Monday, November 23, 2015

Trekking in the Khumbu on the way to see Lama Geshe

First of all just to explain, the Khumbu is the Nepali word for the Everest region. As we explained in a previous post our main intention for going to the Khumbu was to hike up to the village of Pangboche to visit Lama Geshe who married us twenty years ago. On October 22nd we flew from Kathmandu to the little mountain town of Lukla (9,400 ft) where all trekking and climbing expeditions in the Everest region start. We flew in a Twin Otter which was a thrill for Sara and I since we have made thousands of jumps out of that type of airplane. 
After arriving in Lukla, Urgen our guide took us to Paradise Lodge for a quick lunch; this was the same lodge we started our trek from twenty years ago. Urgen was our agent twenty years ago who arranged our hike. This trip he was again our agent, and also joined us as our guide, which was a special treat. Our porter was Pemba, the poor chap who had to carry our heavy load up and back.
Our plan was to go a short distance to the village of Cheplung and stay at a lodge owned by the brother of Pemba Sherpa who we met in September in Colorado. Even though we only hiked for about an hour, right away we were immediately reminded that two weeks hiking on the Khumbu trails was going to be very difficult.
The trails in the Khumbu are almost all up or down. There are probably about 10% of the trails that are level or smooth. The trails are almost all made of rocks. They have to be to stop the trail from being washed out and eroded during the Monsoon season. So you have to be extremely careful and aware of how you place your feet and make each step. A fall on one of those rocky trails would definitely result in an injury. Being seventy years old with a hip replacement, two marginal knees, and recent back surgery the hike  created a pretty high anxiety level for me. Going uphill was no problem other than it was exhausting and required numerous stops to catch my breath. Going downhill on the other hand was downright scary at times. There were a bunch of times when I thought to myself as my old friend Tinker Hillman would say “this is another fine mess I have gotten myself in”.

In the Khumbu everything including all supplies and even building materials goes up to the villages on the trails by Sherpa porters, yaks, zo’s ( a cross between a yak and a cow ), mules, or horses. There are no roads or any motor vehicles of any sort. The Sherpa porters have to be the strongest, heartiest people on earth. These small men can carry loads at least double their body weight. We saw numerous porters carrying over two hundred pounds of plywood on their back. They only use a head strap, no shoulder straps or hip belt. I saw one porter with a half size refrigerator on his back. They are absolutely amazing!
During the two weeks we stayed in lodges run by local Sherpa families. The lodges typically have rooms with two single beds and a foam pad. They provide a blanket and pillow but since none of the rooms have heat we used our sleeping bags. Pretty basic, but an huge upgrade from twenty years ago when we either slept in our tent or the communal bunk rooms. Having a private room was quite a change!
Most of the lodges have a community bathroom with a toilet and sink, although we had a couple of occasions where we had our own bathroom. In the two week period we were in the Khumbu we had three showers which was considered a luxury. There is always a common dining area and kitchen. The dining area has one wood stove for heat so this is a hang out area for trekkers since this is the only source of heat in the lodge. When we were in Tengboche (13,000 ft) our room got down to 36F degrees at night- pretty frosty.
We were pretty lucky to have good weather. It was sunny every day except for the day and a half of snow we got at Tengboche. We would always start out in the morning with a couple of layers of warm clothes but it would not take long before we had to take those off because of the physical exercise and heat generated from the strenuous hiking. Urgen wisely picked locations for us to stop each day so the trek was divided to ensure a more comfortable pace and duration.
Twenty years ago we had a lot of eight and nine hour hiking days. This time it was more in the four to seven hour days. Our second day from Cheplung to Monju covering 12 miles was tough but the third day was probably the hardest day of the trek. Going from Monju to Namche Bazzar we had a vertical gain of 3,000 feet over 6 ½ miles. Needless to say that is a lot of steep uphill hiking, according to Sara’s Fitbit we climbed 142 floors that day! As I mentioned before it is all uphill then downhill over and over again. There is a huge river running through the Khumbu valley called the Dudh Koshi River. Because of the terrain sometimes you are hiking on one side and sometimes you have to cross a long cable bridge to hike on the other side. We probably crossed the river at least a dozen times.  We were very glad when we arrived in Namche; we were at a nice lodge and got our first shower.
Most people spend two nights in Namache Bazzar which is at 11,300 feet to help acclimatize to the altitude; it is important to go slowly to prevent altitude sickness. Most people then hike from Namche to Tengboche in one day, but Urgen elected to do a shorter hike to Kyangjuma instead of staying two days in Namache.  This split a 14 mile really tough uphill hike to Tengboche into two days, which was a great idea!  After a night at Kyangjuma we made the hike up to Tengboche. Good thing we only had to cover 8 miles, because it was a really tough up and down hike again. The mountain views were majestic, and the trail was through spruce and fir trees; at least when we stopped to rest we had something to distract us from the suffering!  By now we had a couple of days under our belts and we were starting to feel a little more confident we could pull this trek off. Plus we had been at 11,000 feet for two days so we were adjusting to the altitude.
Tengboche is an interesting place because there is a large monastery which is the main monastery in the Khumbu. The monastery has two Lamas, one is older and the other is quite a bit younger. The younger Lama is considered to be the reincarnation of a previous Lama. That afternoon when we arrived in Tengboche I suggested to Sara we go over to the monastery just to look around. When we got over to the monastery and went into the area where the monks have their big prayer room all the Lamas and about thirty monks were having their afternoon prayer session. We were allowed to come in a quiet and respectful manner and sit and observe and listen. All the monks were chanting from their Buddhist scriptures and ringing bells, playing a variety of horns and drums. I had heard this sort of thing on a CD before but never live and in person. It was absolutely fascinating. As I closed my eyes, the chanting became almost hypnotic. You easily lose yourself in the Tibetan tones coming from the monks and the bells, horns and drums. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.
The next day (October 27th) we got up and made the three to four hour hike to Pangboche, our final destination. We stayed at a lodge owned and operated by Tashi who is Lama Geshe daughter. She is also the sister of Jigme who is the man who works for Sara’s company KPMG. He works in the New York office and was actually in our wedding twenty years ago when he was eight years old! After lunch, we went to Lama Geshe’s house for a visit and a blessing.
Realizing Lama Geshe would not remember our wedding from twenty years ago, we had printed several pictures of the wedding to show him. He seemed very excited to see we had returned after twenty years to see him again. He gave us several blessings and some special printed cards that he signed for us.  Lama Geshe said we had a blessing of health and happiness for another twenty years, and he suggested maybe we would all see each other again in another twenty years.
We had brought a new pair of Rockport shoes for Lama Geshe and two sweaters for his wife. Jigme had suggested these gifts and told us what sizes to get, so luckily everything fit correctly. Lama Geshe and his wife seemed thrilled with their gifts. They were very kind and sent food over to the lodge that evening to thank us for the gifts.
When we arrived at Lama Geshe’s house there were two ladies who there introduced themselves as Jenny and  Dr. LuLu. Jenny was working in Periche which is a village higher up in the Khumbu, teaching mountain rescue to some of the Sherpas. Dr. LuLu was working as an emergency doctor in Everest base camp. After chatting for a bit we realized we were talking to Jenny Lowe Anker who is the wife of Conrad Anker one of America’s most famous climbers. Conrad was currently on a climbing expedition in Nepal. We had recently seen a great  documentary called Meru about Conrad and some friends climbing a very difficult mountain. Jenny had also been interviewed in the documentation. You never know who you will bump into hiking in Nepal!
After our visit with Lama Geshe and his wife we went outside and with Urgen and Pemba’s help found the same spot where we took a photo after our wedding twenty years ago.  Sara had brought her original wedding dress purchased in Kathmandu for 100 rupees and I had my original white shirt.  We managed to recreate the shot just for the fun of it!  We spent a lovely evening in Tashi’s lodge chatting to her and the rest of the hikers and climbers.

Sara and I had brought a separate bag of over 40 lbs of gifts for the Nepali Sherpa people. It was mostly warm hats, gloves, socks, shirts and school supplies along with the gifts for Lama Geshe and his wife. We had dropped off some of the gifts in Cheplung on the way up but left the last of the gifts with Tashi at her lodge and asked her to distribute them. Our porter, Pemba I am sure was happy to not to have to carry that extra 40 lbs any more. My guess is he was carrying 80-100 lbs for us and every day we would ask him if he was doing alright and his standard answer was “ No Problem ”. That became kind of a joke between our little group of four. Anytime somebody asked about how things were going the answer was “No Problem “.
So after hiking up for five days we turned around and started the trip back. We hiked back Tengboche so we could take part in an annual festival, including a Buddhist blessing and a day of Lama dancing!. This wasn’t on our original schedule, but it is very special to see these events so we jumped at the opportunity to participate. We arrived in Tengboche in time to participate in blessing, which is a big deal for all the local Sherpa people, and also for Urgen and Pemba since they had never attended this annual festival.
The blessing was an outside event and all the monks and Lamas came down from the monastery. With the local people and trekkers we had at least a hundred or more people. During the blessing the weather was starting to get a little harsh with a little bit of sleet. After we went back to the lodge sure enough it started to snow. It snowed some that night and the next day which cancelled the festival of Lama dancing. We started to freak out a bit since the weather forecast was bad for about a week. We started to think we could get snowed in for awhile and not make it back to Lukla to catch our flight back to Kathmandu – it’s dangerous to hike on the trails when they are covered in snow. 

Fortunately, the next morning the weather cleared and we went to the monastery for the festival. The festival was very interesting and colorful. The monks dressed up in brightly colored costumes and came out in the courtyard of the monastery and did some ceremonial dancing. We were able to stay and see three different groups of monks do their dances but had to leave after a few hours to start the hike back to our next location which was Kyangjuma. The festival was an unexpected treat, so it was icing on the cake to be able to observe and photograph something so unique. I felt like I was opening a page of National Geographic and seeing this beautiful Buddhist festival unfold in front of me. Again, a once in a lifetime event.
We spent the night in Kyangjuma (October 30th) and then the next day hiked to Namche and stopped for lunch. After lunch we hiked on to Monju. This was the hardest day of hiking we had on the way up but now we were going in the reverse direction. Instead of 3,000 feet of vertical going up we were doing 3,000 feet going down. Of course, as usual it really was up and down but we would go from 11,500 feet to 8,500 feet and there were some very steep parts. Fortunately, we made it to Monju after 11 miles without any problems but we were pretty whipped.
The next two days were hard but not like the hike from Namche to Monju but still long hard days. According to Sara’s FitBit for the time in the Khumbu we walked 100 miles, and climbed 1,048 floors!  We did bump into Pemba Sherpa our friend from Colorado on our last day of hiking. He was in Nepal for his Sherpa Foundation and helping to rebuild Sherpa homes damaged during the earthquake. We made it to Lukla on November 2nd as planned and the next morning the weather was clear enough for the Twin Otters to fly back to Kathmandu.The airport and surrounding mountains make it very difficult to fly into and out of Lukla, and there are frequently days where no flights can arrive or depart. As we flew back to Kathmandu we had very mixed emotions. We were very glad to be done with all the hiking but very sad to leave the Khumbu knowing we might not see those beautiful mountains again, at least up close and personal.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

Holy Varanasi and the River Ganges

The plan for Friday October 16th was to take the overnight train to Varanasi, this turned out to be another adventure!  Thanks to help from Shridhar (a work friend of Sara's) we had several different train reservations, one in first class AC and one in third class AC, the idea being we would wait to see which bunks were confirmed the day of travel, and hopefully get the 1st class, but with 3rd class as a backup. That afternoon the plan was to take the train with the 3rd class bunks as those were confirmed, however the train was abut 4 hours delayed, and we were concerned it would be canceled, leaving us no way to get to Varanasi. We have learned the key to traveling in India is to be flexible and to have a backup plan!  The staff at our hotel were amazing, they let us stay in the room until 7pm, and spent a lot of time checking the train schedule and advising us on the best options.

Finally we decided to get on the later train, where we only had one fist class bunk confirmed, with the advice we could pay the extra fare on the train to the conductor and share the bunk.  So off we went to the train station. Thankfully our driver helped communicate with the porters at the train station (called Coolies) to carry our bags, and Gian also helped us buy the general ticket we needed to get on the train, as we only had the one confirmed seat.  Good thing we had these folks to help us as it was a bit chaotic, and very dark.  

We sat on the platform waiting for our train, and 15 minutes before it arrived the Coolie suddenly got excited and said quick come with me. So Sara went back to the ticket office and after providing several tips to different people got the money back for the general ticket.  We are still not sure what happened and since the ticket only cost $3 would have been happy to keep it, especially as when we tried to get on the train the ticket man needed some persuading, and for a horrible moment we thought the train would leave without us! 

Anyway we were on the train, and survived scrutiny by the train conductor who did not look amused to find both of us there. Our cabin mate Sabuj helped explain what was happening and told us we would need to pay a penalty later, which we expected. We have found everyone in India to be very friendly and helpful, which made an amazing difference.  So we slept together on the pretty hard narrow bed and were happy to get to Varanasi the next morning.

Varanasi is a fairly big ancient city which is very crowded and noisy. The guide book says Varanasi “ takes no prisoners “ so we knew it was going to be complete sensory overload. Varanasi in on the Ganges river and is considered to be one of the holiest cities in India. Many people come to Varanasi to pray, bath or cremate their dead family members. Having your ashes sent down the Ganges is considered to be very special. There is a long strip of ghats along the Ganges. The ghats are long stone steps on the banks of the Ganges. We spent the first afternoon (Saturday 17th) walking along the river Ganges and just taking in the scenes. It was still very hot, and after walking several hours up the river we negotiated a boat ride back to our hotel, which was right on the river Ganges.  That evening boat ride was amazingly peaceful, which we needed after such a busy day.

Sunday 18th we got up at 5:30am and took a two hour dawn boat ride. It was wonderful to see the sunrise over then River Ganges, and the bank was busy with people praying, bathing and generally going about their daily lives. We rested for the rest of the day, as the temperatures were in the upper 90Fs, and it was very humid. That evening we walked to Dashashwamedh Ghat to see a special Hindu ceremony called the Ganga Aarti which is performed by 7 Brahman priests. Another amazing experience.

The next few days were travel back to New Delhi and then to Kathmandu, where we spent a few relaxing days before starting our trek in the Himalayan mountains.  It is currently Sunday October 25th and we are in Namache Bazzar at 11,400 feet after three difficult days of hiking.  Our next post will be about our trek in the mountains!

Click here for a slideshow of Varanasi

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Getting to Agra and the Taj Mahal

OK, before we talk about our time in Agra I have to comment on the car ride we took from Dharamsala to New Delhi. We were supposed to fly on Wednesday October 14th, but due to bad weather the flight was canceled so we ended up renting a car and a driver. Our taxi driver who took us to the airport said the drive was a 10-11 hour drive but our driver who took us to New Delhi said 9 hours. That should have been a clue to how the ride was going to go. Highway 1 is a small narrow mountain road until it gets close to New Delhi. Holy Molly driving in India is completely crazy. It is basically jungle rules. It is the art of the car horn and at night the horn and the dimmer switch. It is constant horn beeping. They beep the horn and it means I am behind you so look out I am coming around you. There is absolutely no lane discipline. It is British driving rules so the driver is on the right side of the car. 

I was sitting directly behind the driver so I saw all the oncoming traffic. Sara had the more scenic side with a view of the countryside. I can’t count the number of times I thought we were going to be killed in a head on collision. They sometimes have a white line in the middle of the road but I never saw any yellow no pass lines.  We saw a number of trucks and vehicles with no tail lights at night and even the occasional bus or truck going the wrong direction on the highway. All in all, without question it was the scariest car ride I have ever been on. I will have to say our driver was very good but the drive was like being in a NASCAR race or a scene from the Fast and Furious movie.  I looked over at Sara who was napping and tried, but just couldn’t do it.  Sara said her approach was to look out of the widow to the dark countryside; clearly it wasn’t as scary on her side where the imminent head on collisions were hidden.

We arrived in New Delhi around midnight, and our previously arranged driver was waiting for us at a gas station for the hand off.  The push to get to Agra was we really wanted to see the Taj Mahal, and the only day we had was Thursday (Oct 15th) as the Taj is closed on Fridays.  So Gian who was our driver for the next two days drove us the 3-4 hours to Agra. This experience was quite different, as the new expressway was almost empty.  We did notice after a while our Gian was starting to weave a bit, could have been sleepy, so we started talking to him to ensure we arrived alive!

We finally arrived at out hotel at 4am, and slept until around 11am!  The afternoon of Thursday Oct 15th we visited the Taj Mahal. Very very impressive, and we were glad we made the effort to visit. We spent about 3 hours wandering the large complex taking pictures and enjoying the peace.  There were a lot of people visiting, but not many tourists. A lot of Indian people wanted their photos taken with us, our guide explained it was because they had never seen a foreigner before and woudl go back to their village with a photo of us.  We enjoyed a nice dinner and chatted to the couple next to us who were from Portsmouth England, Sara’s home town.

Friday (Oct 16th) we got up early and visited Agra Fort, a huge red fortress complex with some magnificent white palaces inside.  The architecture was amazing.  It was a really hot day again so after spending a few hours we went back to the hotel for a lunch and to prepare for our overnight train to Varanasi.

Click here for a slide show of the Taj Mahal and Agra

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Bustling New Delhi and McLeod Ganj - Home of the Dalia Lama

Our journey to India started by flying back to London and then taking an all night flight to New Delhi. Once again we arrived in New Delhi completed smashed, it was Saturday October 10th.  Fortunately we booked a really nice hotel in New Delhi so we had a chance to clean up and rest up in a really nice and comfortable environment. 

Once we had a slight recovery we launched out that afternoon and went to a place called India Gate. This is a big park which is a memorial for all the Indian soldiers who lost their life in wars. It was an interesting and enjoyable place to go in the evening. India is very crowded, noisy, and chaotic but we knew that before we got there so we were prepared to embrace the people and the culture. This way the chaos doesn’t really bother you that much. So far we have found the people to be very nice and friendly, as interested in taking pictures of us as we are of them.

The next day (Sunday 11th) was the only full day we had in Delhi. Both days in Delhi we had a driver who would take us to our locations and let us out and wait for us. Trying to use public transportation would have been a disaster and the cost of a driver for the day was around $35 which we considered a bargain. The streets of Delhi are total madness. Only people used to driving in that kind of traffic should try it. We decided we wanted to launch right into the lion’s den of Old Delhi’s medieval bazaars and little shops. This is the nitty gritty of Delhi, no upscale markets or restaurants, just little shops and street food on the streets and back alleys. It could have been sensory overload if we were not prepared but we knew what we were getting into, and we went early before it got very busy! Sara wanted to find some real Indian clothing which she managed to accomplish, heading up the small stairs in several shops to be shown the many choices. 

Our driver took us away from old Delhi to a really good small and authentic restaurant for lunch. For most of the day we didn’t see many tourists, just a lot of Indian locals enjoying their Sunday. After lunch we headed to the Red Fort which is a massive fort containing many marble temples and monuments built around 400 years ago.  The area was packed with locals and just a few tourists. We stood in line to buy our ticket and then realized a security guard was blowing his whistle at us. No we weren’t trouble, he was directing us to the foreigners ticket window – joy no line. We spent the afternoon at the fort and really enjoyed it, although the heat was getting to us by the end.  We typically walk five to six miles a day, good exercise!

Sara’s blond hair is quite a novelty and many people ask to have their picture taken with her, which John finds amusing and Sara is a little uncomfortable about!  It is mostly younger people that ask, both men and women.  

 On Monday 12th we left New Delhi and flew to Dharamsala. It was a hour and half flight from Delhi. We had to take a taxi from Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj which is the little town where the Dalai Lama lives. McLeod Ganj is a busy narrow streeted town in the mountains. We elected to stay at Hotel Tibet which only cost $15 a night but is in a perfect location in town. The hotel room has two fairly comfortable beds and a toilet and a shower so we happy campers, although the fumes from a recent painting in the room are a little disconcerting.  The room instructions included good advice about keeping the windows closed "to prevent the mishandling of our goods by the monkeys"!

That afternoon when we arrived we mostly walked around trying to figure out where everything was. The next day was our full day and we started by walking up to the Dalai Lama’s residence and temple. We thoroughly enjoyed it and found it to be somewhat emotional realizing the plight and peril the Tibetan people have endured. There are about 60,000 Tibetan people in the surrounding area. In the afternoon we walked up to a Hindu temple in another little town. Tomorrow we fly back to New Delhi and meet our new driver who will drive us to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wandering the Streets of Rome

We left Dallas on Saturday October 3rd night and arrived in Rome Sunday afternoon. That included an all night flight from Dallas to London and then spending the next day and another flight to get to Rome. Needless to say, after all that we were pretty whipped by the time we got to Rome.

Sara had a business conference in Rome, Italy so we decided we would go to her conference and then fly on to India afterwards from London. Since we’re traveling on air miles, we could get to India, and decided to spend some time in India since we had never visited that country.  We then have another flight to the neighboring country of Nepal.  

But first Rome!  Our time in Rome gave me a chance to tour the city and do lots of photography while Sara was sadly working. Rome is a beautiful city with lots of ancient structures and of course the Vatican and all its beauty and facilities. I mainly used public transportation which worked well once I got the hang of all the routes and how it all worked.  On the first day (Monday 5th), Sara and I went to St Peters Square, the Pantheon and some of the other Piazzas. Rome is very busy with traffic and crowds and a huge line to get into the Vatican.

On Tuesday 7th, John got up early to join a special tour which allowed entry into the Vatican before the general public, making photography much easier.  He toured the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican museums and St Peters Basilica, which is the largest church in the world.  All of these were fabulous and stunning.

One of the highlights of our time in Rome was getting to attend a Rheinhold Messner talk the last day of Sara’s conference. He was the keynote speaker and was very inspiring. He started mountain climbing at age eight. He was the first person to solo summit Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen. He was a very humble man and claimed not to be any different than most ordinary people but if you look at all his climbing successes it is very clear he was a very special person.

After the conference ended we had one last afternoon in Rome.  We took the metro to the Coliseum, which is architecturally stunning.  However both of us commented it had a really bad vibe because of the brutality that occurred there.  Ok it was over 2,000 years ago that the gladiators fought there, but it was easy to imagine when looking down on the main arena. After the Coliseum we walked through the “Forum” which is large area full of old temples and the area where the Roman Senate met.  This was really interesting and peaceful.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

India & Nepal 2015

 Today we leave on our 20th wedding anniversary celebration trip! We are returning to Nepal to hike to the village of Pangboche where we were married by Lama Geshe 20 years ago. In an amazing coincidence Lama Geshe's son Jigme Sherpa works for KPMG in the New York office (the same firm as Sara), and was actually at our wedding helping his father. Pretty amazing.

Before we get to Nepal we will spend a week in Rome, where Sara has to work and John will be taking photos. On October 9th we fly to India for 10 days to visit Dharamsala (home of the Dalai Lama), the Taj Mahal and Varanasi - city on the Ganges. Should be an adventure.

Finally on October 20th we fly to Nepal and after a few days rest will fly to the village of Lukla to start our 14 day hike in the Everest region.  We are so excited to return to the mountains and have planned a fairly relaxed trek to Pangoche at 13,000ft, with plenty of time to stop and explore on the way.

After our trek in the mountains we will spend a few days in the lake town of Pokhara before starting the long journey home. Should be a fabulous way to celebrate 20 years of adventure together.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Bike Racing & Palaces

On Saturday 26th April we headed to Belgium to spend the day watching the oldest professional bike race, the Liege – Bastogne – Liege.  We spent the night in Spa, close to the Belgium Formula One race track.  We did notice a lot of really nice fast cars in the town, must have been full of race drivers!  Spa is a cool town, and we found a very helpful person at the visitor center who gave us plenty of details about the race route for the next day. 

We got up early on Sunday and before heading out bought enough baguette sandwiches to get us through a long day.  From our previous trips to watch the Tour de France we were not sure how busy the crowds would be, and even if the roads would be open to cars.  We got to the first location in plenty of time, and chatted to a Belgium guy who used to be a professional bike racer.  As usual there was a lot of waiting around, watching first the police cars drive by clearing the road, then followed by the publicity “caravan” providing advertisement for the race promoters.  Finally the racers flew by in about 5 minutes, and it was over for that segment! 

Next we moved to beautiful hills area in the Ardennes regions, where the Battle of the Bulge occurred, where we staked out a spot on the climb ‘Cote de Wayne’.  The advice from the Spa info center and a detailed map really helped, as it is tough to know the race route exactly.  Sara did manage to persuade someone to give her an official race route sign, which will join our Tour de France souvenir sign.   It was a beautiful day, and we had a pleasant time waiting for the racers, who flew by again just as quickly as before, even though they were now going uphill!  Check out this short video of the racers.  

With just a few more days to enjoy of our trip we headed back to France, spending the night in Reims.  On Monday 28th we spent a few hours checking out the impressive Notre Dame cathedral in the Reims city center.  Most places are closed on Mondays so the crowds were very minimal which is always pleasant.  The downside was we couldn’t climb up the cathedral to check out the architecture, but will add that to a future wish list.  In the afternoon we headed to Versailles, and realized we had booked the same hotel we stayed in 10 years ago, a great location, and luckily it had been renovated, so was much improved.

We spent a delightful afternoon wandering the Versailles Palace gardens, even venturing to the extensive park area.  The palace is normally packed with people, but being a Monday was empty and we mostly had the place to ourselves!

The next day we had an easy morning, and then drove 20 minutes to the Paris- Orly airport for our flight to London.  Orly is a great airport, easier than the busier Charles de Gaulle airport and closer to Paris.  A quick flight and trip on the Heathrow Express train and we were in London, enjoying a fabulous evening with Sara’s Mum and sister.

Finally on Wednesday 30th April we headed home, having walked over 90 miles and consuming goodness knows how many baguettes and crepes.  We always enjoy our vacations, and look forward to planning many more.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Windmills and Tulips

On Tuesday 22nd April we headed to the Netherlands.  Our first stop was Kinderdijk, an area close to Rotterdam with 19 preserved windmills. We spent an enjoyable few hours walking around the area and taking photos before heading to Amsterdam.

The next day we visited the Keukenhof gardens which was totally amazing.   We spent five hours exploring the 79 acres, containing around 7 million tulips, daffodils and hyacinths which are planted each year.  The garden is only open for 2 months, and is designed to be a living exhibit for the major growers in the country.

On Thursday 24th we spent the day exploring Amsterdam. We wandered around the streets and canals checking out the sights and watching the crowds.   A shower of rain had us sheltering outside a shop trying to decide our dinner options when John noticed a Tibetan restaurant.  Perfect, so we hurried in for an excellent meal, including some more great local beer.

The next day we headed to the tiny harbor town of Marken, and spent a delightful few hours there, including another great meal.  It seems our vacation was mostly walking a lot, taking photos and stopping to eat!  We next stopped at another site full of windmills, which was interesting, but very busy. 

To finish the day we returned to what is now our happy place – a second visit to the Keukenhof gardens.  A perfect way to relax after the crowds.  We stayed there again until closing enjoying the flowers, the scents of hyacinths and the sounds of the birds.  A tip for future visitors, the crowds start to leave the gardens after 4pm, leaving you three hours to enjoy the place almost alone! 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

2014 European Flower Tour - France & Belgium

On April 16th we left for a much needed break, and began our European Spring Flower Tour.  We had so much fun traveling and staying up late we didn't manage to update the blog, so for those of you who didn't see the Facebook photos we have put together this update.

We kicked off the trip in style, using miles to upgrade to first class for the night flight over.  What a treat to lie flat at night, and to be given pajamas!  Needless to say the return flight in economy did not include PJ’s or warm nuts!

Our first stop was Paris, the city of Love as we now refer to it.  Ok, it is really the city of lights, but we prefer the name for our favorite city.   Our first stop was the Pére Lachaise Cemetery, which contains the graves of many famous people, including Chopin, Proust, Oscar Wilde, and Jim Morrison.   It was a little surreal to be in a cemetery and hear someone playing Doors music on their iPhone!

We stayed out late wandering the streets and stopped to photograph the Eiffel Tower at night, thoroughly enjoying the light show.  Click here for a short video of the light show.

On Saturday 19th we visited the Muse l’Orangerie which contains Monet’s massive paintings of water lilies, very impressive.   We made it another late night by wandering around the Moulin Rouge area which was very lively and colorful.  As an added treat we had a great blues’ singer on the metro ride back to our hotel.

The next day we continued the Monet theme and visited Monet’s house and garden in Giverny, which is about 1 ½ hours outside of Paris.  (We will spare you the trials and tribulations of actually driving out of the city!)  Monet lived and painted in this house, and created the water lily pond and flower gardens so he would have plenty to paint.  The gardens were beautiful, and it was fascinating to tour the house and imagine the painters spending time together there.

Unusual for us we had a bit of a miss-communication at the end of the day, and spent several hours trying to find each other.  I put it down to sleep deprivation, and there are now a new set of Stanford procedures for such situations!   We drove on to Ghent in Belgium, arriving rather late and getting lost once again in the city; one way systems and road work diversions do not help.   (Seems all travel blogs mention trouble finding hotels in cities.)

Monday 21st was Sara’s birthday and we had a wonderful slow start to the day wandering around Ghent, which includes many historic churches and buildings with a river running through the middle of the city.  We made the quick drive to Bruges and spend the afternoon and evening wandering the historic city center.  We had a fantastic meal at a small family run restaurant, which included a great vegetarian meal and several glasses of local Belgium beer!

The next day we spend a few more hours walking around town, checking out the small canals and historic buildings.  Stopping of course for some excellent Belgium waffles to keep up our strength.  Later that day we headed to Amsterdam for the second phase of the trip – Windmills and Tulips.

Check out the slideshows using the links below


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Myanmar Part Two - Mandalay and Inle Lake

Friday the 18th saw us up at 5:30am for the quick 20 minute flight to Mandalay.  Our driver Mr Toa met us at the airport and we drove an hour to our hotel. There was a bit of a problem at the hotel where we found out they didn't have our reservation, and apparently there weren't any rooms available.  We weren't that keen on the hotel and were getting ready to roll the dice and try somewhere else when magically a room appeared.  The hotel wasn't great, but we were too tired to try anywhere else so took it for just the two nights.

After lunch we explored some temples, one of which included the worlds largest book.  Basically three Buddhist books engraved on large marble stones and put inside a small marble shelter, quite impressive.  Mandalay wasn't as busy and crowed as Yangon, but still a bit overwhelming.  

On Saturday we set off to explore some areas outside of the city, and had a fabulous day.  The weather was great, and provided some extraordinary clouds which looked great in the photos.    We stopped at some marble and bronze workshops, which produced statues for the many temples in the country; always interesting to see how things are made.  

We stopped at one temple and started to wander around a bit when Mr Toa pointed out what I thought was an elephant covered in ornate coverings and said look at the dancing elephant.  To our amazement it was actually two people inside an elephant costume, and they proceeded to perform an wonderful dance.  Click here for a short video of the dancing elephant!

While the elephant was dancing we noticed the start of a parade on the road.  Turns out it was a "Buddha Day' and we were treated to an traditional Burmese parade of people, horse and oxen decorated in local costumes and flowers.  What a surprise treat.

Our next stop was Sagaing Hill, an area often referred to as a living Bagan.  It is full of working temples and monasteries and is the spiritual center of the country.  We loved the temple which contained 45 Buddhas  and the many views of the river.   We finished off the day with a fabulous sunset view of Ubien bridge, which is the worlds longest teak bridge.

On Sunday we had an early morning flight to Heho, which is the entry point to Inle Lake. The lake is beautiful and surrounded by mountains.  This was our last flight on Myanmar Airlines and we were happy to land safely.  At the start of our trip we had picked up a copy of the Wall Street Journal in the Hong Kong Airport. The paper had an article about Myanmar and mentioned an airplane had crashed on landing into Heho airport, killing 4 people and injuring a bunch of others. Since we could only get seats on the government run airline, which wasn't recommended due to their safety record,  we were a bit concerned.  However the crash was with a different airline, and we went with the theory everyone would be on full alert after the crash, which worked out!

After an hour taxi ride, and an hour ride on a long narrow wooden boat we arrived at our hotel, a delightful place, all rooms and walkways on stilts over the lake. We spent most of our time relaxing, but got up the following day for a beautiful sunrise trip on the lake to photograph the fisherman on the lake and explore the local villages.  The villages were fascinating, all buildings built on stilts over the lake, and everyone moved around on wooden long boats. It was a wonderful relaxing few days at the end of very busy trip.

Tuesday 22nd we had to sadly leave Inle lake and start the long trek home.  We flew back to Yangon and survived our scariest taxi ride of the whole trip. Our driver almost read-ended one car, and after one frightening dash across the road we were narrowly missed being hit by a bus.  Needless to say we declined his offer to drive us to the airport the next day.  

The following morning we were walking down the street and noticed a sign saying the National League for Democracy and realized we were outside their main office.  The NLD is the main opposition political  party and is lead by Aung San Suu Kyi.  Although the party won a majority in parliament in 1990 they were declared illegal by the military junta and many of their members have been imprisoned or killed.  It was another indication of how much is changing in Myanmar that we could easily go to the office and talk to the people.  

That afternoon we flew to Bangkok, and then on Thursday 23rd took the last two flights back to Dallas.  It was a wonderful trip, providing us amazing memories for years to come.  We'd like to say a special thanks to our friends Vicki Storrie, Sandy Behrens, Larry Henderson and Lee and Susan Hunnicutt for taking the time to share their experiences and suggestions from their time in SE Asia.