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I am but a simple country band director. Well, sort of…. Oxford, Mississippi is a small town in North Mississippi which just happens to be the home of the University of Mississippi. I direct the marching band at Ole Miss. One day last June, I received a call from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Houston, TX asking if I would agree to fly to Taiwan as part of an International Press Delegation to cover the opening ceremonies of the Chiayi City International Band Festival. Having never been to this exotic and beautiful country, I agreed.

After the thirteen-hour flight, we landed in Taipei and after a brief nap at the hotel, we were spirited off to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, an impressive, sprawling complex not only including memorial, but also the National Theatre and Concert Hall. From there we were treated to a visit to the Longshan Temple, perhaps the most classic example of a Buddhist Temple one can see. We then walked a block to the Huashi Night Market, a bustling sector of the city with vendor tents set up all along the streets and sidewalks, selling just about anything and everything one can imagine. The foods that were sold there were extremely exotic by US standards, and some not for the faint of heart!

The next day we were treated to a visit to one of the tallest structures on Earth- Taipei 101. When I looked at the itinerary, I thought this was going to be an instructional course, but of course I was mistaken. When we reached the viewing level (thanks to the world’s fastest elevator) we were greeted with a bird’s eye view of the sprawling city of Taipei, truly a breathtaking sight!

We then departed the hotel and boarded the so-called “bullet train” to travel to the city of Chiayi where the festival was held. Having heard about these high-speed trains but never seen one, I was impressed at the smooth ride at such high speeds and admired the countryside as we zipped through.
The next day was the opening ceremonies of the festival, which was held in conjunction with the WASBE (World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles) International Band Festival. The city of Chiayi went all out to promote this event. They completely shut down the larger downtown area and had erected a huge stage. There were television cameras everywhere and the streets were standing-room only. I was impressed with the number and variety of bands from all over Asia and even one from Russia! Chiayi City knows how to throw a party!

The next day, after visiting a pottery and musical instrument museum, we departed up a narrow mountain road to the Alishan National Park, a stunningly beautiful, heavily wooded mountainous area. The trip itself was somewhat frightening, as whole sections of the mountain road had been washed away by a Tsunami which hit the island a year earlier and were under repair. But when we arrived at our destination it was well worth it. The Alishan area is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The itinerary for the next day stated we were to watch the sun rise in nearby Jushan. I asked our guide, Yu-Shun, if this was optional. I was disappointed when he informed me it was not. I had wanted to sleep in at our beautiful mountain hotel resort, the Alishan House. However the next morning I realized why this was mandatory. We were treated to a breathtaking spectacle of the sun peeking over a majestic mountain range with the foggy valley below illuminated from above, a truly amazing sight. Our Taiwanese guide, who had never seen this himself; could not contain his enthusiasm. “I cannot believe how beautiful my country is!” he exclaimed repeatedly.
After our sunrise religious experience, we traveled down the mountain to an aboriginal Taiwanese village and tea farm run by a tribe of people known as the Tsou. This was most remarkable to me since their dress, artwork, pottery and dance were almost identical to that of Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. Our guide at the village informed me that several years ago they were visited by a researcher who took blood samples and compared the DNA strands of the Tsou to that of Native Americans and found them to be almost identical! He then told me the only thing they couldn’t figure out is which group was where first. I made sure I didn’t leave without buying some of that tea!

The next day we visited the National Museum and got a fascinating glimpse into the history, art and culture of this rich nation.
My visit to Taiwan was a truly amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I regret that the trip did not include a visit to coastal areas on the Eastern side of the island, which include beautiful beach areas that are very popular. I look forward to the day I can return to this stunningly beautiful and culturally rich nation.

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At age 52, Tulasi Shrestha, whose parents wouldn’t let her attend school because she was a girl, is finally learning to read. Shikha Gauchan, after receiving training on a computer, has vastly increased her business to foreign trekkers by promoting her guesthouse on Facebook. Children who once couldn’t pass the entrance exams to further their education have so excelled that the community built a secondary-level school to accommodate them.

All of this is thanks to READ (Rural Education and Development) Global, the philanthropic arm of the tour company Myths and Mountains, which is transforming the lives of villagers throughout Nepal. Although Myths and Mountains conducts tours to as many as 17 different countries. Visiting the READ libraries of Nepal adds a whole new dimension to traditional sightseeing itineraries.
Early on I recognized that the term “library” was a misnomer; “community resource center” is a much more accurate description. Yes, there are books — numbering from 900 in the smaller centers to 8000 and growing, in Nepalese, English and Hindi, in the larger ones — but the list of services offered, which vary according to the specific needs of the village, include literacy classes, computer training, early childhood education and day care, women’s empowerment programs, micro-financing and credit services, health, nutrition and AIDS-awareness information and more.

But first, some background. Dr. Antonia (Toni) Neubauer, president of Myths and Mountains, first visited Nepal in 1983 and started her tour company five years later. During a trek to the Everest region that same year, knowing she wanted to give something back to the country she had come to love, she asked her guide, Domi Lama Sherpa, “What is it your village needs most?” His reply: a library.

She started collecting money herself, and then through Myths and Mountains the first library opened in Domi’s town in 1991. Domi moved to New York shortly thereafter and does not know that he has since become a national hero.

Early on, Toni learned of other well-meaning efforts in many countries which ultimately failed because they had been started and abandoned without becoming economically viable. A local headmaster told her, “Westerners build us clinics, build us schools and then leave and expect us to take care of them, but we are just poor farmers.” And she realized that although “we had the best of intentions, we were just creating liabilities for a village rather than funding an asset.” From the beginning she knew that if the library (read Community Resource Center) was not self-sustaining, it would not work; it had to be an economic asset as well as a social and educational one.
Thus, the village of Tukche has a furniture factory; Jhuwani operates an ambulance service; Jomsom rents out storefronts which sell crafts, produce and other necessities, and the Laxmi Library in Syangia built a radio station that galvanized the whole community and is now supporting a staff of 33 people, enabling the library to pay off all its loans and become financially secure. The more successful the underlying financial enterprise, the more successful the community center.
And the centers’ impact on the villages is life-altering. Many are in remote areas in which children did not attend school, women could not read, and men could not support their families. Now, professional teachers and librarians trained by READ are providing education for young children throughout Nepal. Women are gathering together in village after village to not only learn to read but become economically self-sufficient while finding strength through numbers to resist the domestic violence that is often so pervasive among families in poverty. According to READ, the return rate on investment of micro-financing projects for women is 99%. And men and women are working together to create financially successful projects to support and sustain the libraries.
Everywhere we traveled, community leaders paid homage to Toni through some variation of the sentiments expressed by the president of the Jhuwani Library: “She removed a cloud of ignorance and illiteracy from our village, and replaced it with education, self-respect and prosperity.” And her response was always one of gratefulness to the villagers who, in creating their own dream, made her vision possible.

Because there is ongoing political turmoil in Nepal, all libraries and the different factions within the communities have to agree in writing to be Zones of Peace — non-political, non-religious, non-governmental. And within the past year, libraries across the country have formed a coalition — the Nepal Community Library Association — and are now trading ideas and success stories and are themselves lobbying the government for even more support in building in rural areas.

According to Toni, this is a crucial development: “The idea of Nepalese having a sense of their own power in furthering the libraries is still in its infancy but has tremendous potential for future development.” And her efforts have not gone unrecognized domestically. In 2006, READ Global received the Bill and Melissa Gates $1 million Access to Learning Award. And at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting held in September 2010, Bill Clinton announced READ’s commitment to empower 16,000 women and adolescent girls in rural Bhutan, India and Nepal during the next four years by building 20 women’s centers within new READ Library and Community Resource Centers.
Traveling from library to library, hearing story after story of how the centers have brought hope and prosperity beyond imagination affected me in ways no monument, scenic byway or sightseeing tour ever could. The excitement, so emotionally heartfelt, among all the people there was infectious. I left each library filled with awe and respect for what all these people — young and old, men and women, READ staffers and community volunteers — have accomplished, and though admittedly misplaced, even a sense of personal pride on Toni’s behalf.

So yes, we visited temples, shrines and monasteries galore. We trekked the
Annapurna Circuit for hours. We rode elephants in the Chitwan Jungle. And learned of the Buddhist and Hindu cultures. In that sense it was a tour like any other. But seeing the country through the eyes of READ Global was an enlightening and inspirational experience that no ordinary tour can equal. For more information about Myths and Mountains, visit mythsandmountains.com; for READ Global, contact readglobal.org.

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Ever since I was 16, I was drawn to Buddhism and the magical promise of Nepal and Tibet. While this curiosity continued to percolate in the back of my mind and deep within my soul, I hadn’t thought much about going to the great lands of Buddhism as I zipped through my degree work at the University of Southern California (USC) and prepared to help our family-run property management and real estate business in Marin.

It was only after Will, my best friend in college, died after a brief yet courageous battle with cancer at the age of 21, that I decided on seeking a meaningful refuge from a simulated, sanitized version of the

After a 10-month journey – involving everything from snakes and stitches to avalanches and wolves and the unparalleled experiences of roughing it in *ger* camps in the heart of the Gobi desert to an ashram paradise in the south of India and, ultimately, to Mount Everest – I returned, at 23, better capable of dealing with the same dilemmas and awkward predicaments that were present beforehand. However, while I had set out on this journey believing I would find genuine happiness, I gained something more profound – a fresh sense of the grace of gratitude.

Travel can be a mixed blessing. In seeking the perfect vacation at destinations that have been the persistent objects of our dreams, we are tempted to set the bar of expectations at world-record heights. There were as many unexpected adventures in my backpacking trip as there were satisfying moments of what I had anticipated.

The journey started inauspiciously enough. After a 22-hour flight itinerary from San Francisco to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, I had arrived at the airport where Ida, a friend from Germany, was waiting to pick me up. He had just received his license and was eager to show off his driving skills. He loaded my stuff into his “new” car: a white 1990 Mitsubishi Pajero.
I was shocked to see the nearly deserted condition of Ulaanbaatar. It looked as if this city were run by villagers and unmotivated businessmen. Even with just a little rain, the roads were flooded. Hotels were perched not on the main thoroughfare but behind other buildings and through flooded parking lots. I wondered how small cars maneuvered around town.

We stopped at Ida’s restaurant, his reason for moving to Mongolia. Ida’s business seemed like the only new breath of effort put into this city. He took me there, and we ate pasta with his “special” pesto sauce and ordered in “Mr. Chicken,” or KFC, as we call it in America. Soon after, his cousins and business partner Steve, a short dark-skinned boy from Canada, brought out Chinggis vodka, which was named after the warrior and emperor, and started pouring shots into paper cups. I couldn’t back down after the teasing.

There I was sitting at the only table in a half-finished restaurant with sawdust-covered floors, with the exception Ida, with a bunch of strangers. Funny to think that only hours ago, I had been surrounded by my closest family members. There also are recollections of beer pong with the locals and waking up with no money and having to walk through snow in shorts and sandals.

Then, there were unforgettable moments such as when I visited Ida’s nomadic family in the countryside where life and meals echo the simplest pleasures of serenity, and later we traveled over mountains and desert, steppes and forests, to the northern sections near Siberia, staying for two weeks in Mongolian *ger* camps. I rode camels, horses and reindeer, and Hamid (an Iranian guide) introduced me to a lost isolated tribe of reindeer people known as the Tsa Tans. I saw horse races where the riders were children between the ages of four and eight, completely fearless of the speed at which they competed.
After spending two months in Mongolia, I went to Bali for a month where I learned to scuba dive, kite surf, and wave surf – and managed only one accident where I needed stitches at a local hospital. In all forms, the Balinese people were tremendous hosts. One of the most memorable encounters was with a boy who rented out chairs on the beach, making just five dollars a day. I offered to take him out for sushi, and at the restaurant the chopsticks uncomfortably puzzled him as did the handkerchief napkin set at the table. The boy later introduced me to his family, and I discovered somewhat embarrassingly how they fish and prepared their food, which cleared up the earlier confusion.

Travel logistics always were easily confounded. Leaving Bali to go to Japan at the end-of-the-year holidays, a storm upset my air travel itinerary and the cancelled flight had me staying in Cairns, Australia, for the night. Problems, however, arose because my itinerary for Japan had been scheduled through Australia by an Internet travel agent, and Bali customs found this suspicious. I didn’t have a visa because I was a passenger in transit and the predicament almost made me miss my flight.
However, once I arrived in Tokyo, things moved quickly as I sought the permission of the main Aikido headquarters to train at the small, secluded *dojo* in Iwama, two hours north of Tokyo. The *sensei* in Iwama seemed surprised at my intentions to learn Aikido with no previous experience, especially since I flew all the way out to Japan to do it!

Indeed, it was memorable to train in the presence of Isoyama Shihan, a man in his seventies who commanded an immense respect among his students, which, incidentally, had included actor Steven Segal. On the other hand, Shihan criticized me for improperly tying my belt on the Aikido uniform. Flummoxed at first by the meaning and intent of Aikido, I soon found that Aikido couldn’t be understood with a Western perspective. One has to let the art become a part of every movement. What I learned in class through the techniques is simply a method to impart the insight of Aikido. A way of life and an art, I learned just how much deeper it is than the self-defense moves with which everyone commonly associates Aikido.

Later, I traveled to Yokohama where I spent the Christmas holidays and attended Aikido classes with Akiko, an older female instructor. While I missed the special presence of Iwama, Akiko showed me around town, introducing her younger friends, some of whom seemed so proper and angelic in public but certainly were eager to show their preference for smoking and drinking behind closed doors. In Japan, everyone is anxious to be the ideal host.

Back in Tokyo, my best friend from the States met me for snowboarding in Nagano, where we also had a close call in backcountry skiing when we triggered an avalanche. We also saw a local ritual involving 25-year-old men being beaten with fire by 42-year-old locals. The festival was shocking not just for its unapologetic show but also for how it attracted large numbers of spectators who apparently traveled great distances to witness this ferocious and fiery display.

Traveling from Japan to India proved to be an experience that would test the mettle of even the most fearless globe trekker. What was supposed to be a 32-hour travel itinerary from Japan to India became a nearly unbearable 45-hour trek. However, after a long night’s rest, I finally arrived in paradise after my cab navigated the elephant-clogged streets of Trivandrum. I stayed at an ashram located in the south of India, in the center of the jungle with a beautiful lake nearby. The food was Ayurvedic – vegan with no salt or oil – and was served to us on the floor out of buckets.
India is a challenging destination even for the most adventuresome backpacker. Definitely include cab drivers in the mix here. However, I did have the good fortune with one driver and tipped him four
dollars, the equivalent of a tenth of his monthly salary. A rarity among taxi operators in India, he kindly allowed me to use his phone throughout the drive and never cajoled me into paying him a higher fare.

My long periods of intense yoga were punctuated by episodes of temptation involving a curious mix of young women, including Tsering, a Tibetan who sensed my emotional vulnerabilities but became an important companion for the remainder of my journey, a young German woman who invited me for a swim in crocodile-infested waters, and a French woman moved to tears by my story who offered a massage as a path to showing me the real meaning of love.

Later, Tsering, who shared her insights into Buddhism and helped me with my meditation, joined me in Goa where the beaches and huts turned out to be a major disappointment, falling well short of the alluring hype plastered in magazines and online. One night, at a beach restaurant, I realized the other customers were sitting and staring, quiet and motionless. As I noticed a man rolling hash, I finally understood just what the hype about Goa meant.

The benignly numbed pleasantness of Goa contrasted sharply with my travels northward in India. In Varanasi, I witnessed the nightly ceremonies and the cremations of the dead, and I decided to take a dip in the holy Ganges River. Afterwards, I headed to an intense 10-day Vipassana meditation center where a word was not to be spoken during the entire period, and I had to dig deep within myself, revealing my inner demons. Before leaving India, I reconnected with Tsering in Delhi. She was kind enough to, make our travel arrangements to Dharamsala, a sort of “mini-Tibet” where we would make a three-day trek up into the Himalayan range and find a Buddhist meditation cave. There, I finally felt a true sense of gaining control over my destiny.

The feeling, however, was short-lived when I entered the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu. Entering the airport in Nepal, that exhilarating sense of anticipating my visit with Tenzin Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, the great monk at the Big White Monastery at Boddhanath, withered amid the sea of bureaucracy I was about to encounter. I realized the visa process would be as much a pain as it was in Bali. Standing in Kathmandu, I knew it would take well over an hour to process the more than hundred passengers standing in line, and we had to fill out forms, give passport photos, and I had to exchange money.

The officials accepted U.S. dollars, but unfortunately, I had no American cash on hand and the man at the money exchange counter was more than willing to screw me over with my traveler’s checks. He charged me once to exchange my money from dollars to Nepal *rupees* and then yet more fees to exchange them back to dollars so that the visa processing counter would accept my money. It happened so quickly, and I didn’t want to end up at the end of the line that I just took the money and ran. It was too late. I was already the last person in line.

Later, after what felt like a never-ending terrifying cab ride, I made it to supposedly one of the nicer hotels in Kathmandu and checked into my room. I was not surprised when it didn’t feel like a four-star hotel, much less a one-star destination where a Travelocity recommendation would definitely have been suspect for its authenticity.

The next day started hardly better when I tried to hire a car service. “We can give you a luxury private car for the three hours for two thousand or three thousand *rupees*,” the man who acted as the hotel concierge explained. I expected a Toyota sedan from the current decade or something similar but he pointed to a car outside that was unrecognizable, and I’m sure most car companies would deny ever having made it. The car looked to be from the 1960s or 1970s.

However, Nepal proved to be a life-changing experience, especially in my interactions with the *rinpoche* at Boddanath. However, there were others in Nepal who were equally instructive in their inimitable ways. Leaving the monastery, I headed back to Thamel (a tourist trap in all respects) to check up on Lotsman and Prabind, both store owners who had befriended me during my stay. Lotsman, in particular, had grown fond of calling me “his brother.” Their stores were filled with Nepalese art that were priced as extraordinary bargains by any measure.

I’ll never forget trying to convince a young Belgian woman, who complained that she would not consider paying 1,000 rupees – the equivalent of $14 – for one of the paintings. She stormed out of the store, never to return. A while before, I had been in the same position, bargaining at length for a price difference of $1. However, the store owner, through his compassion and generosity, helped me realize the stupidity of what I did – just how little $1 meant to me back home and how much I would bargain for it here to the point where I wouldn’t buy something for a matter of $1 in difference.

After completing the 10-month journey – including climbing 5,550 meters to Kala Patthar to get the best view of the formidable Everest – I decided to give away the stuff I had accumulated during my travels. It was time to practice the lessons I had received.

I had all of the external material resources I could ever want or imagine to have. The only thing missing was gratitude. During my travels, I realized that you can also have nothing at all and it would be a great
blessing alone to be able to feel gratitude. It was not merely happiness that I sought; it was the grace of gratitude.

It’s been more than six months since I’ve been back, and the culture shock of my return has been unexpectedly frightening. The dual experiences of complete detachment and the newfound understanding followed me home, and like demons in my closet, they have always lurked nearby.
Nothing seemed as real as it once did. But, now I also find myself in the mutually reinforcing roles of teacher and student. I’m excited about my next journey.

Photos by Les Roka

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We drove over the Taurus Mountains, which are the same range as the Himalayas and the Alps, dating from the Mesozoic Age. In a short time the climate totally changed from an area for swimming to an area to ski. As we rode, Matin, our excellent SmarTours guide who has a Ph.D. in political science, continued to educate us about Turkey, about today’s culture and customs and about the ancient archeological sites we were about to see.
Once we passed through the mountains heading west, we were traveling along the Aegean Sea with the mountain range running parallel to the coast, Because of the natural harbors and good farmland, Greek people settled here from about the 13th Century B.C. They started city-states, autonomous in internal affairs but related as confederations for military and other collective relations…the first democracies with leaders elected by males who voted. The architecture was copied from the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations with columns used to support ceilings.
Our first stop was the unique and beautiful Pamukkale, which reminded us of Yellowstone National Park but even more amazing. The natural hot springs through the centuries have formed enormous “waterfall” formations of calcium carbonate, like many stalactites blending together, only not within a cave. The running water forms pale aqua serene pools which visitors are allowed to walk in barefooted. The pools, which having dried, left large geometric patterns in the snow-white ledges. From the road the whole structure appears to be a massive glacier or waterfall nearly the size of Niagara Falls. This whole area overlooks a lovely town with orange tile roofs and verdant green meadows, backed by tall mountains all around. We were there in early spring amidst a carpet of yellow dandelions, white daisies, red poppies, purple grape hyacinths and pink asters, all surrounding the archeological ruins of travertine and marble, mined locally for millennia. The ruins contain an ancient gym, bathhouse, latrine, agora, and necropolis. The archaeological museum here has many artifacts from the area.
Hot springs here became the first spa for therapeutic healing, but the hot water made many conditions such as heart trouble worse and many people who came for a cure died here instead. Because the bodies could not be removed, a large necropolis formed here. It is a very important historical cemetery dating from the 3rd Century B.C. to the 3rd Century A.D. The ancient burial rites included parading the body around three times as farewell, transport it to the cemetery in early morning, sing, and then bury the body. Cremation began after the 5th Century A.D. The family placed the person’s belongings with the body. Poor people placed only a cup of wine, a little food, a mirror, and two coins (to pay the boatman to cross the river to eternity). If the family was rich they placed all the possessions of the deceased with his body. The mirror was because after the long sleep of death the awakening person may not remember himself. Mourners returned home for a large meal and then washed the entire house with salt water to keep evil spirits away. On the 9th day of mourning the family shared whatever possessions are left.
Here at Pamukkale we saw excellent examples of the three kinds of graves which would be purchased before one died: a sarcophagus was a stone box sometimes elaborately carved with scenes of mythology or of the person’s life; a mausoleum was a small marble house for wealthy families, also elaborately carved; a tumulus is a mound shaped grave only for very important and wealthy people. Although the stones here were in remarkable condition and the inscriptions in Greek and Latin were often legible, the necropolis itself was destroyed and the graves tumbled by a huge earthquake in the 3rd Century A.D. and grave robbers plundered the remains.
Ruins of the holy city of Hieropolis could be seen at the top of the hill above the hot springs. The bath and gymnasium ruins are impressive. In Greek and Roman times boys and girls were educated, and education was compulsory. They learned ancient Greek, writing, calculus, and abacas. After five years in school boys went to the gymnasium for physical fitness, participating with naked and oiled bodies. At 18 they graduated as citizens.
After leaving Pamukkale we traveled on to the city of Izmir. On September 9,1922, Izmir was freed from Greek occupation. Now it is a center of education with two of the best universities in Turkey. Izmir is a farming center for cotton, chickens, turkeys, olives, and fruit. The city is over 5,000 years old and Christianity came here in the 1st Century AD. Izmir is thought to be the birthplace of the poet Homer.
In Izmir we stayed for two nights at the Kaya Prestige Hotel, located only a few blocks from the bay.

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In all the souvenir shops and bazaars we saw jewelry and home decorations with the blue Evil Eye Protection. For centuries superstitions have kept this shamanistic symbol to protect a person from negative energy emitted from other people, which could cause bad luck, loss, illness, or accidents. Few visitors leave without one of these truly Turkish souvenirs. A small one on a safety pin is a gift many merchants give visitors if they buy anything. Of all the Turkish handmade items rugs and tiles are the best value for the money.
Turkish hospitality is famous: just knock on a door and you are welcomed and treated royally because of nomadic hospitality when travel was grueling. Even today Turks do not like heavy furniture, a nomadic reflection of times when every possession had to be easy to carry and multi-functional. Rugs served this purpose. They could be used to make tents, to cover the ground, to sit on so that no furniture was required, and for sleeping and keeping warm. Nomads used wool from their flocks. In the Steppes landscape is a bland, sandy color and grass is gray. Eyes craved color, so rug makers used natural vegetable dyes for wool: saffron & tobacco for yellow, roots for red, blue from indigo, etc. Sheep wool was thick, so they had to use double knots to secure it. Thick wool necessitated geometric designs in squares because fewer knots were needed. 4×4 knots per square inch are all that wool on wool Pazarik rugs need, and these go back to the 1st Century B.C.
As we traveled with SmarTours through Konya and Antalya, we saw the vast terraced Steppes, important for growing crops. This is not an earthquake area. When Seljuk Turks came here in the 10th Century and met Greeks, who lived in this area, the rug makers were introduced to cotton, which is grown here. They learned how to mix cotton for warp and weft, so rug makers could fit more knots into the spaces, and rugs with 25 x 25 became the minimum standard for floral designs, as curves were possible with this thinner yarn.
We stopped at Trahis Caravan Sarai, which Aladin built in 1229. In 1278 it was owned by Seljuk Turks. The entrance is most important with handmade Arabic letters in tiles, sometimes with a tree of life. Ottoman buildings are impressive; Seljuck ones have no dome. Ottomans have a dome and thinner minarets
The nomads who traveled this part of the Silk Road came by camels, which could carry large loads and go for many hours without water. But a camel MUST follow a donkey. Because bandits would rob and kill at night, caravans traveled at sunrise and spent nights in Caravan Sarais, which were very large buildings that would house the animals and the people free for two nights. The Sarai with a green flag had room, but a red flag meant the sarai was full. The Sarai attendants would check caravans in an outdoor section first to be sure they are healthy and they would write down the condition of each animal and traveler, so if bandits attacked a caravan after they left a Sarai, the sultans compensated for the losses. In winter people and animals stay together; in summer camels are outside. Sarai owners burned plants for a better smell indoors. Anyone who wanted private quarters could pay extra. Kitchens were outside to prevent fire. One important aspect of the Sarais was they were built by water, and the Normal Tax went to help pay for the Sarais. Travelers ate in a common area and shared information, talked business, and traded goods tax free. After discovery of sea routes Silk Road lost its trade importance and became great tourist places for cultural exchange.
Konya was the ancient capital city of Seljuk Turks. St. Paul came here on his first missionary journey and ultimately established seven Christian churches. Konya is the most conservative city in Turkey, and many women cover their heads here.
We stopped for lunch at Seydisehir, where the largest sulphur mine and production of aluminum and a large hydroelectricity plant are located. Then we drove over the perfectly beautiful snow covered Taurus Moutains, 6,000 feet high. With the beautiful evergreens it reminded us of the Colorado ski areas. On the lower slopes were olive groves up to 800 years old grow, as do orange, lemon and pomegranate orchards. These mountains appear even taller than they are because they go straight down to Turkey’s Turquoise Mediterranean Coast where it never snows and summers are hot and dry but good for farming strawberries and tomatoes. This is a popular summer resort area, but many accommodations don’t have air conditioning and are built with windows strategically placed to capture the constant breezes.
At Antalya we checked in at the lovely five-star Dedeman Resort for two nights, and we all got seaview rooms with balconies. This is the best time of year in Antalya. The resort had beautiful tennis courses, a walkway and elevator down the cliff side to the sea, where a diving club and swim platform are located, but it was too chilly to use this time of year. The fabulous buffet dinners and breakfasts included so many different stations laden with scores of choices, hot and cold, that it was impossible to sample everything, but every bite was delicious!
If you intend to have a Turkish Bath in a real Hamam this is the most sanitary and professional place to do so. Those who went to the spa here could have free sauna and steam room or pay and select from the various kinds of massages and treatments. The Hamam is unisex but the bath is given in a private room. The patron decides whether to have a man or woman attendant. In town Hamams are separate for men and women and are always located beside a mosque since cleansing before prayer is required. They were used in ancient times for the builders of the mosque to cleanse before work. It is recommended to sweat in the sauna room only covered with a towel before your massage. The philosophy our guide joked about was, “I don’t know you; you don’t know me; they don’t know us, so enjoy your private bath!” First the attendant uses a kesse cloth to exfoliate your entire body. Next the attendant uses a foam bag to squeeze a soap all over you and then scrubs you with warm water. Next you have the shock of cold water, then more warm water. You can finish in the steam room. The process requires about one hour. We teased the ones who partook of this very Turkish tradition, but they all found the Turkish baths to be a great experience for anyone visiting Turkey.

We took the optional tour to the ancient city of Perge, the largest in Pamphylia, which was at its zenith under Alexander the Great. We toured the second largest stadium (12,000 people) with many arches, identifying it as from the Roman period or Emperor Claudius. Perge had a very large bath complex, and Matin our tour director described in detail all the elements of the various buildings that made up these baths. The city possessed a very long main street that was some 65 feet wide and was once lined with shops and flanked by statues of prominent citizens. The water canal for this city ran down the center of this street, coming from an elaborate fountain at one end of the street. This was all built when the city was enlarged in the 4th Century AD.
Next we went to Aspendos, founded according to ancient tradition in the 13th Century BC. In the 4th Century BC Alexander the Great took over the city, and then in the 2nd Century AD during the rule of the Roman Emperor Marcos Aurelius the huge theater and aqueducts were built. This Roman theater is one of the best-preserved ancient theaters in the world, seating 20,000 and still used today for concerts and stage productions. Because the Romans had figured out that the curve of an arch can hold up weight safely, they built theaters with an enclosed building behind the stage for the actors’ use, and seating was in semicircular shape. Greeks built amphitheaters in the side of a mountain with only horseshoe seating and had no stage building for these outdoor theaters but enjoyed the scenery of nature behind the stage.
Since Turks themselves did all of the Perge archaeological digs, the ancient artifacts from Perge are in the Antalya Museum where we went next. Statues, friezes, coins from centuries before Christ are in amazing condition. Matin, our wonderful guide who has a Ph.D. in political science and sociology, explained Greek and Roman mythology pertinent to the statues we saw in nearly perfect condition. He was always generous in sharing his wealth of historical facts also and told us interesting tidbits about many of the cases where the items were displayed in timeline chronology. We learned that Greek statues have expressionless faces, but Roman ones have expressive faces and were commissioned by even average people, so they are plentiful. When Christians defaced them as idols, the noses were cut off so the face was not identifiable. Extended hands and arms were often lost through time or defacement, but those close to body were not destroyed. We were given free time to explore the museum and see Byzantine Persian clothing, weapons, house articles from later history and weapons and coins from all periods. The museum is very well done with signs in English also.
Until the last day of our two-week tour we were blessed with great weather, pleasant 60 – 70 degrees. Everywhere in Turkey is so clean, no trash except some in little villages, which certain people are paid to collect for recycling. Traffic is orderly in cities. Buildings are modern, and high-rise condos are in Easter egg colors, especially in areas where natural scenery is bland.

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After spending the night in Ankara and visiting the beautiful mausoleum and memorial to Ataturk and a wonderful museum of ancient archeological finds dating from the preliterate or paleolithic periods through the Hittites and up to the Ottoman Empire we traveled on to an area in central Turkey, Cappadocia at 3,000 feet was our next stop. As we traveled from Ankara toward the Cappadocia region, we passed shepherds with large flocks. These are businessmen who collect sheep and goats, marked with colors by individual owners in town, and each day these shepherds take all of the animals to graze and return them in the evening. The Kengal dog with the flock, a breed considered the best sheep dog in the world, wears a collar with sharp sticks projecting out to protect him from wild animals.

We stopped at Aksaray on the edge of Nevshir for lunch at Agacli, one of the top ten roadside cafeterias in Turkey. We had meatloaf and potatoes, rice stuffed chicken, and tomato soup. Food in Turkey is not very spicy but very delicious. Afterwards we went next door to Mado to have ice cream of goat milk, which was delicious.
Throughout the day we passed in the distance three of the volcanic mountains about 9,000 feet high, whose eruptions spread a layer of volcanic ash over parts of the region forming the plateaus from which wind and rain erosion produced capped columns, pyramids, and conical formations now called fairy chimneys.
We toured the tunnels and caves of the underground city Kamaylakla, a World Heritage Site, eight stories deep, dug into the layer of volcanic lava where over 2,000 Christians hid for long periods of time over the course more than a century. Their ventilation and communication system was a brilliant innovation. The men could go out at night for food supplies or by day for war, but they left through tunnels, which emerged miles away so the underground city was never discovered. The top level was for their animals. The second level served as school and church. The third level maintained a 65 degree temperature, which is perfect for grain and vegetable storage. The fourth level was for wine making and storage. The lower levels were for sleeping and the bottom level was used as a prison and burial place. We could not imagine 1,000 kids living in these cramped quarters for a year with no TV or toys.

For hundreds of years this area of Cappadocia has been the center of the famous Turkish ceramics and for Turkish hand-knotted rugs. Today 44,000 families in 300 square miles make their living creating rugs and beautiful pottery, and the art forms are taught by parents to their children. This is also a farming region with underground springs and the longest river in Turkey. We could also see the volcanic mountain Argis, which stands over 12,000 feet high and is a popular ski area.
We went for ceramic-making demonstrations to Avanos Tile Factory. Red clay, typical of ancient Hittite pottery, is from the Halys River (Red River) here, and white clay is from nearby mountains. After watching the craftsmen throw the pottery on both a kick wheel and an electric one, we bought pieces in the vast showroom, which had new pieces and also some valuable collectable pieces.

After leaving the Avanos Tile Factory we went to our hotel, the Peri Tower, a 4-star rambling hotel with the look of a Mexican hacienda, and each room is unique in this strangely designed hotel. Our room was a small twin with a huge, bare balcony. Others had a big room and small balcony. Some of our group got up at 5 A.M. for a thrilling Hot Air Balloon ride over the picturesque and unusual landscape. Our buffet dinner was delicious. Our room was comfortable and clean, though it is showing its age, even though it attempts to be ultra modern.
We set out the next morning from our hotel around 9 am after those who had gone on the early morning balloon ride had returned. As we drove through the surrounding hills we saw groves of apricot, apple, and almond trees. We stopped first on an overlook that gave us a view of the cave houses carved into these limestone hills where there were family dwellings until the 1950’s. The formations with the cave houses truly had the look of a fairy village. Grape vineyards are also around the area with 7,000 different varieties for dry red and white wines. And a camel to ride!
In the afternoon our SmarTours coach took us to another Unesco World Heritage Site where the natural formations looked like a village of Fairy (Peri) Chimneys for gnomes. The locals believe that when fairies left here they left their spirits to the pigeons, so they celebrate a Pigeon Festival each May. Pigeon holes in all the natural castles look like mail boxes. People collect dung from these holes and mix it with 6 parts water for fertilizer, which lasts for two years.

We also visited another fascinating place that has been since 1885 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was an area that was once occupied as an ancient early Christian monastery, dating from the 4th Century. Just as our native American cliff dwellings these early Christians had dug out caves in the volcanic pumice cliffs, creating sanctuaries and living quarters for the monks. Today we can still see many of the churches, used by the community of about 5,000 men and women , which were carved out within the caves, creating the domed shape of Greek Orthodox sanctuaries today, the walls and ceilings also being completely covered in colored frescos illustrating Bible stories to teach illiterate people about Christ. The most beautiful and well preserved frescoes are in the Tokali church from 1000 – 1100 A.D. and is the first church in the shape of a cross in the world. Some of the walls had much earlier rust colored primitive paintings by very early Christians. We were in awe of these beautiful colors and art works, which have survived for centuries. In the 11th Century 365 churches existed here, one for each day of the year. We were able to go into four of the over 200 remaining ones. To preserve the art works that have survived defacing by the Arab invaders, photos inside these cave churches are prohibited. It is amazing how much was preserved. Before 1054 AD and the division of the Christian church into Roman and Greek Orthodox all Christianity many Christian priests were trained here.403268e00
We visited Carpetium Carpet Manufacturing, a rug factory specializing in Hereke rugs, which are modeled after the Persian designs used in the rugs made for the Sultans with a minimum of 88×88 double Gordion knots per square inch. These are considered some the finest rugs in the world and are made of silk or wool. The thickness of the fiber determines the number of knots possible in the space. Some girls work in the factory here, and we were able to watch them select their colors, tie knots, and beat the threads down. Others work in their homes. The value of a rug is determined by the number of knots, and secondly by material and pattern style. We were also shown how silk is produced from the silk worms. We all entered the factory determined not to buy, before viewing the scores of beautiful rugs thrown on the floor in front of us as we ate a pizza lunch and drinks the owner provided. Although no one pressured us, we all were sold on the works of art after learning the way the rugs are made and seeing demonstrations. Nearly everyone on our tour purchased one.
On our way back to the hotel that afternoon we stopped at the town of Goreme where we walked among the giant mushroom rock formations of limestone tent shapes with hard rocks capping them to create really unusual formations for great pictures. At Camel Rock some of the group climbed the mountain, and Bonnie rode a real camel.
In this region, known as the Konya Basin, we learned that in the 13th Century the Seljuk Turks heard of Rumi, an Arab mystic who started the philosophy of Sufism, which stood against the abuse of Moslem men. He was invited to live in this region where he was accepted, and here he taught and wrote poetry about the mystical love of Allah (God), and the respect and balance of all nature as well as the need for all to be kind to all people. A young boy, Shams, from Baghdad heard about Rumi and came to Konya to meet him and they became very close. Shams wanted to feel the direct love of God so he began the practice of whirling in order to have an out-of-body experience of meeting God.

We had the privilege of going to an ancient and authentic Caravanserai, which was an inn for Bedouins where they and their camels could rest overnight safely when traveling on what was known as the Silk Road. These travelers carried valuable loads and needed this protection where they slept with their camels. It was in this very building that we watched the nightly ritual of the Whirling Dervishes. We arrived at the Caravanserai after dark and were escorted to the central part of the building that had a stage that was encircled on four sides with seating for the audience. We were informed before hand by Matin our guide and tour director that this is a very solemn religious practice, not a show.

Once the audience was seated a small group of musicians came out dressed in long black cloaks and white conical hats. Each instrument stood for some aspect of the universe: the zither, ney, and flute blow the soul breath of God into man; the drum and tambourine give the rhythm of life; the music becomes symbolic of the harmony of the universe. The musicians played for a few minutes before the five practitioners in long black cloaks filed in and took their places. After the head practitioner sang a series of musical chants the other practitioners removed their black cloaks, representing leaving worldly desires behind and whirled in their white robes and conical hats to the accompaniment of the musicians for 25 minutes under the silent direction of one man who remained dressed in a black cloak and moved among the whirling practitioners. The hats represented tombstones and the white robes purity and innocence, flowing out as they whirled. The audience nearly fell into a trance while silently watching.

Most important to the ritual is bodily unfolding, symbolic of rebirth, new beginning. The men hold their right hand open to the sky, left open to earth, taking from God to give to people. Whirling in the direction of Universe means they see God everywhere while stomping a foot to crush earthly desire. After 25 minutes they stop to symbolize death of the body to unite with God. Finally the leader reads verses from the Quran, then prays; then whirlers greet each other before they leave the stage. This Society of Whirlers has continued for 8 centuries since Rumi.

In the 1st Century A.D. St. Paul passed through this area on his first missionary journey that took him on to what is present day Ankara. The name Christians was first used in Antioch, and the members of this forbidden movement escaped to Cappadocia and hid, living in caves which they dug in the lava ash of these volcanic mountains. In the 3rd Century Theodocius declared the Christians could be free of persecution. Finally in 367 A.D. the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

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Our next stop in our SmarTours of Turkey was to be Ankara, the capital of the country. As we drove through the countryside on long coach rides every other day, Matin our tour director and guide lectured all about Turkey. Since he has a Ph.D. in Political Science and Sociology and History, it was a great bonus to learn all about his country. He had a large map of Turkey hanging at the front of the bus so we could orient ourselves as we moved to each new area. His sense of humor was fun, his stories entertaining, and his knowledge amazing. We felt as if we were gaining a college degree as we rode, and it made the long rides pass quickly.

Among many other things we learned as we drove past groves of hazelnut trees in the high plateaus was Turkey grows 65% of the world’s crop of these nuts and is second in apricots and pistachios and table olives, 4th in olive oil, fifth in cotton and seventh in wheat. The government owns all forests and meadowlands. Most farms are small and privately owned. We drove through beautiful snow-capped mountains similar to the Great Smokeys as we traveled from Istanbul to Ankara.
Fortunately, our excellent driver Arif (who drove us 2,200 miles in all) stopped every hour and a half for a half hour for snacks, visiting, and restrooms (which were always pristine and had western and oriental toilets, toilet paper, and soap and towels because Turks are taught strict hygiene from toddler age.) Our surprise was that lunch time was at places like truck stops, which had excellent, fresh-cooked meals in cafeteria style with chicken, meatballs, and many other main-dish selections, lentil or tomato or yoghurt soups, fresh baked breads, and delicious pastries with honey and pistachios. We all gained weight in the two weeks and no one had stomach problems. The first journey’s stop was at Dorukkaya Restaurant at about 3,000-foot altitude, The fresh cool air and sunshine and a large lake in back surrounded by snow made it a refreshing break.

We drove on through the afternoon to Ankara, the capital and second largest city. In 1923 General Mustafo Kamal, known to the world as Ataturk, moved the capital to this central location and started urbanization in this planned city, which grew from 30,000 to close to five million residents. As the first president of Turkey he was given the title Ataturk (Father of Turkey) by Parliament. To this day he is revered as the beloved genius of the 20th Century who freed the country from the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, who had had absolute tyrannical power for centuries dating back to the time of such sultans as Suleyman the Magnificent, who controlled the whole Middle East and 1/3 of Europe from Gibraltar to Vienna. Ataturk was the leader in the Ottoman Army during the tragic Battle of Galipoli to defend Turkish control of the Dardenelles during World War I, in which a total of 500,000 men were killed.
Ataturk organized the Independence Movement of Young Turks, which led Parliament and the Sultan and the world to realize this is not a mad man but a true leader. The Peace Agreement to settle Turkey’s borders was signed on Aug.13, 1922. Greek occupying armies left and the Sultan left the country without taking his wealth of rubies, emeralds, and diamonds, saying, “The wealth is not mine, it belongs to the Nation.” Ataturk refused to become Sultan and in 1923 organized Turkey as a Secular Republic, so no theocracy could rise up as in other Middle Eastern countries. Ataturk said education prevents fanatic religion and ignorance from destroying society.

With full equality for men and women, western dress was adopted. With the new Parliament he led in remaking the country, bringing it from the ancient, backwards ways of the Middle East to the modern European ways. He changed the alphabet and literacy grew from 5% to 77% before his death in 1938. He changed the calendar from lunar to solar and the public week day holiday from Friday to Sunday. He opened the first private banks to give loans to individuals to get businesses started. He opened universities across the country, even in the more rural areas.
In Ankara we first visited Ataturk’s Memorial Mausoleum built in 1953. It overlooks the perfectly laid out capital city with snowy mountains in the background. In the afternoon Matin led us on a very informative tour of the Anatolian Civilization Museum with relics back to Paleolithic and Neolithic times. At the museum Matin pointed out the significant pieces and gave us a running history of mankind. It was almost too much to comprehend with his references to mythology, wars, heroes, rulers, and literally the timeline of pre-literate and literate times.

Among the fascinating pieces were the first letters: clay tablets written in Cuniform which were slipped inside envelopes addressed in Hieroglyphics to someone in Egypt around 2,000 BC. We saw actual pieces from burial sites from centuries before Christ, such as articles from the Midas Tomb, described as the largest burial tomb in Anatolia. There were no replicas here. Turkish archeologists did all the excavations, and all the findings are housed here. In the earlier 19th Century archaeologists from other countries took the antiquities they unearthed back to England, France, and Germany. But now the archeological finds in Turkey stay in Turkey.
There were four significant dominant cultures of Turkish history: Hittites 2,000 B.C., Greeks 1200 BC, Romans 200 B.C., Byzantines, Seljuks, and Ottoman 1200 A.D. Located between two continents of Europe and Asia Minor, Turkey is a bridge close to Africa and the Middle East, and some 2683 ancient cities have been discovered by archaeologists throughout present day Turkey. The area now called Turkey has always been important for the three Abrahamic religions: Jewish (Sardis was here in 2,000 B.C.), Christian (John the Apostle, Paul, and most likely Mary the Mother of Jesus were here); and Islam.
We spent one night at the lovely Hotel Barcelo Ankara Altenel where we had a delicious buffet dinner and breakfast. As we left this city headed for Cappadocia we learned about Turkey’s government: The law-making body, Parliament, has 550 members and is unicameral, with cities represented according to their population. The Prime Minister is leader of the winning party. Laws must pass the Cabinet, Ministers, and the President, who is elected for seven years. Upon election the President must resign his party so as to be non-partisan and lead fairly for all. Citizens over 18 have the right to vote. Turkey maintains a huge military of over two million, prepared to activate within one hour. The President is head of the Army, and two years’ military service is compulsory for males over 18. Everywhere we saw the Turkish flag, adopted under Ataturk, proudly blowing in breeze with a white crescent moon and star on red bandera. The crescent and star do not stand for Islam in this secular country. Instead the crescent stands for re-birth of the nation, and the star represents progress of modern Turkey as a rising star in the world. The red is for the blood shed for Turkey to maintain its independence.

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Turkey is an exciting exploration of history with museum relics dating back to the Paleolithic period. The landscape varies from farmlands to high mountains, seas, and exotic natural formations found nowhere else on earth. The population is educated and extremely polite, hospitable, and welcoming. Turkish customs stress cleanliness of themselves, their homes, their land, and their thoughts and actions and are reflected throughout the pristine country. Turkey is a great travel value and being a crossroads throughout world history is one of the most fascinating countries in Europe. We chose to journey there with SmarTours, which offered especially good prices and something unique and interesting everyday.

In the two-week tour we traveled 2,200 miles on a comfortable coach, seeing all the highlights of middle and western Turkey. Our guide, Metin Engiz, was personable and humorous as he gave informative lectures about each place before we arrived and more while we were there. Matin, one of the best guides you could ever find anywhere, has a Ph.D. in political science and sociology and a thorough understanding of world history and religion. He conveys his knowledge generously, helping visitors understand the time line of world history in which this land has always played a strategic role, uniquely situated as a bridge from Europe to Asia and to the Middle East and North Africa.
Sixty-five different civilizations and ethnicities have mixed here and blended their cultures in this melting pot over the thousands of years of the civilizations of mankind. The only country that straddles two continents, the west side brings heritage of Thrace from Europe (which means west). The eastern side of Turkey, known as Asia Minor, was called by the Greeks: Anatolya, land of sunrise. Turkey today is 18% larger than Texas and is the second largest country in Europe, with the smallest and possibly most important sea in world, the Marmara Sea, which offers the only ice-free shipping to the Atlantic for several countries, especially Russia. Marmara Island, in the middle of this small sea, is known for its marble mines.

While in Istanbul we stayed Hotel Germir Palais on the European side. The hotel was located just a block from the modern Taksim Square, a busy center like Broadway. It is well-located and is a lovely 100 yr old residence hotel with small rooms, floral carpet, marble baths, crisp white linens and big Turkish towels, and includes an excellent breakfast. We were thankful for non-smoking hotel rooms and restaurants, a new and welcome concept in Turkey and smartly enforced.
We loved the special tour of the Boshporus Straits on a boat in beautiful weather. We toured up the coast on the European side and returned on the Asian side; a beautiful afternoon with amazing sights. The first bridge connecting two continents was built in 1910 across the Bosphorus, which means “ford of the calf.” The harbor of Istanbul is called the Golden Horn and this is the main body of water dividing Istanbul. This city is officially among the seven most beautiful in the world and is one of the twenty largest cities in the world with about 13 million residents. With recorded history dating to 6,000 BC, the city has been known through the ages as a crossroads of trade between Europe and Asia. The early settlers of Istanbul were said to be colonist from Megara led by Byzas, and the city became known as Byzantium from this early founder. After Constantine I became sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 324AD he moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium and later renamed the city Constantinople. By 330AD Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire and Constantinople was dedicated as capital of the Byzantine Empire. However, the heyday for beautiful architecture seen today was under the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century A.D. He built new city walls, some of which are still standing today. This period of history from the time of Justinian is known today as the Byzantine period.
In the old part of Istanbul on the European side on a hill facing the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus, we visited the museum Hagia Sophia (which means Holy Wisdom), a beautiful World Heritage Site. The present building was the third building built on the site where the first building was a basilica built in 390AD, but it burned. The church was rebuilt in the second century but was destroyed by an earthquake. In 537 Justinian rebuilt the church as the magnificent structure we see today. It became the center of the Greek Orthodox Church, comparable to The Vatican in Rome, after the Catholic Religion divided. However, the Muslim Arab Ottomon soldiers arrived, and in 1453 Mehmed II captured Constantinople then turned Hagia Sophia into a Mosque. He granted religious tolerance to the conquered Christians and instead of destroying the Christian statues and frescoes in Hagia Sophia, he plastered over them as he turned this masterpiece of architecture into the Mosque. In the 20th Century when Turkey became a secular republic and during the restoration of Hagia Sophia the plaster was removed to reveal the original Christian décor in beautiful condition. Today visitors can see both the Christian and Moslem symbols throughout this huge edifice, which is distinguished by its four minarets.
Just across the plaza from Hagia Sophia we removed our shoes to enter the Blue Mosque, built in the 17th Century by Sultan Ahmet I. It is called the Blue Mosque because of the fantastic blue tiles that adorn the walls. The inside of this mosque, considered the most beautiful of all mosques in the world, has walls that are covered with exquisite blue tiles, handmade in a way that cannot be duplicated today. This mosque has six minarets representing the six 6 articles of Islamic faith which are: (Moslems must worship only Allah; believe Mohamed is His messenger; must give alms; must pray 5 times a day after cleansing; must journey to Mecca once; must each year observe the 30-day fast called Ramadan) All visitors must dress modestly and remove their shoes; women need to cover their heads only if worshipping.
We stood in the huge Hippodrome, originally built by the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus in 203AD to hold 100.000 spectators for horse races and games, but later 50,000 people were killed in this place, a tragedy ending its use for these sporting events. In the area which was once the Hippodrome we viewed the Egyptian Obelisk that came from Karnak in Egypt and sent by the Roman governor of Alexandria to Theodosius I in 390AD. Also, in the area of the Hippodrome can be seen the Serpentine Column, which is a huge bronze structure of three entwined serpents, made as a tribute by the Greek cities for the defeat of the Persians and brought from Delphi to Constantinoble by Constantine I in the 4th Century AD.
We also visited the Topkapi Palace, which stands not far from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Otomans built Topkapi Palace in this their capital city and thousands of tulips were planted and are still the symbol of Turkey, costing 6 million lire each year to re-plant! The palace housed 5,000 residents as a city within a city and extends over 170 acres. The Sultans through the centuries held absolute rule, and 21 of the 26 Sultans of the Ottoman Empire lived one after the other in this palace until the 20th Century. We spent hours going through this beautiful and vast palace, which is actually made up of numerous buildings within palace walls.

There are collections of clothing, furniture, art, weapons, and many other articles reminiscent of the power and wealth of these mighty rulers. We found most fascinating two museums there. One holds Holy Relics from Jewish, Christian, and Moslem faiths, such as the sword of Mohamed and the staff of Moses, and the finger of John the Baptist, and many more items. The other museum displays, under heavy security, were the treasures of the Sultans, including a chest overflowing with huge emeralds, a gem-laden gold dagger, many jewels, crowns, gold pieces, and a 86 carat diamond surrounded by other diamonds. Our minds kept telling us these had to be replicas, but they were real! The many walkways, arches, fountains, and rooms of Topkapi Palace invite the imagination to picture the lavishly dressed Emperial families and the humble servants who strolled these grounds for centuries.
Although hot in summer (and air conditioning is not plentiful) Turkey is beautiful at all seasons with flowering trees, bulbs, and roses everywhere. In spring when we were there wildflowers, pansies and tulips bloomed in profusion. Local residents shop at Istanbul’s Spice Market, a large, clean “mall” of exotic scents and arrays of color with all kinds of spices, fruits, nuts, grains, and handmade items beautifully displayed. We made our selections from the most popular Turkish spices: black pepper, cumin, oregano, mint, paprika, chili, mild red pepper, sour sumak for salads (not poisonous), mixed spice for meatballs. Of course visitors must taste Turkish coffee, apple tea, strong Turkish tea in the little glasses without handles, and various flavors of Turkish delight candies. Here is also where residents buy henna for painting hands and hair in different tones from black to red.
The much larger Grand Bazaar, occupying a building built between 1455-1461 by Sultan Mehmet the conqueror of Constantinoble, is a warren of 4,000 shops and 14 main numbered gates. We had dreaded the experience because in other countries the vendors mobbed us and followed us until we could not bear the shopping experience, but in Turkey this shopping is delightful and so interesting! It is almost like going to a mall, but the building by dating to the 15th century makes you fell that you are traveling back to an exotic time. Each kiosk is filled with different items, many of which are handmade, and all of which are Turkish in design and construction. Bargaining is expected, and you can walk away and have the price reduced by as much as 50%. This is the ideal place for souvenirs and items you just like. But we were advised that to buy fine jewelry here could be a mistake.
Be sure to have a meal at one of the excellent fish restaurants on the Bosphorus. And try Efez beer, the Turkish favorite. We enjoyed the gypsy band, which performs in the various restaurants and selects various on-lookers to learn the gypsy dances with them. A lot of fun! We found Istanbul, one of the oldest, most fascinating and beautiful cities in the world, to be near the top of the list of our favorites!

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Just as our plane circled and began its descend toward a landing at the Kathmandu airport, I began to see out of my window the rugged, snowcapped peaks of the Himalaya mountain range and felt a surge of excitement and wonder at actually finally being able to visit a place that had always held an almost mystical image for me. The line of Himalayan peaks vanished as our plane dove down through the clouds that I would later learn were made up of air pollution as well as water vapor.

The director and guide, Arvind, of our SmarTours tour did a wonderful job of coordinating everything from customs to visas to collection of our bags at the Kathmandu International Airport terminal, and we were on our bus and headed for our hotel in no time, passing through the dusty streets of Nepal’s capital city with its population of over two million people. My idea of Kathmandu being somewhat of a magical city in the foothills of the Himalayas began to be dampened by the rundown look of the buildings and houses we passed and the traffic congestion. There seemed to be the same problem of trash disposal that we had encountered throughout India, and there was a general lack of prosperity in the looks of the crowds of local residents gathered at the market areas.

As in India, when we arrived at the location of our hotel, our bus had to go through guarded gates in order to enter the hotel grounds. Once through the gates, we were greeted to the beautiful surroundings of Soaltee Crown Plaza Hotel. We spent the rest of the afternoon settling into the hotel and visiting the numerous shops that were on the grounds. That evening we wandered down past the large swimming pool area where we had supper at Al Fresca Italian Restaurant, one of the many restaurants on the hotel grounds, and had the best meal ever: lasagna and prawn ravioli, local beer, soup, water and delicious eggplant spread for bread.

After a restful evening we were up and ready to experience Kathmandu and its surrounding areas. We suppose that in order to feel independent and self-sufficient India sets time 30 minutes off from the rest of the world, and Nepal differs another fifteen minutes, so we never knew exactly what time it was. We were so surprised to find that this city, for which we brought all our winter warmest clothes, long underwear, and heavy coats, is about 75 F degrees, so we are in shirtsleeves here at 5,000 feet above sea level at the end of November! Is this global warming?? We are definitely here at the optimum time of year for tourists.
We boarded our bus and headed across the city to our first stop, which would be the Tibetan Buddhist Stupa (shrine/temple) and the area where the Tibetan refugees had settled after China’s take over of Tibet. Along the way Arvind introduced us to Deepak who would be our local guide. Deepak gave us a lot of information about Kathmandu and Nepal in general. Nepal has a population of about 30 million. The entire small country is only 58,000 square miles: 950 miles long, 100-150 miles wide, and most of it is in the high Himalayas and their valleys. Hindus comprise 75%, Buddhists 20%, other religions 5%. The main business is agriculture on small, hand-tilled farms terraced along the mountainsides and in the many Himalayan valleys.
On arriving at the Tibetan center, we walked through an elaborate gate and were confronted with the large, white dome topped with steeple with large eyes painted on each of the four sides. This Stupa is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and housing for Tibetan refugees. The United Nations has been very helpful with the Tibetan refugees who fled over the mountain when the Chinese took over Tibet. At Tibetan monasteries we do not remove shoes. We climbed to the roof of the weird domed worship building. The Stupa is centered in the large square with its eyes watching everything.
We visited a school for artists that were being taught how to paint Mandalas. The Mandalas were very detailed and done with magnificent color. After spending a couple of hours shopping in the many Tibetan shops, we boarded the bus again and traveled a short distance to a stop along the river at the Pashu Pathinath section of Nepal.
The Pashu Pathinath has the holiest Shiva Temple in the world. After a short walk along the Batmati River we came to the cremation area that was located on the opposite side of the river where a raised concrete set of platforms were occupied with various groups preparing and starting funeral pyres. We were told that the Batmati River eventually reached the Ganges River. As we watched, poor women carried huge loads of wood on their back across the river to the funeral pyres. Other than family members of those being cremated only holy people and the firewood carriers are allowed to cross the bridge to the place of cremations. We stayed across the river from the cremation area, but the smell of the smoke, and the filth along the river and around the site created a sickening feeling to most of us.
However, here on the side of the river where we had come to view the cremations we encountered the bizarre Sadhus, the most holy people, who sat at the base of a small shrine clothed in white rag wraps with painted faces and Rastifarian hair which is never washed or cut. They are stoned and with big grins hold out their hands for money. They are the only people who are allowed to use drugs legally in the form of marijuana or hemp.
Varanasi (which was formerly Benares) and Pashu Pathinath are the most holy Hindu places in the world. The legend about Pashu Pathinath is that 2,000 years ago this was a pasture for cows. There was a certain pile of stones where one cow was always milked and gave her milk freely. One day a cowherd was angry because this cow would not give milk. He threw a stone and it bled. The royal priests and authorities came to see the bleeding stone and declared it a holy place and built the Shiva Temple here.

Part of our group chose to travel out of Kathmandu that afternoon to visit some mountain villages where a great deal of Nepal farming takes place. Our bus took us up the very narrow, s-curved mountain road on a trip which had us sometimes feeling that we were hanging out over a cliff at each curve. We arrived at Nagarcort climbing some 6,500 feet above Kathmandu’s 4,500 feet in altitude. The journey took us passed typical mountain houses and tiny villages with terraced farms covering the hillsides. We stopped at a quiet resort, where upper class Nepalese come from the city for the weekend. Here we took a break and had tea and gazed out at the distant peaks of the Himalayas covered with snow. We were high enough to be above the smog of the city, which is rife with coal smoke from many factories in the valley and thick fumes of cars.
After tea we hiked down a little dirt road, which slowly descended past typical farmhouses. The tour company had made agreements with the people on this path for us to visit and take photographs. We went into one home, which had a beautiful garden and a view looking over the terraced hillsides. The home was stucco with dirt floors and neat, with only room for sleeping mats and the few possessions, clothes on hooks on the walls, and baskets of grains etc. around. Goats and other animals were in each yard. This was quite an opportunity to see real Himalayan life, which is constant work to maintain food and shelter. Although the families had been paid, the children still followed us and begged a little, showing how they could roll a small hoop with a stick. After winding our way out of the mountains, we returned to Kathmandu and our hotel, settling in for a nice restful evening.

The next morning many of us were up early to go to the airport to take a plane ride up to view Mt. Everest. The planes that were to take us held 16 passengers and each passenger had a window view. We were not sure we would get to go up as everything depended on the weather being right. The cost of taking the trip up to Everest and then back was $200 per person, but we knew we more than likely would not be back, and this was our one chance in our lifetime to actually see the tallest peak in the world. The flights for the last two days had been canceled, so as we stood waiting in the crowded domestic terminal, we kept our fingers crossed for good luck. After waiting nearly two hours, the sun came through the clouds and we fortunately were taxied out onto the runway and were off.
When we cleared the Kathmandu smog and the light cloud cover, we began to see the line of Himalayan peaks stretching as far as we could see from the west to the east. The plane climbed to an altitude of about 20,000 feet and headed northeast, bringing the mountains ever closer. There was a state of awe for all aboard as we viewed the vastness of so many towering peaks. As we neared Mt. Everest, the stewardess took each of us individually to the cockpit so we could view the mighty mountain out of the front of the plane. Everest was capped with a halo shaped cloud, but we could see most of the mountain and the roughed terrain that leads up to it. The pilot circled so everyone got a good view of the mountain and could take all the pictures we wanted. We then flew back to the west, again able to view the panorama of the Himalayas all the way back to Kathmandu.

Right after arriving back at our hotel the rest of the tour met us in the lobby, and we prepared to head out again to take in more of the sights of the Kathmandu area. We were driven through the main center of Kathmandu with central bus lines, market, military parade ground, Queen’s pool, theater, Nepalase movies, and we drove through this big commercial center, which looks fairly new. The former pink palace now is the Narayanhti Palace Muesum where the drunk son of the king picked up a rifle and killed his father and mother, brother and sister and then himself. His uncle arrived and became king for short time before the Communist Maoist party won the last democratic election.
After our drive through the central part of Kathmandu, we arrived at Bakau or Bakatapur City, fifteen kilometers east of Kathmandu toward the Tibetan border. This is one of most historic cities in Kathmandu Valley. The former palace and many Hindu temples of differing construction in brick and wood are around a huge courtyard or central square. The tall pagoda of intricately carved teak wood was built 300 or more years ago. The famous Mala Dynasty Palace of 55 Windows also has amazing carved window and door-frames and a tall Golden Gate entrance. This place was a separate kingdom/city state for a thousand years from the 9th to the 18th Centuries and was the golden period for art and architecture. It is now a World Heritage Site, and we seemed be visiting all the World Heritage sites of the areas being visited during International World Heritage week. The Little Buddha movie was filmed here. We enjoyed lunch of “safe” and not spicy tomato soup, fried rice and beer, at the Palace Restaurant Bhaktapurnot, which also had a clean restroom. We are grateful for small blessings! The rest of the afternoon we were free to tour the area and shop at the many shops in the area. After a very exciting and interesting day we returned to our hotel for another relaxing evening.
The next day was our last day, and we started out at the famous and ancient Durban Palace, which has a statue of the Monkey God, Hanauman. Nearby, we walked through the small courtyard at the 17th Century House of the Living Goddess, a peculiar tradition in this culture. A group of girls aged four to six years are gathered, the most beautiful one, perfect without any flaws, is choosen from these. The one that is selected to be the Living Goddess holds this distention until she reaches puberty. She must be able to stay in a dark room without fear, and her horoscope must match that of the ruler of Nepal, which in past years was the king. The little girl selected is brought to this house, and it is believed that the soul of the goddess comes to reside within her. Her parents can visit during the day, but she stays with her guardians at night. When she reaches puberty she is replaced and leaves this lonely place of honor. After she retires as a teen she gets permanent monetary support from the government.

We returned to the hotel by late afternoon quite tired. It was time to repack and make a few purchases at the shops near the hotel. Our farewell dinner was a typical Nepalese meal at a former Buddhist monastery in a very old and charming building. We were served small portions of many different favorite local dishes while we watched a group of performers playing traditional crude musical instruments, including strings, drum, horn, and box accordion. The pairs of dancers dressed in colorful traditional Himalayan village costumes performed several dances, which have been part of local celebrations since time immemorial. Normally the meal would be for guests seated on the floor, but tourists are given a table.

We were to leave in the morning on an Air India plane for Delhia, India, and then on to the United States. But when we got to the airport and after waiting for several hours, we were informed that our flight had been canceled. Our tour director Arvind had to get our baggage back and our visas redone as well as get us rebooked on a flight the next day and then find us hotel rooms for the night. Arvind did an amazing job of arranging everything. Because the majority of our tour group were ticketed to go straight on back to the US on a connecting flight in Delhi, Arvind also had to get the SmarTours agency to spend most of the evening getting everyone rebooked on flights back to the US the next day. Amazingly everything worked out, and we were headed back to the US the next evening after a wonderfully interesting journey through India and Nepal.