Wild Ethiopia: Simien and Bale Mountains

Due to Ethiopia’s mountains, it lacks the famous megafauna found elsewhere in Africa, save for along the western and southern borders, which are far more difficult to access. The tradeoff for this is that the landscapes and views from the mountain parks are nothing short of spectacular (and the wildlife watching, while subdued, is nonetheless exceptional). Ethiopia does have tremendous biodiversity, including numerous endemic species, but much of it faces the same threats as elsewhere in the developing world, with habitat destruction, overpopulation, overgrazing, and pollution causing wildlife to retreat into protected or otherwise remote areas. Luckily for tourists like me, these areas have become much less remote as the government has made significant effort to pave roads and encourage development near the national parks to boost tourism, and numerous agencies manage transportation and handle the array of required permits, personnel, and equipment.

I visited two of Ethiopia’s national parks, and despite the historical and cultural wonders of the cities, I can safely say these were the highlights of the trip. My first, after Gondar, was the Simien Mountains National Park where I spent two days and one night hiking and camping. The Simien Mountains are considered Ethiopia’s Grand Canyon, and are deservedly famous both for their steep drop-offs and awe-inspiring views and for the local wildlife – gelada monkeys, walia ibex, and rare Ethiopian wolves. The park itself incorporates Ethiopia’s highest peak and mountain meadows used by local herders for grazing – unfortunately, this means the most common fauna are cows and sheep and there are significant erosion issues. Nonetheless, despite the altitude (most of the park is above 11,000 feet), the views from my campsite at Geech and from the peak of Imet Gogo the next day more than made up for the exercise of carrying my pack through the mountains (most treks include a mule to carry any baggage, my tour company apparently just pocketed that portion of the fees for the first day and let me use my own strength). And there was little difficulty seeing the park’s famous denizens – I passed multiple hundred strong packs of gelada monkeys just driving in, and more while on the trail. While returning to camp after sunset, our guide tracked down a unique noise to find an Ethiopian wolf, which we followed back toward the camp for some time – and then saw again the next day when it came around the camp garbage, only perhaps 100 yards from the tents. With only 500 individuals left in the world in a few sections of the Ethiopian highlands, seeing an Ethiopian wolf is a treat – but maybe not quite so rare, as they’ll come up again later in this post. Hiking in Ethiopia’s national parks is a change from elsewhere in the Western world, and not just for the landscape and wildlife. Both to provide sustainable employment to local people and to provide protection from the rare but still present leopards and hyenas (Ethiopian wolves are too small to pose much threat to humans), all trekkers are required to hire both a guide and an armed scout. I, however, did not get a guide for the first day and was left to wander around with a non-English-speaking scout and one other British traveler.

My second trip was also up into the mountains, but this time in the south of Ethiopia in the Bale Mountains. The only part of my travels that went south of Addis Ababa, traveling to the Bale Mountains meant passing through the Oromo regions, luckily no longer restive. There are minimal physical differences between the Oromo and Amhara, however the Oromo language, which uses a Latin alphabet and is closely related to Somali, does clearly differ from Amharic, a descendant of the Ge’ez language. There is also a much larger Muslim population among the Oromo, especially as one moves further East, so minarets replaced many of the crosses I found elsewhere in the country.

The first stop on the way to the Bale Mountains was Lake Ziway, part of the Rift Valley that is a significant waterfowl habitat. While I stopped only briefly at the shore, I was surrounded by flocks of marabou storks, pelicans, and other birds that hang around to feast on the fishermen’s leftovers.

The Bale Mountains National Park encompasses a much broader range of terrain than the Simien Mountains, and despite similar altitudes is far more verdant. Here, the wildlife is the main draw over the scenery (though both are impressive) and as if they were set up for me, just after crossing the park border into the region known as the Gaysay Grassland there were so many antelope (mountain nyala, Bohor reedbuck, and Menelik’s bushbuck) and warthogs it was impossible to drive a few feet without seeing another one. This was replicated in the forested area around park headquarters, where the guide with me to track animals seemed superfluous given their ubiquity – besides the antelope and warthogs I was able to sight a colobus monkey, baboons, and a honey badger. The next day entailed driving up into the meadowlands of the Sanetti Plateau, the best place in the world to spot Ethiopian wolves. My luck at spotting these creatures continued, as I saw seven in my two trips across the plateau, some at close range, as well as many smaller rodents and several endemic birds. The wolves (as well as birds of prey) hunt the giant mole-rats whose burrows cover the landscape, easily viewable in the barren landscape when racing from den to den. The trip also took me above the clouds to the peak of Tulu Dimtu, the second highest peak in Ethiopia, and down into the Harenna Forest, where my weather luck ran out (I had been traveling towards the end of the dry season so rain was rare), and in conjunction with a miscommunication with the guide that resulted in me getting lost in the jungle, I was not able to find the local Bale monkey (or, if terrifically lucky, a lion). While I regretted not getting more of a chance to hike in the park, the ease of access to the most important sites by 4WD definitely allowed me to have a better wildlife-viewing experience.

Both of these national parks, while still wildlife rich and popular with foreign tourists (though they were far from crowded at this time of year, I did not see a single visitor outside my group in the Simiens), show the challenges of maintaining large protected spaces in populated areas – in the Bale Mountains park rangers do a good job of keeping livestock out of the park, while in the Simiens there is less protection, but in both cases there are many communities within or just outside the park that rely on its resources for daily life and the parks must balance the tourism benefits of an undisturbed environment with the local demands for water, wood, and grazing land. Both parks also owe some of their upkeep to Western governments (Simiens to Austria, Bale Mountains to the EU/Oxford University). Indeed, throughout my travels in Ethiopia there were many signs of Western humanitarian involvement in Africa – local infrastructure projects bearing USAID or World Bank signs, posters urging local communities to stop migration to Europe, workers with medical charities trying to treat tropical diseases.

After the Bale Mountains, I headed back to Addis for one day to souvenir shop and relax before heading back to America with many great memories. Ethiopia is undoubtedly a challenging country – far too many of the inhabitants think of foreigners as walking piggy banks to beg or scam from, infrastructure and accommodations are certain lower quality than in the West, the cuisine can get monotonous, and political turmoil is always a risk. But I have never been anywhere like it, and its attractions are truly special, the sort of places that really are worth traveling halfway across the world to see.

Advertisements

Sacred Ethiopia: Lalibela and Aksum

The one benefit of not having enough Internet access to post these blogs while I was traveling is that I can organize them more thematically, instead of just going through places in the order visited. Thus, this post skips over my trip to the Simien Mountains National Park, which was my next step after Gondar, to focus on the two historic sites remaining, Lalibela and Aksum (don’t worry, there’s plenty to talk about with the national parks in the next post).

Unintentionally, I had arranged my trip so that I essentially went back in time through Ethiopia’s history, jumping from modern Addis Ababa to the 17th century castles of Gondar, to the 12th century capital of Lalibela and the even more ancient Aksum.

Lalibela today is a small community, approximately 40,000 people isolated amid soaring mountains reachable only by dirt roads. Yet during the 11th through 13th centuries, this isolation provided the perfect defense for the capital established by the Zagwe dynasty under King Lalibela. Inspired by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the news of Jerusalem’s capture by Muslim armies during the Crusades, Lalibela began an ambitious program to make his capital a new Jerusalem, and a holy city for all Christians. The result of this vision was the construction of eleven churches hewn out of solid rock, surrounded by biblically named natural features such as the River Jordan and Mount Tabor. These churches, so intricately designed and complexly engineered that Ethiopians believe they were partially built by angels when the humans stopped working during the night, are each different and each dedicated to a specific religious figure. Still in extraordinarily good condition (even though the roofs built by UNESCO detract from the scenic beauty), the churches are the main tourist attraction of Ethiopia and one of the most well-preserved historic sites in sub-Saharan Africa, most prominently the cross-shaped Bet Giyorgis (St. George’s). During the holy days of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which do not necessarily align with their corresponding festivals in Western Christianity, as Ethiopian Orthodoxy follows a distinct calendar) these churches are swarmed with pilgrims from across the country – however, arriving approximately two weeks after Ethiopian Easter, the churches were largely deserted except for a few other foreign tourists and the priests. These churches generally lack the interior paintings found at the Lake Tana monasteries, though carvings along the walls and windows still have Christian symbolism and the experience of worship in the stone churches is quite distinct (if the stone floors make walking and kneeling admittedly a bit uncomfortable). Several of the churches today likely served other roles, such as palaces or storerooms in the past, providing some rationale for the many differences in design. My visit to Lalibela also included a side trip to the Yemrehana Kristos church a ways north of Lalibela in the countryside. This church, from the 11th century, predates the churches of Lalibela by almost a century. While the architectural links between the churches are clear, Yemrehana Kristos is unique in that it was built inside a cave, instead of carved out from the ground. This church became a pilgrimage site for many dying worshippers, whose mummies still fill the back of the cave in a rather macabre display of devotion. Unfortunately, for all of the tourism and pilgrimage to Lalibela, it is difficult to see a positive impact in the community, which is still quite poor and unexceptional beyond the cluster of churches.

After Lalibela I continued the Christianity theme by flying north to Aksum (often spelled Axum, especially when as a historical reference). Aksum is the heart of Ethiopia’s Tigray population, and is within sight of the bitterly contested border with Eritrea, also primarily Tigray. Also mountainous but drier than the cities I had previously visited, Aksum has an outsize importance for its small size (approximately 80,000 people). Long before the year 0, Aksum and surrounding communities were the center of Ethiopian civilization, and the growth of the Aksumite Empire in the first millennium AD, when it controlled most of the Horn of Africa as well as Yemen and parts of Sudan, left a profusion of historical relics. Foremost among these are the stone obelisks (stelae) dotted around town, especially in the Northern Stelae Field. The progression from uncarved, unraised stones to small uncarved raised stones to the massive carved raised stones (of which only three remain, the fallen Great Stela, the Rome Stela captured and returned by the Italians, and the King Ezana’s Stela (which is currently held up by scaffolding) is clear in the small field, which also contains the tombs of local notables the stelae were placed here to mark. The adoption of Christianity by Aksumite King Ezana (whose stone marker inscribed in the Aksumite Ge’ez language, Greek, and Sabaean [Yemenite] can be considered the Ethiopian Rosetta Stone) caused a conflation of the Aksumite ruins with biblical stories in later years – Aksum claims the palace and bath of the Queen of Sheba, the tomb of King Bazen (Balthazar), one of the Magi, and most importantly the Ark of the Covenant.

According to Ethiopian legend, King Solomon had a son with the Queen of Sheba. This son, Menelik, who was the founder of the Ethiopian royal lineage, traveled to Jerusalem to visit his father and on his return took the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple and carried it to Ethiopia, where it has remained ever since. Now held in a small chapel between the St. Mary of Zion churches (one from the 17th century, one from the 1950s) inaccessible to all except one monk, the presence of the famous relic here makes Aksum the holiest site in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Only the monks can say if the true Ark is actually in Aksum, but with no other would-be Arks elsewhere in the world as yet, this mystery does not stop Ethiopians’ faith in their country’s possession of this most powerful of biblical objects.

 

Due to this claim to religious fame, Aksum is also surrounded by monasteries and rock churches, such as the hilltop monastery of Abba Pentalewon, offering views across town, north to Eritrea, and into the moonscape of the Adwa Mountains in the East, where Ethiopia won its famous victory against Italian invaders on March 1, 1896 (now an Ethiopian holiday). The importance of the Tigray region has continued into present day Ethiopia, as it was the epicenter of resistance against the Communist Derg and its inhabitants were disproportionately represented in the governments that followed the civil war – perhaps the reason for the better condition of Aksum as compared to many of the smaller Amharic and Oromo cities I passed through.

Ethiopian Orthodoxy is a far more powerful part of Ethiopian culture than Christianity is even in more religious countries such as Russia or Latin America, let alone the largely non-religious West. Ethiopian Christianity dates back to King Ezana, Aba Salama (Frumentius) and the Nine Saints in the 4th century AD, though the church claims an even older descent, to the Ethiopian official baptized by Philip in the Bible. On holy days Ethiopians will wear white ceremonial robes and spend much of the day in worship – the day I left Gondar was St. Michael’s Day, and starting at 3:00 in the morning sermons were blared by loudspeaker across the town for at least six straight hours, similar to the Muslim call to prayer. Ethiopians particularly venerate St. Mary and St. George, whose images are found in almost all churches, and spend much of the year abstaining from meat as part of a strict fasting regimen. The Ethiopian Bible, written in the ancient liturgical Ge’ez language, contains numerous unique books used by no other denomination. Yet despite this Christian fervor, modern Ethiopia is remarkably tolerant, as the third of the country which is Muslim (across all ethnic groups) coexists peacefully with Orthodox and Protestant Christians alike, and most still practice certain local traditions regardless of faith.

IMG_20180425_135240382

Ancient Bible in Ge’ez, Abba Pentalewon monastery

But after so many days seeing churches and castles, it was time to escape the small cities in Ethiopia’s nature – the focus of the last of my Ethiopia posts.

Urban Ethiopia: Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, and Gondar

Having seen Europe, Asia, North and South America on my travels so far, I started to consider taking my next trip to Africa, and Ethiopia was the first country that I started to study. As more travelers seek more adventurous destinations, Ethiopia has just barely started to feature on tourist itineraries, and with a great diversity of landscapes, wildlife, historical sites, and ethnic groups, Ethiopia seemed a wonderful place to get a first taste of the continent (the fact that it has direct flights from DC also helped). I spent two weeks traveling solo in Ethiopia, jumping between a half-dozen cities and parks to cover most of the country’s highlights.

As some background to keep track of the differences and importance of the various cities and sites I visited, here’s a brief history. Unlike most African countries, the results of modern European meddling, Ethiopia has an ancient history – it is referenced in Egyptian hieroglyphs and in the Bible, developed major civilizations as early as 1500 BC, was the world’s second nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and likely formed the basis for the European legends of the kingdom of Prester John. Ethiopia’s defeat of Italian would-be colonizers is a defining feature of national identity. Yet despite this history, Ethiopia today is not a unified country, and is divided into a multitude of different ethnic groups, predominantly the Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, and Somali, each of which inhabit their own region of the country – I visited all except for the Somali region, which is discouraged by the State Department due to ongoing intertribal and anti-government violence. Dissatisfaction between the Oromo and Amhara, which comprise the majority of the population, and the Tigray-dominated government led to major violent protests around the country in the two years prior to my visit. Approximately one month before I arrived, the long-time prime minister was replaced with an Oromo, leading to increased optimism in the political direction of the country. Nonetheless, surging population growth and a still largely agricultural lifestyle in much of the country pose a significant challenge to any leadership seeking to integrate the masses of underemployed young people into a modern nation.

I began my trip, as most foreigners must, in the capital Addis Ababa. While no particular tourist destination itself, Addis perfectly encapsulates the changing nature of today’s Ethiopia. Flush with Chinese-built infrastructure, high-rise hotels and office buildings, diverse dining and entertainment options to suit a burgeoning middle class (and the army of foreign diplomats and NGO workers who pass through the city), Addis’ wealth has drawn in millions of people from other parts of the country, most of whom have not found the high-paying jobs they desired. As a result, much of the city consists of hastily constructed slum neighborhoods hidden behind the main streets, while the haphazard growth of even the more modern sections of town has caused major problems with congestion and pollution across the city.

Founded only at the end of the 19th century, Addis has relatively few historical sites, though it does host Ethiopia’s main museums – while admittedly shabbier than their Western counterparts, the National Museum of Ethiopia and Ethnological Museum host some important artifacts, such as the cast of the skeleton of “Lucy”, the most famous early human specimen, while the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum shines a powerful light on some of the horrific, if little-known violence of late 20th century Ethiopia under Communist rule.

Chiefly, however, for those who are not in Ethiopia for business or government purposes, Addis serves as a gateway to the more spectacular outlying regions of Ethiopia, thanks to the high-quality intercity service offered by Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s premier carrier (which offers half-off domestic flight prices to people who book on its international routes). My trip, largely following the traditional northern circuit route, focused on these cities and parks, starting with the city of Bahir Dar.

Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region, is located on the shore of Lake Tana (Ethiopia’s biggest lake) and the source of the Blue Nile river (one of the two headwaters of the Nile), and has developed into a domestic tourist destination for Ethiopians thanks to its picturesque scenery. Its palm-lined main boulevard is far more reminiscent of the Caribbean than anywhere else in landlocked, arid, Ethiopia; though unfortunately this attractiveness does not extend past the first block from the lake.

While the city is comfortable enough, Bahir Dar’s main attractions are located along its waterways. Due to earlier periods of religious strife, many of Ethiopia’s Christian monks established communities on the islands and peninsulas around Lake Tana, decorating these monasteries (which on the outside are simple and very African-looking with their round, thatched churches) with beautiful depictions of biblical scenes, including unique local stories included solely in the Ethiopian Bible or related texts. The source of the Blue Nile on Lake Tana also is a great site for wildlife viewing, adding an extra bonus to a boat trip to the lake monasteries (I visited only two, Ura Kidane Meret and Azuwa Maryam on the Zege Peninsula, though per the guidebooks differences between the dozen-odd monasteries on the lake are rather minor).

In the other direction from the city, the Blue Nile has an impressive waterfall, though at the time of my visit it was shrunken heavily due to the dry season (which lasts from around October-April), as well as dams built upstream. Though not far from the city, the trip to the falls provided a fascinating glimpse of Ethiopian rural life, as most of the country’s population is still engaged in agriculture and lives in small villages like those I passed through, where the dirt roads are used for livestock instead of vehicles, traditional clothing is still regularly worn, and school is secondary to helping in the fields, even for 5-6 year old children.

A very crowded and uncomfortable local minibus ride took me next to Gondar, another Amhara city even higher in the mountains, and the seat of Ethiopian power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most prominently under Emperor Fasilides. The presence of the emperor’s court in Gondar endowed the city with a profusion of castles and other historic architecture, most well preserved in the Royal Enclosure despite destruction from later wars and the general decline of the city’s importance after 1850 – Gondar is sometimes called the “Camelot of Africa” for its medieval appearance, though its crumbling palaces show far more signs of Indian and Middle Eastern influence than European. Still walled off from the rest of the city, wandering through the mostly-deserted grounds of the Royal Enclosure is strangely peaceful, with the lost opulence of the ancient emperors a stark contrast to the poverty and bustle of the modern city. While most of the rest of Gondar today is similar to any other Ethiopian city, a few historic sites are scattered elsewhere in the city, such as the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, allegedly saved from a marauding army by a miraculous swarm of bees. While leaving the city, I got an experience of Ethiopian’s approach to the new leadership, far different than the emperors of yore – a visit from the new prime minister drew thousands of marchers to welcome him to the city, waving the flags of Ethiopia and the Amhara region and posters of his face – clearly, despite the lack of democratic participation in his rise to power, the local people have great expectations for a more inclusive government under his direction. As an interesting side note, according to one would-be guide, many of Washington DC’s large Ethiopian population hail originally from Gondar.

Next I go back in time to even older capitals of Ethiopia in Lalibela and Aksum, but that’s for another blog.

Tropical Escape: A Week in Colombia (and I Don’t Mean the District)

When I found myself with an extra week of vacation time, I thought there would be no better use to taking a trip to a continent I had never visited, South America. And there’s arguably no better place to get a taste for Latin American and Caribbean culture and history then in Colombia’s historic but booming port of Cartagena. Once a rare destination due to many years of internal conflict related to radical political ideology and the drug trade, Colombia’s recent peace deals, rapidly developing cities, and the general growth of adventure tourism have brought many more visitors in recent years to experience Colombia’s beautiful nature and rich colonial heritage (though I’ll admit that part of my inspiration was from the TV show Narcos, which presents the rise and fall of Colombia’s most notorious claim to fame, Pablo Escobar). And most of this tourism is centered on Cartagena, easily accessible by plane or ship from North America. However, as I traveled in the rainy season, most of the other tourists were European backpackers or American week-trippers, not the crowds of cruise ship passengers that overwhelm the city during the winter months (despite the season, the rain consisted only of short afternoon showers that did not interfere with my plans).

Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in 1533 as the hub of their colonial empire in the Americas, shipping out untold tons of gold and silver mined or stolen from native peoples across the Andean region and serving as the stopping place for thousands of slaves, soldiers, fortune seekers, and other Europeans moving to these vast territories. But such a wealthy but distant city proved an irresistible attraction to pirates and other European powers seeking a foothold in the Caribbean, and was attacked multiple times, including by such famous figures as Francis Drake and John Hawkins. As a result, the Spanish colonial government developed a massive system of fortifications around the Old City and the surrounding islands and mainland dominated by the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fortress complex in Spanish North America. Despite their imposing looks, this castle was relatively ineffective in actually defending the city, which still fell multiple times after its construction.

IMG_20171029_091820400_HDR

San Felipe Castle

IMG_20171029_092545579_HDR

San Felipe Castle

IMG_3706

San Felipe Castle, Cartagena

IMG_20171029_094118017

View of Getsemani and Old Town Cartagena from San Felipe Castle

IMG_3775

Fort in the outer islands of Cartagena

IMG_3683

Wall of Old Town Cartagena with modern high-rises in the background

Inside the walls, the Old City of Cartagena’s closely packed mansions and churches are a stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture, while the nearby Getsemani neighborhood (once the lower class section of the city, now the “hip” neighborhood and site of most backpacker accommodation, including my own) includes a profusion of murals and colorful houses overflowing with flowers. Both parts of the city, despite their tourist appeal, are still living cities, and the sightseer regularly passes local residents going to and from their homes, work, and errands. With hundreds of years of mixing between African, Indian, and European residents, Cartagena’s people are remarkably diverse, if largely poor, with tourism giving many extra income but making limited large-scale impact on the lives of most residents.

IMG_20171028_151741677

Torre Regoj, Entrance to Old Town Cartagena

IMG_3684

Old Town Cartagena

IMG_3686

Old Town Cartagena

IMG_3738

Old Town, Cartagena

IMG_20171028_183840102

Simon Bolivar statue and local dancers, Old Town Cartagena

IMG_20171029_103043484

Mural, Getsemani, Cartagena

IMG_20171030_180701150

Mural, Getsemani, Cartagena

IMG_20171028_162619548

Palenque woman, Old Town Cartagena

Yet Cartagena today has grown to nearly one million residents, far outstripping the old town, and resulting in a dizzying array of neighborhood types; the high-rise resort and condo towers of Bocagrande, the busy ports, the well-preserved tourist center, and the sprawling slums to the East and South, with striking contrasts between the lives of rich and poor in one of the world’s most unequal countries. But the prices are fantastic for a foreigner, especially if one eats like the locals (Colombian cuisine is mostly simple but satisfying – meat with rice and potatoes or beans, with Cartagena’s food especially drawing off the sea, and a profusion of fresh fruit and juices).

Cartagena also draws its popularity from the ease of taking day or longer trips from the city to dozens of pristine beaches, hidden ruins, or wild rainforests. As part of my trip, I took two classic trips from Cartagena. The first, just a day trip, was to the Isla Pirata (Pirate Island), part of the Islas Rosarios National Park, which preserves remarkable coral reefs and all the expected features of a tropical resort, though it has also become a ritzy vacation destination for the upper class of Colombia and around the world. For my trip, though, I appreciated having a few other groups of Americans to spend the day with.

My main additional trip was for several nights in Tayrona National Park, east of Cartagena via the city of Santa Marta. Santa Marta is the oldest city in Colombia, though it has not retained as much of its colonial buildings as Cartagena and is primarily a stopover for backpackers heading to and from Tayrona and other local natural areas.

Tayrona is the quintessential vision of paradise, with deserted white sand beaches at the base of mountains dense with rainforest foliage. While Tayrona also has the drawbacks of the rainforest (heat, humidity, rain, and insects), the ocean is never far away, and with lodging limited to campsites, hammocks, and a few cabins, only one road and few trails, human impact on the park is minimal despite its growing popularity. The park protects an extraordinary diversity of wildlife, though my sightings were limited to a few capuchin monkeys; a skunk; and various birds, butterflies, and the ubiquitous lizards. Tayrona contains several sites sacred to the local native people, and encompasses a small Indian village (Pueblito) and ruins of the once larger town around it, though reaching there requires a challenging uphill scramble from the campgrounds.

Tayrona was the furthest I got from Cartagena, returning to Cartagena the day I left the park to fly out, but Colombia itself is a massive country, with the culture and climate of Bogota and Medellin far different, but with a poorly developed road system, seeing much more of the country would need to be left for another trip – as it was, I felt I got a phenomenal glimpse of a fascinating country.

The Tiny Jewel of Northern Europe: Estonia

I feel like I generally enjoy immensely the countries I visit on my travels. But rarely do I fall in love with a country. That, however, is what happened in the last stop of this vacation, Estonia.

It’s hard, even for a Eastern European history buff like myself, to say I knew much about Estonia before visiting. Sure, I could name the capital, talk a bit about the ethnic and linguistic groups in the country, and discuss its growing relevance as NATO’s frontline against Russia, but in terms of famous figures, key historical events, cultural traditions, cuisine – I would have only drawn a blank. And to be fair, Estonia is a country without much of an independent history – despite the best efforts of its national history museum (all of about three rooms). Estonia was essentially the site of battles, massacres, and other unsavory events as its territory was fought over and traded between Sweden, Germany, and Russia as each sought to control the Baltic, not existing as an independent country until briefly in 1918, and again after 1991. And its roster of celebrities is also thin (composer Arvo Pärt, anyone?). Yet despite the novelty of self-rule in Estonia, the country is truly a development success story.

Estonia is one of the most technologically advanced countries in Europe (it is the headquarters of Skype, and has free WiFi almost everywhere). Estonians we interacted with spoke better English than many more developed countries I had visited (perhaps because the Estonian language is one of the most difficult to learn in the world, English is much easier to pick up). The farms and small villages we saw are clean and prosperous – they look more like those in rural Wisconsin than in the other ex-Soviet countries I’d visited. Despite a significant Russian minority population, Estonia has had little ethnic unrest and has had a stable democratic government since independence. And public and private sector alike appear to have done much to establish a comfortable infrastructure for an emerging tourism sector, as EU membership has made the country very accessible.

Our trip had two parts, one focusing on the historic and one on the natural areas of the country. We started in the capital Tallinn, home to a strikingly well preserved medieval city center, still with its original fortifications and town square. While daytrippers from Finland, stag parties from the UK, and passengers on Baltic cruise ships have all discovered the city, leading to a profusion of tacky souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants, the old city is still very fun to explore, looking at the multitude of different faiths represented in its churches, learning about the relics of Tallinn’s status as Reval, one of the largest Hanseatic cities in the Eastern Baltic, which gave it a strong German influence and a Lutheran heritage (despite Tallinn’s numerous churches, Estonia is today one of the most irreligious countries in the world).

Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City walls, St. Mary’s Cathedral

Tallinn Town Hall and Main Square

Tallinn Old City walls

Tallinn Old City walls

Tallinn Old City walls, St. Olaf’s Church

Fat Margaret Tower, Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City east gate

Tallinn Old City fortifications

Viru Gate, Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City wall

Linnahall (Soviet Olympics venue turned public space) and Tallinn skyline

The second part was spent on Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. Saaremaa’s main city, Kuressaare, also features an impressive medieval castle, where we stopped briefly. Most of our time, however, was in the small hamlet of Kihelkonna, one of the gateways to Vilsandi National Park. Tiny as it may be, Estonia boasts a wealth of biodiversity and protected areas, and has more trees per capita than anywhere else in Europe. Vilsandi consists of dozens of small islands and a long stretch of Estonia’s westernmost coast, making it a key breeding area for various bird species, and in summer a destination for biking and water sports. But in a still cool May, the park was deserted except for the birds, some local farmers, and us. Even an orchid festival in Kihelkonna was not enough to draw in the tourists – we were the only guests in our church office turned bed and breakfast, one of only a couple accommodations in the area.

Kuressaare Castle

Kuressaare Castle

Kuressaare Castle (including more recent outer walls)

Bay, Vilsandi National Park

Marshland, Vilsandi National Park

Lighthouse, Vilsandi National Park

Marit at Papissaare harbor, Vilsandi National Park

Abandoned building, Kihelkonna

Kihelkonna church

I left Estonia wishing I had had another day or more to explore the country. But all vacations must come to an end, leaving only ideas for the next trip. And when that next trip happens, I’ll write about it here.

P.S. Special thank-you to Marit for putting up with my trip planning, poor navigation skills, and general impatience for these two weeks.

 

Bouncing around the Baltic: Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg

This was my second time traveling to Stockholm, the first time I’ve already written about here. As a result, I will not go into detail about it in this post, other than to say it was just as pleasant the second time around, and the city looks and feels much different in May compared to December. With the amount of people out in cafes or parks, it seemed like the city (and the others we visited) was finally experiencing its first breath of summer, perfect timing for our arrival.

My next Scandinavian capital, Helsinki, was a new experience – but not totally. Helsinki certainly bears more than a passing similarity to Stockholm due to its own network of islands and bays and the many centuries of Swedish rule that shaped it (of course, the language is completely different, and completely incomprehensible without study). However, it is almost all on a smaller scale, as Finland did not exist as a country until after WWI, and Helsinki was only a minor military and administrative center before that time. There are certainly some impressive monuments such as the Helsinki Cathedral (Lutheran) and Uspenski Cathedral (Russian Orthodox), if not the wealth of historic grandeur found in central Stockholm or other European capitals.

Uspenski Cathedral and Helsinki shoreline

Helsinki Harbor panorama

Helsinki Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Church in the Rock

However, Helsinki’s most impressive collection of history is found a short ferry ride from downtown on the island fortifications of Suomenlinna. Founded in the 18th century as a Swedish naval base, and passing into Russian and Finnish hands, this “Gibraltar of the North” had an undistinguished military career but was at one time the second largest population center in Finland, and there are numerous relics from both its military and civilian uses, making a popular day trip and where Marit and I spent most of our limited time in Helsinki.

Suomenlinna panorama

Suomenlinna

Suomenlinna Fortifications

Main Gate, Suomenlinna

Residential building, Suomenlinna

King’s Gate, Suomenlinna

Marit and I at Suomenlinna

Island outside Helsinki

After Helsinki came St. Petersburg, a fitting choice since this city and Stockholm played so much of a role in determining the history of Helsinki, caught in the middle. Russia is certainly a very different culture than Scandinavia, though this came as no surprise given my travels in Russia last year –despite St. Petersburg’s historic connection with the West and developments befitting a modern metropolis, is not too different than Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude (though pricier and much more crowded with foreign visitors). Either way, St. Petersburg is a stunning city, and the wealth of spectacular churches and palaces make it easy to forget that this city was founded from nothing in 1703, making it one of the youngest European cities. Despite the current media focus on Russo-American interactions, being American did not elicit any particular interest (though depictions of Trump were to be found among the usual tourist kitsch). However, there did seem to be an unusually high military presence – perhaps the result of the tragic terror attacks on the St. Petersburg subway earlier this year.

Neva River, Sunset

While in the city, we visited the artistically splendid Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood, the imposing Kazan and St. Isaac’s Cathedrals, the Hermitage (which was far more impressive for its palace design than its art collection), among other sites; went to the opera at the famed Mariinsky Theatre (true, it was the Magic Flute at the modern Concert Hall, not Boris Godunov at the historic hall, but last-minute spendthrifts can’t be picky) and spent plenty of time strolling past the canals and gardens of the central city. We also took advantage of the cultural diversity of the city, home to many migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union, in dining on Georgian, Uzbek, and Ukrainian cuisine in addition to standard Russian fare.

Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Interior, Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Interior, Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Kazan Cathedral

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Peter and Paul Fortress

Peter and Paul Fortress

Peter and Paul Church

Gravesite of the Romanov family, Peter and Paul Church

Cruiser Aurora

St. Petersburg canals, daytime

St. Petersburg Canals at night

Inside, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall

Faberge Egg, Faberge Museum

Peter the Great statue

Admiralty Building

Spires of St. Isaac’s and Admiralty Building

Hermitage Museum and Palace Square

Palace Square

Interior, Hermitage

Interior, Hermitage

Corridor, Hermitage

Palace Interior, Hermitage

However, my favorite part of St. Petersburg was taking a trip out to the suburbs to visit Peter the Great’s seaside retreat at Peterhof. As befits an old imperial capital, St. Petersburg is surrounded with multiple tsars’ summer retreats, and while Peterhof was the only one we had the time to visit, it was the perfect choice for a beautiful spring day. Peterhof is famed for its gardens, which provide a striking view but also have plenty of space to get lost from the crowds in a quiet natural spot or to discover a hidden pond or fountain. The top draw at Peterhof is its fountains, which are undeniably gorgeous and likely unparalleled in Russia.

Peterhof (south side)

Peterhof Fountains

Peterhof Main Canal

Peterhof (north side)

Peterhof (north side)

Fountain, Peterhof

Fountain, Peterhof

Neptune Fountain, Peterhof

Peterhof Shoreline

Peterhof Church

After 3½ days in St. Petersburg, we headed out on an overnight bus to the last country on this vacation, Estonia. Why does that tiny state deserve a separate post when some of the most spectacular cities of Northern Europe are lumped together here? You’ll have to read the next post to find out.

Living on the Edge (of the Continent): Iceland

I am currently traveling with my sister Marit, and as I have tended to do when traveling, reopened this blog to share pictures and memories. This vacation is two weeks in Iceland, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Estonia – admittedly as not as off the beaten path (or as cheap) as some of my last trips, but no less spectacular as destinations. The first stop was only a five-hour flight away from DC: Iceland.

 

Iceland was originally just a stopover on the way to continental Europe, now a popular occurrence due to the special layover options offered by Icelandair and WOW Air for no extra cost, but even in the two short days I was there I was taken aback by the country’s natural beauty and it may easily end up being the favorite destination of my trip. Due to its geologically active location, Iceland has always had an extraordinary landscape of glaciers, fjords, and geysers, but its remoteness made it off-the-beaten path as a tourist destination until recent years, when tourism has exploded (we were told by a guide that 2 million tourists are expected to visit Iceland this year, six times the total native population). Still, we arrived before the busy season, and while the top destinations had some crowds, much of Reykjavik and the countryside were still unspoiled (admittedly, the timing also meant windy, cold, and intermittently rainy weather for most of the trip).

 

Our home base was Reykjavik, the capital and center of Icelandic life (2/3 of the population lives within the Reykjavik region, even though this is only 200,000 people). Reykjavik is a quite pleasant city, with little traffic and pollution and great vistas across the bay, though despite the growing role of tourism in Iceland’s economy it is still a working city with a large fishing port. However, as a city that only came into being around a century ago and one traditionally removed from the cultural and economic flows of Western Europe and the Americas, it has few monuments or historical sites, and its unadorned architecture is unexciting (though there are certainly exceptions, such as the unique modern Hallgrimskyrka Cathedral).

Hallgrimskyrka, Reykjavik

Leif Erikson statue, Reykjavik

Reykjavik Cityscape

But Iceland’s attractions lie primarily outside of the city. In two days, we did not have time to do the Ring Road or other excursions to the wilder parts of the country, however many fantastic features are found within an hour of Reykjavik. Most of our first day was spent on the Golden Circle tour, a classic, if crowded, day trip to the best of Southwest Iceland. This route includes the Geysir thermal basin (though the eponymous geyser – where the word “geyser” comes from – is dead, and the actual eruptions were by its sister geyser Strokkur), the Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park, site of the geological boundary between North America and Eurasia (an obvious system of crevasses and raised plateaus) and the Althing assembly, the first democratic system in Northern Europe.

Icelandic countryside

Church and Glacier

Geysers and Glaciers

Geysir thermal basin

Strokkur Geyser

Hot spring, Geysir

Gullfoss lower falls and canyon

Gullfoss

Mountains near Gullfoss

Thingvellir background

Fault line, Thingvellir

Althing site, Thingvellir

Fault line, Thingvellir

Thingvellir

The second day brought us first to the islet of Videy, just a 15-minute ferry ride from Reykjavik. Though quite small, Videy includes an abandoned village, seabird nesting colonies, and modern art installations, all framed by phenomenal views of Reykjavik and the surrounding mountains. That evening’s trip was to the Blue Lagoon, a world-famous hot spring said (like most other hot springs) to have healing properties and another representation of Iceland’s continuing geothermal activity (luckily, we did not experience a volcanic eruption, which is a danger in Iceland).

Rainbow over Reykjavik harbor

Videy

Viðeyjarstofa House and Church

Videy terrain

Modern art, Videy

Videy terrain and backdrop

Reykjanes landscape

Blue Lagoon

Sunset over Snæfellsjökull

Final Days in the Middle Kingdom: Beijing

This trip and this blog ends in Beijing, a fitting culmination to such a journey as I had done over the past few weeks, and a major change from the mountains, steppes, and isolated, semi-modernized or decaying Soviet cities that encompassed most of my earlier travels. Few cities possess such a wealth of historical attractions as Beijing – yet few are also as vibrant and modern. Around every corner was a temple, palace, or other reminder of China’s 5000 years of history, yet Beijing was unmistakably a 21st century city, with the infrastructure, technology, and economy to match (recent economic troubles notwithstanding). Many sites, including the Summer Palace and the Great Wall, have been reconstructed from the original (the former was burned by European forces during the Opium Wars, the latter has decayed over thousands of years and needs refurbishment to be safe for visitors – some of the older sections have no battlements, leaving a straight drop down the mountainside), and much of the greatest artifacts of China are now found in Western collections, yet Beijing still boasts a remarkable snapshot of many eras of history. My hostel was located in the historic center of Beijing, in the midst of the hutong alleyways (though this specific one had been modernized for tourists), surrounded by the Forbidden City and a network of historic mansions, parks, and religious sites that had once served the aristocracy of Imperial China. The hostel itself was arguably the top hostel in China, and I greatly appreciated its free breakfast and piano, both of which I had missed throughout the rest of the trip (the heat and rain which unfortunately marked much of my time in Beijing were less appreciated – though I did avoid the notorious smog).

IMG_2070

View over the hutongs, Beijing skyline in background

Beijing was also different from the rest of my trip in that I spent much of my time traveling with my friend Sang, who had studied abroad in Beijing and knew Chinese. Having him with me really helped me get the most out of Beijing, especially since I was able to try authentic Chinese cuisine that was immeasurably better than that found at Chinese restaurants in America, and much cheaper than in the tourist restaurants – Beijing’s specialties are dumplings and Peking duck, both of which are absolutely stellar at the right places, and I have many recipes I now wish to recreate at home.

While in Beijing, I hit the most famous tourist sites – the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Great Wall, as well as multiple smaller (though still crowded) attractions such as the Yonghe Buddhist temple, the Drum and Bell Towers, and the Wangfujing Food Street, checked out Sang’s university campus, and haggled for souvenirs at Panjiayuan, Beijing’s antique market. Of these, the Summer Palace was my favorite due to its architectural wonders and empty western shore, though the Great Wall also provided some amazing views and a solid hike (though it is not a place for those afraid of heights, like me). My tour took me to a section of the Great Wall that is further from Beijing than the usual access point, and due to this distance it was almost empty save for my group, unlike the closer sections which are overrun with tourists and souvenir vendors. The Forbidden City, while impressive in its scale, was less attractive due to the uniformity of its halls, as well as the crowds of tourists everywhere. But while these may have been the top excursions, all the places I visited were very interesting, and I could have easily spent multiple days more in Beijing, as there was far more I did not even try to visit. The fact that most of the other tourists in these locations were Chinese testifies to the development of China’s own middle class and their ability to travel both internally and internationally (Chinese tourists were probably the largest national group in most of the other places I had stayed as well). Interestingly though, while Beijing was the largest city I visited (save for Tokyo), China was the country where I had the least interaction with local people – the language barrier was a large factor in this, though here I also did not stay with a host family as I had in Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

The Summer Palace

The Great Wall of China

Forbidden City

Other Sites

Despite the prevalence of certain Western companies and styles in Beijing, there were still signs of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. The only bothersome part of this was the restrictions on the Internet, but the grandiosity of Tiananmen Square (and its monuments to Mao Zedong) definitely showed a totalitarian aesthetic, and the National Museum was over half devoted to pure propaganda – both in art and history. There was also a larger police presence than what is usual in large cities (though not nearly as obvious as in Urumqi). Undoubtedly there are other restrictions that are less obvious to the casual visitor, but overall the government did not seem overly intrusive in the lives of Beijing citizens.

My trip is now over, so it is time to put this blog back into hibernation, but a new adventure will always come along, and probably not too far from now. Thanks for reading!

My Little Siberian Exile: Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude

Siberia was once Russia’s wild frontier, like the American West, and Irkutsk its center of trade, culture, and administration. Relics of this past are still a major part of the city – to an extent. Many old wooden buildings are scattered across the old part of the city, but Irkutsk has taken a different approach to its history than the options of development or preservation found in most of the rest of the world. These buildings, primarily former homes of merchants, are kept in the city, but as private real estate instead of a park. But since these homes have no running water or central heating (essential in the Siberian winter), they are unattractive as residences, and as a result most are slowly rotting away. Between this and the Soviet factories and decaying apartment blocks that ring the outer parts of the city, Irkutsk looks like an interesting cross between Tombstone, Arizona and Gary, Indiana. Irkutsk nonetheless possesses a range of attractions that represent the different periods in its history – trading outpost, frontier capital, place of exile, Civil War conflict zone, and modern metropolis, which display the complexity of Russian history – while the main streets are named after Lenin and Marx, the city nonetheless possesses prominent statues of the tsars and White Army commander Admiral Kolchak. Irkutsk is called the Paris of the East, which adequately captures its numerous cafes and historic character, but is a long way from having the same caliber of attractions – its main virtue is its proximity to Lake Baikal.

I visited Lake Baikal at Olkhon Island, the lake’s largest island located near the western shore. Once and still an extremely holy site in the shamanist traditions of the indigenous inhabitants, a ferry connection to the mainland and growing profusion of guesthouses and tour companies have made it a popular tourist destination for Russians and foreign tourists alike. Still, I came early, and despite arriving on Russia’s national holiday (Russia Day), I did not feel the island to be crowded, even in the one town and center of tourism, Khuzhir. Perhaps this was due to the fact that despite its popularity, Khuzhir has retained a very rustic character, with scattered wooden buildings, dirt roads, and farm animals wandering freely. No hotels, amusement parks, or nightclubs are to be found here, nor even stores selling anything beyond the most basic amenities – a sign of the importance in maintaining a sustainable lifestyle for the native people, or a reflection of the small amount of money from tourism that ends up going to locals? Given the rough terrain, Olkhon is best explored by foot or off-road vehicle. With my limited time, I chose the second option, and took a tour along the northern coast of the island, stopping at several scenic vistas and the tip of the island, Cape Khoboy, while enjoying a traditional meal including a soup of the famed local whitefish, omul. While Baikal is smaller in surface area than Lake Superior, it holds more water than all the Great Lakes combined, and the mountains and plunging cliffs that ring the lake make it incredibly scenic. I also explored around my guesthouse in Khuzhir, hiking in the forests that cover the uninhabited southern half of the island, and spending time at Shaman Rock, located in town. This site and many others on the island are still used for religious rituals, and poles and trees decorated with colorful ribbons are commonplace. Despite the Soviet suppression of shamanism and the conversion of most local people to Christianity or Buddhism, these practices are still an important part of local culture.

Religion also formed an important aspect of my third stop in Russia, the city of Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia. Buryats, which are an ethnic group closely related to Mongolians, are one of the largest native Siberian groups, and while they are only a minority even in their home territory, there are large populations in Ulan-Ude and Irkutsk, and they form the main ethnic group of Olkhon Island. They are primarily Buddhist (despite the Soviet persecution of the Buddhist clergy), yet this Buddhism coexists peacefully with the Shamanist rituals they also practice. My major excursion in Ulan-Ude was to the Ivolginsky Datsan, the center of Buddhism in Russia, and a small piece of Tibet in the midst of the Russian steppe (Buryat and Mongolian Buddhism are descended from Tibetan practice, and revere the Dalai Lama, who once visited this datsan). This temple complex consisted of multiple temples and stupas more traditionally associated with East Asia, but also the log houses of old Siberia, and even in this Buddhist holy site Shamanist ribbons are visible. So, over my short time in Siberia, I prayed at a Christian cathedral, made offerings to shamanist nature spirits, and meditated in a Buddhist temple. While religion has become a greater part of Buryat life as new national identity develops in a (slightly) freer Russia, as has cuisine and drama, the Buryat language is still dying as younger generations speak only Russian (even my guide, who was studying translation at university, spoke no Buryat and knew no one who did). With the traditional languages of many of the native groups of Siberia at risk, if even this largest group seeing no reason to hold onto their language, extinction may be inevitable (to be fair, it was hard enough to communicate in Russian, it certainly made it easier for me not to need to learn Buryat).

 

In the West, Irkutsk is mostly known for three things: the territory in RISK, Lake Baikal, and the Trans-Siberian railway. While my original plan of taking the Trans-Mongolian route from Irkutsk to Beijing (the most interesting of the three main routes, no offense to Harbin and Vladivostok) was adapted because of price and timing concerns (I am currently writing this from a bus across the Mongolian border, which takes half as long and costs half as much as the train), I did take the Trans-Siberian from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude. This section was only 8 hours, was relatively comfortable, and provided some great views over Lake Baikal and the taiga, but I did not feel that experiencing that for an entire week on the train would be a worthwhile trip – the cities and sights off the train are more interesting and comfortable than those which can be viewed from it. And seeing how long it took just to get between to relatively close and developed cities makes the true massive scale of Siberia very apparent – the southern, built-up portion I spent all my time in barely deserves to be lumped in with the vast deserted stretches of the northern tundra. But it was still a great experience to try such an iconic voyage for even a small portion. Now my trip is over halfway done, but there is still a lot to see and do, especially in my next stop, Mongolia.

The Trip Begins: Tokyo and Urumqi

This blog has been dormant since I returned from Turkey, but I thought the trip I am currently undertaking was worth some explanation.

I have long been fascinated with Siberia and Central Asia, and viewed this last ever summer break (even a brief one) as the best time in my life to go through the challenge of visiting part of this region, which is either very expensive or time-consuming to explore. I chose time-consuming, and viewed it as efficient to add in some surrounding areas as well – thus 31 days following the extremely long itinerary Appleton-Chicago-Tokyo-Chengdu-Urumqi-Almaty-Novosibirsk-Irkutsk-Olkhon Island-Ulan Ude-Ulaanbaatar-Chengde-Beijing-Chicago-Appleton, with a few day trips to other sites likely thrown in for good measure. This post will cover the first two cities I actually visited, Tokyo and Urumqi, two very dissimilar cities (though in some sense an interesting content), but in neither did I spend enough time to devote an entire post to it.

I started my trip in Tokyo, which while due to extraordinarily pointless flight change rules ended up being a very costly excursion (it was originally just a layover), it was a good spot to catch my bearings and explore a little before moving on to much less developed regions of the world. I will not write too much about Tokyo, others with far more experience than me have done that already. But I can say that I was struck both by its incredible cleanliness and orderliness, as well as how empty it appeared for being the largest city on Earth. Architecturally, too Tokyo is interesting. Despite its current importance, Tokyo is a relatively new city by Japanese standards, and earthquake, fire, and American bombing have forced it to rebuild time and time again. Today, much of Tokyo looks like it was entirely built in the ‘60s and has not changed since – this is not unattractive but is fairly bland, though I must say I saw only a small portion of the city, which is very spread out.

Luckily for the tourist, Tokyo does have a variety of traditional temples, museums, and other sites interspersed throughout the central city – I visited some of the most prominent ones, the Imperial Palace, Senso-ji temple complex, and Ueno Park, all of which were quite beautiful and a welcome escape from the modern city (though these sites were far more crowded than the areas surrounding them). The imposing presence and deep cultural value of these temples show the interesting role of religion in Japanese culture – while few people are very devout, Buddhism and Shintoism have deep roots, as are other traditional practices (I walked down multiple blocks devoted purely to shrines for ancestor worship), and temples to both religions are often found in close proximity. I do think it would have been fun to spend some more time in Tokyo to go deeper into the many unique experiences one of the world’s most high-tech and creative cities can offer (I did get to visit an owl café, where a visitor gets to sit and play with dozens of owls), but still felt I hit the top parts before flying off to Urumqi (after an overnight in the Chengdu airport).

IMG_0504

Tokyo skyline along the Sumida River

IMG_0540

The skyscrapers of Tokyo’s financial district form a neat contrast with the serenity of the Imperial Palace and Gardens

IMG_20160531_171741279

Me at the owl cafe

Urumqi is a city that is not described charitably by many guidebooks, and they are not completely wrong. It is a chaotic sprawl of modern high-rises and wide avenues, not the historic, vaguely Middle Eastern desert city I had somewhat imagined (and also somewhat hoped for). It has evidently rapidly changed in recent years, and its limited attractions are buried behind this selection of buildings and infrastructure similar to any city in the developing world. It is too far from anywhere to be worth a separate trip, and (located in the middle of the desert) uncomfortably hot at least at this time of year. Yet despite all this, Urumqi was still quite an interesting city, and one that is certainly off the tourist trail.

Urumqi is the most landlocked city in the world, located in the center of the Taklimakan desert and bounded on the South by the soaring peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains. Flying into the city made it evident how much of a challenge it is to maintain such a metropolis here, surrounded by deserts that looked from above like the surface of Mars that suddenly are turned into farmland show that even the most inhospitable parts of our planet can become centers of settlement – in this case because of the Silk Roads, and later the border conflicts and claims of various Chinese governments. Seeing Urumqi, thousands of miles from anywhere else of importance, now boasts more skyscrapers than almost any American city, and has traffic so bad that the government just decided to replace crosswalks with elaborate underpasses (this could also be due to the recklessness of pedestrians there), shows the true scale of the Chinese economic miracle. Urumqi, however, despite appearances, is not traditionally or truly a Chinese city. It is the traditional home of the Uighur people, a Muslim Turkic group that once alternated between raiding and allying with Chinese dynasties before being finally incorporated forcefully into China during the Chinese Civil War. Uighur culture is still prominent, at least in portions of the city. Their language (a variant of Turkish with Arabic script, though my knowledge of either language was no help in communicating) is found across the city, while many Uighur women still wear traditional dress, making them an obvious contrast to the modernly-attired Han Chinese migrants who now make up the majority of the city. Mosques are common, a unique sight in a Chinese city, and one that made me think of Turkey (though that could have also been the rapid development and tawdry commercialism). Urumqi has also been the site of a long-running violent separatist movement that aims for an independent Uighuristan (aka East Turkestan). While violent attacks are rare, the police checkpoints every few blocks, the metal detectors to even get on a city bus or enter a public park, and the military units stationed around the city, definitely show that the Chinese government views this threat seriously. This overreaching military presence, however, may have inspired the expression of Uighur culture that seems so out of place in the modern city, as well as religious faith. For someone with an interest in ethnography, Urumqi is a fascinating study – there are over a dozen other ethnic groups besides Chinese and Uighurs, and at least from my brief observation they seem to keep separate. Chinese is a certainly a difficult culture to adapt to, but Chinese control has brought an unprecedented geopolitical and economic clout to this once isolated region, and it is different to see an independent Uighur state maintaining this power.

Little I did in Urumqi deserves mention – a few parks (attractive but hot and crowded), the regional museum (disappointing, but had a few interesting exhibits on Uighur mummies and the cultural groups of the region), and the Erdaqiao Grand Bazaar (only useful if one likes traditional Uighur clothing and medicine). One factor that contributed to my lessened enjoyment with Urumqi was the complete isolation I felt – the city does not feel particularly exotic, but absolutely no English is spoken, and with Chinese characters I cannot even guess at a meaning enough to order a dish or understand a sign (pointing at various foods and sign language got me through, I should at least come back a better charades player), and I cannot tell the difference between someone approaching me to be helpful or to sell me something so it is difficult to interact in any way with the locals. I was also probably the only Westerner in this city of three million, something that all those who passed me certainly noticed, making it hard to pass unobtrusively. I doubt I would recommend Urumqi to anyone who is not set on visiting the region, but I still am glad I came – it is a fascinating cultural and geographic contrast, and not a terrible stopover point before a miserably long bus ride to Almaty, Kazakhstan, from where I will write next (assuming I can make it without being stopped by the border guards).