Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

Walk on the Wild Side

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

We spent time in two of Jordan’s nature reserves — Dana Nature Reserve and Wadi Rum.  Both were spectacular, and furthered our affection for this great country.  I tell you, the wonders of this country are beyond what we ever expected.  This blog will cover Dana, and a later blog will cover Wadi Rum.

Dana, Jordan 283 Dana lies about an hour and one half south of Amman, and we stopped there en route to Petra.  Our original itinerary didn’t include Dana, but we leaped at the chance to hike in a park, and were glad we did.  The park is set up a little oddly, in that you park at the visitor center, and wait for a park ranger to accompany you on a shuttle bus down to the hiking departure area.  We definitely drew the short straw on the guide front, and got someone who didn’t seem to have a clue about what was up at the park.  So we knew we were on our own, sort of. 

Dana, Jordan 293 We ended up hiking with the park’s guide (clueless), our A&K guide (who was equally uninformed) and — for some reason — our driver, who seemed to field a steady stream of cell phone calls, and yak away in a very loud voice, either on the phone or to the other guides.  Subtle suggestions that we wanted a little peace and quiet in the park didn’t yield results, so we finally told them they either needed to be quiet or go back on their own.  When we arrived, the prior group was meeting their naturalist, who seemed on the ball, so it probably pays to try to line up the right naturalist in advance.

Amman by Gibson 218 Our hike got off with a big shock — Gibson turned over a rock, and turned up a Death-stalker Scorpion, among the most poisonous in the world.  Gibson got down low (probably way too low!) and took some extraordinary photos of the Death-stalker.  It sounds and even looks like a character from Star Wars, and we were thrilled to see it.  That said, we all recognized that we’d be camping out in a couple of nights in Wadi Rum, and hoped that this would be our last scorpion encounter!

Dana, Jordan 339 The rock formations in Dana were quite interesting, reminding me a bit of some of the great U.S. parks in Utah.  The colors were brilliant reds and oranges, with intricate patterns from erosion over the years.  Our trusty guide at one point informed us that, “These are rocks,” which definitely raised our understanding to a higher level.

Dana, Jordan 298 Mid-way through the hike, Sterling called out that she had sighted a Nubian Ibex, an endangered species.  This was quite a sighting, and we got great views down through the canyon for ten minutes or so.  at about minute nine, our guides figured out where it was, and agreed with identification.  They went on to say how lucky we were to see it, since they had been in the park many times and never seen an Ibex.  Big surprise there :-) .

We got some great Dana photos, which you can feel free to check out.

The Really Big D — Dubai!

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Dubai 006 We had one of our most fascinating country visits as we spent five days in Dubai, a large city and one of the seven members of the United Arab Emirates.  We could tell as soon as we landed in the Dubai Airport that this wasn’t a normal place.  It was the most astounding collision of ancient Arab traditions and the twenty-first century.  The airport itself is sparkling, modern, full of shopping locations, and people of all cultures.  Just seeing the wide range of clothing (from shorts and tank tops to traditonal and often gorgeous Arabic robes) was spell-binding.  I could have spent a full day just at the airport and never been bored.

Dubai 062 After a bit of a challenge checking into our hotel, we got on with our exploration of Dubai.  The place to start is the skyline, which now includes the world’s tallest building, Birj Dubai, which is a few months from completion.  It tops the building we saw earlier in the trip in Kuala Lumpur, and is already 630  meters high, visible from up to 60 miles away.  But that’s hardly Dubai’s only construction project.  Depending on the person you talk to, Dubai has some 24-33% of all of the world’s construction cranes, in an area smaller than Delaware!  There are still some remaining structures from the old Dubai, but for the most part, this is a modern Oz of a city, all constructed in the past ten years.

Dubai 019 And the construction isn’t just on “Dubai” proper.  They are developing these offshore complexes that include newly formed land in some particular shape (palm trees, the universe), shopping areas, villas, and condominiums.  The scope of these projects is vast.  The smallest “palm” is a $60 billion development project.  A newer one (a bigger palm in shape) will have enough housing for 1.3 million people, the current size of Dubai!  It’s just absolutely staggering.  And we’re not talking “low cost housing”; these are plush luxury units, and to date all seem to be getting bought by someone.

While in Dubai, we had dinner with a great family (Jihad Fakhreddine, his wife Carla, and son Jamaal), who are long-time friends of our relatives Jim and Caroline in Seattle.  They are truly citizens of the world, having lived for 15 years in Silicon Valley, five years in Switzerland, and have been in Dubai now for three years.  Jamaal, age 14, speaks several languages, including English, Spanish, German, and Arabic.  Jihad is running a medical technology company here, and the entire family were incredibly nice, sharing lots of insight and context on this interesting part of the world. 

We learned so much about their lives, their school, Dubai, and the world, and really appreciate their hospitality.  I can hardly summarize a three hour dinner in a paragraph or two, but we learned that Dubai is largely ex-pats (80%), English is the dominant language, real estate is expensive and getting more expensive (to rent a decent house can cost $20,000 (U.S. dollars) per month!), and schools are expensive (in some cases, $20,000-$30,000 per year even for first graders).  

Our families spent a fair amount of time talking about U.S. politics.  I don’t know whether I’m excited or depressed when I meet people living thousands of miles from the U.S. that are more informed about our country and its politics than 99+% of U.S. citizens.  Maybe we should have a set of foreigners elect our next President :-) !  But their views on our current foreign policy, immigration policy, and the relative merits of the candidates were highly informed and spot on.

Dubai 008 Other things we did in Dubai, all really fun, included a local calligraphy demonstration, a meeting with someone who explained Dubai customs and culture, a quick look at the world’s largest indoor skiing center (we didn’t try it, but you can see it on the right), a great half day for the kids at Wild Wadi (an incredibly well done water park), shopping (many people spell Dubai “Do Buy”), a desert safari, and time in the pool or the Arabian Sea. 

Dubai 022 The mystery to me was, and to a large extent still is, what drives the Dubai economy.  By now, I’m sure you’ve concluded that Dubai must be the source of some big oil gushers.  Not true.  Only 6% of Dubai’s GDP comes from oil and gas.  Only one of the seven Emirates (Abu Dhabi) is a big oil producer.  They share much of that revenue with the other six emirates, but Dubai’s money is coming more from its development projects, and its role as a gateway for the Western world to the Middle East. 

Dubai 154 Dubai has an interesting form of government, at least if you’re Sheikh Mohammed.  The Sheikh controls, and to a large extent owns, all of Dubai (in photo on right is one of his private residences).  That’s hard to comprehend, given how much Dubai is worth.  But he seems to make all the decisions, owns all or part of the important companies (construction, airline, hotels, you name it), and cuts others a slice of ownership if and when he sees fit.  Years back, he made Dubai a tax-free zone, and is drawing to his country lots and lots of business activity from all over the world.  He is a BIG RISK TAKER, and now amount of money put up for a project seems too much.  And, in just a decade, he seems to have transformed a fairly barren desert region on the Arabian Sea into a bustling center of commerce that is rivaling Singapore in the Far East.

Dubai 163 Dubai is clearly currently benefiting from a real estate bubble of uncertain duration.  As more and more $1-50 million residences are built, they seem to be gobbled up by very rich people who spend almost no time in them.  One such buyer is, in the words of one of our guides, “Baaarrrrrrraadddd Beeeerrrrriiitttt.”  “Who, we said?  After several repetitions, we figured out that this person is Brad Pitt.)  Many of these purchases have to be pure real estate speculation, and we all know how that ultimately ends.   But almost everything developed in Dubai seems to be to a standard of excellence, and the place is emerging as a global center of commerce faster than you can start your Rolls Royce or Ferrari :-) .

Dubai 013 We stayed at a hotel owned by . . .  Sheikh Mohammed.  We didn’t stay or even visit Dubai’s seven-star hotel, the world’s only seven star place.  Guests are delivered to the hotel either in a gold-plated Rolls Royce, or by helicopter landing on the saucer shape at the top of this structure.   But if you have a spare $5,000 you want to get rid of in a hurry, book one night at this hotel, and you’ll soon be parted from your money. 

Dubai 104 As we left Dubai, our airport experience said a lot about the area.  Our flight was scheduled to depart at 4:40 a.m. (meaning a 2:00 a.m. hotel pick-up — Ugh!!), and the airport operates 24 hours a day.  As we walked to our gate, we passed through some of the best shopping areas in the world.  We had tried unsuccessfully to buy a very specialized camera battery, but found and purchased it at 3:20 a.m. in the Dubai airport!  The airport is modern and efficient, the planes the latest and best, and the staff highly professional and courteous. 

Dubai 024 I never like to use the word unique, which is misunderstood and overused.  But Dubai is unique.  The climate is dry and scorching hot in the summer.  The ocean is nice enough, but not something you’d call uniquely beautiful.  The air quality is lousy due to all the construction.  There’s little culture at night.  Yet it’s a bustling, world-class city, attracting all sorts of new people and new money.  The people seem quite happy with the Sheikh’s rule.  There’s no unemployment and almost no crime (we learned that if a tourist is caught making an obscene gesture, they are likely to spend three years in jail!).   If I were doing a Ph.D. in Economics (again!), I might well focus on the hyper-rapid development of the Dubai economy.  And for any of you traveling in this part of the world, make Dubai a place you visit.

Feel free to check out our Dubai photos, which aren’t the most beautiful of the trip, but give you a feel for modern Dubai.

Down and Dirty on the Dead Sea

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Jordan Gibson 020 We concluded our time in Jordan with a couple of relaxing days on the Dead Sea.  There’s not a lot to do here, other than float in the Dead Sea, cover yourself in mud, and have fun.  We probably could have spent more time investigating some of the historical artifacts and significance of this region, but “hanging out” won out.  But that made for a great two days.

Jordan Gibson 025 The Dead Sea is seven times saltier than normal seawater.  You can’t sink in the Dead Sea, no matter how hard you try.  But don’t get any seawater in your eyes or mouth, or you’re in big trouble.  One ritual of Dead Sea visitors is to cake themselves in resident mud, let it bake in the sun, and then jump into the Dead Sea to wash off the mud.  We couldn’t pass on this activity, although none of us experienced a magical transformation in skin properties.  And this process did have added educational benefits, as the barrage of mud gave each of us a chance to relate to what any politician running against the Clintons must feel like.

Wadi Rum 297 So much for Jordan, one of the real surprises of our trip.  We don’t have many Dead Sea photos, but feel free to check them out.

A Million Star Hotel

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Wadi Rum 185 We explored the desert of Wadi Rum, camping in a “million star hotel” there.  Million stars?  Well, at night, in the desert of Jordan, you really could see a million stars overhead.  “Wadi” means river valley or gulch, and “Rum” means high or elevated.  It lies in the south of Jordan, covers some 400 sq. miles, and is largely the territory of the Bedouins, the native nomadic tribe of the Middle East.  The movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here, and must have won an Academy Award for Cinematography!

Wadi Rum 167 We arrived mid afternoon to Wadi Rum, and roamed all over the place in a four-wheel drive jeep.  The main thing to take in was the geology, since this area isn’t big on wildlife.  But the geology was stunning.  When you think of “desert,” you think of sand.  But Wadi Rum is far more than sand, since the rock structures are so interesting.  They rise straight out of the sand, have surfaces that can be sheer or intricate, and have color that changes with the angle of the sun.

Wadi Rum 175 That night, we camped at a Bedouin campsite.  With the scorpion we found in Dana in mind, we were thrilled ( :-) ) to see that our tent was wide open at the bottom, and our beds were sitting on the ground.  The good news is that there were very few sheets where a scorpion could hide — like one per bed!  And the layer of protective sand thoughtfully coating every sheet surface seemed perfect to ward off stray insects :-)

Wadi Rum 200 While our campsite and food were quite basic, the experience was anything but.  We loved being in this desert, and were able to explore lots of local nooks and crannies.  But the feeling of being out in the wilderness, miles from anything, with the clear, starry sky overhead was fabulous. 

I just love Jordan!  Feel free to check out our pictures of Wadi Rum.

Pa-Wow Petra!

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Petra 062 Imagine going on a hike in one of the most beautiful geological spots in the world.  Imagine seeing some of the most exquisite archeological remains of a rather astounding village, with stunning temples carved right into the face of mountains.  And imagine one of the world’s most pleasant climates.  Well, take them all together and you have one of the world’s great wonders — Petra!

Petra 204 Petra is often referred to as one of the wonders of the world, and with good reason.  We were just blown away by what we saw here.  The beauty of the temples and monasteries, all carved out of sandstone cliffs and mountains is impossible to describe in words, so I’m hoping my pictures carry the load.  There is structure after structure that just takes your breath away.  Petra’s prime was from the second Century B.C. through about 600 A.D.  It was discovered again by the Western world in 1812 by a Swiss explorer.  The history of this amazing site is worth checking out.

Petra 078 Our guide told us that just 2% of the structures of archeological merit have been excavated at Petra.  I wouldn’t bet the ranch on that estimate, but it did have the sense of a vast town, and had been covered with sand some 20+ feet over the years.  We saw many partially excavated buildings where the top of the door frame was well below today’s level of the earth. 

Petra 007 Many of the houses in Petra seemed like the Flintstone’s Bedrock, a place right out of history.  We made that comment among ourselves, and later saw a vendor selling all sorts of things, with their little area featuring a Fred Flintstone banner.  So we’re not all that creative in our observations . . .

Petra 044 Much of the excitement of Petra lies in the approach.  You enter the site and have a decent walk through the canyon before you get to the most astounding structures.  The walk is through a gorgeous canyon, with a fairly narrow valley walled off by vertical cliffs of a height I’d estimate to vary between 100-300 feet high.  What’s so interesting geologically is that, from time to time, the rock had sheared off, leaving an exposed face that was essentially a plane.  The Horites, a tribe of cave-dwellers living in the region, used these exposed planes as the start point for the buildings they literally carved into the face of it.

Petra 138 After about an hour of hiking, we got our first glimpse through the canyon of just how spectacular Petra can be.  As you come into a small clearing, the first major temple opens up in front of you, and it’s really quite magnificent.  After spending a half hour or so taking it in, we then continued hiking further, eventually reaching an impressive monastery at the top of a long and winding hike.  The kids and Elizabeth took the easy way up (donkeys) and I walked it.

We’ve been to many amazing places on our trip, but Petra is as spectacular as any place we’ve seen.  Our great stay in Jordan just got that much more engaging.  Feel free to check out our Petra photos.

Three Cups of Tea

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

For several years, I overlapped on the Board of the National Venture Capital Association with Jim Breyer of Accel.  And Jim has been kind enough to send me a book each year that bears on the world.  This year he sent me Three Cups of Tea, about one man’s mission to fight terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, one school at a time.

Three Cups of Tea is a phenomenal book, and something I’d recommend each of you read.  I’ve been reading over the past couple of weeks as we travel, and then I summarize and re-tell it to our family each morning over breakfast.  Every morning, my children say, “Daddy, what’s happened to Greg?”  Greg is Greg Mortenson, the entrepreneur who started the Central Asia Institute, whose mission is to provide schools and educational supplies to poor children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who are so hungry for knowledge. 

I would love to see this book be mandatory reading for any U.S. citizen prior to voting, or any U.S. Senator, Congressman, or executive branch member.  Anyone who has read this will better appreciate the magnitude of the U.S. errors in Iraq, and question the judgment of any U.S. politician who supported this ill-conceived initiative.   Our continued disgrace in Afghanistan is a mistake we’ll regret for decades to come. 

Among many favorite sections of the book, I particularly liked a quote of Greg Mortenson’s about Afghanistan.  He said, “But as best I can tell, we’ve launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far [2002]. Now take the cost of one of those missiles tipped with Raytheon guidance systems, which I think is about $840,000.  For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced nonextremist education over the course of a generation.  Which do you think will make us more secure?”  Other than his conservative math ($12K per school means each missile is equivalent to 70 schools, and 114 missiles is about 10,000 schools!!), he couldn’t be more correct.

We have spent billions of dollars in Iraq to create millions of people who hate us far more than when we started the folly of Iraq.  The architects of this initiative (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others) will carry the responsibility for this fiasco to their graves, which will be long past the time tens of thousands of innocent people paid with their lives for the Bush Administration’s mistakes.

For the Birds!

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Pushkar 202 We made a sizable detour to stay overnight at a tent lodge in Nimaj, which is in the middle of nowhere.  It’s a camp run by a family, and they do a great job with it.  The tents sit on a ledge overlooking a beautiful pond.  We weren’t able to stay long, since the following day we were off to New Zealand (a long, long trip!).  But we did get in a great early morning hike, and were joined by two naturalists at the site.  They know they birds like no one I’ve been with before, and brought a scope and field guide, which helped all of us on the hike.

Pushkar 178 We got some great views of a bunch of different animals and Nimaj, including a pack of jackals playing on the shore of the lake.  On our hike, we came across a herd of wild Nilgai Antelopes.  We also saw some great birds, including a Eurasian Eagle Owl.  That bird is particularly special for our family, since at age five, Gibson was reading a book on birds, and asked me about the Eagle Owl.  I thought he was mistaken, and told him I didn’t think one existed, at which point he showed me the book.  Well, I got a chance to eat crow again, as we saw an Eagle Owl in the wild (sorry, no decent photo).  We also saw the beautiful Green Bee-eater (photo) and the Indian Roller (not a religious sect, but a great bird).  It was a great hike on our last day in India.

Check out a few photos from our time in Nimaj.

Hey, You, Wanna Buy A Camel?

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Pushkar 111 We had Pushkar high on our list of places we wanted to see during our India visit, since we heard great things about it.  It’s not easy to arrange, but our travel guide in the U.S. pulled it off.   And, truly, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before.  But, for me, the first day and one-half of Pushkar was spent lying in bed in a tent.  Ouch!  I came down with something and, for a while, felt like I might never make it out of India.  But, the symptoms cleared, thankfully, and I got out to the fair grounds our last morning at the camp.

Pushkar 073 Pushkar is an annual gathering of people and animals from all over India.  They meet almost entirely for the purpose of bartering livestock, especially camels.  It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to see acres of fields covered by all sorts of camels, many dressed quite festively.  There are camels of all sizes, ages, and personality.  I mean, if you want to learn a lot about camels in a hurry, this is your fair!

Pushkar 109 I suspect the big questions on everyone’s minds these days are things like . . .  How to get out of the mess in Iraq?  How to begin to address global warming?  How to make the world a safe, happy place for our children to grow up in?  Well, our trip sheds no light on these pressing issues, other than to encourage everyone to support Barack Obama.  But lurking just behind these questions, and what many people in the U.S. wake up each morning wondering about, is “Just how the heck does a camel chew?”   And we’re here to provide you with an answer in a video, fresh from the grounds of Pushkar!

Pushkar 094 One highlight of the Pushkar was seeing, at very close range, a pair of cobras.  We are pretty sure these snakes were de-fanged, much to my kids’ disappointment.  We can hardly count them as sightings in the wild, no matter how wild Pushkar seemed to be.  But, despite the temptation to buy a cobra or two as “stocking stuffers” for our kids for Christmas, we resisted that urge, and I am sure my in-laws in Seattle (where we’ll be for Christmas) won’t be too upset with this decision, although they may change their minds after viewing this snake video.

Pushkar 097 Camels aren’t the only animals at Pushkar.  Lots of horses show up, with the most unusual ears.  The ears are naturally curved and the horse is more highly prized if the ears curl in and touch each other.  I don’t know much about horses, but some are beautiful, as horses go.  With the free flow among all Pushkar participants, it shouldn’t be long before we see an animal that represents a cross between a horse and a camel :-)

Pushkar 077 Pushkar is not everyone’s cup of camel juice (or tea).  I didn’t think it would be mine, since I’m pretty unenthusiastic about markets (physical, not financial).  And being sick as a dog for 36 hours didn’t get me off to a great start at Pushkar.  But I have to say, Pushkar taught me a lot about India, its people, its culture, and its economy.  And, for the time being, the population at Pushkar is primarily animals and market participants — with tourists a distant third.  Very little of the focus there is on selling stuff to tourists.  It’s just wild to be in the middle of such bustling activity among people still going on much the same way as ancestors from centuries ago behaved. 

Pushkar 112 We stayed at a tent site put up by the firm Peirce and Leslie, which are probably the nicest you can find there.  Given that the “season” is just 15 days, it’s amazing they put such a functional site up for tourists.  Pushkar is a holy city in India, so no meat was available for meals.   But the tents were air-conditioned, and given the amount of time I spent inside them, I was quite grateful for that!

Pushkar 054 Words and photos — at least not mine — probably aren’t able to capture the feel of Pushkar.  The sad thing is that the number of participants is gradually declining as India becomes more developed.  Camels and other animals just aren’t as important to India in the twenty-first Century as they were historically.  And as people like me write about how fun it is to be at Pushkar, the number of tourists will mount.  I rue the day when Pushkar becomes overrun with tourists, all ogling a dwindling number of rural Indians who pack up their lives, march to Pushkar, and hope to improve their position through a few shrewd animal trades.  But, for now, Pushkar remains a magic spot where you can see centuries of India’s past in a morning stroll through the fair.

Feel free to check out our Pushkar photos.

In Search of the Tiger

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

Ranthambhore 124 We spent three days in Ranthambhore National Park, in northeast India, home of 35 Bengal Tigers. Well, the old adage “If at first you don’t succeed . . .” comes to mind for our time here. There are a limited number of vehicles allowed each morning and afternoon into the park (hiking strictly not allowed), and each outing is a 3-4 hour exploration of a different part of the park. There are many, many spectacular sights in this park, but everyone’s focus is on just one thing — the Bengal Tiger. And, the estimated number of these beautiful animals (see Gibson’s photo above) still in the park is just twenty!

Agra 088 Our first afternoon in Ranthambhore was full of all sorts of new discoveries — Spotted and Sambur Deer, the Nilgai Antelope, the Ruddy Mongoose, the Wild Pig, and all sorts of great birds, including the endangered Red-headed (formerly King) Vulture. But, alas, no Bengal Tiger. We were thrilled with the day, though, and excited to explore the park further. The monkeys were particularly fun to watch, and so acrobatic. Watching them for even fifteen minutes makes it easy to be a believer in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Agra 274 The next two outings into the park were geologically gorgeous, but the newness of things like the ubiquitous Spotted Deer had faded. We had a few close calls to tiger sightings, and learned a lot about how the guides key on the calls of Hanouman Black-faced Monkeys and Spotted Deer who alert other animals of an approaching tiger. And this Nilgai Antelope wouldn’t be quite so relaxed with a tiger in the area.

Agra 130 The birds we saw in Ranthambhore were spectacular. The Red-headed Vulture is nearly extinct, and we got good views of this magnificent bird. We also saw the Greater Painted Snipe (right) and the Brown Crake, both very elusive birds. Parakeets (Alexdrine, Plum-headed, and Rose-ringed) were everywhere. And we got some great looks at the Painted Stork, the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, and Black-rumped Flameback and White-naped Woodpecker.

Ranthambhore 107 Just as we were preparing ourselves for the let down of not seeing the tiger, our efforts were rewarded our fourth time into the park (and second on that day), when we got good views of a 16 month old female Tiger cub. Even at that young age, this cub was impressive. It’s hard to describe why seeing an animal like this tiger was so much more exciting in the wild, but it was. We had seen the same type of animal in the Chongqing, China, zoo a couple of months ago, close-up, easily. Yet the challenge of tracking the tiger, and finally seeing her, was really fun. Our family is quite definitely not into hunting, so it was particularly great to see a magnificent animal, and then root for its long-term survival.

Pushkar 036 On our last morning in Ranthambhore, we joined a park ranger for a hike in a non-tiger area of the park, where you can actually walk around. After a lot of time in a jeep driving through the central area, we had a great time just being out and walking around. It’s really quite beautiful, and our preferred way (by far) of seeing a park. A highlight was seeing the Indian Gazelle.

If you’re looking for ideas for where to stay in the Ranthambhore area, we had a great experience at Aman-I-Khas. It’s very small, and you stay in tents. But the tents are exceptionally comfortable,, while still making you feel that you’re right in the Indian countryside. It’s a very well run facility, and was a great place to stay. The manager there, Gerhard Wiehahn, was particularly helpful to us. My other observation on Ranthambhore is that there is so much interest in the seeing the tigers, that they assign each vehicle a distinct zone (and there are five) and it has to stay in the assigned area. So if tigers have been sighted in zone 3, and your vehicle draws zone 1, it’s a much lower likelihood that you’ll see tigers that day. It’s supposed to be a lottery system, but somehow the better guides seem to be able to “work the system” and get the zone where the most recent sightings have occurred. So it’s worth doing all you can to get a top guide.

Feel free to check out our photos on Ranthambhore.

The Taj

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

Ajarbagh Valley 443 It’s hard to imagine coming all the way to India from the United States, and not seeing the Taj Mahal. It’s arguably the most beautiful building ever constructed, any era, any location. And on a clear day, with no crowds, it must be an unequivocally awe-inspiring experience to visit this building. But as we were crushed as we made our way through the mausoleum, the experience was somewhat dampened.

Ajarbagh Valley 447 The Taj Mahal was constructed over a fourteen year period and completed in 1648. It was built by India’s Emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. She bore him 14 children, but died giving birth to child number 14 (who can blame her?). Her last request was that her husband build her a fitting monument. The result was the Taj Mahal, a spectacular memory to this woman. And from the sound of what happened later with that family, she might have been better off with a few less children. One of the sons ended up imprisoning the father, taking over the country, and killing some siblings.

Agra 086 We flew into Agra, a city that will quickly slip from memory. Our hotel was the place to stay in Agra, the Oberoi Amarvilas, where the rooms have great views of the Taj Mahal. The hotel also had great grounds, including the nicest grass field we’ve found on our trip to date — perfect for some diving catches in baseball. The picture at left is pretty much the view we had from our room, although the foreground includes a great swimming pool. As I said, this is the place you want to stay here.

Ajarbagh Valley 445 When you get to the Taj, you wait in a long security line. Once someone mentioned how perfect a target it would be for a suicide bomber, the wait seemed pretty darned uncomfortable. They segment the line into threes — one for Indian citizens, one for female tourists, and one for male tourists. You can’t bring a whole lot into the premises apart from cameras and cell phones. Once inside, you join the other 657,481 people visiting the Taj for the day, all of whom seem adept at pushing their way in front of you for a slightly better photograph.

Ajarbagh Valley 467 After doing our best to take in the Taj Mahal from a distance, we walked down closer to the mausoleum (the room under the dome). India has lots and lots of very smart people, but none were involved in designing the traffic flow for this the complex. There are some narrow steep stairs that you take to get up onto the level with the mausoleum, then a small door (just one) to get inside the room, which is almost completely dark. We made it up the stairs fairly easily (little did we know), then felt like something under a steamroller as we tried to make it through the door. Since it’s the only way for people to both enter and exit, it’s a complete mess, and people just bulldoze through. Ouch!

Ajarbagh Valley 493 After not really seeing a whole heck of a lot in the room with the remains of Ms. Mahal, we walked around the deck area, and looked out over the river valley. We observed people going through a religious right by bathing themselves, clothed, in the river (a very polluted river, by all appearances). And we congratulated Gibson on losing one of his baby teeth, and suspect he’s one of the few U.S. citizens to have ever lost a tooth at the Taj Mahal. After losing a pair of teeth in the Outback of Australia, he’s working on covering all of the continents!

Ajarbagh Valley 492As darkness set in, we decided to leave. To our surprise, the stairs were completely gridlocked. A large number of people were trying to come up, urgently, to get a last look before dark. And an equally large, impatient set of people was trying to get down. The net was that no one was moving, and everyone was getting squished. The police stationed there seemed to be clueless about how to handle the situation, and you could sense a crowd close to panic. We finally made it out, and were thrilled to have survived the “Taj — Get Mauled.”

Agra 049 The next morning, we toured the Agra Fort, which was the home of Shah Jahan for ten years while his “loyal” son imprisoned him. This is one heckuva fort, and very impressive to visit. It has interesting design features for fortresses. For instance, elephants were often used to break down the wood doors of forts. So the Agra Fort has a curved approach path that ramps up to the door (keeping the elephant from running and getting momentum), and spikes on the door. Elephants may not be the smartest animals on earth, but you can bet they figured out that the assignment to break down the Agra Fort door was a loser. The room you can see through this portal was where the Shah Jahan was under house arrest for ten years, spending much of his time looking out at the Taj Mahal and undoubtedly wondering how this one evil son turned out so poorly.

Net, net, I’m glad we saw the Taj Mahal, and would jump at a chance to see it again under the right circumstances. But beware of the crowds, the visibility on the day you’re planning to go (at times it can be so foggy you can’t see the structure), and the abysmal foot traffic management there.

Feel free to check out our photos from Agra, including the Taj Mahal.