there.  This will be your first big penguin stop on your way to Antarctica, so that's cool.  Remember that there are several different kinds of the bird to see along the way, and they each have their own separate area to live in.  There are signs of the Shackleton Expedition all along the way, so enjoy the history.

Most likely, you'll visit the South Sandwich Islands.  These islands are highly volcanic and they are full of wildlife.  You will be taken to see a colony of penguins while in the Sandwich Islands on most tours.  It is an incredible experience to see penguins up close.  They are a curious bird and want to know about us almost as much as we want to know about them.  Just remember, they are wild animals and treat them with respect.  If they don't want to come to you, don't force it.

There is no way to cruise to Antarctica from Argentina without crossing the Drake Passage.  Bring your Dramamine.  This is some of the roughest waters in the world.  There are myths and stories from many generations about this body of water.  It's fascinating and beautiful, but it will kill you.  The waves will come and the seas will be unpredictable.  Tourists who take the cruise out to Cape Horn only run about a %50 chance of getting to step on land there, because the waters are so unpredictable.

But the passage is worth it, because oh what an amazing world lies on the other side.  Paradise Bay is one of the more well noted spots along the way, but the icebergs are amazing, the water is clear, the whales are there in the winter months and the wildlife is diverse.  There are all kinds of penguins as I mentioned, whales, seals, and the monstrous Leopard Seal.  This predator was made famous in "March of the Penguins" and is one of the more dangerous animals on that continent.  At any rate, there is a lot of wildlife to enjoy.  There are the stations to visit too.  Different cruises visit different stations, but you most likely will get to set foot on the continent and see some of what goes on there.  There are no permanent settlements on Antarctica, but the science stations are mostly staffed year round.

Here's the one that blew me away.  Not only are some of the tour companies including chances to take excursions out into the land of Antarctica, but Victory Cruises are offering a side cruise to sail along the coast of the continent.  You visit several stops along the way, see the wildlife up close and personal, get to sail a boat and they will take you for a sauna and a swim.  I'm not joking.  You go with Victory, and you will have a chance to swim in the Antarctic.  Beat that.

So, Ushauaia is the spot and there are many tours that you can take these days.  Most of them run around 14 days, but the cost has come down and one person can go for under $5,000.  I don't normally talk about a subject twice, but I just see it becoming so common that I really think that it should happen before the place looks like Vegas.  It's a really good time, because it's still rugged and the animals are still in force and amazing.  It's also a good time to go, because the trips have been expanded to see even more amazing places, peoples, animals and natural phenomena.  Taking a swim in Antarctica is certainly a once in a lifetime experience as is a cruise to Antarctica.  It's that once in a lifetime thing that you will never forget and it is truly an Adventure for Anyone.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Where is Ashgabat?

I was writing about Ferris Wheels the other day, and I got completely enveloped in a location, and I've done nothing but investigate it since.  It turns out that the city of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan just made my bucket list.  There is absolutely nothing usual about the place, and I have to see it.  There are problems with visiting the country like the fact that it sits between Iran and Afghanistan.  It also borders Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan along with the Caspian Sea.  Quite a location, and therefore, quite a history.

These days Ashgabat is known as the City of White Marble, because it was being rebuilt; but this city and country have an amazing history.  The country has been a battlefield for everyone from Alexander the Great to the more modern day Soviets.  A massive 9 on the Richter Scale earthquake nearly flattened the place in 1948.  Most of the country is desert like which makes water an issue as well.  Most of the farms that the country uses are irrigated from long distances by canals.  The Turkmen are the residents of this country along with notable populations of Russians, Uzbeks, and even some Taters.  Ashgabat is home to around 1 million people today and is a very ultra modern city.  What fascinates me is how it got that way.

After the Soviet Empire crumbled, the people of Turkmenistan were just kind of hanging out there.  They hadn't been in control of their own destinies for a while.  Their first President, Saparmurat Niyazov became one of those crazy dictators and he had a vision for the city of Ashgabat.  What we see today is largely his vision, and it's somewhere between old Soviet style and Star Trek.  Niyazov called himself Serdar Turkmenbashi or Great Leader of all Turkmen and he was such a cult of personality that the people pretty much followed along.  He did all of the things that the dictators have done in North Korea like building amazing avenues and parks with monuments everywhere.  But in the case of Ashgabat, it's made the place surreal and amazing.

There are monuments to the country's past and present all over the place and some of the most amazing parks in the world.  The city became a regular in the Guiness Book of World Records as well.  It holds the world record for the most buildings finished in white marble at 543.  It has the world's largest fountain complex at over 15 hectares.  It has the world's largest monument to a star, the tallest flagpole, the largest enclosed Ferris Wheel and some more.  It's obvious that Niyazov was keeping track of some measurements world wide.  You never know what a surpreme leader will come up with to distinguish themselves in the world.

Not all of the monuments in town had meanings for the people, Niyazov made some monuments to himself as well.  There are kilometers of parks and monuments in Ashgabat.  They are everywhere, and so was Niyazov's face.  There were even more statues of him when he was alive, seeing as he was somehow made President for life.  He was known to change the names of the months on the calendar and change the curriculum of the Sunni Muslims that inhabit the country to include reading the Ruhnama, a history book designed to tell the story the way that Niyazov wanted it to be told.

But, as most crazy dictators go, Niyazov had some good ideas as well, even though some of them are odd as well.  In addition to beautiful mosques for his people to use, he designed what he called the health path for them to get in shape.  This path runs about 8 km up the side of a mountain, but it does have great views at the top.  And the parks all over the place were there so that people had a convenient place to get out.  The wide avenues were prepared to meet little to no traffic, so that is something else that people don't have to deal with in Ashgabat.  Trees were planted to try and green up the place, even though it's spot at the foothills of the Kopet Dag Mountain Range is also along the edgest of the Garagum Desert.  The city is only about 20 miles from Iran as well.

The architecture is the most amazing part of the city, however.  Niyazov built all kinds of things.  One of the more interesting is the Arch of Neutrality that he built declaring that his country would remain entirely neutral forever.  This was done when the country entered into one of the NATO treaties.  Another amazing monument is the Constitution Monument which is self explanatory and the monument celebrating ten years of freedom.  There's the President's Palace as well and the list just goes on.  The city is white and beautiful.  It just looks so surreal that it's hard to tell between actual photos of the city and artists' renditions of proposed new projects.  It all looks like an artist's rendition, but a lot of it is real.

What Niyazov started hasn't necessarily stopped either.  The white marble and the amazing architecture has become part of what makes Ashgabat who it is.  The current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has continued some of the directions that Niyazov started.  Is it just another corrupt dictator?  Nobody knows for sure yet, but the country isn't going downhill.  There are many factories in Ashgabat and the country is still famous for their amazing rugs.  Things aren't as prosperous as they would like, but isn't that the way in most countries?  Time will tell.  But, the Wedding Palace or Palace of Happiness is one of the more recent additions.  It's an amazing place to hold a wedding, and the people seem to like it so far.   There are a lot of tourist expectant luxury hotels cropping up as well.  The Alem Entertainment center is another place that just waiting for tourists with the enclosed Ferris Wheel and other activities.

But what do the residents do when it's time to get away from giant avenues and everything shining white?  There are some things that tourists would go out to see.  I don't know about the residents.  This city is kind of an oasis on the old silk road and you'll most likely take a flight or a train to get there.  You can drive, so the idea of going out of the city isn't out of the question.  The normal way to get around is to hitchhike.  Unusual?  Yes, but it's the way of the area.  You can also take tours for day trips with several local companies.

One of the stops outside of town is the Kow-Ata Underground Lake.  It is raved about by tour operators that take trips into the area, but it's pretty dilapidated from what I read.  It's still a hoot if you've never been to a thermal heated underground swimming hole in a cave.  You can visit any time of year, but don't stay too long, because the sulfur isn't actually that healthy.

The Darvaza Crater or the Gate to Hell is also just a day trip from Ashgabat.  This crater is a natural wonder.  It caved in like a sink hole back in the 1970's and has been burning natural gas ever since.  There are many surreal things in the area, from the nearly drained Aral Sea to this crater.  It's something that goes well with an entire trip that is not only completely surreal and Star Trek like, but an Adventure for Anyone.  Enjoy!