Oh they were so beautiful. And they were everywhere in Kyoto and Kanazawa and everyplace in between. We first noticed them in Kanazawa as we rounded a corner and there they were. We screamed with excitement for we just couldn’t believe our eyes seeing such natural awesome beauty.
Soon, we calmed down as we enjoyed the glory of those pink cherry blossoms in parks and gardens, alongside rivers and roads and many places in between in Japan. Those famous cherry blossoms provided us glorious beauty every minute for 8 days as we toured Kanazawa, Kyoto and Tokyo on the Tauck World Discovery tour.
Sharon and I just had to experience the blossoms up close and personal. So one day in Kyoto, the former imperial city, we enjoyed a rickshaw ride among the blossoms for 90 minutes dressed in a traditional kimono. It was just outstanding and so much fun as we connected with people enjoying the blossoms everywhere we went. While we were touring around Kyoto, we saw a geisha girl escorting her guest among the cherry blossoms. It was a famous Japanese icon touring a famous Japanese icon.
The experience began with getting dressed into a kimono. I never knew there were so many layers to a kimono. There was an under slip and another slip and then a garment that reduces the waist size. The two dressers pulled the strings so tight, I begged for relief and air because I had trouble breathing.
What relief it was when they loosened the strings a little. The kimono was wrapped last with the wide cummerbund added and pulled tight again.
Our hair was styled next and flowers and leaves were added to complete the total kimono look. Socks that worked with the sandals were donned and we were ready for our public debut.
We first met our tour guide, Armin Geiger and our national Japanese guide, Mickey-son. They couldn’t believe our transformation and yes, we had to have our photo made with them. Waiting for us at the hotel entrance was our private rickshaws and the petite drivers. Now we were ready to tour Kyoto’s cherry blossoms and tour we did.
Every year those cherry blossoms pop open in late March or early April but no one knows exactly when. So thousands of Japanese stage a vigil under the trees and wait for hours until just the moment the blooms pop open.
This sacred vigil tradition has been going on for thousands of years. We rode among the trees when the blooms were in full bloom and the pedals were beginning to fall.
It was like a light pink pedal rain adding to the ambience of the ride. It was the 9th of April.
They call it Sakura which means cherry blossom time. The moment the cherry blossom opens is a major festival in Japan that began in the Nara Period 710-794 A.D. Blooms happen February to May from south Okinawa to north Hokkaido, Japan.
It is a sacred time because it signals the beginning of rice planting. And thousands and thousands gather to eat and drink and be merry at this Hanami, blossom viewing because it is party time.
Climate conditions control the exact second the blossoms open. If it is a cold winter, the blossoms may not open until later. If it is a mild winter, the blossoms may open sooner. And if it is a rainy winter, the petals start to drop sooner. Because of these variables, the people watch the forecast and the blossoms by the minute. This year, the blossoms were later because it had been a colder winter.
Everything is about cherry blossoms during this time. Special foods and drinks are made for Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing parties, for this most loved festival. There is Hanami beer, Kit Kat candy bars, dumplings, crisps, sweet alcoholic canned drinks and even Starbucks Latte.
I ate an18-carat gold leaf ice cream cone in the Kenrokuen Gardens in Kanazawa. It was delicious and I didn’t get sick and I am still alive.
At night, lighted lanterns under the trees shined their soft glow so the blossoms could be seen, making for a beautiful romantic and relaxing atmosphere for the night beneath the pink glow of those blossoms. And thousands came to view the beauty.
But there was more of this dreamy tour of Japan to come. And it was the onsen known as naked communion. Japanese have enjoyed hot spring onsens as an integral part of their culture forever because it breaks down barriers between others as they soak in the natural hot springs.
This Tauck tour included an onsen bath for every guest, But I was not certain I would enjoy one as I had been to Japan three times before and passed on one each time when I learned I had to do it NAKED. Swim suits were not allowed. I wasn’t sure I could take a bath nude along with other people in the nude. But this tour could be my last tour of Japan and if I was going to do one, I better do it now, I reasoned. So, I grieved and grieved over doing the onsen for days. But now the final chance had come to do it or not.
To check out one, I went to the onsen for a tour to see what it was like as we were staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. I learned that the Japanese have separate men and women onsens which helped my decision somewhat. And I learned I had to take a bath before I used the onsen. Bathers could not get the spring water dirty and could not use a towel.
Only a small cloth approximately 10×12 inches could be used to dry off and to cover any body parts getting in and out of the onsen. And when in the hot springs, the cloth was kept on the head so as not to dirty the water. That was it.
Now that I had seen the onsen, I decided to try it when everyone was at dinner. Then there would not be anyone using the onsen, I reasoned. After eating an early dinner, it was off to the onsen and there was no one there.
Hurriedly, I showered by the onsen and then made it into the hot spring. It was nice and not too hot. To my surprise, I floated and could not stay below the water but the water was warm and wonderful. After 10 minutes, it was time for my adventure to end.
After dressing, I made my way back to my room pleased that I had experienced a centuries old tradition of a Japanese onsen in cherry blossom time. And I was even
more pleased and happy that we experienced so many more adventures and things. It was 2 weeks of heaven in Japan at cherry blossom time.
And I was pleased that I had enjoyed Kyoto, Japan riding in a rickshaw dressed in a kimono while enjoying the people along the way who were also enjoying the enchanting and glorious cherry blossoms.
“How did you get up here?” I asked her. The lady replied, “They carried me.” As we continued our travels around Ethiopia, she was in the same places as we were, Lalibela, the Omo Valley and Addis Abba. I began speaking with her and learned this lady travels all over the world just like we do.
But this lady travels in a wheelchair. Soon we became friends and I started asking how she makes it because I might need to know one day myself. And while we discussed all of her tips and ideas, I thought how many other people would like to know how she does it so successfully.
Following is her story and photos of her various trips around the world to Austria, Japan, Mongolia, Namibia, Norway, Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia, China, Myanmar, Antarctica, Trans Siberian Express, Argentina, Bermuda and more.
By Cynthia Henry
“Physically handicapped,” “disabled,” “physically challenged,” “differently abled”….. I have yet to find any term that feels comfortable for a life-changing condition that no one expects. But, I no longer need to! Thanks to Journeys International and API Tours of Indonesia (JI’s overseas operator), Focus Tours and more, I now use “World Traveler!” What a thrill to return from two and a half weeks in Indonesia and say, “What a grand trip—and it was do-able!”
Were there challenges? Well, sure. Did they work out? Yes, with the help of my traveling companions, Molly and Carolynne, and the operators, drivers, guides, boatmen and local people of Journeys/API and Focus Tours. Were the challenges overwhelming? NO! Could I do every single activity that Molly and Carolynne did? I never planned to and did sit out some, but was thrilled and amazed at what everyone made possible!
I had done much traveling over the years and planned to continue as I eased into retirement in 2003. I got in four overseas trips until… March 2005. Who was to know that I would then topple off an exercise ball and suffer a spinal cord injury? As I lay paralyzed in rehab, thoughts of going to such remote places flowed out of my head while I instead worked on feeding myself a cheese sandwich.
Well, movement came back. I eventually returned home, learned how to live from a wheelchair and soon “graduated” to a walker. I continue to use the walker and always will; I take a wheelchair on trips, which I use as a walker when not being pushed. I can go up and down steps, either with a railing or with support from two companions and someone hauling the wheelchair up. I am slow, awkward and have a variety of physical issues, but…I can also travel around the world!
After I began experimenting with shorter and then longerexcursions and finding out I could fly (get down the aisle and use the bathroom), a major life goal, I began thinking of the possibility of travel outside the country. Since then, I have been on several overseas trips! Five of my trips have been with Journeys International, that company rep providingthe warmest and most hopeful and helpful response to my tentative query of “….uh….what do you think? Here’s what I can do.” Pat’s response, in essence, were six magic words, “Our guides will get you up.” And, they did!
JI’s philosophy is that people with special needs have rights—the right to travel, the right to have “inaccessible” places made accessible, the freedom to go places they may have thought impossible… They then provide the support of so many staff to make this happen. Each JI agent has been wonderful in working with me. They assure me this will work and take every step necessary to see that it does. Many thanks to them!
So, how did the staff on the ground make all this possible? First, the spirit of Journey’s International/API/Focus Tours was there. I felt only support and no apprehension or dismay at the extra responsibilities that my situation meant for so many people. Every guide, driver (van or boat), hotel staff member and all others were kind, patient and helpful.
Bali, Indonesia had long been a goal, and so we finally booked it. But, then, Molly called and said, “Guess what!!! They have extensions to see the orangutans on Borneo and the Komodo dragons on Komodo Island!” My immediate thought, was “Oh, no, extensive sitting in a van or on a boat or alongside the trail while my two friends go traipsing off on marvelous adventures.” But, I weakly responded, “Uh, sure…take lots of pictures for me.”
I generally have a “rule” of no pictures of me in the wheelchair, but the ingenuity, the creativity, the physical strength, the dedication of everyone, the incongruousness of it all—well, no choice this time around! And, thank goodness, we did document, so that when our final guide, Yansur, asked that I do a report as a traveler with a disability, we were ready to say, “You bet!” He hoped it would inspire more people with special needs to venture to the far corners of the globe. I hope that will be the case.
Now to my report on this specific trip, especially the parts that I had no expectations of seeing–the orangutans and the Komodo dragons…. Bali was lovely, fairly routine sightseeing , and we enjoyed the ease of driving around and staying at marvelous hotels. Budi was our outstanding guide. I did have to stay in the van for a few off-the-road surprises, but, am used to that. The main help provided that made a huge difference was our wonderful driver coming up with a step to make my way into the van without such massive bottom boosts. Some vans are easier than others, and our driver throughout Bali converted this one into the “easy” category. He and all drivers were so kind to wrestle that wheelchair in and out of the back area so I could enjoy the monkey forest near Ubud and a Rhesus monkey on my head.
We flew to Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, for our orangutan experience Again, I did not expect to see any, except possibly swinging through the jungle trees during the boat journeys or from the boat at the get-in site, both of which actually did happen.
However, while still in Bali, my hopes were raised with a message from our wonderful companies that they were confident they had a plan to make it work!!! The word “palanquin” does not often come up in my vocabulary, but the written description brought it forth. Sure enough…oh, my… and my dream was accomplished well beyond anything I imagined.
With my usual awkwardness and trepidation (all this isn’t emotionally stress-free), and with many hands helping many body parts, I am loaded bit by bit onto the boat, get comfy in my chair—and ponder my latest wheelchair riding in first class… rigged up with a rope loop handle attached to each of the four corners.
After two hours, with a couple of orangutans along the way, we reach delightful Rimba Lodge and enough adventures for us all! First by my just getting there…! We begin with a nice boardwalk and board-carrying me in my wheelchair. And, off we go—some bare feet, tree roots, bumps, streams, slippery slopes…hard work, indeed!
Success! It can be handy to bring your own ringside seat for watching orangutans at a feeding station or mother and baby right in front of you.
I had long wanted to see where Birute Galdikas, one of the three Leakey women primate researchers, did her thing, along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall doing theirs in Africa. And, here I am at Camp Leakey, thanks to my “four strong men” as Erwin reassured me!
On to the Komodo dragons on Rinca Island, Indonesia…another “impossible” feat to get me to these remarkable creatures..
My wheelchair and a vegetable cart are loaded onto the boat. The cart was unloaded, and then fitted with a lounge chair so that I could follow the path of this prehistoric reptile waddling ahead of me. We made it to the ranger station for some fun viewing while the others trekked through the wilderness, seeing six in the wild.
The four men from API Tours who met with us in the lobby of our hotel in Santur, at the end of our Indonesia journey emphasized that dealing with my specials needs, and working along with staff on the ground to solve the issues required was not a burden, but an exhilarating challenge to be creative and to work out plans for me to see the animals.
And then there was Harbin, China and the world famous Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival where my wheelchair was fitted with skis that I was told to bring with me so my helper could just push me on ice around the awesomely incredible illuminated sculptures in below freezing temperature.
And then there was Antarctica where I thought I would just see it. But, no. The ship crew saw to it that I would experience and stand on THE island and even enjoy a glass of champagne to celebrate making it.
Our experience in Mongolia was another great experience. Several times, I left the wheelchair and one time I would be surprised when I returned to it, like the time a precious Mongolian boy taking a nap or working on a game.
And in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, an iguana was resting on the chair’s arm and a chameleon sat on my arm.
In Myanmar/Burma, we watched an ox harvest peanut oil while walking around and around. Afterwards, we could buy it and sample it. What an experience that was.
And in Papua New Guinea, we were so fortunate to experience the Asaro Mudmen. Amazing! I am so grateful for all who made feasible these incredible experiences that I never imagined would happen.
I encourage anyone to contact me should you have questions or need additional information. Perhaps by knowing as much as possible about my physical situation and adaptations, this will help you judge your ability to travel to “far away places with strange sounding names!” If anyone can get you there, Journeys International/API Tours, Focus Tours and others can if you ask!
As we entered the Harishchandra Ghat in Varanasi, India, we noticed the heat and we were 20-25 feet away. Then, we saw a group of people watching from a step high above the sacred Ganges River. And all along the river for several Ghats, thousands and thousands people were everywhere. It was then that we learned everything that was happening.
What were we’re seeing, Ajay Pandey with Bestway Tours and Safaris told us, were Hindu ceremonies at the most sacred place in India that take place 24/7 each and every day. “No other place on Earth, Ajay said, “holds daily cremations at Varanasi like this right by the sacred Ganges River for the devout Hindu.” Over 80 cremations are performed daily on bodies brought by family members from everywhere any way they can to reach the cremation site because this Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat are the main places where Hindu can reach Moksha. Cremation must occur within 24 hours of death.
In addition, on this particular day, several Ghats( concrete steps on the bank down to the Ganges River) were packed with people observing Chhath Puja, a yearly 4-day observation where the faithful Hindu pay obedience to the Sun God. And this event was separate from the daily cremations. It just so happened that the 2 events shared the same area of the Ganges River. Married men and women observing the 36-hour fast prayed for the well being and prosperity of their families.
This age-old observance on the Ghats by the Ganges River was one of the many sites in eastern India where the festival was observed. The puja starts with the ritual of ‘Nahai-Khai’, in which devotees prepare traditional food after bathing. The second day is ‘Kharna’, during which devotees observe a 36-hour-long fast which starts from the second day evening onwards and continues till the fourth day sunrise.The third day, the devotees stand in water and offer ‘Arghya’ to the setting sun God.
On the fourth and final day of puja, devotees and their friends and relatives assembled at the Ghats on the river bank before sunrise and offer ‘Arghya’ to the rising sun God.
These devotees and others all watched the cremations and final day of the Chhath Puja, a once a year happening at Varanasi and all of East India. Several of the 87 Ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi were full of people, and the river close to the cremation ceremonies was full of boats full of people observing it all.
As cremations were on going 24/7, we saw only males watching their loved one being cremated on a pyre. Hindu accepts death as a positive event on the way to Moksha and peace. Hindus believe the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives -samsara- and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived -karma. Hinduism is not only a religion, it is a cultural way of life.
Before each cremation began, the male survivors took the body wrapped in a gold or white cloth topped with ribbons, marigolds and other flowers to the sacred river for washing to relieve the body of its sins.
Then the body was placed on a wooden pyre and the #1 male survivor, dressed in white, set the wood on fire. Prayers are said to Yarma, the god of death. The body is now an offering to Agni, the god of fire. Cremation takes 3-4 hours. When the skull explodes, it signifies that the soul had been released to heaven. The Dom keeps the fire going during the entire cremation and cows strolled around some of the pyres eating the marigolds and other flowers on the ground.
Many of these family members saved money for years to be able to buy the wood for their cremation. The most expensive wood is sandalwood and teak. Mango is the cheapest. The untouchables of society, called Dom, oversee each cremation and charge a fee to do so. They also charge for wood and weigh each log. Many of these Dom make a lot of money from the cremations.
The Dom stacks the wood into a pyre. Then the body is unwrapped and placed on the pyre. To keep it flat during cremation, more wood is placed on top of the body. The attending Dom then gives the #1 male survivor the flame with which he sets the pyre afire. Dry wood ignites immediately with flames leaping into the air and covering the body.
Should a person not have enough money to buy all the needed wood, the body is partially cremated with the amount of wood they can afford. Then the ashes and remaining body parts are put into the Ganges River where the soul is transported to heaven to escape the cycle of rebirth. The holier the place the better the chance the soul will achieve “Moksha” or cycle of rebirth and avoid returning to earth as an animal or insect.
Women are not allowed at the cremation because it is believed that their cries will interrupt the cremation and cause the soul to not make it to moksha. The transfer must be pure, and not sad or painful. We were allowed to pass through Harishchandra Ghat by keeping a respectable distance. And photographs are allowed only from a respectable distance.
Because of pollution concern, some cremations are performed in other locations and then the ashes are put into the Ganges River. But most Hindu choose the traditional cremation that has been carried out for thousands of years. After cremation, the ashes are searched for gold, and if any is found, it is given to the poor for purchasing wood.
After observing cremations from afar, we reached the Ganges River where a small wooden boat was waiting to take us to observe the “Prayer of the Ganges” to make the Ganges River happy to receive bodies into Moksha. This was at the Dashashwamegh Ghat. My first tour of India with Tauck.com included this Prayer of the Ganges ceremony and I was so impressed I decided to visit again on my private Bestway tour.
Lasting for 1 hour each night, the Prayers are watched by scores of boats full of observers floating on the Ganges River. And we were one of them. The 9 Hindu priests perform the worship arti of the river Ganges to fire where a dedication is made to the Ganges River, Lord Shiva, the Sun, Fire and the whole universe.
Under powerful lights that illuminate the Ghat, rhythmic chants and offerings are made by the nine priests to the river to accept the soul of the deceased on their journey to Moksha. We floated oil lamp candles in the river meaning light, happiness and knowledge. It was a most reverend ceremony.
This one particular evening once a year, 2 events occurred at the same time, the daily cremation ceremony and Chhath Puja, the last day of the 36-hour fast that pays obedience to the Sun God. Hundreds of Hindu devotees packed the Ghats with baskets of food and flowers and family and friends to break that fast.
Watching the deceased take the journey to Moksha and the Hindu break the Chhath Puja fast was a total experience like no other in the world. Being able to observe both ceremonies in Varanasi, India, the holiest city in India, at the same time was a total honor.
All of their offices are on sidewalks. As we watched at one of them on Churchgate Street, each one arrived on foot or bicycle carrying priceless bags of spicy treats and specialties for their many clients.
One after the other they arrived at about the same time and exchanged scores of tiffins with each other using a delivery system that is one-of-a-kind.
In those bags were tiffins full of fresh cooked hot food that family members prepared at home for their loved one to eat at work a few hours later. Each tiffin contained 3 or 4 bowls that connect together to make one container. How the tiffins get to the family member’s place of work in downtown Mumbai/Bombay, India, is a system and method only the Dhabawallah delivery men understand. The Dhabbawallahs put certain marks on the tiffins, such as a different color or group of symbols indicating the correct train or office.
“Dhabba” in the Hindu language means food and “wallah” means person. So, the delivery men are called Dhabbawallahs and they have been delivering the home cooked meals since 1890 for clients who want only their home cooked specialties to eat because they think their food is best because of their religions or diets. As more and more clients requested delivered meals, a delivery system had to be developed that worked for them because they have minimal education.
The delivery system was started in 1890 by Mahadeo Havai Bachche, a Parsi banker, who wanted his family’s home-cooked food. More and more friends and employees also wanted home cooked food so he hired 100 Dhabawallahs at first to deliver the food. Today, more than 5,000 Dhabbawallahs do it, delivering 60-70 tiffins each day to clients in downtown office buildings in Mumbai/Bombay, India.
The Dhabbawallahs are men who pick up the tiffins each morning at 7:15 a.m. at client’s houses located about 60-70 kilometers from the office area and deliver them by train, bicycle and foot by 12:45 p.m. to the family member’s place of work using their unique coding system. Very few mistakes are made in deliveries considering that a tiffin can pass through up to 12 different Dhabbawallahs’ hands from the home to the office and back.
Dressed in all white and wearing a Gandhi hat, the Dhabbawallahs meet every day Monday-Saturday at the same places in Mumbai and exchange bags containing tiffins. And they deliver the tiffins though all kinds of weather, conditions and holidays. They place the appropriate bag on the sidewalk to start a group of other tiffins that are to be delivered to that same building or street. As each Dhabbawallah arrived between 11:40 a.m.-12noon, they placed the tiffins in the appropriate office group on the sidewalk.
When all the bags had arrived from the clients, each Dhabbawallah took off with all of new bags attached to a bicycle or in a large wooden tray and delivered each one to the appropriate person’s place of work. In the tiffins, some family members placed notes, flowers, tickets, an all sorts of communications. Now, the clients enjoy their delicious lunch until 1:45 p.m. And the Dhabawallahs enjoy their lunch when all the tiffins are delivered.
This custom service provided by the Dhabbawallahs cost $14 USD or 900 Rupees per person per month. Each Dhabbawallah earns 10,000 Rupees per month ($155 USD) and they all work for the common good as a team for the trust that oversees them.
But this service did not end after all lunches were delivered because each Dhabbawallah then returned to all of his client’s offices and picked up the empty tiffins at 2:15 pm. With the empty tiffins in his hands, each Dhabbawallah then met back at the Churchgate corner where they reversed the process and exchanged empty tiffins.
By 2:45 pm the Dhabbawallahs were back on one of the three train routes where their clients live with all of their empty tiffins to deliver to the homes around 5pm. Family members then cleaned and washed the tiffins and had them ready for the next day’s spicy Indian food specialties such as lentils, rice, vegetables and chapattis, all home-style and delivered to the customer’s delight. And the Dhabbawallahs will be there at 7:15 a.m. the next morning to pick up the fresh cooked specialties.
They come by the thousands every day dressed in turbans, scarves, saris, kurtas and western clothing not only to pray but to sit in a row on the floor cross-legged and barefooted in a huge hall next to anyone regardless of race, color, sex, caste, religion, creed, age or social status. And they all get along and follow the procedures established by the kitchen.
This is every day at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, India where the Temple’s kitchen (called langar in Punjabi) serves up to 40,000 hungry people a vegetarian meal 24 hours a day every day of the year. And on Holy Days, weekends and holidays the crowd can reach 100,000+ at the Golden Gurudwara (Temple) for a free meal. And this has been going on since the Sikh religion began in 1469.
Although all Sikh temples have a langar and serve free meals to pilgrims, the langar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar is like no other because it has the largest free kitchen in the world. “It has so many visitors it rivals the Taj Mahal as the most visited place in India, “our guide on this Bestway.com tour told us.
The Golden Temple is the home of the Sikh religion which has 3 aspects: sing and chant the name of God, sing religious hymns and volunteer. Plus, it considers all people equal in every way. And all Sikhs wear a turban to be equal with each other, to show respect to the Guru, and to protect the hair.
Serving the hungry pilgrims everyday is their volunteer mission all over the world. It was the founder, Guru Nanak, who began the concept of the langar. Volunteers do almost all of the work and show up every day to prepare the food. Ten percent of the volunteers, however, are paid staff to manage and coordinate the program but the other 90% is all done by volunteers and donations from the local community and the world. All of the food is donated or purchased with donations.
Thousands of volunteers chop, cut, boil, and mix organic onions, garlic, chilies, carrots, radishes, cabbage, spinach, fruit, rice kheer (pudding) rice, lentils for soup called dal, ghee (clarified butter) and roti (Indian flat bread). The food is cooked with wood and gas in huge cauldrons, and roti making machines, yielding a simple vegetarian meal for all to eat.
And the pilgrims do eat. But before they can eat, however, when they arrive at the Golden Temple, they must immediately put a provided triangular orange scarf on their head, then must check their shoes at one of the many windows where they are kept until claimed. Entering the Temple with head covered and barefooted shows respect to the Guru. Then, they get in line and receive their stainless steel food plate, spoon and water/tea/dessert/soup bowl before going to the big marble hall where new arrivals are being seated. Many times, a person takes a seat on a cloth in a row on the just cleaned floor next to someone s/he doesn’t even know. Receiving the food with both hands signifies blessed food.
And then volunteer servers arrive carrying buckets or tubs containing food to give to each person, one after the other. Rice, lentil soup (dal), roti, tea/water, ghee pudding or fruit awaits them.
And each day’s meal is determined by the availability of foods in season, purchased or provided. And they never run out of food even when 100,000+ come to eat. After the people finish their meal and leave, the process begins all over again. But before new people arrive, each section is mopped clean and it is done many times a day.
Then it is time to wash the dishes for the new arrivals so each dish is washed several times. Volunteers stand and wash dishes in large vats full of soapy water and then pass them to another group of vats and finally to clean water vats. The stainless steel dishes even go through a cleaning that polishes and shines them. Then they are stacked in large steel trailer-like bins with large wheels and pulley so they can be positioned near the awaiting new arrivals. And huge steel boxes of clean utensils are also moved nearby.
It impressed us how orderly and clean everything was and how, with all the people, it was relatively quiet and respectful. And it impressed us how all pilgrims sit in a row on the floor cross-legged and barefooted in a huge hall with anyone and everyone regardless of race, color, sex, caste, religion, creed, social status, or age to eat. And they all get along and follow the rules of the langar and Temple. The Golden Temple langar is like no other.
As I stepped off the plane in Lhasa, Tibet, absolute joy came to me because I was still breathing at 12,000 feet. And I continued to breathe normally hour after hour, day after day, making the 4-day visit my dream come true.
It was the surprise of a lifetime because my lungs caused me great concern about visiting one of the highest cities in the world. At around 12,000 feet high, it was my first time to experience a super high altitude. I even Googled precautions suggested to be taken in a high altitude.
After consulting my physician, I was assured the altitude would not cause any breathing problems for me in Lhasa. And he was correct. I didn’t even know I was high in altitude and experienced no difference in my breathing at 1200 feet or 12,000 feet.
To make sure there would be no breathing problems, I even consulted a Travel Clinic. There, the altitude sickness pill, Acetazolamide, was prescribed and recommended that I follow the directions exactly as written for the medicine. It worked perfectly for me.
The first afternoon after arrival in Lhasa, we rested as recommended by all advisors. But the next day, we went full time seeing Lhasa, truly a place of the Gods on that Himalayan plateau with many of the culturally significant Tibetan Buddhist sites.
Potala Palace, the home of Dalai Lamas, was the first place we visited and the most glorious of all with 999 rooms on top of a hill totally viewable from 360 degrees. It overlooked everything. Now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was a magnificent discovering adventure.
Tibetans were performing their daily clockwise sacred circumambulation, called Kora in Tibetan. Carrying their prayer beads, they walked around the palace while rotating a prayer wheel clockwise in their hand and praying to Buddha.
The faithful pray for good luck, protection, long life, good health, well being of others, wisdom, peace, and happiness, plus it is just good daily exercise. When we finished touring the Potala Palace, we joined the Tibetans in their circumambulation around it.
The most enlightening was the people and their faces and being allowed to experience a sliver of their lives on a particular day. And when the sun came out in the afternoon, we spent several hours in the large park full of beautiful landscapes, flowers, and people dressed in their native Tibetan clothing with apron. And I was still breathing just fine.
Our second UNESCO visit was the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace, Norbulingka, with its very colorful décor and flowers everywhere.
The palace was built by the 7th Dalai Lama in 1755 as the traditional summer palace and has the furnishings that the 14th Dalai Lama had until his exile in 1959 to India.
Serving as the administrative and religious centers, it is close to Portala Palace and has 1 of 3 parks adjoining it that remain of the 22 original parks in Lhasa. The highlight of this visit was the opportunity to dress like a Tibetan princess for a photo.
Our third UNESCO visit was to the most sacred and important Jokhang Temple, located in Bangkor Square in the old section of Lhasa that is the site of the most famous kora circumambulation ritual. Here, pilgrims prostrate themselves daily continuously by lying stretched out face down on the ground.
Prostration involves the full body above the knees touching the ground especially the hands. This Buddhist practice shows reverence for the Triple Gem (comprising the Buddha, his teachings and the spiritual community) and other objects of great reverence and respect. After the pilgrim is face down on the ground, he then gets up, walks 3 short steps forward and prostrates himself again all around the Jokhang Temple or any sacred site until 108 prostrations have been performed. And many pilgrims do this daily.
Buddhists believe prostration to be beneficial for practitioners because it is an experience of giving or veneration, an act to purify defilements especially conceit, a preparatory act before meditation, and an act that accumulates merit.
Each of the 108 prostration takes away defilement (greed, hate, delusion) and cleans a compartment in the mind. Sometimes a person has much anger, desire or a lazy mind and then must perform 300, 500 or 1000 prostrations. The person, then, is clean and is one with everything. Prostration purifies body, speech and mind.
Others circumambulate clockwise around Jokhang Temple and Bangor Square to shop in the colorful stores, formed as a bustling market for Tibetan and foreign goods. And I was still breathing just fine as I shopped.
Two huge prayer flag poles in front of Jokhang Temple were loaded with prayer flags. It is believed the energy of the prayers and sacred mantras on the flags flown in the wind will bring all good things to all who see them and their families, friends, and all people throughout the world. The red flags signify fire, blue for sky/space, green for water, yellow for earth and white for wind/air/clouds.
Large incense pots smoked 24 hours a day non-stop as worshipers regularly prayed as they put offerings into the pots. The incense smoke is not considered smoke because it communicates with the Gods.
The wonderful visit to Lhasa ended at the Enlightened Blind Massage Center with a massage. Started by Kyila, a blind lady herself, who had a dream at age 12 to help blind people have an occupation, the center opened in 2014.
After studying massage in Beijing, the students then come to the center in Lhasa to gain work and experience and hopefully one day open their own massage center. Kyila also opened a kindergarten in 2011 for blind children and it is very successful.
Our wonderful enlightening adventure came to an end but the experience will remain with us always.The beautiful and friendly Tibetan people, the sacred Jokhang Temple, the magnificent Portala Place, and the very colorful Norbulingka Palace were truly outstanding UNESCO treasurers. And I didn’t miss a breath of air the entire visit.
It followed us from the ancient temple city of Khajuraho to Bandhavgarh and Kanha National Parks, as part of our multi-vehicle convoy. And it was ready for our every need on the multi-hour rides into Central India which everyone enjoyed and appreciated.
It was the Luxury Loo that was invented by Tauck World Discovery because the need arose for their tour members traveling to their tiger safaris. There are no toilets available along the vast expanse of open land and small villages to the parks. So Tauck solved the challenge by providing a toilet in their convoy for their tiger adventures to operate smoothly, comfortably and conveniently. Necessity is the Mother of invention and the Luxury Loo was the answer.
Every two hours, next to rice fields, pastures or farms in the northern Central India area, the convoy would stop for a Luxury Loo break. Alongside the road in an unknown location, tour members exited their white SUVs headed straight for the “Happy Van.”Two mini-motor home vans were modified to fit Tauck’s need for complete clean restroom facilities plus a comfortable waiting area from the weather. And the Luxury Loo would be everywhere the Tauck tour was going because it always joined the convoy full of tour members ready for the next potty break.Inside the big white van was a 3×3-foot room with toilet, sink, and amenities, just perfect for all Tauck tour members to use. Plus, two comfortable couches with table were available where tour members could wait for their turn with the single unisex toilet.As guests used the Luxury Loo facilities one at a time, refreshments of snacks, fruits and soft drinks were available, making the tour even more consumer-friendly. Some exercised, practiced Yoga and Tai Chi positions or walked around the convoy of cars to stretch their legs and bodies during each “Shangra Loo” break.When it was time for lunch, the convoy stopped on the side of the road under a huge tree, set up a buffet table with white table cloth and all the trimmings. Rocks served as seats as all enjoyed the delicious food, scenery and Indian rural people going about their daily duties.Two vans had to be modified to create 2 Luxury Loos so Tauck would have one available for their Northern India and Nepal tour which includes 7 total tiger safaris in Bandhavgarh and Kanha National Parks. When one tour has a Luxury Loo in use, another tour begins and uses the second Luxury Loo, and this rotation continued throughout Tauck’s Northern India and Nepal tour season.The Luxury Loo comes complete with attendants who help open the door for the tour members, help them into and out of the van and provide needed supplies from hand sanitizer to towelettes for each one. Then the attendants clean the Luxury Loo and drive it at the end of the Tiger safari convoy, ready for the next Luxury Loo stop along the way to the national parks. Along the way, the tour members enjoyed the everyday lives for the rural people, seeing how they are making it, ladies collecting water every morning for their home, men working their animals to thrash rice grain from the stalk, a Tuk Tuk stuffed with people for a ride into a village, children happy to see us and smiling and waving, people on the road stopping to speak with us and welcoming us to India, learning that cattle are sacred and have the right-of-way on every road not vehicles, cattle pulling wagons full of hay, and ladies walking in their beautiful colorful saris carrying different products on their head.
All Tauck tour members were back on the road for their third and final convoy ride with the Luxury Loo and were happy and appreciative for Tauck’s relieving invention, and even happier because they saw their first Royal Bengal Tiger in the wild in India. It truly was Incredible India!
Ashish spotted something moving 98 feet away (30 meters) on his left side as he was driving us on the paved main road to the entrance of Kanha National Park in Central India. Instantly, he hollered and pointed left, “TIGER”!
With that, Denise, May, Ed and I, went into immediate action riding in the safari vehicle to see our dream realized after 3 tiger safari treks through the Sal Forest of Kanha National Park. Since we were going 25 mph (40 KPH), we were completely covered in blankets including head and face to stop the freezing wind chill. And when the TIGER word was said, we grabbed our cameras and uncovered as fast as possible for our wish come true to see a tiger in the wild.
Ashish knew our third attempt at seeing a tiger in Kanha National Park would be good when he picked us up at 6:10 am Dec. 1. As he was driving to our Banjaar Tola Safari Tented Lodge, a jungle cat crossed right in front of his vehicle. “In my area, people believe if a cat crosses the road while driving or walking, it’s not a good sign but I believe it is a good sign,” Ashish Bais, our 35-year-old driver expert naturalist on tigers at the Lodge, explained “And I usually see one tiger out of every 3-4 safari drives so the luck was with me again by average.”
Luck did come his and our way at 6:17 AM on our third safari ride in Kanha just a few minutes after the jungle cat incident. Only 1.2 miles or 2 kilometers from the lodge, a huge male tiger was walking along a fence about 60 feet (20 meters) from us near the Banjaar River. And we were driving on the paved road to the Mukki entrance for our morning safari drive. The tiger was near the edge of the forest and we had about 60 seconds to clearly view his swaggering, strolling walk. “This early in the morning,” Ashish said, “he was also looking for his girlfriend. I knew it was a male because of his size.”
We finally managed to grab our cameras and start photographing as fast as we could having been given an instant’s notice and we managed to succeed with still photos and video. I was shaking, hyperventilating and saying OMG, OMG as Ashish drove the safari vehicle backwards following the tiger that was walking towards us to the creek.
We all tried to keep a positive attitude after seeing no tigers on 3 safari drives at Bandhavgarh National Park and 2 times at Kanha, but the sixth safari drive was a charm at Kanha. We didn’t think we would ever see a Royal Bengal Tiger on this Tauck World Discovery tour of Northern India and Nepal after spending 27.5 hours looking for one. We had seen tiger paw prints in the dirt, tiger poop and tiger scratches in the tree trunks, but never a tiger.
As we toured and toured the parks, we learned that Indian tiger safaris are not like African safaris where you see many animals. In these Indian parks, we saw all kinds of deer, birds, wild boar and gaur cattle that were food for the tigers. And we learned that the deer, langur monkeys, and birds sound alarm noises to alert everyone a tiger is near or in the area.
When we continued on our safari in Kanha after spotting our dream tiger, we learned that several other tour members also saw a tiger cross the road and walk around them about an hour after our tiger spotting and they were as ecstatic as we were. Then we learned from a lodge worker that several more tour members saw a tiger at the river as they were sitting and enjoying coffee. Almost all of us saw a tiger on the same day and it was a very happy day for us.
It was on this tiger spotting that we learned how expert our safari naturalist guide is. As we were looking for tigers, Ashish educated us about them. “They are solitary, elusive and live in the thicket in a big area of 4,942 acres (20 square kilometers) by themselves, Ashish, who has a master’s degree in botany and worked for the All India Tiger Monitoring Project, explained. “So this is why it is so difficult to see one.” To make it more difficult, Bandhavgarh has 65 tigers in the 110,209 acre (1598.10 SqM) park and Kanha has 96 in the 232,279 acre (2051.79 SqM) park, making our tiger one chance in 96, almost a 1% chance of seeing a tiger.
Having studied botany with specialization in plant pathology and tiger behavior and Swamp Deer(The hard Ground Barasingha) food behavior, Ashish learned to constantly look for tigers while driving or walking. He came to Kanha to work as a naturalist in a lodge and then moved to the All India Tiger Monitoring Project for 3 years where he studied and collared tigers. He used to go on elephant back for research work and follow tigers with the help of his team and to know tiger behavior, he set up cameras to count the number of them. And he studied tigers in each of the 4 seasons and followed one tigress. Ashish has been a naturalist at Banjaar Tolar Tented Safari Camp since 2008.
So Ashish was happy to make our day by noticing that male tiger sauntering along the edge of the park, and wanted to know if he could be of further help. “Yes” we all said. “Show us another tiger.”
As we continued on our whirl-wind tour of Pyongyang, we visited the Civilian Movie Complex where North Korean films are made. While walking around movie sets that resembled ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Korean villages and streets, we stopped at the European-American house and found a snack bar inside. Now we were either enjoying an ice cream or soft drink treat on that movie set. And it was so good and welcome.
At the ancient Chinese movie set we visited the costume shop where we could select a costume to wear for $1 US. It was so much fun getting made into a character and all 12 and two of our guides had our group photo made in our “actor-actress” costumes.
For other recreation we bowled at the Pyongyang Game Center and I was surprised to see that the equipment was from Brunswick and made in the USA.
After the costume event, we went to Changgwang Health Complex, where North Korean families could exit refreshed from facials, haircuts, swimming, steam baths, showers, massages, and hot tub sessions. Several of our group participated in services along with the Pyongyang people.
We also visited the Fun Fair Amusement Park in Pyongyang to experience over six heart-stopping rides, and we heard the happy screams from the riders. Even though it was dark, we could see some rides needing upkeep because they were illuminated.
On the way to the Fun Fair, we saw the monuments beautifully bathed in light and the rest of Pyongyang was dark. We were told not to worry about the power outages because our hotels and places we visited had generators. And everything worked for us.
We visited the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, built in 1975 and expanded in 1985, where all the graves were marked with the deceased’s bust in bronze. Flowers were blooming in pots and the busts were shining brightly in the sun. It was a very respectful and quality presentation for the hundreds of martyrs entombed there. Kim Il-Sung’s mother and first wife are entombed in the cemetery.
North Korea has a population of about 20 million and all people belong to a work group. When a job needs to be done, a specific work group is called to harvest, plant, or maintain rice or any other need in the country. Rice, potatoes, corn, and beans are the main cash crops.
Outside the city we saw work being done by hand in gardens and fields with minimal equipment. We saw a herd of cattle being led into the field to go about a day’s work in the rice fields to plow the fields 1-2 rows at a time with the farmer guiding the way.
On the 2 1/2-hour trip from Pyongyang to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), we saw rice field after rice field right up to the 38th parallel line that divides North and South Korea.
North Koreans are super-industrious and we saw them working everywhere individually or in groups. No one was idle or begging in the streets.
Two men in Kaesong, the capital of ginseng processing, were squatting and working a hand plow where one man pulled the rope towards him and the other man pulled the handmade wooden plow towards him, going back and forth, thus plowing a small strip of ground dirt. It looked like using a tug-of-war method to plow.
There are no billboards that advertise things to buy in North Korea. This is the only type of billboard we saw:
At the DMZ, near Kaesong, we saw the line that divides North and South Korea. Inside the blue huts one could cross into South Korea.
At the DMZ, we visited the museum where the Armistice Agreement ending the Korean War was negotiated from 1951 to 1953 and then signed. On display were photos, desks used in the negotiations, and the signed documents of the event. To get to this museum, we had to line up in 4 straight lines and proceed in order to the museum. So, line 1 went first, then 2 then 3 then 4. In the museum, we were free to look at all the displays.
The road to the DMZ is in perfect condition with no potholes. Besides us, we saw only 3 other cars in the 2 1/2-hour trip.
On the way to the DMZ, we saw the most beautiful sunset.
We saw an arch-like monument across the highway between Pyongyang and the DMZ of two ladies joining hands, signifying North Korea’s wish of the two Koreas becoming one.
In Kaesong we stayed at the traditional Korean Minsok Folk Hotel, slept on the heated floor and had only cold water, all in the traditional Korean way. Plus, we ate dinner and breakfast sitting on the floor also like the Koreans do. We stayed only one night for our unique Korean hotel experience.
On our walking tour of Kaesong, close to the DMZ, it was like we were observing an old 1930’s movie action scene of people going about their mornings in the city in slow motion. There were no cars on the streets and only a few trucks, bicycles and people pushing carts. And as we stood and watched the daily street life, we said hello to the Korean people that passed, and they responded with a smile and a wave. Several of them permitted us to take their photo.
Outside of Kaesong we saw the tomb of King Kongmin from the year 1372 that was two round domes side by side and covered in green grass. One dome tomb contained the remains of King Kongmin and the other contained his wife. These were not destroyed in the Korean War. Most buildings in North Korea had been built since the war, many with help from the USSR.
North Koreans have many holidays and celebrations with the Autumn Festival the biggest of all. Since 1975, the Arirang Games have usually been held every year from late July to October to celebrate the story of the DPRK. The games are held in the unique architecturally-designed May Day Stadium and are the only performance of their kind in the world. The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing borrowed elements from the Arirang Games, our Beijing guide told us.
At North Korean weddings the guests eat dog meat as a delicacy. It is served as Dog Meat Soup. The entire time I was in North Korea, I saw 2 dogs and they were in good condition. A newly married couple eat cold noodles on their wedding day to signify a long life. Honeymoons as we know them do not exist. Each couple pledges to get back to work after visiting family and friends. North Koreans work six days a week from 8 am to 6 pm, with Sunday free. After work they practice for the Arirang Games. We viewed them practicing one night until 9 pm and we went to the Fun Fair.
North Koreans love cigarettes and chocolate. They are very clean in everything except their toilets.
When a first child is born, a one-year birthday party is held where objects are placed before the child and the first one the child selects indicates what the child will be in life. The objects the child has to select from are a large spool of thread representing long life, a brush and Korean calligraphy set/pencil and book that indicates a good scholar, a pistol for the military, a book/bow/arrow for boys or a ruler/scissors for girls to indicate dexterity, money/rice/rice cakes for richness, music for a singer, and a knife that indicates the child will be a good chef.
We had the opportunity to visit the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang. Artisans demonstrate their crafts and offer them for sale.
The Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang is a place for people to come, study and use Dell computers. The computers are connected to an intranet that is only within North Korea except for a few permitted foreign websites that are mostly scientific.
The trip to North Korea was enjoyable. It was an adventure I’ll never forget.
Visiting communist countries is interesting to me because they only show you their beautiful monuments and places.
So, for my 164th country to visit, I chose North Korea, and it was a 4-day whirl-wind 12-hours-a-day tour and we enjoyed every minute of it. I read somewhere that only around 2,500 Americans have ever toured North Korea even though it is legal for Americans to visit. I decided to take a tour of the country also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. They believe they should be reunified with South Korea and that there is only one Korea, not a North or South.
To get there, I used a Canadian tour company, Bestway Tours and Safaris, that selected Koryo Tours of Beijing, China as the tour company I was to use. Koryo Tours is the #1 company to take visitors to North Korea. And they are busy because tourism to North Korea is rising yearly. Everything on the tour was paid for in advance except tips and souvenirs. Koryo Tours reminded us: don’t forget to tip and give chocolate and cigarettes. We were totally pleased with Koryo Tours’ services and recommend them for an outstanding tour.
Our North Korean leaders, Khoi and Mr. Lee with the Korean International Tour Company, and Sarah Davies with Koryo Tours of Beijing, were outstanding in every way. All 3 tour leaders were with us every minute we were touring. We even had a North Korean video photographer with us at all times to record the tour for us who worked also with the Korean International Tourist Company, the official tour company of the DPRK, in Pyongyang. At the end of the tour we could buy a DVD of our tour. On the tour, we went where the government guides took us and we enjoyed it.
Before departing on our tour, we were given suggestions on clothing and items to bring and not bring and general rules of the tour and of North Korea. We stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel on an island in the Taedong River in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and we could not leave the island except in the tour bus. The hotel was clean and comfortable with good daily breakfasts and book stores and souvenir shops.
From Beijing, we flew by Koryo Airlines to Pyongyang, the capital of DPRK and a city of about 3 million people. We stayed two nights in that city and another in the city of Kaesong, near the demilitarized zone or DMZ. One more night in Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang gave us time to pack and buy souvenirs before we flew back to Beijing.
We started our tour by viewing the 90-foot-high magnificent bronze statues of Kim Il- Sung and Kim Jong-Il overlooking Pyongyang from a hill. They were flanked by huge bronze-relief monuments showing the history of DPRK. We placed flowers at the base of the statues to show respect.
Everywhere we went we saw photos and monuments of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean former leaders. All government officials wear a pin on their lapel with the photo of their two past leaders on it.
We saw the beautiful Arch of Triumph that celebrates the anniversary of the DPRK. It is 180 feet high and is bigger than the Arc d’Triumph in Paris.
We went to the top of the the nearby Juche Tower Monument to view the city of Pyongyang. Juche represents self-reliance.
We saw Kim Il-Sung University, Kim Chaek University of Technology, and Kim Il-Sung Square, where the military parades are held. Every foot of the square is marked with white paint to indicate where each person in the parade is to stand, our guide told us.
At the beautiful, marble Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace we enjoyed the children’s very professional performance of dance, music, gymnastics, and acrobatics. The high quality of the show astounded us all. The school has up to 5,000 students. I learned that North Korea has 40 different alphabets. In a park, we saw school children sketching pagodas on a pad. And I just had to have my photo made with one of the children.
After school, the children learn computing, sports, foreign languages, chess games, musical instruments, embroidery, and Chinese/Korean writing.
Most of the women school teachers wore the beautiful, traditional Korean dress (choson-ot), which reminded us we were in Korea.
The school children were dressed in a white blouse or shirt with a red bandanna, and a navy blue skirt or pants.
On the sidewalks of Pyongyang, I observed many sophisticated-looking men and women. Ladies were dressed in heels, hose, and nice dresses, and men dressed in black dress slacks and a white dress shirt. The ladies carried metallic-looking parasols with UV protection to protect them from the hot sun while walking several blocks to their destination. Every North Korean person I saw in Pyongyang had a beautiful, excellent figure and physique. Everyone we encountered was poised, professionally dressed, and had perfect manners. The ladies had their long hair pulled back behind their ears or tied up in a bun.
I asked our North Korean tour leader, Khoi, where I could get a parasol. Ten minutes later our bus arrived at a souvenir shop that sold them, and 5 women rushed out of the bus and immediately ran into the shop and grabbed parasols to purchase. We were not allowed to use North Korean won, but our own currency was accepted. Even though the umbrellas cost $35 each, we were very happy with our purchases.
With our new gold metallic-looking UV-protection parasols in hand, we went to the 50-meter-high Party Foundation Monument that signifies a hammer for the worker, a sickle for the farmer, and a brush for the intellectual. There, we had many photos of our beautiful Korean parasols and the monument taken with us holding our umbrellas for all to see the different colors reflecting gold tones. We were so proud of our unique parasols and our North Korean guides were happy to see we were having so much fun with them.
We visited the National Gift Museum where gifts from heads of state from many countries to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are on exhibit. The gifts are exquisite and one-of-a-kind priceless articles and objects.
We visited the boyhood home of Kim Il-Sung that had an intricately woven, artistically thatched roof. Outside the home is the well where he drew drinking water, and we were invited to drink the water from the well.
We had potato salad for our first food dish and found the Korean food to be very good and filling at each of the three daily provided meals. Special dinners were tasty, including a special BBQ dinner and a pansanggi dinner of 12 small golden dishes filled with different foods. And at all special dinners we sampled Soju, the Korean national rice wine that is 25% alcohol and very strong. At the Farewell Dinner we cooked duck over a table grill and enjoyed it with the strong rice wine. Dog meat soup is a special Korean dish, but I missed my chance to try it.
We had a “Hot Pot” dinner where the food is cooked in an individual pot filled with broth, spices, beans, meat, carrots, noodles, pork, salt, cucumbers, lettuce, and cabbage over a grill at each seat, all eaten with sticky rice.
We saw the outstanding-looking 105-floor, 3,000-room triangle-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, called the “Hotel of Doom.” It has been under construction since the 1980’s and still is not open. It dominates the skyline of Pyongyang. We saw many buildings of unique and creative architectural design in Pyongyang. Most buildings have been built since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Many of the buildings are pastel colored, ranging from light rose, green, gray, yellow, and pink to peach.
Everywhere that there was a TV or audio, day or night, we heard and saw opera performances, singing and beautiful flowers. Pyongyang was very quiet and peaceful. On the balconies of all apartment buildings the people had put out flowers and nothing else. Every balcony on every apartment at every building were all the same.
We stopped at three Metro stations on the underground 2-line Metro system that is 35 kilometers long, has 17 stops, and serves up to 300,000 riders daily. The incredible stations had chandeliers and wall paintings depicting the people and the DPKR’s leaders. All were just outstanding in their beauty.
Public transportation above ground was full with people, and we saw many waiting at the bus stops. Almost no one has a car so the streets were nearly empty of vehicles. The mode of transportation is by walking, bicycle, bus, tram, and Metro. A liter of gas costs one Euro, which is approximately US$5.50 per gallon of gas. There were no traffic jams or wrecks anywhere. The trams have stars on each side that indicate how many years the tram had been wreck-free, our guide told us.
Strips of land adjacent to Pyongyang’s main streets were being planted with seeds, then covered in plastic raised about six inches above the ground to create a hothouse effect, making the grass grow faster. Persons balanced on boards above the grass, squatting and working these strips of grass daily, picking weeds, carefully hand-watering with a watering can, and not stepping on the grass bed during this entire process. One person on our tour saw a North Korean man carefully manicuring a new grass yard using tweezers. And many people in plastic raincoats worked through the rain on the grass strips.
We’re halfway through our 96-hour tour. Next comes North Korea, part 2 and the DMZ.
He appeared suddenly, carrying a wooden case. Chest bulging, he introduced himself as Mr. Cricket. Christina and I thought he was joking. We were eating a home-cooked Chinese meal in a Beijing, China Hutong when Mr. Cricket walked up and began telling us about cricket fighting.
In a deep raspy voice that matched his deeply wrinkled, suntanned skin, Liu Yong Jiang explained how he has raised fighting crickets for 30 years. He reached into his sweatshirt, pulled out a jar with a cricket inside, and set it on our lunch table. We started laughing. The man couldn’t be serious.
But he was.
A good quality cricket is very expensive, Mr. Cricket told us through a translator, and can cost as much as a horse. A man can lose his wife, house, or land over cricket fighting.
Baby crickets take 100 days to mature to adulthood, but fighting begins at two months of age. Mr. Cricket explained that he uses a stick with two mouse hairs attached to it to train his cricket. He has to be very careful in handling a cricket, as picking one up with the hand could break its legs. He uses a wire strainer to catch and pick the insect up, and special utensils for cleaning and feeding it.
To prepare his cricket for a fight, Mr. Cricket bathes, feeds, and waters it. The fight occurs in a bowl. Competitors fight until one jumps out. The winning cricket sells for a lot of money, sometimes into the thousands of dollars. Mr. Cricket showed us his 2005 China Cricket Fighting Championship certificate. His prize was a car.
As he was leaving, he told the cricket to tell us goodbye. The cricket raised his right leg and waved. Mr. Cricket was no longer a joke to us.
She was sitting on the ground and needed a hug and someone to play with, so I sat by her and we hugged and played and kissed each other. I rubbed my fingers through her cute, stiff straw-like course hair. And she rolled over and tumbled like a ball many times, and bit and scratched me.
But personally playing with a year-old panda in China at one of the 2 breeding and research centers was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a dream come true for me, because I think the giant panda is the number one cutest and most precious animal in the world. And I was so fortunate to get to play with one when I toured with the San Diego Zoo to Wolong, China (now Bifengxia Panda Base since May 23, 2008 when Wolong was destroyed by an earthquake) to see pandas. We even played patty-cakes.
Besides playing with a panda, we were allowed to see Hua Mei, Bai Yun’s first American-born panda at the San Diego Zoo, who was then at Wolong and had just given birth to twins. The twins were 3 weeks old and observing one in the incubator was like looking at a stick of butter, except it was pink. Wrapped in a blanket under a heat lamp in an incubator, the panda nursery looked like a human baby nursery in any hospital. And the nursery was attended just like a human baby intensive care unit in our hospitals. We observed the baby sleeping in an incubator through a huge glass window just like we would in a hospital baby nursery. The room was spic and span, clean and white.
But seeing American born Hua Mei in a corner of her big room-den, sitting up so big black and white, grand and tall looking, and nursing her other twin was just the cutest most rewarding experience of the entire adventure. We had to be silent and non-intrusive so as not to disturb her nursing session, so we peeked through a 6-inch crack in the door. She nursed one at a time and while doing so, the other twin was in the incubator.
Seeing 40 more adult pandas at the breeding and research center couldn’t match that. However, it was a joy to see each adult panda in their own large private open yard and house. One vivid memory from the tour of pandas at Wolong (now Bifengxia) in their own environment was a panda in her house. Through the big glass windows in the house, I could see the panda sitting with her big round black and white head and 2 ears sticking up. It was just too cute.
But I didn’t get to play with just one panda. I got to play with 7 young pandas that were in their play yard on their climbing equipment. They were so busy climbing and tumbling and just doing their thing but they made time for us all. Each panda was ready to pose with us for our photo and even posed one-on-one for our Christmas card. Whatever we wanted, they were ready to perform.
We had to move on, though, because it was time for the 7 young pandas to eat. They were given a milk-looking cereal food specially formulated for them. Each one was given a pan full of it and down they came from the play equipment. One drank the potion and another picked up the pan and dumped the contents on the ground. Two had a little dispute over the food and another sat and ate. I had to remind myself that the precious panda bears’ behavior was like animals as they were animals. They ended their meal with white faces and cereal formula all over them.
But before this animal adventure was over, there was one more surprise. We were taken to see a Golden Monkey, which is rarer than a panda. I had never seen one. The orange and white monkey was about 3 feet tall and lives only in China. When I saw him, I learned that they did not exist in the Western Hemisphere yet, but efforts were being made to get them there. What a handsome, beautiful monkey he was. Little did we know that more precious pandas were to follow.
And the final surprise was a visit to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in China. Besides seeing another 50 pandas in their wide open habitat, we learned about the special foods that are made for the pandas. Custom-made pellets were full of vitamins and nutrition pandas need to be healthy. And infant pandas needed special baby formulas to survive. Cow’s milk was not giving a baby panda nutrition so the special foods were formulated.
But getting to play, hug and kiss a baby panda for 15 minutes in China shall forever remain the pinnacle of my life.
It was on my third visit to Istanbul that I finally decided to have a Turkish bath because my girlfriend, Christina, wanted one. So we went to Cemberlitas Hamam, opened in 1584, in old Istanbul, before our Tauck World Discovery tour.
It was a modern, clean Haman inside and cost $40 for a 1-hour bath, massage, scrub mitt, olive oil soap, a small sheet and locker for belongings. So we got ready and went to the cold room and then the hot room, where I just stood inside the door gasping for air. I saw 15 beautiful naked bodies lying on the 15-foot round and 24-inch high marble platform and soaking up the hot steam.
Finally, I notice one body that looked like mine, plump and misshaped, so I wouldn’t be the only one. And, I saw the three scrubber ladies naked except for a tiny bikini bottom. As they scrubbed the ladies, their huge bellies shook “like a bowl full of jelly”.
So still standing by the door wrapped in my sheet, I thought I will never do this and let these people see my plump body. Besides, the scrubbers were scrubbing all the others and I thought I would just slip $20 so they would scrub me next. Instead, I exited to the cold room to sit and cool off.
Shortly, the scrubber came to get me for my scrubbing. She told me to lie down and yanked that sheet off of me and I just closed my eyes as I couldn’t bear to see this embarrassment. She doused me with a bucket of warm water and scrubbed with the scratchy mitt, removing all the dead skin cells. To my amazement, it felt wonderful. Then another bucket of water and more scrubbing was done on both sides.
Feathers felt like they were falling on me and I finally opened my eyes and she was squeezing a sack full of olive oil suds on me and then more scrubbing. It was now a massage, cleansing bath and hair washing all in one. The final bucket of water was tossed at me as I stood up but now, I didn’t want to leave, because I was enjoying the most awesome bath of a lifetime by submitting to public nudity.
As I toured India, I saw caparisoned elephants (decorated)everywhere giving rides. In Udaipur, we stayed in the #1 ranked world hotel at that time, Oberoi Udavillas. and I ordered lunch and never received it. My friends arrived after I did, ordered, ate and said, “If you want to go shopping with us, we are leaving now.”
I left the table with my friends and the hostess said “Ma’am, please come back and eat your lunch.” I told her I had to go shopping now with my friends.. She begged me to come back and eat my lunch as we walked all the way to the car. I assured her that I wasn’t upset. That night before I ate dinner at the same restaurant, the manager offered me complimentary food and drink as a make good for not delivering my lunch, but my tour was all-inclusive with Tauck World Discovery. He said the waiter did not understand my order and that they had a meeting and it will never happen again. When my friends arrived for dinner with me, they said, “You should have requested a caparisoned elephant” as we had been discussing renting one so all the people on the tour could enjoy it, So I told the same waiter that I would like to have a caparisoned elephant as a makegood. The next morning, while I was eating breakfast, the same waiter tapped my shoulder and said, “Ma’am, Ma’am, I have your elephant.” I looked at him in total disbelief and screamed “NO WAY.” He said, “Yes, Come now. But I am eating mybreakfast, I said. “Come Now,” he begged and pulled/escorted me by the arm for one block to the hotel entrance. And, there was the caparisoned elephant, camels, horses and people, all of which were part of a special 25-member festival celebration for guests at the hotel that day. What a wish come true and a wonderful surprise from the #1 hotel..After learning her name was Mary, I went to the camel and told her she was the most beautiful camel I had ever seen all dressed up and blew her kisses. She responded by raising her head, opening her mouth and honking sounds of approval. And she kissed my cheek and her master’s cheek. Then I went to the elephant, learned her name was Janie and told her she was the most beautiful decorated elephant I had ever seen and blew her kisses. And sheraised her trunk high in the air and trumpted loud sounds of agreement. As I looked around, all the members of my Tauck tour had arrived at the festival celebration to enjoy the caparisoned elephant, horses and camels with me. So remember, always ask for the caparisoned elephant as your wish just may come true.