Vatican City – The Smallest Country in the World Has Much to Offer (even if you’re not Roman Catholic)

St. Peter's Basilica's Dome

St. Peter’s Basilica’s Dome

Home of the Pope and two of the most important churches in Christianity, Vatican City will never fail to astonish. We spent no less then 7 hours admiring the paintings lining the walls of the Sistine Chapel, the Hall of Maps, St. Peter’s Basilica and many other wondrous Christian museums.

Our day in Vatican City started at 8:00 am. After checking our pre-bought tickets, we hurriedly speed-walked through the museum, completely bypassing many amazing paintings and sculptures in our rush to arrive at the Sistine Chapel before the thousands of group tours could. As we walked through the doors to the Sistine Chapel, we were completely unprepared for just how amazing this site would be.

The Last Judgment - Sistine Chapel

The Last Judgment – Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel contained 343 magnificent frescos painted by Michelangelo on the hockey rink-sized ceiling and walls, depicting the story of Christianity. From Adam and Eve to Noah’s Arc, these wonderful works of art were beyond any paintings I had seen before. Astonishingly, these awe-inspiring paintings on the ceiling took Michelangelo just over 4 years to complete – from 1508 to 1512. My favourite piece though was not his amazing ceiling, but instead his interpretation of The Last Judgment. Painted on the altar wall 15 years after the ceiling, this floor to ceiling masterpiece portrays hundreds of corpses being removed from their graves and taken by angels to either heaven or hell. The most unusual part of this painting was the flayed, barely recognizable carcass of a supposed Michelangelo on his way to eternal damnation.

 

After soaking up the beauty of the chapel for over two hours we found ourselves exiting the Sistine Chapel still amazed by how incredible the room was. As we continued through rooms painted and designed by Botticelli, Raphael and more, I couldn’t help but compare them to the great masterpiece of the Sistine Chapel that Michelangelo created 500 years ago.

Matt and I in the Hall of Maps

Matt and I in the Hall of Maps

We continued our exploration in the Vatican museums. Dating from even before the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican museums contain the greatest collection of Christian art in the world. With paintings from the 9th through to the 20th century, the museums beautifully display the evolution of perspective and colour in painting throughout time. One of my favourite museums inside the Vatican was the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche or the Gallery of Maps. Commissioned in 1580, it took artist Ignazio Danzi 3 years to complete the 40 beautiful panels that line the 120-meter gallery walls. Showcasing highly accurate maps of the regions in Italy, the Gallery of Maps is one of the most visited rooms in the Vatican museums after the Sistine Chapel.

Once we had finished our visit of the museums, we decided to grab some lunch, and have a bit of a break before visiting our next stop, St. Peter’s Basilica – the biggest church in the world.

St. Peter's Basilica from the Front

St. Peter’s Basilica from the Front

Dodging hawkers and hordes of tourists, we made our way through the masses and towards St. Peter’s Basilica. The original St. Peter’s Basilica was built in the 4th century, and rebuilt on orders of the Pope in 1506. This church also supposedly holds the remains of St. Peter, one of Jesus’ Apostles, and the first Pope. For this reason many Popes have been, and want to be, interred in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Once we had finally reached St. Peter’s Square, we found multiple security check lineups that twisted and turned for what seemed to be forever! Through the crowds, my mom spotted a much shorter queue, which we quickly jumped into before anyone else could. After an extensive security check – it was similar to that of an airport – we continued up the marble staircase and on to the threshold.

Michelangelo's "La Pietà"

Michelangelo’s “La Pietà”

Quite a few photos later we were stepping though the massive metal doors and into the Basilica itself. Awe was probably my first emotion as my gaze swept over the breathtaking room. As we walked further in, I still couldn’t find any words as I glanced at the many elaborate grave statues of some of the most important people in the Roman Catholic Church. Next, I glanced to the right, I saw the famous “Pietà”, Michelangelo’s only statue with his signature on it. It depicts in marble the beautiful Madonna, clutching a dead Jesus on her lap, with a heartbroken expression on her young face. This piece was particularly controversial in Michelangelo’s time, as Mary appears to be the same age, if not younger then Jesus himself.

After admiring the “Pietà”, we continued down the right aisle, towards the grand altar, under which St. Peter supposedly rests and a famous metal statue of him. It has been so worshiped that one of his feet is much shorter then it used to be because many people have touched it over time to pay their respects.

Metal Statue of St. Peter

Metal Statue of St. Peter

Soon, we noticed that many people were moving through a set of gates and towards the seating for mass. We then realized that it was 5:00 pm, and mass was probably starting soon. My mother instantly decided that we must also go to mass. As I am not Roman Catholic or religious at all, as well as the fact that I have never been to a Catholic mass before, I was hesitant. A few minutes later we were traipsing though the gate, completely unquestioned by the numerous guards that were denying most people entrance. After easily finding seating, the mass quickly started. The two organs impressed me immensely because they were the best I had ever heard.

Two priests and a bishop soon entered, and the mass was started. As it was in Latin, I couldn’t understand a word of it, but all of the worshipers around me seemed to know exactly what to do. I happily followed along, copying the motions of the nuns in front of me. The 60-minute mass ended all too fast, and in a swirl of music the bishop and priests grandly exited the hall, leaving many weeping devout in their wake.

The end of the mass meant our visit to St. Peter’s Basilica was nearing its end. As we continued back up the left aisle and then through the giant front doors into the square, I reflected on the amazing architecture, painting, statues and mosaic art we had just seen.

Dome inside St. Peter's Basilica

Dome inside St. Peter’s Basilica

The Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica are the some of most important places of Roman Catholicism in the world, and I am extremely grateful to have had the chance to visit these amazing structures, and see such amazing artwork, at only 13 years of age. Many religious adults have never visited the home of the Roman Catholic Pope, and I feel privileged to have been able to admire these great monuments.

 

 

 

Dome in St. Peter's Basilica

Dome in St. Peter’s Basilica

The Front of St. Peter's Basilica

The Front of St. Peter’s Basilica

Spiral Staircase in the Vatican Museums

Spiral Staircase in the Vatican Museums

Hall of Maps

Hall of Maps

Matt, me and a Guard in front of St. Peter's Basilica

Matt, me and a Guard in front of St. Peter’s Basilica

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Exploring Ruins of Ancient Greece – Olympia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Original Olympic Track 

The most important cultural and spiritual holiday on the Ancient Greek calendar, the Olympics, was a ginormous ceremony. Held every 4 years from 700 BCE to 393 CE, these ceremonies celebrated athleticism and paid tribute to the Gods. Over 50000 athletes and citizens would gather to celebrate. The Olympic games grew so important that time was eventually marked by the Olympics – called Olympiads.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Platform for Judges on the Track

During these Olympic games a variety of different events were held: javelin, discus, running and wrestling were few of many. The Greeks also invented an event called “free for all”, which was basically an early gladiatorial performance. Two athletes would fight to the death with only two rules – no eye poking and no biting. For the most part, the Olympics were for men. Unmarried women were only permitted to compete in one event; an event dedicated to Hera.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Temple of Zeus with Reconstructed Column

The Greeks glorified the human body and so the male athletes competed in the nude. All male participants, and eventual trainers of the male athletes, had to be naked. The rule about nudity of the trainers was created when one of the trainers was found to have been a female who had pretended to be a male. From that point on, all people involved – except spectators – were obligated to be undressed. Nearly 1200 years after their creation, the Christian Emperor Theodosius III ended the Olympics because he considered the games a pagan celebration.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Columns in the Temple of Hera

 

As the Olympics weren’t just a celebration of sport but also of the Gods and Goddesses, there were many temples and shrines on the site that honored the Gods. The temples of Zeus and Hera were amongst the biggest. The grand temple of Zeus was constructed of imported white marble from Paros. It would still be erect today, if Theodosius III had not knocked it down after he ended the Olympic games. The remains of the columns can be seen scattered near and around its original base. This temple, also once held the legendary 13-meter tall marble statue of Zeus that is now considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, this statue was stolen, and like the Athena Parthenos, was carted off to Constantinople where it disappeared into the ravages of time. The temple of Hera is older then that of Zeus, but was created with the porous local stone before the Greeks were able to move marble over large distances. Because Hera’s temple was made of a lighter stone, it degraded overtime but fortunately parts are still standing and visible today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Matt and I on the Starting Line, Olympic Track

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend about 1½ hours at the site itself, as it was a very, very rainy day. Luckily, the rain had stopped for a bit, and Matthew and I got to run on the remains of the original 200-meter Olympic running track. It was amazing to run on such an old and important track and to imagine myself participating in the 200-meter finals over 2500 years ago. Also, as I stood under my umbrella, in front of the temple of Zeus, I wondered where the great statue of the king of the gods was today. Maybe it had been broken up into pieces, or bought by a very wealthy collector, but I doubt that we will ever know what really happened.

I highly enjoyed visiting the ancient site of Olympia, running on the first Olympic track ever and exploring its very old ruins. The experience I had was definitely worth being soaked through and muddy by the end of the visit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Arch that Athletes Would Take to Enter the Track

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Triangular Column Outside the Temple of Zeus that Survived

Exploring Ruins of Ancient Greece: Mycenae

View of Mycenae

View of Mycenae

Mycenae, the civilization that followed the Minoans but essentially founded Greece. Accredited with creation of the Greek language, influence future myths and production of magnificent structures, some of which can still be seen today. In a mere 400 years, from 1600 BCE to 1100 BCE, the Mycenaean civilization thrived and conquered most of modern Greece. We were lucky enough to visit the archeological site of Mycenae.

 

 

Remains of the old town and view

Remains of the old town and view

This site houses the most popular set of ancient Mycenaean ruins in Greece, receiving 1000s of tourists every day. We left for our adventure through these 3500 year old ruins early in the morning on a free shuttle. As there was no local bus running to the site and it happened that there was a half marathon on the day we visited, there were free shuttles leaving Argos to transport runners to the starting line. We happily hopped on one, pretending, horribly I might add, that we were actually planning to run the race. I was surprised that we weren’t turfed from the bus instantly, as our acting skills are terrible.

 

The Lion Gate

The Lion Gate

We arrived at the Mycenaean site by 8:15 – only a few minutes after it had opened, and because it was early we were some of the first visitors. We were able to enjoy the most impressive parts alone, whereas my mom, who had visited the year before, had said that there were thousands of other tourists at that time.

All that can bee seen today are the remains of a fortress, the ruins of a small town and many tombs of the Mycenaeans. The main entrance to the ruins has been nicknamed the Lion Gate. Probably the most recognizable part of the entire site, this famous gate is known for the depiction of two lionesses standing in a heraldic pose, just above the lintel. It was amazing to take pictures of this gate with no one else in the background, unlike all of my mom’s photos from last year. The first area along the path after the gate was Grave Circle A, where Heinrich Schliemann found the supposed “Death Mask of Agamemnon”, which is now housed in the National Museum of Greece. It has recently been proven unlikely that this mask actually belonged to this particular King of Mycenae, as Agamemnon was supposedly alive 300 years earlier then the mask dates, and is now also thought that he was probably no more then a myth.

Tholos dome

Tholos Dome

After exploring the graves, we continued to wander through the fortress, seeing the remains of the castle, the cistern and the artisan’s workshops. We had the chance to see some half-worked chips of ivory, gold, semi-precious and precious stones from about 1300 BCE that had been used by the artists in these workshops. Our last stops in Mycenae were the tholos tombs. Shaped like beehives on the inside, these grand burial sites for royalty rivaled the Egyptian pyramids. The builders used stones with an average weight of 10 tones, whereas the pyramids stones are a maximum of 5 tones. The doors alone were about 8m x 5m x 1m, with lintels of over 125 tones – in other words – ginormous! As the space was shaped like a cone, the acoustics in these tombs were amazing. Even by stepping on the ground a sound would be created that was incredibly loud, and echo for a long time.

A fortress of the ages, Mycenae was one of my favourite places in Greece, along with Olympia. Stay tuned for my exploration of the place where the first Olympic games were held.

Pieces of gold jewelry found in Grave Circle A

Pieces of gold jewelry found in Grave Circle A

Grave Circle A

Grave Circle A

Grave Circle A - Close Up

Grave Circle A – Close Up

"The Death Mask of Agamemnon", found in Grave Circle A

“The Death Mask of Agamemnon”, found in Grave Circle A – National Museum of Greece

Golden Bull found in Grave Circle A

Golden Bull found in Grave Circle A

Entrance to Tholos Tomb

Entrance to Tholos Tomb

 

 

 

 

Amazing Physical Geography and Fascinating Geology of Turkey

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chimney in Cappadocia

Cave Church Paintings - 10th C.

Cave Church Paintings – 10th C.

We visited several sites in Turkey where the physical geography and geology was unlike any other place I’d visited before. Cappadocia and Pamukkale are both sites where I was stunned by the amazing feats that Mother Nature could pull off – I mean creating a landscape of fluted rocks sticking up from an arid plain, and placing a huge mountain of calcite in the middle of nowhere is very impressive!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

House dug out of a chimney

Three volcanoes erupting frequently created the chimneys of Cappadocia. Lava flow formed a type of rock called tuff – a light porous rock formed by the hardening of volcanic ash. Wind and rain cut this rock into valleys of steep cliff faces with pointy and unusual chimneys sticking straight up out of the ground. At different times between the 3rd century C.E. and the 12th century C.E., the people of Cappadocia lived inside these rock formations, carving multi-level houses out of the soft stone. These Cappadocians were Christian; therefore, they also carved tombs, churches, nunneries, and chapels out of the chimneys. They would paint images of Jesus, Mary, various saints and disciples on the walls, some polychromatic and others monochromatic. The region of Cappadocia was amazing, I could go for a short walk through the middle of what felt like a desert and be able to visit these old cave houses and churches without restrictions. The feeling of exploration was exhilarating, and I imagined that my family and I were explorers finding these historic places for the first time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some calcite pools on the side of the mountain

The physical geography and geology of Turkey continued to amaze me as we carried on to the small town of Pamukkale and its fascinating calcite mountain. This calcite mountain was created by a series of earthquakes. These quakes opened up numerous hot springs in this area. The water inside the springs has a high content of minerals, especially calcite. When the hot water evaporates and loses its warmth, the calcite that did not evaporate solidifies leaving white residue on any object that the water flowed over.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Walking up the side of the mountain

The water from these hot springs flows over the mountainside and descends over one kilometer to the bottom. This creates a mountain that appears to be covered in snow from afar. In Turkish, Pamukkale means “Cotton Castle”, and after seeing this mountain of white from a distance, surrounded by cotton fields, I couldn’t agree more with its name. It definitely looked like a glacier in the middle of other green lush mountains. Though, given that it was over 30 degrees Celsius outside, a glacier would have been impossible!

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Walking up the side of the mountain

To protect the calcite deposits and to keep these clean and white, we had to remove ours shoes before entering the site and stepping on the calcite deposits. The water is continually flowing and these deposits form a hard-ridged pattern, similar to the ridges in sand on a beach caused by the waves. We entered the site from the base of the mountain and had to walk up the side of it. As we ascended, the water became increasingly warmer and pools appeared where we enjoyed wading in the warm turquoise water.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ruins in Heliopolis

At the top of Pamukkale rests the ancient city of Hieropolis. Once considered the city of the gods, anyone who was in need of healing came to the calcite springs to be cured. The people believed that the waters were magical. How else could such huge and amazing formations be created? They came from many far away places to be cured of their illnesses. Unfortunately, the water had virtually no healing powers. Because the diseased and injured people came from many different regions of Turkey, there are many different types of mausoleums, tombs, sarcophagi, and coffins located here. Today, the Necropolis of Hieropolis is one of the biggest and most diverse burial grounds in the world. Also located in Heliopolis are greatly preserved Greek ruins including massive columns, the remains of countless temples, old aqueducts, a huge amphitheater and much more!

Our experience at Hieropolis was similar to our time exploring the ancient houses and churches of Cappadocia. We could run around and explore almost the entire site with no rules or restrictions. It was astonishing that we were allowed to walk freely through such old and precious ruins. In most other countries that we have been in, guards were constantly telling us that we weren’t allowed walk too close to various ruins, never mind actually walking on them!

Exploring the physical geography and geology of Turkey was an amazing and fascinating experience that I thoroughly enjoyed!

Mom, Matt & I in Goreme, Cappadocia

Mom, Matt & I in Goreme, Cappadocia

We Slept in a Cave Hotel!

We Slept in a Cave Hotel!

Goreme, Capadoccia

Goreme, Capadoccia

Paintings in the cave churches, circa 10th century

Paintings in the cave churches, circa 10th century

 

Ampitheatre in Heliopolis, Turkey

Amphitheatre in Heliopolis, Turkey

Ruins at Heliopolis, Turkey

Ruins at Heliopolis, Turkey

Exploring the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia - Acrobat dressed as a tulip on stilts in foreground

Hagia Sophia – Acrobat dressed as a tulip on stilts in foreground

Stringing Europe and Asia together, Istanbul is the only city in the world that stretches across two continents. Influences of both of these continents can be seen everywhere. The many castles and fortifications around the city are clearly influenced by Europe, whereas the colours of mosaics and designs on carpets all have resemblances to Asian culture. Two famous architectural structures stand in the middle of Istanbul, showcasing both of these cultures: the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

 

 

 

Hagia Sophia - Part of the dome

Hagia Sophia – Part of the dome

In 330 C.E., Justinian I ordered the creation of the church Hagia Sophia. This incredible project was a beacon of wealth and power and was one of the grandest structures built at the time. The dome alone had a diameter of 32 meters and a height of 56 meters. This was the first dome of this size constructed in history. The sheer size of the dome left me amazed, and I couldn’t figure out how the builders of Hagia Sophia could paint so beautifully at such a height. I couldn’t help but feel insignificant inside this amazing and historic building.

 

Hagia Sophia - The minbar

Hagia Sophia – The minbar

Although the Hagia Sophia’s original purpose was that of a church, its role changed under the Ottoman Turks in 1453 C.E when they conquered the Byzantine Empire. Sultan Mehmed I was highly impressed by the magnificence of Hagia Sophia. As this new ruler was of the Islamic faith, he converted the building to a mosque adding many classic common Islamic features, including four minarets to the exterior and a mihrab and a minbar to the interior. The minarets are slender towers located on each corner and can be seen from far away. The mihrab is a human sized semi-circled niche cut out into the wall of the mosque. The Imam (similar to a priest in Christianity) will speak into the mihrab and his voice will rebound back into the prayer hall so that he is easily heard by the worshipers. The minbar is a short flight of stairs that ascends to a platform where the Imam stands to deliver speeches, before or after prayer.

 

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

Ahmed I, a Sultan who came to power 50 years after Mehmed I, decided to build a mosque that would surpass the Hagia Sophia’s splendor, and reassert Ottoman influence after losing a long war with Persia. Construction on Sultan Ahmed’s “Blue” Mosque was started in 1609, and was completed an astonishing 7 years later. As the dimensions of this mosque were 64 meters by 72 meters this was quite a feat. Later, Sultan Ahmed’s mosque was nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of its interior which contains 20,000 blue coloured tiles and more than 200 blue stained glass windows.

The Blue Mosque - The dome

The Blue Mosque – The dome

As non-Muslims cannot usually enter a mosque, I had never been in one before. I thought that the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia might have more similarities; however, once I entered the mosque, it was obvious that the only clearly visible parallel between the two were their domed ceilings. The interior of the Blue Mosque was much more colourful than Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque was intricately decorated, and had many windows, making it feel warm and very approachable. The interior of the Hagia Sophia was made of different types of marble and had few windows making the space very dark.

 

 

Hagia Sophia - Painted over crosses bleeding through

Hagia Sophia – Painted over crosses bleeding through

Another difference between the two is that the Hagia Sophia was converted from a church to a mosque, and later turned into a museum. When the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque all of the Christian symbols and mosaics were covered or removed and today many of the covered ones can be seen bleeding through the paint that hid them for centuries. The Blue Mosque has remained just this – a mosque – and has only Islamic images decorating the walls. It is still used today by Muslims as a space to pray.

 

 

Matt and I inside the Blue Mosque

Matt and I inside the Blue Mosque (For girls – you had to cover your hair)

We happen to be near the Blue Mosque on a Friday and witnessed thousands of Muslims exiting the mosque after midday prayer. Fridays are the most important holy day for Muslims and all are expected to attend midday prayer on this day. Men of the Islamic faith are called to pray five times a day, either in a mosque, or at their homes. The following is sung in Arabic at about 4:30, 6:15, 13:00, 17:00, and 20:00 each day: Allah is greatest. (X4) I bear witness that there is no god except Allah. (X2) I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. (X2) Come to prayer. (X2) Come to success (X2) Allah is greatest. (X2) There is no god except Allah. During the first call to pray in the morning, an additional line is added: Worship is better than sleep. I’m not certain that I agree with this because waking up at 8:00 am is difficult as it is. Getting up at 4:30 everyday would be nearly impossible.

The Blue Mosque - From the outdoor courtyard

The Blue Mosque – From the outdoor courtyard

I remember the first time that I had heard call to prayer. It was our first day in Morocco – the small town of Chefchaouen. I had nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard someone singing loudly in Arabic. It turned out that every street in the Medina of this town had speakers at the intersections. This woke us up every morning at 4:30 am. Call to prayer was much quieter in Turkey, which I was immensely grateful for because it didn’t wake us. We happened to be in the Aya Sofya (in English: Hagia Sophia) square when call to prayer happened in the early afternoon. It was neat to hear the muezzin’s voice switching from the Blue Mosque to Hagia Sophia and then back again calling the worshippers. It was also interesting to see the shops begin to close and the people (mostly men) head towards the Blue Mosque.

Matt, Dad and I outside of the Blue Mosque

Matt, Dad and I outside of the Blue Mosque

Both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque helped make Istanbul one of my favourite places on our trip. A melting pot of history, architecture and culture, this amazing city will never fail to captivate imaginations.

 

 

 

 

Hagia Sophia - Recently uncovered mosaic

Hagia Sophia – Recently uncovered mosaic

Hagia Sophia - Mom and I on the second floor

Hagia Sophia – Mom and I on the second floor

Hagia Sophia - The mihrab

Hagia Sophia – The mihrab

The Blue Mosque - Stained glass

The Blue Mosque – Stained glass

Hagia Sophia - Uncovered Christian mosaic

Hagia Sophia – Uncovered Christian mosaic

Hagia Sophia - Dad and I on the second floor

Hagia Sophia – Dad and I on the second floor

Journey to Annapurna Base Camp – Part 2 – Our Trek Continues

Calamity will befall us!

Calamity will befall us!

The itinerary for the next three days had us continuing to descend into the valley, getting as low as 2100 meters (7000 ft). We stayed in three villages, Chhomrong, Bamboo and Deurali. As Chhomrong was one of the last places on the route where meat is available, we gorged ourselves on delicious Nepali chilly chicken and scrumptious chicken dhal bhat. Just before Bamboo, we saw a sign that stated if you were to eat chicken, pork or buffalo, then personal calamity or harm may befall you. The Annapurna sanctuary is considered a holy place, and no slaughter of animals or eating of animal flesh are allowed. This meant that we were going to become vegetarians for the next four days. Thankfully, the vegetarian food at both Bamboo and Deurali was tasty!

Avalanche Zone

Avalanche Zone

We left Deurali very early in the morning because the trail to our intended highest sleeping point, Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC), was littered with avalanche zones. When the sun hits and melts the snow, there is a higher chance of an avalanche happening. To get through these zones we had to walk uphill quickly which was a little difficult at high altitude and I was promptly tired. Fortunately, we didn’t run into any avalanches. We heard that an hour after we had passed through one zone, an avalanche occurred, closing this part of the trail.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking over the edge

Two exhausting hours later, we finally arrived at the lodge where we were planning to stay. After eating a delicious lunch of momos, a traditional Nepali recipe similar to a Chinese dumpling, we decided to go for a short hike on the lateral moraine next to our lodge. I had expected there to be a plateau at the top, but after walking up to it, I found a 150 meter drop off. I scrambled back from the edge as our guide shouted at me. The edge of the moraine was eroding, leaving open space under the dirt and my unexpecting feet.

 

Snowball fight on a moraine

Snowball fight on a moraine

Soon after, I got the idea to have a snowball fight. I picked up some snow and threw it at Matthew, hitting him in the middle of his back. Right away, he attempted to throw one back at me, and just missed. We continued our fight until we had reached the bottom of the hill, where Matthew threw a snowball that hit my cheek. I repaid him by lobbing one directly at his bottom. He shrieked, and I couldn’t help but buckle over in laughter at his dramatic reaction. Soon everybody had joined in, but we were abruptly stopped by the approaching clouds. We quickly made our way back to the lodge as it is very easy to get lost in the thick fog. We had an early dinner, and went to bed at 7 pm because we planned to wake up very early the next morning.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hiking to ABC from MBC

Nooooo! I mentally groaned, as my annoying alarm blared. It was 4:00 a.m., and I did not want to get out of my toasty warm sleeping bag. I eventually dragged myself out of bed and was instantly met with –10 degrees Celsius air. After putting on 5 layers of clothes, while doing jumping jacks (I must have been a sight to see), I was much warmer and ready to start the hike to ABC.

 

 

Arriving at ABC

Arriving at ABC

The next two hours would prove to be grueling as the air is thinner at altitude and walking is much more difficult. This time was made even more difficult once the sun had risen as is much more powerful the higher up you go. Add that to it reflecting off the snow, and you’ve got a UV of more than 15. It seemed weird that morning to have to slather 50 SPF sunblock on when it was so cold, but I understood the reason once we reached the long snow field we intended to cross.

 

 

Arriving at ABC

Matt and I at ABC

As we got higher, I began to notice that the altitude was taking an even greater toll on me. Each step was exhausting! There is less oxygen at higher elevations. Therefore, your brain gets less oxygen making you feel sluggish and tired and some people experience altitude sickness. More severe signs of altitude sickness include dizziness, vomiting, and insomnia. Fortunately, no one in my family exhibited such symptoms.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Annapurna I and the viewing hill

Though I was exhausted from the lack of sleep and oxygen and from what I’ve been told I was very irritable, I was extremely happy to finally reach the sign for Annapurna Base Camp. We made it!!! Then, I learned that we had to walk further to get to the viewing hill. There were so many Buddhist prayer flags strung, that we almost had to crawl to get past them! The panorama was indescribably amazing. Straight ahead was the magnificent Annapurna I, to the left and right were some snowcapped foothills, while behind was the sunrise over Machhapuchhre. It was incredible to be so close to some of the highest mountains in the world!

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Himalaya to Chhomrong

Our next challenge would be descending these mountains…Down, down and more down. My knees were dead by the time we had reached Himalaya, the tiny village in between Deurali and Bamboo. The last three days of our trek were the most difficult. We were walking 7-8 hour days, and my legs were seriously sore from hiking for so long. It also didn’t help that Matthew wanted us to move at the pace of Kumar and Mila, our porters, who were moving double the speed of Mom, Dad, Jaget and Khol. The last day of our trek though was the hardest. It took us 8-9 hours of fast paced hiking to reach our final lodge in Pothana. I was just about ready to drop. I was so happy that we had an attached bathroom rather than a public one that I actually jumped for joy! Let me tell you, jumping when your legs are about to crumble is a feat. After washing my hair for the first time in 6 days, I settled down for a nice cup of hot chocolate, and a plate of delicious Nepali chilly chicken. Khol, one of our guides, who used to be a cook, made what was some of the best food I’d eaten in Nepal.

Snowball fight on a snowfield

Snowball fight on a snowfield

Amazingly, the next day I got to sleep in until 7 a.m. instead of the usual 6. Pheti, the town that we were going to hire a taxi in, was only a 2-hour walk away. We gladly walked at a much slower pace. My legs were way too sore to go any faster then the turtle speed at which we were moving.

Once we reached Pheti our trek was over and it was hard saying goodbye to Jaget, Khol, Kumar and Mila. The four of them were going to the local bus station, where they were going to immediately take a bus back to Kathmandu, while we were planning to stay in Pokhara for the night. I felt sad that the guys were leaving. This meant that the trek had come to an end and this was one of my favourite parts of our world trip so far!

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kol, Mom, Matt, Me, Jaget & Dad at ABC – Annapurna I in the background

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Crossing a river in the middle of a cloud

 

 

 

MBC in the Background

MBC in the Background

Journey to Annapurna Base Camp – Part 1 – First Glimpses of the Himalayas

Annapurna I is the 10th highest mountain in the world, and one of the 14 mountains that measure over 8000 meters. We left Kathmandu in hopes of reaching the base camp of this huge and incredible mountain.

First Glimpse of Annapurna South

First Glimpse of Annapurna South

Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) is roughly 4130 meters or 13550 feet high. At the beginning of the trek, I had had no clue of what to expect – the tallest mountains I’d ever seen in person was the range of La Cloche, in Ontario. At about 500 meters or 1650 feet, these Ontario hills aren’t comparable to the amazing Himalayas in any way. I got my first glimpse of Annapurna South during the drive from Pokhara to the village of Nayapul near the trailhead. It was gigantic and white, towering over us in all of it’s magnificence, hundreds of kilometers away. I obviously shrieked and pointed out the van’s windows, shaking Matthew awake, while asking our driver if we could stop to take a picture. It seemed as if my dad and I were the ones who were excited to see Annapurna South, as my mom was not feeling well she begrudgingly looked out of the van window, while my dad took a picture of me and the looming mountains in the distance.

Mila, one of our Porters

Mila, one of our Porters

We were soon in Nayapul, outfitting ourselves in 50 spf sunblock, and wide brimmed hats. Meanwhile, I watched our two porters, Kumar and Mila, roping our duffel bags together, and preparing to carry them. This style of transportation uses a tump, where a person will have a headband-like strap, with rope attaching this head piece to the load. The headband piece is placed on the forehead, while the bag rests on the back. I was worried that Kumar and Mila were going to strain their necks as they were carrying about 25 kilograms each, but they proved me wrong. This day was mostly spent ascending on a dirt and dusty road. Many trekkers hire a Jeep to drive them to Hille, the small village after Nayapul, but we – 2 guides, 2 porters, Matthew, Mom, Dad and I – opted to walk 5 hours instead. Our final destination for the day was 20 minutes past Hille, a small village called Tikhedhunga.

Kumar, our second Porter

Kumar, our second Porter

Our first night on the trail was pretty much as expected – other than the public squat toilets and freezing cold showers – I couldn’t complain. The bedrooms were basic and relatively clean, two bare cots (2 people per room), each pushed to a corner in the rectangular room, with a night table in between, and a window above. Immediately after we had received the rooms, I had hopped onto a bed and relaxed, before jumping off after remembering that I had been told to be aware of the pillows in trail lodges as they might contain lice or other insects. Fortunately, we had down jackets that could be used as pillows and borrowed (but clean) sleeping bags that kept us cozy and warm.

A Dhal Bhat Platter

A Dhal Bhat Platter – Half Eaten

The next day’s trek, from Tikhedhunga to Ghorepani was brutal. We ascended over 8000 uneven steps, and added 1200 meters to our elevation. By the end of the hike I had a mild sunburn on my arms, as the morning half of the day was spent in the blitzing sun.  I also had extremely stiff legs from the seemingly unending stream of stairs. Luckily, my room was on the first floor, so I didn’t have to go up too many stairs. My room also had an attached bathroom with a Western toilet and shower! After an amazing dinner of Dhal Bhat, a dish made up of lentil soup, rice, vegetable curry, pickle and spinach, that 90% of Nepali’s eat twice a day, we turned in early. We were planning to wake up before our usual time, so we could climb up to Poon Hill to catch the sunrise over the mountains.

Sunrise over Annapurna's from Poon Hill

Sunrise over Annapurna’s from Poon Hill

The alarm I had set the previous night for 4:30 a.m. blared, and I attempted to turn it off, half asleep. It was freezing outside of my sleeping bag, and I threw on random articles of clothing in an attempt to warm up. A few minutes later my mom, my dad and I met Jaget and Kul, our two guides, and set off for Poon Hill. The hour hike was tough, my legs were still sore from the day beforehand, and as we were walking up to 3200 meters (10500 ft) it became much harder to breathe. The sun was just beginning to show itself when we we reached the top, and I could clearly see many mountains in the distance. To the left was Dhaulagiri 1-5, and Nilgiri. Straight ahead were Annapurna 1-4, Annapurna South and Gangapurna. For me, it was too early and too cold to be overly excited about actually seeing these great mountains so close, though it seemed that the large Indonesian group were doing enough screaming for me and the other 200 people on the hill. After descending from Poon Hill, my parents decided that we were going to take an acclimatization day, and remain in Ghorepani instead of walking the planned 6 hours to Tadapani this day.  

Annapurna South (R) Annapurna I (L)

Annapurna South (R) Annapurna I (L)

More stairs greeted us the next morning – ugh. Even though the map said that Tadapani was 200 meters (650 ft) below Ghorepani, we had to climb up to 3200 meters (10500 ft) again, before we could start descending into the valley that would eventually lead to Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) and ABC. I felt more acclimatized then the morning before, and it was much easier to ascend higher. Another blessing was the clear skies. Most days clouds will roll in and completely conceal the mountains before 8 a.m.; however, there wasn’t a speck of white in the sky and the mountains were in full view. The view was just as good, if not better than Poon Hill. The air was warmer, I wasn’t so tired, the rhododendron trees were in full bloom with brilliant pink and red flowers, and the crystal blue sky provided an excellent contrast against the mountain range. Unfortunately, as we continued and descended into the valley the rhododendron blossoms disappeared, along with our magnificent views of the Himalayas.

Stay tuned…to find out more about our journey and whether we make it to Annapurna Base Camp?

My Mom and I on the top of Poon Hill

My Mom and I on the top of Poon Hill

My Mom, My Dad and I on Poon Hill

My Mom, My Dad and I on Poon Hill

Dhaulagiri Range from Poon Hill

Dhaulagiri Range from Poon Hill

Mom and I on Poon Hill

Mom and I on Poon Hill

My Dad and I on Poon Hill

My Dad and I on Poon Hill

My Mom and I on Poon Hill

My Mom and I on Poon Hill

Jaget, Kul, Mom and I Descending from Poon Hill

Jaget, Kul, Mom & I Descending from Poon Hill

My Mom and I on Poon Hill

My Mom and I on Poon Hill

View of Annapurna South (R) and Annapurna I (L)

View of Annapurna South (R) and Annapurna I (L)

View of Annapurna South (R) and Annapurna I (L)

View of Annapurna South (R) and Annapurna I (L)

Annapurna South (R), Annapurna I (M) and Nilgiri (L)

Annapurna South (R), Annapurna I (M) and Nilgiri (L)

Dhaulagiri I

Dhaulagiri I

 

Exploring Myanmar By Foot – Our 14 Kilometre Journey!

Beginning our Hike near Kalaw, Myanmar

Beginning our Hike near Kalaw, Myanmar

The sun was already beating down on us, when our opened-back truck taxi dropped us at the starting point of our trek, an ox cart road that disappeared into the fields and mountains beyond. Nambo, an enthusiastic 20-something guide from a local ethnic group with thanaka on her cheeks and a wide brim hat, led us down the trail. We soon came upon a small schoolhouse, with two classes taking place inside, one for older children and another for younger kids. The older kids were doing long division, similar to the curriculum for grade 4 in Canada. The younger children appeared to have free time, and were screaming and running around the classroom while eating snacks. Many of them kept shaking my hands, and saying ‘hello’. It was pretty clear we had become a distraction, so after a brief visit we decided to continue our walk. Opposite the school was a monastery, with three monks in front cutting a tree into firewood. My dad helped brace the tree trunk while two monks used a ginormous hand held saw to cut it up.

Monks Chopping a Tree

Monks Chopping a Tree

Some Local Children in School

Some Local Children in School

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cabbage Patches

Cabbage Patches

After meeting the monks Nambo lead us through a terraced field where locals were now growing cabbage, as it was the dry season. They grow rice during the wet months. There were two water buffalos grazing in some fallow sections of field and we had to nervously walk around the biggest one. The fields stretched off towards the west, where they ran into the small mountains we would soon have to traverse.

 

Tones of Ginger at a Local Farmer's Home

Tones of Ginger at a Local Farmer’s Home

As we continued on our trek out of the field, we came upon a small collection of homes.  The first appeared to have recently had a fire. Some men were taking apart the metal roof, and scavenging what they could for the house that they were constructing beside the burnt out one. Another house had piles upon piles of ginger that was being stored to plant during the next growing season. A little bit later we came upon two men cutting up bamboo. Nambo asked them what it was for and we learned that they were making coverings for marrow plants because marrow needs a cool shaded place to grow. They also informed us that bamboo grows 4 meters a year! Talk about growing like a weed!

Huge Terraced Valley

Huge Terraced Valley

A half-hour after leaving the village, we entered a huge terraced valley growing thousands of cabbage, lentils, ginger and oranges. There weren’t many farmers working in the fields as it was noon and the sun was blitzing. The mountain on the opposite side of the valley was shaded so we headed in that direction. As a hat can only do so much, we were grateful when we arrived for a respite from the brutal sun.  Once we ascended the hills we looked down to see an astounding amount of intensive agriculture in the next valley as well. All we could see were orange groves, green tea plantations, coffee fields, lentil bushes and more cabbage fields. We were continuously astounded by the sheer amount of land being used for agricultural production!

The Village Where We Ate Lunch

The Village Where We Ate Lunch

After walking closer to the edge, I noticed that there was a small village that appeared to be hanging off the side of the mountain. A ridge divided the valley into two. We headed for this small village and stopped at a home where the owner was manually preparing coffee beans in his front yard. Here we learned how coffee beans are made. First the coffee fruit (called a coffee cherry) is mashed up in a mortar and pestle-like device to remove the outer red skin. The white interior is then dried in the sun. After it is dry, this inside part is mashed again to ensure that the white thin skin is removed. The remaining beans are then dried once more.  Lastly, the farmers roast the beans and sell them at the local market. Matthew and I got to help mash some of the coffee cherries with the gigantic mortar and pestle-like device.

Nambo (Right) Preparing Lunch

Nambo (Right) Preparing Lunch

A few minutes later, we found ourselves sitting inside a local villager’s home, while Nambo prepared us a delicious lunch of clear soup, an avocado-tomato salad, along with stir-fried noodles and vegetables. Meanwhile, my brother was playing with some young village children. They were very energetic and loved running around and chasing Matthew. One of them found a pigeon with broken legs, which prevented it from flying away. He would pick it up, and swing it around, while I tried to get them to stop scaring the life out of the poor bird!

 

Local Man Enjoying the View

Local Man Enjoying the View

As we left the village to continue our hike down the other side of the mountain, we stumbled upon what resembled a garbage dump in the middle of a small creek! It was sad to see that the locals would throw their trash into the forest without a second thought. This does make sense though because there is, unfortunately, no way to dispose of the garbage in the mountains other than burning it. As we continued down and into the last valley we were to visit, we saw lentils, cabbage, mustard, avocado, marrow, oranges, taro, dragon fruit, green onions and more growing. The orange trees didn’t look very productive, as it is very dry. Nambo told us that oranges are being grown instead the opium poppies – the crop that the locals historically farmed.

As this 14-kilometer hike in the mountains of Myanmar drew to a close, we hopped into another open-back pickup truck, and while we drove back to Kalaw we watched the sun set over the mountains we had climbed.

Locals Working in the Fields

Locals Working in the Fields

Drying Green Tea Leaves

Drying Green Tea Leaves

Coffe Plant

Coffe Plant

Mashing Coffee Cherries

Mashing Coffee Cherries

Matthew and Some Village Children

Matthew and Some Village Children

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dragon Fruit Plantation 

Golden Buddhas, Golden Stupas and Gold Leaf – Discovering Something Very Different While Biking In Mandalay, Myanmar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Three Buddha Statues at the First Temple

Our teeth chattered as our bicycles bumped along the roadways of Mandalay as we set out to explore this bustling city. We had set out in search of amazing temples and places that were completely off the beaten track.

Golden Buddha

Golden Buddha

Our first stop was a large local temple hidden on a small back street off the main road. As it was midday and because this temple was not a touristic site there were only a few locals inside. The entry hall was lined with red and yellow pillars, with flower patterns made of mirror. As we walked further inside the temple and into the center chamber, there stood a 2.5-meter, pure gold, diamond, jade, emerald and ruby encrusted Buddha. Quietly we tiptoed around the room so that we did not to disturb the local people in prayer, I scanned the room for security cameras and found none!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Woman Praying at First Temple

As we continued to wander around this huge temple complex and admire all of the statues, I noticed that all of the Buddhas had slightly different faces! I couldn’t imagine how many artists it must have taken to complete all of these hundreds of unique Buddhas!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Coal Workshop

While we were biking to the next temple, we saw a small workshop where children ages 7 to 10 were breaking big chunks of coal into smaller pieces. Their faces were completely blackened from the coal dust and their clothes were falling apart. We couldn’t believe our eyes! Once we were a block away, we stopped to discuss what we had just witnessed. My parents decided that we must bike back to confirm what we had seen – it seemed so unreal. My dad felt that the scene reminded him of parts of a Charles Dickens’ novel. We watched these children for a few more minutes both in fascination and pity.

Golden Stupa at Second Temple

Golden Stupa at Second Temple

My head was still spinning as we arrived at the second temple. This temple had countless stupas in its walls, each one different. The biggest stupa was coated in gold leaf, which was hard to focus on, as it was bright out and the gold was reflecting the sunlight directly into our eyes. In another part of this temple, there were some statues that depicted Buddha under a bhoda tree, with some of his disciples sitting around him. These followers looked oddly like Jesus, which we found strange.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Palm Sugar Refinery

Soon after leaving the second temple, we saw a rusted, corrugated steel building, with many old and used oil barrels outside. The air smelled strongly of molasses, and my dad was curious as to what the purpose of the building was. When my dad peeked in, he saw that some workers appeared to be making a type of sugar. One of the workers invited my dad to come further inside, and he saw that the men were using a pre-industrial method to refine sugar cane.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Small Garbage Dump

A few minutes later we came upon a small garbage dump, which we had to ride through in order to cross the river. After hurrying through it, as it was very stinky, we biked past a fairly dingy looking temple and over a teak bridge. As the bridge was long, there was a covered spot in the middle to provide refuge from the blistering sun. I felt a little uncomfortable as we walked our bikes through the roofed section because there were many young homeless men sleeping on the floor and the wooden benches. A few minutes later, we reached the other side of the river and came upon many people, who although they appeared to be quite poor living in makeshift homes without running water or toilets, were smiling and waving at us.

IMG_3016

The Ayeyarwady River

Soon after we had left this area, we suddenly came upon a large restaurant for tourists overlooking the Ayeyarwady River. As we were famished, we decided to stop for lunch. While we sat waiting for drinks and food enjoying the amazing view, we reflected on how great the differences were between the lives of the locals and that of the tourists.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Long Teak Bridge

After lunch, we re-crossed the small bridge and stopped in front of the temple we had seen before lunch. My parents wanted to go in, but Matthew and I did not. After looking around for a bit, I noticed numerous coffins on the floor of the “temple”, and we realized that this “temple” was actually a crematorium and morgue! After this discovery, we decided to hurriedly get out of there because it was a bit creepy – to say the least!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Local Market

On our way back, we crossed through a buzzing local market. There were so many people, carts and trucks that we had to walk our bikes! It seemed like the only foods for sale were tomatoes, garlic, onions, pickled vegetables and potatoes! One stall sold only onions. They had hundreds of huge mesh bags full of them! Another had thousands of different types of tomatoes for sale. As we made our way through the market, we noticed that everyone was looking at us and smiling and waving.

IMG_3021

Gold Leaf Right After Pounding

 

 

Shortly after this, we finally arrived back at our hotel. After cooling down for few hours, we got back on our bikes in search of a gold leaf market. Gold leaf is created by placing small sheets of gold between thousands of pieces of paper. The papers are then placed into a bamboo box, and workers continuously pound the containers with a sledgehammer thinning the gold until it becomes what is known as gold leaf. This process normally takes upwards of 5 days. At the gold leaf market, we noticed that men were the ones pounding the gold leaf, women were cutting the leaf, and children were responsible to make the packets that held the leaf. Pounding the leaf appeared to be very demanding and the children looked sad as they did their work. Gold leaf is important in Myanmar because it is often applied to Buddhas and stupas for good fortune and health. Typically only males are allowed to apply the gold leaf. Females are not permitted to do so in Myanmar – which I found very sexist!

IMG_3028

Pounding the Gold Leaf

When I started out on the bike ride in the morning, I had no idea what I might see. I had assumed that I would see Buddhas and stupas and maybe run into some monks. What I actually saw was very different. For the first time, I witnessed child labour and extreme poverty. Again, I feel very lucky to live in Canada.

 

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tons of Tomatoes at the Local Market

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Buddha and his Followers

Visiting Ho Chi Minh – Hanoi, Vietnam

 

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

Determined to visit the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the father of communism in Vietnam, my family and I woke up early one morning and set out into the crazy Hanoi traffic to try to find him. As his mausoleum had very limited visitation hours – only a few hours each morning and a few days each week, we hurriedly walked through the pouring rain for over two kilometers before reaching the north gate of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Unfortunately, the guards at this gate told us that we had to enter the complex from the opposite side, over a kilometer away. As it was fast approaching ten and entry closed at 10:15, we had to rush. Fortunately we made it just in time, and we were through the queue for security screening by 10:10. We were then marched two-by-two in groups of thirty from the security building to the mausoleum. While we were walking towards the granite building where Ho Chi Minh was being showcased, there were guards posted every ten meters, dressed in pure white uniforms – even wearing white gloves and white rain boots. When we reached the mausoleum, I noticed that the path leading up to it was a red carpet, with guards on each side, which I

Guards in Front of the Mausoleum

Guards in Front of the Mausoleum

found odd because I associate a red carpet with royalty. Inside the mausoleum, guards were posted on every corner, increasing in number as we neared the room where Ho Chi Minh was resting. This room was dimly lit, and many guards lined the walls, each holding a rifle with a bayonet. Ho Chi Minh was elevated on an island about 3 meters in height with four guards encircling the base. His hands and head were backlit, giving Ho Chi Minh an unearthly look. His skin showed no sign of deterioration, and it appeared that he was simply sleeping, not dead. Nearing the conclusion of our extremely short viewing of Ho Chi Minh, my mom noticed a nearly invisible screw poking out of his neck. When she stopped to look more closely, a guard aggressively told her to keep moving. In the end, we were only able to view Ho Chi Minh’s body for about thirty seconds, but I thought that that was more then enough time to stare at his embalmed corpse. Overall, I found the whole experience unnerving, the soldiers standing so still – like statues, with their eyes fixed on the walls behind us, and Ho Chi Minh in his eternal sleep.

Note: It is forbidden to take pictures in the mausoleum, and all cameras are confiscated on entry. Knowing this, we didn’t bring our camera and do not have pictures. The pictures here were taken from the internet.