Welcome! (You are not logged in)
 

Bill Altaffer's Posts
Bill has posted 8 reports and 0 photos.

Existing reports and photos: (Mouseover any camera icon for sample images. Click on any camera icon for all images)
 


Australian Capital Territory Visit: 2010-6
2010-07-21 - Cruising The Kimberley

by Bill Altaffer, San Diego





In June 2010, a group of 81 Australians and 2 Americans arrived in Broome, Western Australia, eager to embark on a 10-day expedition cruise on the MV Orion along the Kimberley Coast to Darwin. The Orion is a purpose-built ship, capable of exploring the bays and inlets of this dramatically beautiful, unspoiled coastline, home of salt-water crocodiles, pearl farms and Aboriginal rock art.



Included in the cruise package was one night in Broome’s only 5-star resort hotel, the Pinctada at Cable Beach. This luxurious, very comfortable hotel is located near Broome’s historical China Town with its many cafes, pearl stores and colorful gift shops. Broome, with a population of about 15,000, is the largest town in The Kimberley, the 164,000 square mile area that comprises the upper part of Western Australia. The entire population of The Kimberley, about the size of California, is estimated to be 38,000. There are only two paved roads that traverse this very sparsely populated, largely undeveloped area.



After a restful night at the Pinctada, our luggage was whisked off to be loaded onto the Orion while we spent time exploring China Town before being bused to the dock to board the ship. We all know people who seem to travel to complain. If a person had complaints about the Orion, he would surely be someone impossible to please and his complaints would fall on deaf ears. Perhaps there are less than a dozen expedition cruise lines worldwide, providing all levels of service. Orion is at the top of the spectrum in every way. As a veteran of approximately 20 expedition cruises with most of the different cruise lines, I feel qualified to say that no one does a better job than Orion did for us. The entire ship is exquisite and opulent, beautifully designed with class and function to provide a 5-star experience. All staterooms, even the lower-priced ones, are large and roomy, with queen size beds, elegant furnishings, flat screen TVs and DVD players. We were able to keep up with world news (BBC and CNN) and could borrow DVDs from the well-stocked library. The bathrooms, elegantly appointed, have home-sized glass-enclosed showers. They are stocked with all the amenities, including superior quality three-ply toilet paper. The dining room, lounge and library are just as beautiful as the staterooms. All public areas are decorated with very good quality art, including paintings, sculptures and carvings.Another classy feature is the glass elevator, surrounded by a circular staircase. Every detail and furnishing of the ship speaks of quality, reminiscent of aluxurious, 5-star hotel. I tried to find a fingerprint on the glass, bronze, chrome and mirrored surfaces, but the Orion staff kept these immaculately free of smudges.



The ship has a spa with masseuse, a gym, a sauna, a beauty salon, an outdoor café and two lounges. Its library, besides multitudes of books and DVDs, is stocked with a large assortment of board games. The boutique carries all the necessities as well as a very nice assortment of clothing items and jewelry, including Paspaley pearls. Its upper sundeck has a large jacuzzi. Its lecture hall is the nicest, most comfortable and most efficient I have seen on any ship. All decks have handicapped access. The ship also boasts an embarkation platform for zodiac operations. In short, the ship itself was lacking in nothing.



Food on board was exceptional in quality and variety. The menu, always exquisitely prepared, was created by the chef of one of Australia’s finest restaurants (Serge Dansereau of Bathers Pavillion, Balmoral Beach, Sydney). Any and all diets were taken into account. For the passengers with food allergies or issues, substitutions and special foods were provided without any fuss. The staff was always aware of who needed a special item, for example gluten-free toast, and that item would appear without the passenger even asking for it. That was very impressive, considering the number of passengers and the logistics involved. Details are Orion. Nothing was overlooked or forgotten. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the individual attention to detail in the culinary area is in Orion’s coffee. Even for breakfast, there were no coffee pots full of mass-produced coffee waiting to be poured. When requested, each cup of coffee was brewed individually using high-end Italian espresso machines. Each cup was always perfectly delicious.



All expedition cruises include lecturers. Orion is no different. We had great lectures on history, Aboriginal culture/rock art and geology. In my experience, no expedition cruises include entertainment. In this, Orion is different. We had a singing piano player who performed during Happy Hour and after dinner. He was excellent. Other amenities: towels placed on the sides of zodiacs for us to sit on, sun block and insect repellent on the embarkation platform, and even sanitizing hand cleaner in all the rooms and strategic spots around the ship, including the dining room. The Filipino crew could not do enough for us. Since Australians do not customarily tip, tipping was not expected on the Orion. Therefore, the crew’s friendliness and attention to our comfort was genuine and not based on the expectation of monetary reward. Our cruise of 83 people was served by 76 staff and crew, a ratio that insured excellent care.



Mike Taylor, the ship’s Scottish captain now living in Miami, was a very colorful and friendly addition to the experience. He would join us frequently, in particular at the buffet breakfasts and lunches on the back deck. He commented that most cruise ships in today’s world are focused inwardly. The ship itself has become the experience, providing ice skating, rock climbing, surfing on board, Broadway shows and shopping, just for starters. The cruise destination hardly matters. But Orion is different. Orion passengers are pampered and couldn’t be more comfortable on board, but the focus of the cruise is on outward experiences. The Kimberley coast is a perfect itinerary for such a ship.



Every day along the coast, we had disembarkations or zodiac cruises that were included in the itinerary. In addition, at most of the locations, there were optional excursions that could be enjoyed for costs ranging from $60 to $475 (Australian). In most of these cases, every effort was made to insure that a person could participate in the included activity as well as the optional one. This was possible with very few exceptions, in spite of logistical difficulties. One of the interesting optional activities was fishing. A professional fishing guide, along with his fishing boat, was on board. Each day, his boat was unloaded from the Orion for a morning and an afternoon fishing excursion for 2-4 participants each time. Another feature unique to Orion, in my experience, was a tender in addition to the multitude of zodiacs for the daily excursions. For those individuals who were physically challenged by getting in and out of a zodiac, or who preferred to be under shade rather than in the tropical sun, or for whatever reason, the tender was available. It could not go quite everywhere the zodiacs went, but allowed people to experience nearly as much instead of remaining on board as they would have done otherwise. As for the zodiacs, uniquely in my experience, they were outfitted with seats when the excursion involved long zodiac cruising. Yes! Seats! Very comfortable bench seats with backrests! These were securely tied into the zodiacs, three to a zodiac. While each seat could have held 3 people, Orion’s policy is to load no more than 6 people in a seated zodiac for maximum enjoyment of the experience. This enhanced the cruising more than I can express, providing comfort that was very easy to get used to.



After departing Broome in the afternoon of June 10, we sailed toward Cape Leveque for our first zodiac landing the next day. This would be our only chance to enjoy a beach during the cruise due to the presence of salt-water crocodiles(salties) everywhere else. Cape Leveque is a stunningly pristine, miles-long expanse of sparkling white sand with a backdrop of dunes and the red-orange sandstone features of the Cape. It is Aboriginal land, so we were not allowed to wander back into the dunes. There was plenty of beachfront to explore, for a very pleasant and relaxing experience. The water was crystal clear and refreshing, perfect for swimming. It was an idyllic afternoon in a true tropical paradise. Of course, the Orion staff was on hand under a big blue umbrella with water, juice and sunblock for the duration.



The next day, Saturday June 12, we were in Talbot Bay, home of the Horizontal Waterfalls. The entire Kimberley Coast is a geologist’s dream. The red sandstone cliffs keep a dramatic record of forces and processes that occurred overmillions of years, including sedimentary layering, up-thrusting, folding and buckling. Every cliff has visible layers of rock, some tilted vertically and folder back over, creating a very beautiful, unique landscape. At Talbot Bay, there are two rows of sandstone cliffs with narrow gaps in them, allowing water to flow between the rows of cliffs and behind onto the shore. The tidal bore of this area is the third largest in the world, with daily tides of 30 feet. When these huge quantities of water surge through these narrow gaps, the result is the dramatic Horizontal Falls. The water cannot flow through the gaps as rapidly as the tidal forces move it, which creates cascades through the gaps, with water levels differing by several yards on either side. Another highlight of this perfectly enjoyable cruise in our seated zodiacs was spinning in whirlpools and vortices when we cruised between the two cliffs. Due to the specific geology of the area between the cliffs, the tidal forces created these whirlpools in one area. They formed and then died out, over and over. We cruised between them and on their edges and occasionally right into them for an experience unlike any I had ever had before. In addition to its geological uniqueness, Talbot Bay also has significant bird life and gave us our first sighting of a salty. Before heading back to the ship, we managed to puncture one of the chambers of our zodiac. Orion staff cleverly created a temporary patch using bandages from the first aid kit.



The following day, we disembarked at Raft Point for a steep climb up to view old Aboriginal rock art in a saddle of rock high above the sea. This outdoor artgallery depicted an account of the mythical Wandjinas on a Great Fish Chase and was well worth the climb. The opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics included a huge Wandjina spirit with its distinctive halo. We also saw our firstboab trees at the landing site. These are related to the baobabs of Africa and Madagascar and appear alien in form, much as the Wandjinas do. Staff, set up under their blue umbrealla, provided hiking sticks and sunblock at the beginning of the climb. At our return, they were ready for us with juice and water.



The afternoon zodiac cruise at Montgomery Reef was another unique experience. The reef is huge, covering 400 square kilometers, and is submerged during high tides. We boarded our seated zodiacs and began cruising away from the shipthrough what appeared to be completely open water. Before long, the tide began to go out. This was soon apparent as the top of the reef began to appear before our eyes. Soon, water was rushing off the reef, forming streams and cascades in a raging torrent. It became obvious that we were in a channel with reef on either side of us. As the water continued to flow off the reef, numerous birds (egrets, cormorants and sandpipers) landed on it, foraging for sea life trapped on the reef.As much as 15 feet of reef can be exposed at low tide. We cruised the channel,watching the amazing sight of the reef continuing to emerge until the sun was low in the sky, then headed back toward the ship. We took a small detour around a sandy island that had appeared with the lowering of the tide where, to our surprise, we found Orion staff esconced under their big blue umbrella, waiting to hand us more refreshments, a very nice ending to a fascinating and uniqueafternoon.



By the following morning, we had arrived at our next destination, Mitchell River National Park, one of the nation’s newest and most inaccessible parks. The Mitchell Plateau is scenic as well as biologically important, including small patches of rainforest along its margins and open woodlands growing aroundvalleys and by creeks. The park contains 50 species of mammals, 220 species of birds and 86 kinds of reptiles. The day’s optional activity was a helicopter flight to Mitchell Falls. The included activity was an exploration of the mangrove environments of the Hunter River and Porosus Creek, seen comfortably from the bench seats of our zodiacs. Since each zodiac with seats is limited to 6 passengers and the cruise lasted almost 3 hours, we were split in half for morning and afternoon cruising. Due to the wild tidal fluctuations, the morning groupzipped among and between mangrove trees, their upper portions emerging fromthe water, while the afternoon group cruised by the same trees, now completely exposed on mudflats. Both groups saw numerous salties and abundant bird life. Our zodiac came across a young Osprey perched on the twiggy top of a dead tree, about 6-8 feet above the water. He did not fly off, even though two more zodiacs joined us and we drifted to within a yard of him several times, giving us the best looks at an Osprey that any birder could hope for. The backdrop for this amazing experience was the ever-beautiful red sandstone cliff that lines the gorge created by the river.



After cruising along the coast overnight, we arrived at Vansittart Bay where we had two landings. In the morning, we took a short guided walk away from the beach to the site of a crashed C-53 bomber, a relic from World War II. In the afternoon, we cruised over to Jar Island where we visited two Aboriginal rock art galleries. These were in the Gwion Gwion style, also referred to as the Bradshaw style, completely different from the Wandjina art we had seen earlier.



By the following morning, we had arrived at the mouth of the King George Riverwhere helicopter rides to the Falls were an optional activity. Those who opted to enjoy only the included activity had two options. Both options started with a zodiac excursion to the river’s double waterfalls, a trip that took a good hour each way, including side trips up canyons for the scenery, wildlife and birds. The more hardy group disembarked their zodiacs a distance below the falls toscramble up the nearly vertical wall in what was a difficult climb over tumbled boulders and through vegetation. At the top, a walk of about half a mile brought these intrepid people to the top of the first of the two falls. There was time for exploring and swimming in the pools there. Most people crossed the first river, then made their way across the broken landscape so they could also enjoy the view from the top of the second, much larger, waterfall. After about an hour, the group clambered back down the steep climb to the waiting zodiacs where they were told not to put on their life jackets. Both the climbing and non-climbing zodiacs headed towards the falls. When we were near the falls, we rounded an outcropping of rock. There, hidden from our approach, we found Orion staff in a zodiac under their blue umbrella with a tray of champagne flutes half-filled with orange juice. At our arrival, they popped open a bottle of champagne with great ceremony, finished filling the flutes and handed them to us along with delicious ham and cheese croissants. This was completely unexpected, instantly changing the mood from mere pleasure to festive gaiety. As we ate and drank, we cruisedaround close to the falls, enjoying the sheer beauty and majesty of the location. We were then instructed to gather up our life jackets and all other items that needed to stay dry. Those were handed off to another zodiac so that we could zipunder the smaller of the falls! The squeals and laughter from each zodiac under the blast of cold water only added to the festivity. Finally, we retrieved our dry items and returned down the river, again enthralled by the unspoiled, majestic beauty of the gorge.



The next morning found us at an actual dock at an actual town, Wyndham, the northernmost town in Western Australia and the first sign of human habitation we had seen for a week. With a population of only 1,300, Wyndham served as the gateway to our day’s adventure. Shuttle buses operated hourly from the ship to tour the few points of interest in the town. Each person had to choose one of two available, included options: either a cruise down the Ord River to Lake Argyle or a scenic flight over the Bungle Bungles. Those who chose the river cruise spoke highly of their adventure. I opted for the flight. Our group was bused to the local airport where we boarded small airplanes, 4 passengers to each one, so that each person had a window. The windows were specially constructed with curved glass so that you could look straight down easily. The flight took about 2 ½ hours, with continuous commentary from the pilot. Some of the points of interestwe saw were the Texas Downs Station, a huge cattle ranch shaped like Texas; the Argyle Diamond mine, the world’s largest, producing 20-25% of the world’s diamonds and 90% of the world’s pink diamonds, and very impressive from the air with its Tonka-toy trucks and layer-cake levels; Lake Argyle, the largest man-made lake in Australia; and the Bungle Bungles, sandstone towers uniquelyformed by erosion into layered beehive-shaped domes. The Bungle Bungles, covering 45,000 hectares, were only discovered in 1982 and became a World Heritage Listed site in 2003. We flew over them for about 20 minutes, amazed at the unique and beautiful landscape underneath us. Eventually, we landed at the small airport in Kununurra where our bus waited to return us to Wyndham, approximately an hour’s drive. Our driver provided commentary on the history and points of interest of the area. Much of the movie “Australia,” starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackson, had been filmed there. The approximately 400 people involved in the filming had lived in trailers for about 4 months, quite a diversion for the small population living in the area.



The next two days were spent at sea, in a curiously pointless cruise to East Timor and back. This was necessitated by recent changes in Australian law. If we would not have had an international destination under the new laws, the ship would not have been considered a “cruise” ship. This would have meant that all the Filipino staff would have been required to obtain Australian work permits, an unworkable requirement. So, to satisfy the new law, we spent two days in the rougher waters of the Timor Sea before arriving in Darwin for our disembarkation. For me, those two days were an enjoyable time of relaxing, reading, watching TV, attending lectures and slide shows and visiting with my fellow passengers. The dynamics of the people can make or break a cruise. I can not say enough in praise of the Australians that shared this cruise with me. They included the elite of Australian society and were some of the nicest, most congenial, most interesting and friendliest people I have ever traveled with. Sharing conversation with them was a highlight of the cruise. I’m afraid that all my future cruises will have a triple benchmark to live up to: first, the Orion itself, a perfect ship with a perfect staff who attended to every detail and pampered while providing a true expedition experience; second, the incredible, unspoiled and beautifully pristine Kimberley Coast, where each day brought a new, unique experience unlike anything elsewhere in the world; and third, thequality of my fellow passengers, who were, without exception, friendly, pleasant, approachable and easy to be with.



Orion’s motto is “A Path Less Traveled.” For those in search of unique, stunning scenery, pristine environments and out-of-the way places, Orion is for you. And if you would like to be pampered while on an expedition, if you enjoy delicious meals shared with interesting, fun companions, Orion will more than satisfy you. You can examine their website at www.orionexpeditions.com. They can be contacted at:



Orion Expedition Cruises

26 Ridge Street

North Sydney

New South Wales 2060

Australia

Reservations: +61 2 9033 8788




Korea, North Visit: 2007-4
2007-10-11 - I first stepped inside DPKR in 1989 when that was all you could do. Today I have been 3 times, and rejected 5 times, the latest being Sep. 2007. I got all the was to Beijing and then got the NO.
Nov. 11 , 2005 I made the front page col. ONE of the LA Times, followed up by 2006 being on the Rita Cosby show with MSNBC.
I only have good things to say about a trip to NK.
The capitol is very attractive. Clean and safe. It also has the most parks of any world capitol. The hotels can be 4star, resturants are fine. Museums are unbelieable.
You must see it for yourself.
The best thing the DPRK can do is to increase the number of day Americans can stay beyond 3.
Its the most exotic country one can travel to.
I am a member of the Republican party for life and I will go again and again.



Korea, South (mainland) Visit: 2005-10
2010-04-28 - CORRECTION: Title displays article written about South Korea but this article is actually containing NORTH KOREA information.

A rare look into North Korea

In early October ’05, I learned that North Korea, otherwise known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, had begun allowing Americans to obtain tourist visas. As North Korea had long been closed to Westerners, I jumped on the opportunity and signed up for a tour, Oct. 7-15, with Universal Travel System.

Along with a buddy, I made my way to Beijing, China, where, after a 3-day process, we received our visas from the North Korean Embassy. If we had not previously been screened by their government a year earlier for a trip the North Korean government had then canceled for no apparent reason, the visa process probably would have been more difficult.

We joined the remaining three tour members and boarded a Russian jet for our 2-hour flight to P’yongyang, North Korea. In addition to our small group of paying tourists, the plane was packed with journalists from all over the world, all abuzz with the excitement of a rare visit to this mysterious country.

We landed at a modern, very clean terminal where, on entry (as well as on our subsequent exit from North Korea), the officials refused to stamp our passports. Before leaving the terminal, we relinquished our cell phones with the promise that they would be returned to us at our departure.

We then drove out onto a modern highway that took us by hundreds of ultramodern buildings made of granite and marble.

Our first stop was the state circus, where we were treated to an excellent performance. Upon leaving, we noticed that it had become very quiet and dark on the streets of P’yongyang. We were taken to the area called Restaurant Row for a meal that was good, as were all of our meals during our stay.

After dinner, we were deposited in the elegant, 3-story lobby of the Koryu Hotel, a solid 5-star property. The hotel was actually two 45-story towers, each topped with a revolving restaurant. Modern escalators on both sides of the marble-inlaid floor of the lobby led up to a restaurant and shop and down to a basement complete with swimming pool and all of the amenities.

Our rooms were very modern, large and clean. We found that our TVs could receive one station during the week; it broadcast a continuous program of revolutionary themes. On the weekend, a second station was available with more of the same. The hotel had no Internet service.

My first impression that day, which did not change throughout our short visit, was that I felt very comfortable and safe in P’yongyang. No area that we saw there, or saw later as we toured away from the city, had any slum or rough area to avoid after dark. What other city in the world can claim that?

All that night, as was true every night of our stay there, we could hear melodic music being broadcast hourly from the railroad station; it was very pleasant. Each morning at 7:00 we were awakened by a loud air-raid siren. On the first day, from my room 30-plus stories up, I looked down at the people beginning to stir on the streets and saw a child alone on a park swing.

Later that first morning our local guide, Jong, along with the government official who would also accompany us on our outings, met us in the lobby. Jong informed us that we were going to have a lot on our plate during the next four days, since we would be seeing as much as could possibly be crammed in. He said, “Don’t complain about it!”

His warning was prophetic. I was soon overwhelmed by the stimuli I was receiving from this truly foreign land. It was as different and unfamiliar to me as if I had landed on Mars and was experiencing Martian culture for the first time.

Our first stop that day was at the monument to Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, where flowers were an obligatory offering. No bronze or marble had been spared in the creation of this monument. The sculptures were as fine as any in classical Europe.

Kim’s son, Kim Jong Il, is the General and Dear Leader of North Korea. His portrait, in the form of a red pin, adorns every citizen of the country. He is the author of the Juche Idea, a philosophy that covers all aspects of life. He even created a calendar that is unique in the world — year number 1 is the Great Leader’s year of birth, and each year begins on his birthday.

The Dear Leader wears many hats. We were told that he was also the architect responsible for the design of P’yongyang, a very well-planned city. Within its limits, there must be half a dozen giant stadiums, each capable of holding 120,000 people. There are at least a dozen galleries and an equal number of different types of museums throughout the city.
In the Fatherland Liberation War Museum, we were shown jars of what was purported to be American nerve gas and germ warfare. One section of this massive museum was devoted to the American involvement in the Korean War. Dozens of American tanks, destroyed warplanes and crashed helicopters occupied the basement. Also on display were 15 Russian MiGs which had been used by North Korea during the war.

A large model of the infamous ship USS Pueblo was on display. Later that day we visited the Pueblo itself at its permanent anchor on the river. Originally a war prize, it is now a museum.

After watching a propaganda film, we were given a tour of the ship, where over 80 Americans had been captured and held prisoner. Jong, with four of our cameras draped around his neck, photographed us there. In a rare display of humor, he said, “After I take these pictures, I am going to throw these cameras in the river!”

Eighty-four percent of the North Korean landscape is mountainous. The word p’yongyang means “flat land.”

The second night, we left the “flat land” and drove north, almost to the Chinese border. There, the highway came to an abrupt dead end at the base of a modern, 20-story, pyramid-shaped hotel, our lodgings for the night. Early the next morning I watched perhaps 150 soldiers in brown uniforms marching past the hotel. Taking their picture would have gotten me in big trouble.

The main reason for our visit to this beautiful, rustic countryside was to see the International Friendship Hall. It is actually two dramatic buildings sitting side by side, about 90% underground. In these buildings are displayed the countless gifts given to the Great Leader as well as the Dear Leader by other countries, world leaders and famous figures and organizations over the years.

Allowing one minute per exhibit, it would take a year and a half to view all of the exhibits in the 200-plus rooms in the long, high, subterranean halls. We walked for miles underground, viewing gifts from over 170 countries, including a soccer ball from Pelé, a silver bowl from Madeleine Albright and four cars from Stalin’s armored train.

Back in the capital city, we visited its Arch of Triumph, which outsizes its counterpart in Paris. P’yongyang also has the highest stone tower in the world, which is adorned with a torch at the top.

At the other end of the spectrum, we descended into the deep tunnel that leads to the metro. The tunnel was designed to do double duty as a bomb shelter. The metro itself was old but in perfect condition and without graffiti. The seats may have been made of old Naugahyde, but they were pristine.

We visited a giant stadium constructed along the Puthong River, which bisects the city, to see the Arirang, the mass games held every couple of years to commemorate significant anniversaries. These games are huge, choreographed celebrations that are beyond imagination. Acrobats soared hundreds of feet across the stadium. My jaw dropped every time I looked up. The spectacle dwarfed any Olympic opening ceremony I have seen.

These performers, like their fellow countrymen, appear to be the most disciplined people on the face of the Earth. They would have made Hitler proud. The backdrop to the performance was a group of 50,000 children holding up color-coded cards in precise unison.

On the last day of our tour, we drove to Kaesong, site of a major battle in the Korean War, and also to the DMZ at Panmunjom to see the tightest border in the world. Having taken the DMZ trip years ago from the south via Seoul, the north side seemed very relaxed in comparison. However, along the road driving south from P’yongyang, I saw many tall towers designed to stop tanks.

At the beginning of the trip, we had decided as a group that we would encourage our guides to share their genuine feelings with us. What did we learn? The best way to put it is that they hate the American government 10 times more than the Jews hate the Nazis. They have one common enemy: us!

Their animosity toward us is constantly reinforced in museums and monuments that portray the U.S. negatively. During our stay, we were always referred to as “imperialists,” and South Koreans were referred to as “puppets.” There was never any point in arguing with this view. Jong and the state national guides have been taught, and firmly believe, that we Americans are responsible for all of the shortcomings that exist in the DPRK.

When someone in our group mentioned the prosperity in South Korea, Jong replied that North Korea is rich in cultural development. He commented in turn on the phenomenon of American students shooting their teachers, something incomprehensible in his culture.

We had arrived in the DPRK one day after an important anniversary, the 60-year celebration of the creation of North Korea. It had been marked by countless soldiers goose-stepping through Kim Il Sung Square. This military image is often the only view that the outside world, through the news network, receives of North Korea. We got a very different view, including an exhibition of flowers presented to the Dear Leader from across North Korea.

In this communist, totalitarian country, there were gift shops at every local “tourist site.” In the city, every man wore a dark suit. It is a very conservative culture, with many women in the city still wearing the chi ma jogury, a traditional kimono-style dress.

Our visit had included an excellent musical review at the Children’s Palace. There, children are taught arts and crafts as well as how to play most musical instruments.

After we returned to the States, the North Korean government unfortunately reversed its policy again, once more refusing to issue tourist visas to Americans. While this restriction is in place, we will see only military images of this fascinating country. I am glad that I was able to experience its other side for a few days.

With this trip, I had visited all of the world’s capitals. After seeing North Korea, however, the thought of visiting anyplace else seems anticlimactic.

BILL ALTAFFER
Mammoth Lakes, CA

Mr. Altaffer is returning to North Korea in 2006, leading the Sept. 30 departure of a tour with Universal Travel System. In addition to visas ($190), costs are as follows: land portion, sharing, $3,460; single room supplement, $750; Los Angeles-Beijing airfare, $2,923 business class or $1,015 economy class, plus Beijing-P’yongyang-Beijing airfare of $500.


Moscow (City) Visit: 2009-9
2010-02-12 - Siberian Odyssey: Yenisei River Cruise
by Bill Altaffer, Carmel Valley, California

During the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, I did not look forward to going to Soviet Russia. It was difficult traveling there. The hotels and restaurants were uncomfortable and inhospitable. Destinations were highly controlled. It was an ordeal rather than a pleasure. Today I can’t get enough of Russia. I look forward with great anticipation to warm service and fine dining in creative, original boutique restaurants. The thread count of designer sheets in hotels is complemented by the marble décor and modern fixtures in the bathrooms. On this latest trip, our hotel in Moscow was the newly renovated Peter I in walking distance of Red Square. Its indoor swimming pool and spa rival the best anywhere else. More importantly, though still controlled to some extent, travel to most locations is possible with advance preparation.
Monino Aviation Museum

Because our small group of 7, plus tour manager extraordinaire Paul Schwartz, are all veterans of Russian travel, our organized excursions in Moscow avoided the obvious sites. Instead, we visited the Monino Aviation Museum (advance permission and permits required), a prime stop for anyone interested in airplanes and air flight history, though rarely included in tour itineraries. Located at a former Soviet Air Force base, the museum (mostly open air, with hangers housing very old and unique aircraft), is the largest in Russia. It includes the famous Tupelov Tu-95, a huge Cold War bomber called “The Bear,” plenty of MiGs and Yaks as well as the world’s largest helicopter, the MIL-12. Also featured is a multitude of experimental aircraft with unique designs as well as the plane that carried Khrushchev to America, a monster of an aircraft. Even the members of our group who had little knowledge of or interest in airplanes were fascinated with what we saw and appreciated the diversity and variety of aircraft on exhibit.
Cold War Command Post

As a contrast to our warm, sunny morning at Monino, we spent the evening 200 feet below Moscow in the secret secured command post Tagansky, an abandoned relic of the Cold War, originally built to withstand nuclear attack. The 75,000 square-foot space could have sustained 5,000 people for 3 months. Ordered by Stalin in 1951, it took 5 years to build. An interesting film on the Cold War from the Red perspective was shown by a guide dressed in period army uniform. Then following a quite realistic simulated attack by the Imperialistic West, our dinner was served in the bunker.
Perm

The next day, we flew to Perm Krai, an area larger than Great Britain and somewhat autonomous. (You may be aware of the Permian Period, the last part of the Paleozoic Era. Its name came from this region.) The entire area and capital city, Perm, were not included in my old 1990 USSR edition of the Lonely Planet. In fact, most of our journey, eventually reaching deep into the Arctic Circle, was off limits to any foreigner until recently and still requires advance special permission. Like so many of the positive changes one sees in Russia today, our aircraft from Moscow to Perm was new and modern. The 2-hour flight (including a 2-hour time change) was on a private Sibir Airlines S7 301 rather than on a government-owned airline. Perm is known as the Gateway to Siberia. It is located in the western foothills of the Ural Mountains on the Kama River. Technically, due to higher volume of water and more tributaries, the Kama is a larger river than the Volga, a fact not commonly known. Founded in 1723, Perm has been an important industrial and trading city and a major supplier of salt. Dockworkers carried bags of salt on their shoulders, giving rise to the nickname "salty ears" for Perm residents. As we found everywhere else, the people of Perm were very friendly and helpful. Our local guide, Ekaterina, did an outstanding job with her excellent command of the English language. Boris Pasternak lived in Perm when he wrote Dr. Zhivago, using it as his model for the novel’s country town. One of the interesting sites on our city tour was the house that was the inspiration for the location in the novel where Laura first met the doctor.

The countryside of Perm Krai is idyllic. Rolling hills, fields and trees are dotted with small villages. We drove through it on bumpy roads for about 60 miles to Gulag Perm 36. This is the only intact gulag facility left in Russia. Now a small museum, it is a powerful reminder of a dark period in Russia’s history and is being preserved and restored by people dedicated to keeping this history alive so that it will not be repeated. At one time, there were more gulags in Russia than villages, something over 40,000. The inhumane living conditions, starvation and torture in the gulags were horrific beyond our comprehension. After touring the facilities, we watched a well-done, informative documentary in English that detailed some of the awful conditions of Perm 36. Following this sobering experience, we drove another 60 miles or so to the village of Kungur on the banks of the Sylva River for something completely different, the Kungur Ice Caves. They are estimated to be over 10,000 years old and are a giant complex of underground lakes, frozen waterfalls and colonies of huge ice crystals. We bundled up in our warmest gear and spent nearly 2 hours enthralled by the many caverns and beautiful ice formations of this unique cave system.

At the end of the day, we returned to Perm in time for dinner in the home of a local resident. Our tour company, MIR Corporation, provides home dining as a feature of most of their tours. These often are the most memorable experiences of MIR’s trips, where we meet real, ordinary people in their own homes, see how they really live, eat the foods they eat, communicate and share ideas with them. We end up with a completely different and more in-depth understanding of Russia than we could ever have otherwise. We always feel that we have made real friends with our hosts. Our hostess in Perm spoke excellent English, besides being an outstanding cook. It was, as usual, a highlight of the trip.
Khokhlovka Village

The next day, we visited the Khokhlovka Village, home of an open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture outside the city. It includes numerous houses, barns, a church, a salt works and other wooden structures from the 17th century that have been collected from all over the Perm area and reconstructed. We spent several hours exploring the large grounds on a warm, beautiful day. We had views of the Kama River and ate our picnic lunch on the shore of a lovely bay. Eventually, we headed back into Perm for a few hours of free time, which we used to explore a neighborhood grocery store and a chocolate shop and to use the Internet before dinner in a local restaurant. That evening, we boarded our superior sleeping car on the train for our first train journey of the trip. During the night, we crossed over the Ural Mountains into Siberia. We relaxed on the train the whole next day as we sped through the Siberian countryside, arriving at Omsk in the evening.
Omsk

Omsk was founded by the Cossacks in 1716. It is a pleasant city, nestled between the Om and Irtysh rivers. It is best known as the place Dostoevsky spent his 4-year exile after his mock execution in St. Petersburg in 1849. During Russia’s Civil War, it was where the White forces, led by Admiral Kolchak, were based. We enjoyed a city tour of beautiful renovated churches, a theater and museums, ending the afternoon on a river boat ride with a huge crowd of locals enjoying the beautiful Sunday weather. Our local guide told us that we were the first American tourists she had ever had, something that we heard often during the rest of our trip.
Novosibirsk

The entire next day, we spent driving 400 miles to Novosibirsk. Only when one travels by road and train across Siberia can you begin to appreciate the massiveness of this land. Most of the countryside that day was relatively flat, with some woods and uncounted acreages of fields of rich black earth planted thickly with grain, rapeseed and sunflowers. The road was in very good shape. Though it was heavy with traffic, we were able to make very good time for most of the drive. Along this inter-oblast highway, our driver pointed out a recurring individual, a “lady of the night” dressed in pink. She was successfully seeking lifts from truckers and seemed to make better time on the road than we did. We stopped throughout the day at a number of gas stations, many of US quality with all the amenities. We had a delicious, inexpensive lunch mid-day. At one of our stops, our guide pointed out an overgrown area that turned out to be wild hemp. It grows profusely in the area. After we knew what to look for, we saw it all over Siberia, popping up in the middle of fields of grain and even in city lots.

Since studying Russian geography in college, I have had a fascination with Novosibirsk (New Siberia). It was the fulfillment of a long-held dream to finally arrive there. I was not disappointed. The development of Siberia parallels that of the American West in many ways. Rivers and railroads were an integral part of both chronologies. Novosibirsk is a very modern city, newly created after the Trans-Siberian Railroad was built and with all the amenities of Moscow. Its beautiful train station, from the “constructionist” era of Soviet architecture, contrasts with gleaming, almost futuristic, skyscrapers. A large statue of Lenin is surrounded by capitalistic enterprises (a coffee shop, a fitness gym, trendy clothing stores), with a huge billboard advertising Nokia in the background. Its Red Street (at 6 miles long, the longest in Siberia), is named after the color, not the Communist party. The city also boasts a monument marking what was, at one time, the geographic center of old imperialistic Russia. Triple entrance doors in many buildings are a testament to the extreme winters in the area, when temperatures commonly reach -60 F. They can range up to +115 F in summer. Our hotel in the city was an old Intourist 3-star hotel, the Sibir. It was very comfortable with international TV, air conditioning, a pool and of course a sauna.

Our city tour included a visit to the world’s only birch bark museum. We have seen birch bark crafts all over Russia, but nothing to compare to the amazingly creative items on exhibit there, objects both useful and strictly artistic. This was followed by a drive out of Novosibirsk to Akademgorodok, the Academic City commissioned by Khrushchev as a place dedicated to scientific research. It is now a desirable place to live and the home of Novosibirsk State University. As we sat down to lunch at one of the university’s restaurants, we noticed a banquet table and music. Shortly after, we were surprised to hear the wedding march, then witness the entrance of a bride and groom. It was a special treat to watch the celebrations of the wedding party. There were lively toasts and speeches against a background of American music, including songs from Uma Thurman’s movie, Kill Bill. We hated to tear ourselves away from the festivities, but were rewarded by a very interesting visit to the Geological and Mineralogical Museum. A woman scientist who had collected many of the items on exhibit led us through the museum with rapid, very entertaining commentary. We learned a lot and enjoyed doing so. Later, we visited the open-air Trans-Siberian Museum, where over 80 old steam and diesel engines and rail cars are on exhibit. Our very full day ended with dinner at the home of another local family, an extremely enjoyable experience. This dinner was an unforgettable feast of several courses hosted by truly welcoming, friendly people who kept the vodka flowing. It was a lot of fun, another highlight we will never forget.
Tomsk

The following morning, we loaded into a van for our 5-hour drive through flat, green land to Tomsk, founded in 1604 and one of the oldest cities in Siberia. We arrived in time for lunch in a charmingly decorated restaurant that has been in operation for 120 years. The fact that Anton Chekhov had eaten there was commemorated by a whimsical bronze statue of the man in front of the restaurant, his nose shining brightly due to years of polishing by countless hands superstitiously seeking good luck. The food was so good there that we chose to return for lunch the following day. We enjoyed the afternoon and the next day in Tomsk, a very pleasant city. We saw the largest bell in Siberia, went into a beautiful Russian Orthodox church where several babies were being baptized, visited numerous neighborhoods packed with many examples of traditional Siberian wooden architecture, and climbed to the top of an old fire watchtower for a scenic view of the entire city. Tomsk is known as the Athens of Siberia. It was bypassed by the Trans-Siberian Railroad, resulting in less western contact and a sense of remoteness from the rest of Russia. It boasts over 60 universities with a combined total of over 110,000 students. One of every three people in Tomsk is involved in education in some way. We visited the campus of Tomsk State University, the oldest university in Siberia, where one of the academics spoke to us about its history and programs.

In the afternoon of our second day in Tomsk, we caught a commuter train to connect to the Trans-Sib. Our commuter train ride, lasting about 2 ½ hours, stopped at all the small villages up to the end of the line, delivering students and workers home after their day in Tomsk. We were an unusual experience for the commuters. One man insisted on sharing his beer with us, thrilled to be meeting his very first Americans. For our part, we enjoyed seeing the farms and villages we passed and visiting with some of the locals on the train. We eventually boarded our sleeper car on the Trans-Sib for our overnight trip to Krasnoyarsk, arriving there in the morning where we were joined by our local guide, Olga, and transferred directly to the airport. Olga, who did not speak English, was intense and efficient, facilitating all our experiences over the next few days. Olga’s mission was to inform, entertain and educate us, which she did in daily lectures and informal discussions, assisted by Paul’s helpful translations. Her first duty was to deal with airport officials. We jumped through several bureaucratic hoops before being allowed to fly on a government jet to Norilsk, high above the Arctic Circle. Though we had all the requisite paperwork giving us permission to visit this semi-closed city, we were not allowed through security until it had been closely examined by several different airport officials. Norilsk, as was true for most of the cities on our trip, was not even noted on old Soviet maps or mentioned in older guidebooks.
Norilsk

Our arrival at the airport outside of Norilsk was marked by additional security and screening. Long after we had dealt with that red tape, we were still waiting for our luggage as it was x-rayed and examined before finally being released to the waiting crowd. As we drove toward the city, the landscape became bleaker and grimmer with each passing minute. Norilsk has been called the most polluted city on the planet. It was built on permafrost for the single purpose of exploiting the rich deposits of nickel, copper and other precious metals that lie under the frozen ground. These ores are mined and processed in huge factories whose smokestacks billow clouds of toxic particles into the air 24 hours a day. There is talk about eventually making these factories more environmentally responsible, but that will not happen any time soon. In the meantime, the air stinks and the acid rain kills all trees and other vegetation in the area. Wildlife, of course, is non-existent. We could not get over the fact that people actually live in such a poisonous environment. The factories spew out over 2 million tons (that’s over 4 billion pounds!) of sulfur dioxide each year, contributing to the astonishing fact that Norilsk, though only a tiny spot with a relatively miniscule population in a huge nation, is responsible for 2% of Russia’s annual GNP. By the time we arrived at our hotel in the city, we were already convinced that Norilsk is the worst possible place on Earth for people to live. You might expect that statement to be followed by "but other than that…" But there is no "other than that!" We never changed our minds. There can be no city on this planet worse than Norilsk.

Norilsk is located on the 69th parallel. For three months during the winter, it receives no sunlight. Its buildings crumble and sidewalks and streets buckle in their constant battle against the extreme Siberian cold. Even in the summer, it is dreary and unwelcoming due the clouds of pollution that always hover thickly over the city. It was depressing in every way. Don Parrish, a member of our group, said, "Now I know where to come to get volunteers to go to Mars." Olga, who had already brought 8 groups there this year, said that she often returns to her office in Krasnoyarsk asking why they don’t issue gas masks for the trip. It is a new benchmark for ugliness and miserable quality of life in a city. We are also sure that our exposure to its environment, even as brief as it was, caused the loss of a large number of our brain cells. We could not understand why people live there until we were told that they are paid considerably better than anywhere else in Russia. I was also told that there is a good thing that there are people living there: others don’t have to!

The original inhabitants of Norilsk were prisoners. Some were actual criminals, some were political prisoners, but many were arrested on trumped-up charges in order to provide a workforce for the factories. There are no roads or railroads connecting this area to the rest of Russia. The prisoners were brought up the river in barges, 2,000 people at a time, crammed inhumanely in the holds, standing-room-only, for the 5-day voyage. At arrival, if 500 people had survived the voyage, it was considered successful. When those workers died from exposure, disease, lack of adequate food and shelter, not to mention pollution-caused illnesses, more were hauled in. Many never lived out their sentences. Most that did were forced to stay in Norilsk to continue working in the factories. They had nowhere to go and no way to get there anyway. Even now, when workers retire, they are rarely able to leave. If they do, their pension is cut severely. That and other considerations keep the population stable. Presently, 68% of the population is male. The women we saw, in contrast to all the stylish beauties further south, fit well in their colorless, drab setting. No one in our group ever wants to return to Norilsk, but none of us are sorry we went there. Sometimes there are prices to pay for going where few dare to visit. We feel we experienced something completely unique and will never forget it. But we were very, very happy that we only spent 24 hours there.
Dudinka

As we left Norilsk and drove on one of the few local roads in the area to the town of Dudinka, the countryside gradually became less damaged by pollution. Vegetation grew on the tundra and birds flew in the air. We stopped at one point at a spring to perform a local ritual, making wishes that are guaranteed to come true. Further along, we stopped to take a short walk out onto the tundra. That allowed us to see up close all the many types of plants, tiny flowers and little berries growing there.
Yenisei River Cruise

After a couple of hours on the road, we arrived at Dudinka, where we boarded our Spartan vessel, the Valery Chkalov, for our 5-day cruise south and up the Yenisei River. The Yenisei, like many Siberian rivers, flows from southern regions to empty into the Arctic Ocean. Having originated in Mongolia, it is the world’s 5th longest river, something over 2,550 miles long (sources vary). The Valery Chkalov was built over 60 years ago, when no doubt it was a first-class ship. Today, it is not a tourist vessel. It is owned by the Norilsk Nickel factory. It and a sister ship make regular round-trips during ice-free months between Krasnoyarsk and Dikson on the Arctic Ocean, providing the only affordable transport for factory workers as well as the inhabitants of the small villages located on the river. At most of these villages, the ship did not stop. Rather, it slowed down so that small motorboats could pull up to deliver or retrieve passengers. The ship boasts four levels of service. We were in the first-class cabins, which were very tiny and basic. Our toilet facilities were down the hall and showers (private for our group) were on the deck below. Olga had the key to a lounge area that was for our exclusive use. There, we could relax, read, listen to Olga’s lectures and watch videos of the area. Since there were no electrical outlets in the cabins, this room was where we recharged all our batteries. Fourth-class passengers did not have cabins. They slept wherever they could, on deck or on the two small couches at Reception. Very few of the ship’s passengers are able to afford the meals in the dining room, which we usually had to ourselves. The food on board was excellent, well prepared, varied and tasty.
Permafrost Museum

We only made two stops where we were able to disembark briefly. The first was at the town of Igarka, known as the “Continental Gate to the Arctic Ocean,” where we made a quick dash to see the only permafrost museum in the world. It was very well-done and fascinating. Considering its remote location, we were surprised to find that it had beaten London’s National Portrait Gallery, among others, for commendation in 2002 by the European Museum of the Year Award. The average year-round temperature in Igarka is +15 F. Summer lasts only two to three weeks, creating ideal conditions for a unique permafrost research station and laboratory under 20 feet of frozen ground. Our second stop was even shorter, at a small village where most passengers disembarked in a rush to hurriedly buy assorted foods and goods at tables set up by local entrepreneurs on the shore. Items for sale included buckets of berries, cedar nuts, homemade jams and hot sauces.

During one of Olga’s twice-daily lectures and meetings, she informed us that the river was at that point over 6 miles wide (its maximum width is 30 miles). We also passed through its most narrow point, a mere 600 yards wide, where it flows through a deep canyon. On our last full day, Olga took us to the ship’s bridge where we were given champagne and certificates as we crossed the Arctic Circle. We also saw the remains of Stalin’s hut of exile on the shore. At another point, Olga told us that we were at the closest accessible spot to the 1908 Tunguska Explosion. Scientists and other interested parties could disembark there, then take a 500-mile helicopter ride to the site. Throughout our cruise up the river, we enjoyed spending our free time watching the thickly wooded riverbanks slide by. It was heartening to see so much unexploited wilderness.
Krasnoyarsk

After our 5-day cruise covering nearly 1,000 miles, we arrived back in Krasnoyarsk. It was founded by the Cossacks and has a very rich history. We spent one night there in an ultra-modern hotel, notable because all the mini-bar items were free of charge. The following day, we enjoyed a leisurely, very interesting tour of this pleasant city. One of the sites we visited was a monument with connections to California. It marked the spot where Nicholai Pavlovich Rezanov, a handsome Russian captain had drowned when his horse fell through ice on the river. He was on his way from California to plead with the Russian Orthodox Church to allow him to marry his sweetheart, the 16-year-old daughter of the commandant of a fort in San Francisco. She, in turn, was soliciting the Pope for permission to marry him. With the difficulties of travel and communication in those days, she waited for him for 35 years before learning of his death, at which time she joined a convent. Other locations in the city did not have such tragic stories. The city was charming, with new and modern features alongside older, traditional architecture. We took a twenty-minute drive out of town to a state-of-the-art ski resort, complete with Doppelmeyer high-speed quad ski lifts that race up the mountain slopes all year round. The latest snow-making equipment lines the sides of the slopes. That, plus temperatures as low as minus 50, assure a good skiing season. Skiing at 50 degrees below zero? Yesssss!

That night, we flew back to Moscow, gaining four hours and arriving at the Vnukovo Airport at 9:00 PM. The drive from this airport to downtown Moscow is incredible at night. The city appears magically enchanted, very much like a fairy tale, with picturesque buildings and onion-domed churches lit up colorfully and beautifully. It was a truly incredible sight, almost dream-like, and a fitting way to end our trip together.
Evaluation

Russia remains a fascinating place to me. It is has such a long, sad, hard history. Its people have suffered through incredibly difficult times, yet they remain warm, welcoming and strong. We all feel a real kinship with the Russian people, a feeling that is only reinforced with each visit. After 12 trips to Russia, starting in 1964, I think that I am finally beginning to understand this multi-faceted nation. It still has closed cities, 236 of them to be exact. It also has very open and engaging people, beautiful countryside, unique architecture in historical cities, excellent food and plenty of attractions to appeal to all tastes and interests. It is changing rapidly in many ways as it joins the modern world. We saw many differences between this visit and what we experienced just a year ago. For example, the women in our group noted that almost all the public toilets now carry toilet paper and have soap and running water. Even a mere year ago, very few of them did.

Everywhere, in all cities, there are monuments and fountains that work. Public places are always accented by large plantings of colorful flowers. The people have great pride in their country and their cities, and it shows. As for the people, they are as fashionable and trendy as anywhere else in the world.

So, why would an American want to visit Russia? What seems to age us is our routine. We go to the same places, eat the same foods, think the same thoughts. We tend to become stuck in ruts, going to places that feel familiar and do not threaten us.

Russia is invigorating. It is rich in history and is now amplified by a free market. Things are happening there at a very fast pace. You can see it reflected in the people you meet. Now, Russians travel the world and are knowledgeable and informed about events outside of their borders. Cities and towns across the vast landscape host excellent hotels, restaurants and resorts, all with the most modern amenities. Only by going will you know the excitement of experiencing Russia today. You ask, "But is it safe?" Oh, please!

Whether you are making your first visit to Russia and want a “normal” itinerary to the obligatory spots or want to explore some of the innumerable, rarely visited, remote areas of the country, I highly recommend MIR Corporation in Seattle. They know Russia. After traveling there many times, I am finally beginning to know it, too.


Moscow Oblast Visit: 2009-9
2010-02-12 - Siberian Odyssey: Yenisei River Cruise
by Bill Altaffer, Carmel Valley, California

During the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, I did not look forward to going to Soviet Russia. It was difficult traveling there. The hotels and restaurants were uncomfortable and inhospitable. Destinations were highly controlled. It was an ordeal rather than a pleasure. Today I can’t get enough of Russia. I look forward with great anticipation to warm service and fine dining in creative, original boutique restaurants. The thread count of designer sheets in hotels is complemented by the marble décor and modern fixtures in the bathrooms. On this latest trip, our hotel in Moscow was the newly renovated Peter I in walking distance of Red Square. Its indoor swimming pool and spa rival the best anywhere else. More importantly, though still controlled to some extent, travel to most locations is possible with advance preparation.
Monino Aviation Museum

Because our small group of 7, plus tour manager extraordinaire Paul Schwartz, are all veterans of Russian travel, our organized excursions in Moscow avoided the obvious sites. Instead, we visited the Monino Aviation Museum (advance permission and permits required), a prime stop for anyone interested in airplanes and air flight history, though rarely included in tour itineraries. Located at a former Soviet Air Force base, the museum (mostly open air, with hangers housing very old and unique aircraft), is the largest in Russia. It includes the famous Tupelov Tu-95, a huge Cold War bomber called “The Bear,” plenty of MiGs and Yaks as well as the world’s largest helicopter, the MIL-12. Also featured is a multitude of experimental aircraft with unique designs as well as the plane that carried Khrushchev to America, a monster of an aircraft. Even the members of our group who had little knowledge of or interest in airplanes were fascinated with what we saw and appreciated the diversity and variety of aircraft on exhibit.
Cold War Command Post

As a contrast to our warm, sunny morning at Monino, we spent the evening 200 feet below Moscow in the secret secured command post Tagansky, an abandoned relic of the Cold War, originally built to withstand nuclear attack. The 75,000 square-foot space could have sustained 5,000 people for 3 months. Ordered by Stalin in 1951, it took 5 years to build. An interesting film on the Cold War from the Red perspective was shown by a guide dressed in period army uniform. Then following a quite realistic simulated attack by the Imperialistic West, our dinner was served in the bunker.
Perm

The next day, we flew to Perm Krai, an area larger than Great Britain and somewhat autonomous. (You may be aware of the Permian Period, the last part of the Paleozoic Era. Its name came from this region.) The entire area and capital city, Perm, were not included in my old 1990 USSR edition of the Lonely Planet. In fact, most of our journey, eventually reaching deep into the Arctic Circle, was off limits to any foreigner until recently and still requires advance special permission. Like so many of the positive changes one sees in Russia today, our aircraft from Moscow to Perm was new and modern. The 2-hour flight (including a 2-hour time change) was on a private Sibir Airlines S7 301 rather than on a government-owned airline. Perm is known as the Gateway to Siberia. It is located in the western foothills of the Ural Mountains on the Kama River. Technically, due to higher volume of water and more tributaries, the Kama is a larger river than the Volga, a fact not commonly known. Founded in 1723, Perm has been an important industrial and trading city and a major supplier of salt. Dockworkers carried bags of salt on their shoulders, giving rise to the nickname "salty ears" for Perm residents. As we found everywhere else, the people of Perm were very friendly and helpful. Our local guide, Ekaterina, did an outstanding job with her excellent command of the English language. Boris Pasternak lived in Perm when he wrote Dr. Zhivago, using it as his model for the novel’s country town. One of the interesting sites on our city tour was the house that was the inspiration for the location in the novel where Laura first met the doctor.

The countryside of Perm Krai is idyllic. Rolling hills, fields and trees are dotted with small villages. We drove through it on bumpy roads for about 60 miles to Gulag Perm 36. This is the only intact gulag facility left in Russia. Now a small museum, it is a powerful reminder of a dark period in Russia’s history and is being preserved and restored by people dedicated to keeping this history alive so that it will not be repeated. At one time, there were more gulags in Russia than villages, something over 40,000. The inhumane living conditions, starvation and torture in the gulags were horrific beyond our comprehension. After touring the facilities, we watched a well-done, informative documentary in English that detailed some of the awful conditions of Perm 36. Following this sobering experience, we drove another 60 miles or so to the village of Kungur on the banks of the Sylva River for something completely different, the Kungur Ice Caves. They are estimated to be over 10,000 years old and are a giant complex of underground lakes, frozen waterfalls and colonies of huge ice crystals. We bundled up in our warmest gear and spent nearly 2 hours enthralled by the many caverns and beautiful ice formations of this unique cave system.

At the end of the day, we returned to Perm in time for dinner in the home of a local resident. Our tour company, MIR Corporation, provides home dining as a feature of most of their tours. These often are the most memorable experiences of MIR’s trips, where we meet real, ordinary people in their own homes, see how they really live, eat the foods they eat, communicate and share ideas with them. We end up with a completely different and more in-depth understanding of Russia than we could ever have otherwise. We always feel that we have made real friends with our hosts. Our hostess in Perm spoke excellent English, besides being an outstanding cook. It was, as usual, a highlight of the trip.
Khokhlovka Village

The next day, we visited the Khokhlovka Village, home of an open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture outside the city. It includes numerous houses, barns, a church, a salt works and other wooden structures from the 17th century that have been collected from all over the Perm area and reconstructed. We spent several hours exploring the large grounds on a warm, beautiful day. We had views of the Kama River and ate our picnic lunch on the shore of a lovely bay. Eventually, we headed back into Perm for a few hours of free time, which we used to explore a neighborhood grocery store and a chocolate shop and to use the Internet before dinner in a local restaurant. That evening, we boarded our superior sleeping car on the train for our first train journey of the trip. During the night, we crossed over the Ural Mountains into Siberia. We relaxed on the train the whole next day as we sped through the Siberian countryside, arriving at Omsk in the evening.
Omsk

Omsk was founded by the Cossacks in 1716. It is a pleasant city, nestled between the Om and Irtysh rivers. It is best known as the place Dostoevsky spent his 4-year exile after his mock execution in St. Petersburg in 1849. During Russia’s Civil War, it was where the White forces, led by Admiral Kolchak, were based. We enjoyed a city tour of beautiful renovated churches, a theater and museums, ending the afternoon on a river boat ride with a huge crowd of locals enjoying the beautiful Sunday weather. Our local guide told us that we were the first American tourists she had ever had, something that we heard often during the rest of our trip.
Novosibirsk

The entire next day, we spent driving 400 miles to Novosibirsk. Only when one travels by road and train across Siberia can you begin to appreciate the massiveness of this land. Most of the countryside that day was relatively flat, with some woods and uncounted acreages of fields of rich black earth planted thickly with grain, rapeseed and sunflowers. The road was in very good shape. Though it was heavy with traffic, we were able to make very good time for most of the drive. Along this inter-oblast highway, our driver pointed out a recurring individual, a “lady of the night” dressed in pink. She was successfully seeking lifts from truckers and seemed to make better time on the road than we did. We stopped throughout the day at a number of gas stations, many of US quality with all the amenities. We had a delicious, inexpensive lunch mid-day. At one of our stops, our guide pointed out an overgrown area that turned out to be wild hemp. It grows profusely in the area. After we knew what to look for, we saw it all over Siberia, popping up in the middle of fields of grain and even in city lots.

Since studying Russian geography in college, I have had a fascination with Novosibirsk (New Siberia). It was the fulfillment of a long-held dream to finally arrive there. I was not disappointed. The development of Siberia parallels that of the American West in many ways. Rivers and railroads were an integral part of both chronologies. Novosibirsk is a very modern city, newly created after the Trans-Siberian Railroad was built and with all the amenities of Moscow. Its beautiful train station, from the “constructionist” era of Soviet architecture, contrasts with gleaming, almost futuristic, skyscrapers. A large statue of Lenin is surrounded by capitalistic enterprises (a coffee shop, a fitness gym, trendy clothing stores), with a huge billboard advertising Nokia in the background. Its Red Street (at 6 miles long, the longest in Siberia), is named after the color, not the Communist party. The city also boasts a monument marking what was, at one time, the geographic center of old imperialistic Russia. Triple entrance doors in many buildings are a testament to the extreme winters in the area, when temperatures commonly reach -60 F. They can range up to +115 F in summer. Our hotel in the city was an old Intourist 3-star hotel, the Sibir. It was very comfortable with international TV, air conditioning, a pool and of course a sauna.

Our city tour included a visit to the world’s only birch bark museum. We have seen birch bark crafts all over Russia, but nothing to compare to the amazingly creative items on exhibit there, objects both useful and strictly artistic. This was followed by a drive out of Novosibirsk to Akademgorodok, the Academic City commissioned by Khrushchev as a place dedicated to scientific research. It is now a desirable place to live and the home of Novosibirsk State University. As we sat down to lunch at one of the university’s restaurants, we noticed a banquet table and music. Shortly after, we were surprised to hear the wedding march, then witness the entrance of a bride and groom. It was a special treat to watch the celebrations of the wedding party. There were lively toasts and speeches against a background of American music, including songs from Uma Thurman’s movie, Kill Bill. We hated to tear ourselves away from the festivities, but were rewarded by a very interesting visit to the Geological and Mineralogical Museum. A woman scientist who had collected many of the items on exhibit led us through the museum with rapid, very entertaining commentary. We learned a lot and enjoyed doing so. Later, we visited the open-air Trans-Siberian Museum, where over 80 old steam and diesel engines and rail cars are on exhibit. Our very full day ended with dinner at the home of another local family, an extremely enjoyable experience. This dinner was an unforgettable feast of several courses hosted by truly welcoming, friendly people who kept the vodka flowing. It was a lot of fun, another highlight we will never forget.
Tomsk

The following morning, we loaded into a van for our 5-hour drive through flat, green land to Tomsk, founded in 1604 and one of the oldest cities in Siberia. We arrived in time for lunch in a charmingly decorated restaurant that has been in operation for 120 years. The fact that Anton Chekhov had eaten there was commemorated by a whimsical bronze statue of the man in front of the restaurant, his nose shining brightly due to years of polishing by countless hands superstitiously seeking good luck. The food was so good there that we chose to return for lunch the following day. We enjoyed the afternoon and the next day in Tomsk, a very pleasant city. We saw the largest bell in Siberia, went into a beautiful Russian Orthodox church where several babies were being baptized, visited numerous neighborhoods packed with many examples of traditional Siberian wooden architecture, and climbed to the top of an old fire watchtower for a scenic view of the entire city. Tomsk is known as the Athens of Siberia. It was bypassed by the Trans-Siberian Railroad, resulting in less western contact and a sense of remoteness from the rest of Russia. It boasts over 60 universities with a combined total of over 110,000 students. One of every three people in Tomsk is involved in education in some way. We visited the campus of Tomsk State University, the oldest university in Siberia, where one of the academics spoke to us about its history and programs.

In the afternoon of our second day in Tomsk, we caught a commuter train to connect to the Trans-Sib. Our commuter train ride, lasting about 2 ½ hours, stopped at all the small villages up to the end of the line, delivering students and workers home after their day in Tomsk. We were an unusual experience for the commuters. One man insisted on sharing his beer with us, thrilled to be meeting his very first Americans. For our part, we enjoyed seeing the farms and villages we passed and visiting with some of the locals on the train. We eventually boarded our sleeper car on the Trans-Sib for our overnight trip to Krasnoyarsk, arriving there in the morning where we were joined by our local guide, Olga, and transferred directly to the airport. Olga, who did not speak English, was intense and efficient, facilitating all our experiences over the next few days. Olga’s mission was to inform, entertain and educate us, which she did in daily lectures and informal discussions, assisted by Paul’s helpful translations. Her first duty was to deal with airport officials. We jumped through several bureaucratic hoops before being allowed to fly on a government jet to Norilsk, high above the Arctic Circle. Though we had all the requisite paperwork giving us permission to visit this semi-closed city, we were not allowed through security until it had been closely examined by several different airport officials. Norilsk, as was true for most of the cities on our trip, was not even noted on old Soviet maps or mentioned in older guidebooks.
Norilsk

Our arrival at the airport outside of Norilsk was marked by additional security and screening. Long after we had dealt with that red tape, we were still waiting for our luggage as it was x-rayed and examined before finally being released to the waiting crowd. As we drove toward the city, the landscape became bleaker and grimmer with each passing minute. Norilsk has been called the most polluted city on the planet. It was built on permafrost for the single purpose of exploiting the rich deposits of nickel, copper and other precious metals that lie under the frozen ground. These ores are mined and processed in huge factories whose smokestacks billow clouds of toxic particles into the air 24 hours a day. There is talk about eventually making these factories more environmentally responsible, but that will not happen any time soon. In the meantime, the air stinks and the acid rain kills all trees and other vegetation in the area. Wildlife, of course, is non-existent. We could not get over the fact that people actually live in such a poisonous environment. The factories spew out over 2 million tons (that’s over 4 billion pounds!) of sulfur dioxide each year, contributing to the astonishing fact that Norilsk, though only a tiny spot with a relatively miniscule population in a huge nation, is responsible for 2% of Russia’s annual GNP. By the time we arrived at our hotel in the city, we were already convinced that Norilsk is the worst possible place on Earth for people to live. You might expect that statement to be followed by "but other than that…" But there is no "other than that!" We never changed our minds. There can be no city on this planet worse than Norilsk.

Norilsk is located on the 69th parallel. For three months during the winter, it receives no sunlight. Its buildings crumble and sidewalks and streets buckle in their constant battle against the extreme Siberian cold. Even in the summer, it is dreary and unwelcoming due the clouds of pollution that always hover thickly over the city. It was depressing in every way. Don Parrish, a member of our group, said, "Now I know where to come to get volunteers to go to Mars." Olga, who had already brought 8 groups there this year, said that she often returns to her office in Krasnoyarsk asking why they don’t issue gas masks for the trip. It is a new benchmark for ugliness and miserable quality of life in a city. We are also sure that our exposure to its environment, even as brief as it was, caused the loss of a large number of our brain cells. We could not understand why people live there until we were told that they are paid considerably better than anywhere else in Russia. I was also told that there is a good thing that there are people living there: others don’t have to!

The original inhabitants of Norilsk were prisoners. Some were actual criminals, some were political prisoners, but many were arrested on trumped-up charges in order to provide a workforce for the factories. There are no roads or railroads connecting this area to the rest of Russia. The prisoners were brought up the river in barges, 2,000 people at a time, crammed inhumanely in the holds, standing-room-only, for the 5-day voyage. At arrival, if 500 people had survived the voyage, it was considered successful. When those workers died from exposure, disease, lack of adequate food and shelter, not to mention pollution-caused illnesses, more were hauled in. Many never lived out their sentences. Most that did were forced to stay in Norilsk to continue working in the factories. They had nowhere to go and no way to get there anyway. Even now, when workers retire, they are rarely able to leave. If they do, their pension is cut severely. That and other considerations keep the population stable. Presently, 68% of the population is male. The women we saw, in contrast to all the stylish beauties further south, fit well in their colorless, drab setting. No one in our group ever wants to return to Norilsk, but none of us are sorry we went there. Sometimes there are prices to pay for going where few dare to visit. We feel we experienced something completely unique and will never forget it. But we were very, very happy that we only spent 24 hours there.
Dudinka

As we left Norilsk and drove on one of the few local roads in the area to the town of Dudinka, the countryside gradually became less damaged by pollution. Vegetation grew on the tundra and birds flew in the air. We stopped at one point at a spring to perform a local ritual, making wishes that are guaranteed to come true. Further along, we stopped to take a short walk out onto the tundra. That allowed us to see up close all the many types of plants, tiny flowers and little berries growing there.
Yenisei River Cruise

After a couple of hours on the road, we arrived at Dudinka, where we boarded our Spartan vessel, the Valery Chkalov, for our 5-day cruise south and up the Yenisei River. The Yenisei, like many Siberian rivers, flows from southern regions to empty into the Arctic Ocean. Having originated in Mongolia, it is the world’s 5th longest river, something over 2,550 miles long (sources vary). The Valery Chkalov was built over 60 years ago, when no doubt it was a first-class ship. Today, it is not a tourist vessel. It is owned by the Norilsk Nickel factory. It and a sister ship make regular round-trips during ice-free months between Krasnoyarsk and Dikson on the Arctic Ocean, providing the only affordable transport for factory workers as well as the inhabitants of the small villages located on the river. At most of these villages, the ship did not stop. Rather, it slowed down so that small motorboats could pull up to deliver or retrieve passengers. The ship boasts four levels of service. We were in the first-class cabins, which were very tiny and basic. Our toilet facilities were down the hall and showers (private for our group) were on the deck below. Olga had the key to a lounge area that was for our exclusive use. There, we could relax, read, listen to Olga’s lectures and watch videos of the area. Since there were no electrical outlets in the cabins, this room was where we recharged all our batteries. Fourth-class passengers did not have cabins. They slept wherever they could, on deck or on the two small couches at Reception. Very few of the ship’s passengers are able to afford the meals in the dining room, which we usually had to ourselves. The food on board was excellent, well prepared, varied and tasty.
Permafrost Museum

We only made two stops where we were able to disembark briefly. The first was at the town of Igarka, known as the “Continental Gate to the Arctic Ocean,” where we made a quick dash to see the only permafrost museum in the world. It was very well-done and fascinating. Considering its remote location, we were surprised to find that it had beaten London’s National Portrait Gallery, among others, for commendation in 2002 by the European Museum of the Year Award. The average year-round temperature in Igarka is +15 F. Summer lasts only two to three weeks, creating ideal conditions for a unique permafrost research station and laboratory under 20 feet of frozen ground. Our second stop was even shorter, at a small village where most passengers disembarked in a rush to hurriedly buy assorted foods and goods at tables set up by local entrepreneurs on the shore. Items for sale included buckets of berries, cedar nuts, homemade jams and hot sauces.

During one of Olga’s twice-daily lectures and meetings, she informed us that the river was at that point over 6 miles wide (its maximum width is 30 miles). We also passed through its most narrow point, a mere 600 yards wide, where it flows through a deep canyon. On our last full day, Olga took us to the ship’s bridge where we were given champagne and certificates as we crossed the Arctic Circle. We also saw the remains of Stalin’s hut of exile on the shore. At another point, Olga told us that we were at the closest accessible spot to the 1908 Tunguska Explosion. Scientists and other interested parties could disembark there, then take a 500-mile helicopter ride to the site. Throughout our cruise up the river, we enjoyed spending our free time watching the thickly wooded riverbanks slide by. It was heartening to see so much unexploited wilderness.
Krasnoyarsk

After our 5-day cruise covering nearly 1,000 miles, we arrived back in Krasnoyarsk. It was founded by the Cossacks and has a very rich history. We spent one night there in an ultra-modern hotel, notable because all the mini-bar items were free of charge. The following day, we enjoyed a leisurely, very interesting tour of this pleasant city. One of the sites we visited was a monument with connections to California. It marked the spot where Nicholai Pavlovich Rezanov, a handsome Russian captain had drowned when his horse fell through ice on the river. He was on his way from California to plead with the Russian Orthodox Church to allow him to marry his sweetheart, the 16-year-old daughter of the commandant of a fort in San Francisco. She, in turn, was soliciting the Pope for permission to marry him. With the difficulties of travel and communication in those days, she waited for him for 35 years before learning of his death, at which time she joined a convent. Other locations in the city did not have such tragic stories. The city was charming, with new and modern features alongside older, traditional architecture. We took a twenty-minute drive out of town to a state-of-the-art ski resort, complete with Doppelmeyer high-speed quad ski lifts that race up the mountain slopes all year round. The latest snow-making equipment lines the sides of the slopes. That, plus temperatures as low as minus 50, assure a good skiing season. Skiing at 50 degrees below zero? Yesssss!

That night, we flew back to Moscow, gaining four hours and arriving at the Vnukovo Airport at 9:00 PM. The drive from this airport to downtown Moscow is incredible at night. The city appears magically enchanted, very much like a fairy tale, with picturesque buildings and onion-domed churches lit up colorfully and beautifully. It was a truly incredible sight, almost dream-like, and a fitting way to end our trip together.
Evaluation

Russia remains a fascinating place to me. It is has such a long, sad, hard history. Its people have suffered through incredibly difficult times, yet they remain warm, welcoming and strong. We all feel a real kinship with the Russian people, a feeling that is only reinforced with each visit. After 12 trips to Russia, starting in 1964, I think that I am finally beginning to understand this multi-faceted nation. It still has closed cities, 236 of them to be exact. It also has very open and engaging people, beautiful countryside, unique architecture in historical cities, excellent food and plenty of attractions to appeal to all tastes and interests. It is changing rapidly in many ways as it joins the modern world. We saw many differences between this visit and what we experienced just a year ago. For example, the women in our group noted that almost all the public toilets now carry toilet paper and have soap and running water. Even a mere year ago, very few of them did.

Everywhere, in all cities, there are monuments and fountains that work. Public places are always accented by large plantings of colorful flowers. The people have great pride in their country and their cities, and it shows. As for the people, they are as fashionable and trendy as anywhere else in the world.

So, why would an American want to visit Russia? What seems to age us is our routine. We go to the same places, eat the same foods, think the same thoughts. We tend to become stuck in ruts, going to places that feel familiar and do not threaten us.

Russia is invigorating. It is rich in history and is now amplified by a free market. Things are happening there at a very fast pace. You can see it reflected in the people you meet. Now, Russians travel the world and are knowledgeable and informed about events outside of their borders. Cities and towns across the vast landscape host excellent hotels, restaurants and resorts, all with the most modern amenities. Only by going will you know the excitement of experiencing Russia today. You ask, "But is it safe?" Oh, please!

Whether you are making your first visit to Russia and want a “normal” itinerary to the obligatory spots or want to explore some of the innumerable, rarely visited, remote areas of the country, I highly recommend MIR Corporation in Seattle. They know Russia. After traveling there many times, I am finally beginning to know it, too.


Sakhalin Island Visit: 2006-9
2010-04-28 - From Vladivostok to Sakhalin Island — rediscovering the Russian Far East by Bill Altaffer, Mammoth Lakes, CA
After an overnight in Seoul, South Korea, one of the most populated cities in the world today, our MIR Corp. tour group flew to Vladivostok, our entry and exit city for the Russian Far East.First stop, Vladivostok Between the end of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Vladivostok was off-limits to foreigners and most Russians. Today it is a sister city to San Diego and is a lucrative base for international commerce due to its deep harbor, averaging 295 ice-free days a year.Our base in Vladivostok was the 4-star Hotel Hyundai, located in the town center close to the seaport, theaters, a historical museum and a philharmonic hall.During our day and a half in Vladivostok we explored some of its sights. After stopping at a large square dominated by huge statues of revolutionary figures, we walked along the embankment, passing monuments and boats, to a surprising sight: an S-56 submarine perched on a platform overlooking a harbor full of military vessels. Half of the submarine’s interior space has been turned into a maritime museum while the remainder shows living and working conditions as they were when the vessel was operational.From there, we went to the Eagle’s Nest observation platform for an overview of the city and Golden Horn Bay before visiting the ornate railroad station, built in 1912 and decorated with Socialist-Realist artwork.After lunch at a local restaurant, we went to a private museum of restored old cars and motorcycles, then took a walk through part of the Vladivostok Naval Cemetery to see graves and monuments from the days of the White Army through the Vietnam War era.In contrast to these more somber sights, we found chic restaurants and shops to be all the rage in today’s Vladivostok.On to Yakutsk A 3-hour flight took us to Yakutsk, boasting the coldest recorded temperature of any city. It is also the only large city in the world built on permafrost. The top layer of permafrost thaws in the summer, creating large swampy areas and plaguing the countryside outside the city with swarms of mosquitoes.Located on the banks of the Lena River, Yakutsk is the capital of the Sakha Republic — which straddles the Arctic Circle and is the area where the majority of Russian diamonds is mined. Though there is a significant number of European Russians in Yakutsk, most faces on the street belong to the ethnically different Yakut people, the original inhabitants of the area.We found a very different Yakutsk than the one described in Jeffrey Tayler's “River of No Reprieve.” Some of us had read the book in anticipation of our trip, but we did not see any of the rough, frontier-like conditions of which he wrote. Instead, we saw iPods, the latest cell phones, rush-hour traffic, fashionably dressed girls in micro-miniskirts, and even billboards for the latest Harry Potter film, at the time not even released in New York.Due to our remote location (and after reading Tayler's book), we had expected a basic, substandard hotel in Yakutsk. We were surprised to find the Polar Star Hotel to be a true 4-star establishment, with a beautiful lobby dominated by a fountain and a pair of 7-story glass elevators. The triple entry doors, providing extra insulation between the lobby and the outside elements, reminded us of our Arctic location and its winter conditions. Internet service in the hotel was fast and inexpensive.Within walking distance of the hotel was a square with a large statue of Lenin. In contrast to the rest of Russia, most Siberian cities have chosen to keep their Lenin statues as historical monuments.Some unusual museums We spent a day and a half exploring Yakutsk. Our first stop was at a beautifully restored Russian Orthodox church with gleaming golden domes. Next we visited the Institute of Permafrost and descended a 66-foot-deep shaft into the permafrost itself, where the temperature remains a constant -5° centigrade (23°F) year ’round. There, researchers study the plants and animals preserved in the permafrost as well as the effect of climate changes.We then went to the only museum in the world dedicated to the khomus, or Jew’s harp. Possibly one of the first musical instruments ever created, it is a small metal device that produces a very twangy sound through a combination of rhythmic breathing and strumming.The curator was passionate about the subject, reviewing every exhibit in detail and then performing for us. Two in our group each purchased a Jew’s harp and found that, though the instrument appeared primitive and created (to our ears) a decidedly non musical sound, it is not easy to learn to play.We also visited the Museum of the Mammoth, whose well-done displays included the skeletons of mammoths and rhinos that had been discovered in the area.A highlight of the day was our visit to the Ytyk Khaya Ethno-complex, a re-creation of a traditional Yakut village. It was built, and is maintained and added to annually, by one family with the goal of preserving the ancient traditions of the area’s indigenous people.The matriarch of the family gave us a very interesting tour that came from her heart. Before we left, she gave each of us beautiful amulets of cloth, beads and reindeer hide made by her and her daughters.On the river At the end of our first full day, we drove a half hour out of Yakutsk for a huge, delicious home-cooked dinner with a three-generation family at their farm. Late in the afternoon of the second day, we boarded the riverboat Demian Bednyi for a 48-hour cruise on the Lena River, one of the cleanest rivers in the world.Our expectations of an old, run-down riverboat were shattered by the reality of a modern, well-appointed, large party boat with nice cabins and a beautiful dining room. Those in our group, along with a couple from South Africa, were the only non-Russians among the 186 passengers. Most of the other passengers were young, very hip people from the area on board for a weekend of relaxation, dancing and fun.After breakfast the first day, we spent time watching the unspoiled, sparsely populated countryside as we cruised upriver. Mid-afternoon, we reached our destination: the Lena Pillars. These red limestone rock formations, some rising nearly 300 feet, stretch along the river for several kilometers forming a unique, dramatic shoreline.We anchored and disembarked for a Shamanistic welcoming ceremony and a hike to the top of the pillars. The path was steep and strenuous, but the view at the top, looking down on the river, the countryside and the pillars, made it well worth the effort.The next day, we spent several hours at an island where the boat’s staff barbecued and passengers played volleyball and hiked, in spite of the inevitable mosquitoes. At the end of the day, we arrived back in Yakutsk for dinner and one more night in the Polar Star Hotel.Trans-Siberian Railroad We continued our journey with a flight to Irkutsk, where we were met by Alla, a lovely young woman who had been our guide there two years previously. When she heard that we were coming back, she insisted on guiding our group again, to our delight.After checking into our hotel, Alla took us out into the countryside. We stopped at a site holy to the Shamanistic people of the area, then continued to the Ust-Orda Monastery, where we were blessed by the local monk. We visited a museum of the indigenous people and finished the day with a delicious traditional dinner in a wooden yurt.The following day we took a flight to Chita, where we toured the city before boarding the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The main attraction of the city is the Decembrist Museum, located in an old church.Our train did not arrive in Chita until almost 1 a.m., at which time we boarded gratefully and settled in to sleep. This particular train had only second- and third-class cars. Our second-class car had tiny 4-berth compartments with two bunks. Conditions were cramped and basic.Toilets were at each end of the car and were barely adequate. There were no bathing facilities on the train.In the morning, we trudged approximately half a mile to the dining car for a late breakfast, passing through 13 other cars, most of which were third class. After that eye-opening experience, we were very grateful for our second-class accommodations.The second-class cars have compartments with locking doors and a hallway with windows. Passengers in third class have no privacy and less space.A third-class car does not have compartments. It is one open dormitory with more bunks instead of a hallway, six passengers packed into the space occupied by four in second class.As we negotiated between the bunks like running backs, dodging feet at knee level and ducking under dangling toes in our faces, we could see everything that the passengers were doing. Some were playing cards, some reading and some eating re hydrated foods and cooked items (primarily boiled potatoes and dumplings) that they had bought train-side at scheduled stops along the way, but most seemed to endure the ordeal by remaining comatose. We saw more than one bottle of vodka, regardless of the time of day.Many of these passengers had been on the train for two days before we got on and would remain on for two more days after we got off. We did not envy them, in particular the families with small children.Each time we traversed the gauntlet between our car and the dining car, the odors in the third-class cars were more pronounced and the people looked more bedraggled. After trudging through each car, we were rewarded with submarine-like, smoke-filled chambers at each car’s ends — the smoking sections of the train.The dining car trip was almost mind-numbing — definitely a unique experience. We may never want to repeat it in the future, but we would not want to have missed it.Reaching Birobidzhan Finally, late on our second full day on the train, we arrived at the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (or federal state) of Birobidzhan. This oblast will celebrate its 70th birthday in 2008.Before it was created, the territory was swampy marshland filled with mosquitoes. Stalin established the oblast for three reasons: first, to remove Jews from European Russia and concentrate them in one place; second, as part of the Russian push to settle Siberia, and, third, to provide a buffer composed of people he considered expendable in case of invasion from China.At the end of the Soviet period, many Jews left the area for Israel. A fair number eventually returned for a variety of reasons. Currently, the city has an active Jewish community with a modern synagogue that supports a senior center.Our hotel in Birobidzhan was the most spartan of our Siberian accommodations but was perfectly adequate. In spite of what we had been told to expect, it had hot water. After the two nights on the train, the hotel felt luxurious.Driving through the Siberian countryside, we traveled to Khabarovsk. I had been there 15 years previously when it had been my entry point to China, crossing the Amur River. The only thing that I recognized on this visit was the Russian gunboat anchored in the middle of the river.Today, Khabarovsk is a bright, colorful, vibrant city. We saw numerous sites there before visiting a private working farm 50 miles out of the city, where we had a basic farm lunch. Ours was the first American tour group to visit.That afternoon, after more sightseeing and shopping in Khabarovsk, we boarded another train. We were happy to find that this line had first-class cars with 2-berth compartments. It was a much more pleasant experience, complete with air-conditioning and an included boxed breakfast.

Komsomolsk-na-Amure Early in the morning, after a comfortable night, we arrived in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, built in 1932 as a secret city for military industries. Its position on the Amur River, the border between Russia and China, and inland of the Tartar Strait in the Pacific Ocean made it a perfect spot strategically to manufacture airplanes and submarines.Most cities in the area were founded by Cossacks and fur traders. In contrast, Komsomolsk-na-Amur was built entirely by the Komsomol, the Soviet youth organization.We spent the day touring the city and taking a short cruise on the river in a small sailboat. The primary highlight of the cruise was when our boat became stuck on a sandbar. The captain jumped into the knee-deep water and eventually wrestled his boat free.That evening, our group of eight (seven participants and our tour manager) divided up and went to three different homes for dinner. Each group had a very interesting evening with very nice people. We were surprised at the extent to which our host families had traveled internationally.Returning to Vladivostok The next leg of our tour took us by plane to Sakhalin Island. Due to the development of the oil industry in the north of the island, this is a more international — more expensive — destination than the remainder of Siberia.Sakhalin has one of the many small, alpine-like ski resorts that have popped up all over Siberia due to Putin’s interest in the sport. Our hotel, Yubileinaya Hotel, in the capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, was new and modern, with large, comfortable rooms. After a night there, we spent the day touring the city and taking short drives to surrounding villages.The following day we returned to Vladivostok for three more nights in the Hotel Hyundai. In our days there we visited the Fortress Museum, which had been the sea approach defense system for the city. We also enjoyed a very pleasant 2-hour cruise around Golden Horn Bay and a visit to the Arsenyev Museum, which included a lively folk performance with audience participation.We took one full day for the 5-hour drive (each way) through the Siberian taiga to visit a Siberian tiger preserve, where we saw tigers as well as a few other Siberian animals.Coming to an end After 19 days, our trip was over. We had experienced all types of transport, including trains, planes, boats, buses and vans.As I had found in my previous trip two years before, one of the highlights of MIR Corporation tours is their program of home visits and dinners with local families; we had three such home visits on this itinerary. This allowed us to meet average Siberians, see how they live, and eat the food they eat.Without it, we would have interacted only with local tour guides. Instead, we met teachers, students, engineers and other middle-class working people and their families. They shared their thoughts and feelings with us in a very meaningful way, and we connected with them, feeling like we had made real friends.This program added a whole new dimension to the trip, giving us an insight into the Siberian people we could not have gotten otherwise. The home meals were very different from our restaurant meals, and all were delicious and memorable.While the museums and other sites may blur and run together in our memories, the home visits remain highlights.Our MIR tour manager, Paul Schwartz, did an outstanding job of facilitating our way through airports, train stations and other tricky situations when knowledge of the Russian language and Russian people was critical. He kept us fully informed and highlighted the humor of every situation. We were very pleased with his flexibility, his attention to detail and his concern for our wants and needs.


Saudi Arabia Visit: 2007-4
2010-04-28 - The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Along with a group of nine other adventurers, I went on a tour of a country that few travelers have ever been allowed to visit, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), March 24-April 8, 2007.

We went with Bestway Tours & Safaris,which arranged the visas for us. For this tour, I paid about $4,500 from New York.

When King Abdullah (Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Said) of the KSA met with President Bush at Crawford, Texas, in April 2005, he agreed to allow restricted tourism to his country by Americans. Since tourist visas for Americans still did not exist, we were allowed entry to the country under work visas proclaiming us to be consultants working for Saudi Arabian Airlines, owned by King Abdullah.

The flight from JFK Airport to Jeddah on Saudi took approximately 12 hours. The plane has an area exclusively for prayer, complete with prayer rugs — never a bad thing on a flight.

Once there, our group required special handling. Public transportation does not exist in the Kingdom; everyone owns cars and there is no tourist infrastructure. Our group was met by two men who had taken turns driving a large bus over 2,000 miles from Damascus, Syria. While they drove ahead to meet us, we were treated to a very pleasant half-day train ride across the desert between Riyadh and Hofuf.

On the bus, we were transported more than 1,000 miles across the country, from the west coast (Red Sea) to the east coast (Gulf of Oman), with only one break. Throughout most of our touring, our bus was preceded and followed by a 2-car police escort. The front vehicle often had its lights flashing as it led us on our strictly controlled route.
At the end of our trip, the drivers delivered us to Bahrain and immediately began their drive of 2,000-plus miles back to Syria.

THE PEOPLE — The population of the Kingdom is 23 million. Of those, 16 million are Saudi. The remaining seven million comprise the workforce of KSA, expatriates from other Muslim countries. The oil-rich locals generally do not work, though the government is supposedly trying to implement Saudization in the workforce, with somewhat limited success.

The Saudi men are easily recognized by their attire: thobes (or thawbs, pure-white garments) and ghutras (red-and-white head scarves) topped with egals (black rings).
Saudi women all obey the strict Muslim dress code, wearing abayas (black robe-like garments covering them from neck to ankles and wrists), with black scarves covering their hair. A significant number each also covers their faces, some completely and the rest showing only their eyes. The women in our group also were required to wear the abayas and head scarves when outside of our hotels.

Saudi women are definitely second-class citizens. They are not allowed to vote or to drive cars and are restricted from entering many public places. When allowed in public buildings such as banks and pharmacies, they have separate entrances that channel them to their own area for conducting business.

OIL — First discovered in the 1930s, oil has transformed the Kingdom. Formerly it was primarily a nomadic nation, and now most of its citizens are wealthy and enjoy a very high standard of living. Very few Saudis work. Their housing is provided by the government; all education and health care is free to them, and they are not taxed.

Saudis spend some of their wealth in upscale shopping malls. Clusters of their Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and BMW automobiles, with the occasional Lamborghini, can be seen around ultramodern buildings. Nearly everywhere, they frequent KFCs, McDonald’s, Baskin-Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks.

As the Kingdom begins to exhaust its supplies of black gold in the future, it may be able to rely on untouched deposits of the yellow variety.

CRIME — Crime is practically nonexistent in Saudi Arabia, due to a combination of the culture and the severity of punishment. We became quite complacent there, not having to worry about pickpockets or other forms of crime that are rampant elsewhere. It was a refreshing change.

SITES — The common perception that the KSA has nothing to offer and little for tourists to see and do is wrong. This view perhaps legitimately results from the decades of restricted travel to the area and a lack of knowledge concerning its rich history and the thousands of years of civilization that have existed there. We were able to see only a few of KSA’s many sites of historical and cultural interest.

The Kingdom has a number of locations rich with well-preserved ancient petroglyphs. Also in great supply are forts from various historical periods.

Outside of the old city of Al Ula, we visited the ancient Nabataean tombs of Madain Saleh, dating from between 100 B.C. and A.D. 75. Madain Saleh was the sister city to Petra, the more widely known Nabataean settlement. The 150 tombs of Madain Saleh are somewhat smaller than those of Petra but are much better preserved and have inscriptions that are not found in the more famous location.

Adjacent to the tombs is the old station for the Hejaz railway, made famous by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). The 1,000-mile railway had been built by the Ottoman Turks to gain access to the Red Sea. It also reduced the pilgrimage across the desert to Mecca from two months to four days, simultaneously depriving Bedouin camel drivers of their long-established livelihood transporting pilgrims and goods. Lawrence was able to unite the Bedouins and destroy the railway line.

At Al Ahsa, we visited a cave complex in one of the world’s largest oases. We experienced a camel market and saw many mosques, though we were not allowed inside any.

At Dammam, we were treated to a tour of the Aramco Exhibition, which was very well done and a lot more interesting than it may sound. It details the history of oil in the country and the mechanics of oil extraction, beginning with an excellent 3-D film and continuing with state-of-the-art exhibits.

We visited a number of museums in most of the locations we toured. Several of these were excellent, including a fabulous private collection in Jeddah, the Abdul Rauf Khalil Art Museum. The exterior of this museum is an outstanding example of Arabian architecture. The items inside were in magnificent form and creatively displayed. The National Museum in Riyadh also was exemplary and boasted an excellent gift shop.

Some of our more serious photographers often were frustrated by the restrictions placed on us. In addition to the normal rules against photographing airports and anything military, there were many historic locations, archaeological sites and museums where photography was not allowed. It was never okay to photograph local women, Videocameras were even more restricted and often forbidden even where regular photography was allowed.
By the way, it can be cold on the bus and in your hotel. Bring a jacket.

DINING OUT — Downtown Riyadh is extremely modern, with several striking examples of futuristic architecture — all glass and steel and uniquely designed. By night, these buildings rival the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and are well worth photographing.

In keeping with the fad that few Saudis actually work, all the restaurants were run by expatriates. They were excellent. We enjoyed a great variety of cuisines, including Turkish, Lebanese, Indian, Syrian and more. Everything was made with fresh, good-quality ingredients and very well prepared. Most meals included first courses of tabbouleh, hummus, baba ghanoush and crisp, fresh salads, which we devoured without hesitation.

None of us ever got sick from eating any of the uncooked fruits or vegetables. We always were served much more food than we could possibly eat. The only difficulty we sometimes encountered was in locating a restaurant that would serve our group, due to the fact that we had three women with us. If a restaurant did not have a family section, it would only serve men and would not accommodate us.

Generally, the family section was in a separate room from the main restaurant and had its own entrance. Where a restaurant had only one large room, family areas were partitioned off with curtains. The women in our group always were very happy when they entered the family section of a restaurant because that was the only time in public when they could remove their head scarves (though not their abayas).

We were surprised to learn that there are over 250 varieties of dates grown in Saudi Arabia. Along with tiny cups of Arabian coffee flavored with cardamom, they are offered to visitors upon their arrival at most hotels, in shops and when meeting local people.
These dates are nothing like their poor cousins, the ones available in our grocery stores here. The Saudis obviously keep their best dates for their own consumption and export the worst. Who can blame them? We had no idea that dates could be so varied and so delicious. Now that we have tasted these jewels, we truly miss them.

SHOPPING — In the large cities, every possible item is available for purchase in all the same well-known stores that can be found anywhere else in the world. Our group was not interested in that kind of shopping. The shoppers in our group were interested in three things: gold jewelry, Bedouin items and rugs. They were not disappointed.

The gold souks and shops were dazzling, selling only 21-karat white and yellow gold items of astonishing beauty. Some in our group were thrilled to find very interesting, unique, antique Bedouin jewelry and accessories that cannot be purchased anywhere else. The many rug shops carried large inventories of items hand-knotted in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere.

All of our shoppers had positive experiences dealing with the shopkeepers, who seemed to be unfailingly honest, giving our shoppers reasonable prices and fair exchange rates when receiving U.S. dollars. None of our shoppers ever felt they were being gouged or taken advantage of.

THE CAUSEWAY — On our last day, our Syrian drivers took us over the King Fahad causeway to Bahrain. The causeway is a 4-lane, 26-kilometer, spectacular road construction project financed by KSA to the tune of $1.2 billion dollars in 1986. We were told that in a normal day 10,000 cars cross it in both directions. On the weekends (Thursday and Friday), as many as 40,000 cars cross it in one direction only, primarily Saudis heading to and from their more relaxed neighbor for weekend fun.
We had the misfortune of crossing on a Thursday. It was as bad as making the crossing from Tijuana to San Diego on a Sunday. My recommendation — if you must go there on a Thursday, fly if you can afford to.

SOME NEGATIVES — This is not a place to break the rules. The arrival card you complete before landing states clearly, in red letters, that drug trafficking will result in death. Their laws mean what they say. There is no community service. Public beheadings still happen; in fact, two people were beheaded in a public square the day after we had visited it.

There is no alcohol allowed anywhere.
Smoking is common and allowed in hotels and restaurants.
There are no cinemas.

As tourists, we were not allowed any flexibility in our itinerary. Each location we visited entailed lots of paperwork. Without advance written permission, we were not allowed to see certain sites or visit museums.

I suppose that only Western women travelers with a curiosity about Islamic culture could tolerate the restrictive regulations imposed on them; feminists need not apply. (But flexible travelers of the fairer sex may find it amusing to go along and make a game out of the experience.)

Enforcing Sharia law, all bank accounts are automatically relieved of 2.5% of their value at the end of Ramadan each year. The funds are contributed to charity to satisfy one of the requirements of Islam.

SOME GOOD THINGS — Nothing is taxed.
All our hotels were 4-star.
We experienced excellent food from all over the world.
Some of the best scuba diving in the world is in the Red Sea.
Unlike the observation made in the Lonely Planet guide, I saw only safe, slow driving on the roads, with police radars everywhere.
We saw no slums and there seemed to be little or no poverty.
There is widespread use of the Internet and satellite TV.
People everywhere were polite, friendly and accommodating.
This would be a great place for your child to spend spring break; he/she couldn’t easily get into trouble.

PERSPECTIVE — In order to insure their receiving visas, the Jews on our tour said they were Christians. I think that if there are any restrictions on issuing visas to various religious groups, i.e., Jews, they should be lifted in order to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and ideas from all people. The liberalization of views of the Mutawa, the religious police, would be in the best interests of all.

Still, for the most part, I think that having Saudi Arabians be out of sync with specific aspects of Western liberal culture is not necessarily such a bad thing. If the whole world were the same, there would be no reason to leave your house.

Saudi Arabia has a lot to offer the open-minded and adventurous traveler. This is not the Middle East of your grandparents! If you can put aside your preconceived notions on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, you could have a surprising and very rewarding experience there.



Wake Island Visit: 2009-12
2010-01-12 - Wake, the Alamo of the Pacific
by Bill Altaffer, San Diego

Since 1988, for those not in the US military, it has been virtually impossible to visit Wake Island. Many have tried numerous times over the years. I was one of those hopeful and frequently disappointed travelers. After several failed attempts, I had almost given up. Finally, in commemoration of the 68th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, permission was granted to Valor Tours and Historic Military Tours to bring a group of 141 “country baggers” and military buffs to this most difficult destination. This group represented over a dozen nations and included many individuals both well-known and well-regarded in traveling circles, all who had been trying to get to Wake for years. Rather than mention any names, partly for fear of leaving anyone out, I won’t. Many others in the group were “war buffs,” people who travel the world to see battle sites and other militarily significant locations. For the most part, we all had some historical interest in the area.

Wake is comprised of three atolls totaling six square miles in area and located in the North Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Northern Mariana Islands. Its highest elevation is 18 feet above sea level. It was discovered in the 1500s by the Spanish and renamed two hundred years later by the master of a British trading schooner, Captain Wake. During the 1930s, Pan American Clipper sea planes used it as a refueling stop. Eventually, the US Navy realized its strategic importance and began to use it as a base.

After Pearl Harbor, on December 8, 9 and 10 of 1941, Japanese air raids “softened” the island. Flying from their airfields in the Marshall Islands, thirty-six Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers destroyed much of Wake’s airfield and supply depots. On December 11, there was more naval shelling and an attempted Japanese landing that was repulsed by valiant resistance from US forces. Two Japanese destroyers were sunk and the remainder retreated to Kwajalein. On December 21, facing the reality of the situation, the last US military float planes (the PBYs) departed from the island. Two days later, the remaining military personnel and civilian contractors on Wake surrendered to invading Japanese soldiers, the first time in history that US Marines had ever surrendered. A relief task force that had been on its way from Hawaii was recalled when only 425 miles away, leaving the island in control of the Japanese.

The military personnel on Wake were eventually sent to concentration camps in China for the duration of the war. The civilian contractors on the island were detained to build fortifications and defenses for the Japanese. On October 7, 1943, the remaining civilians were brutally executed in response to a carrier strike and an expected invasion by US forces. After the US invasion succeeded, the two top Japanese officers there were hung for this and other war crimes.

Today, Wake is used by the Strategic Air Command as a base for tracking missile launches. It is home to approximately 300 military and non-military support personnel. Other than military use, its airfield has occasionally served as an emergency stop for trans-Pacific flights.

Our tour began in Hawaii where we boarded Continental’s Air Micronesia (Air Mic) flight to Guam. Ironically, we flew over Wake on this flight, crossing the International Date Line and losing one day and 4 hours. A day later, our charter flight from Guam would take us back to Wake, regaining that lost day and returning us to Honolulu time even though we would still be two thirds of the way from Hawaii to the Northern Marianas. The night before our flight to Wake, we attended a banquet at the Outrigger Hotel in Guam. Also in attendance were current admirals and generals as well as survivors of the 1941 invasion of the island. Opening remarks were made by Warren Wiedhan, USMC Colonel (Ret) and by Guam’s Governor Camacho. Rear Admiral Biesel, Brigadier General Broadmeadow and Brigadier General Ruhlman also spoke to us.

On December 12, we departed on our chartered Air Mic flight from Guam at 5:00 AM. Continental’s top management was also on board, along with a hand-picked crew. They were as excited as we all were. Several of the Wake survivors on board were accompanied by their families. Before landing, the plane circled the atoll several times, allowing passengers seated on both sides of the plane good views of this top-secret missile defense station. Upon deplaning, most of us immediately photographed the Wake Air Station sign at the entrance to the airport lounge. Inside were a small museum, a shop with the usual T-shirts, hats and other souvenirs, all free of tax, and a post office where mail is collected once a week, on Fridays. Our passports were rewarded with a large Wake Island stamp, something I have long coveted. We were then given maps and programs for our 12-hour stay. There are no accommodations for visitors on Wake, so we arrived at sunrise and left at sunset. Box lunches were supplied by the airline.

Our group was divided onto two buses which went off in opposite directions and eventually covered all the sites of the island. One bus started with Prisoner’s Rock where we saw a commemorative plaque marking the location of McArthur’s meeting with Truman in 1950. The other bus started with a visit to the Drifter’s Reef Bar & Grill, passing stores, housing and a church. A tiki statue guarded the entrance to the bar, where we were interested to find that premium beers cost only $2. Outside the bar, we saw a Japanese bunker that had been uprooted and moved by the last major hurricane to hit Wake.

After our bus tours, we had free time to walk around. Some of our group swam in the lagoon. Wake also boasts excellent fishing and scuba diving. As we were exploring, Wake Islanders frequently stopped to offer us a ride. They were extremely helpful and very interested in our tour. They treated us like important dignitaries. Of its approximately 300 inhabitants, about half a dozen are female. Most of the civilian workers are from Thailand. Signs were usually written in both English and Thai. Some of the sites we saw included the remains of the Pan American Hotel and a ramp into the ocean for seaplanes. Large jet fuel storage tanks were scattered about the island, which also boasts a nine-hole golf course. Remnants of a previous Brunswick bowling alley have become decorations in front of many people’s apartments.

Towards the end of the day, Brigadier General Broadmeadow spoke in true military form as John Dale, a 90-year-old survivor of Wake, laid a wreath at the Marine Memorial honoring the past heroes of the battles and the Japanese occupation of the island. We then boarded our flight back to Guam, full of positive memories of the experiences of our short stay. Was the trip worth $1,000 a day? You betcha! Though from start to finish, it lasted less than a week, it was the best short trip I can imagine. It was very special for all involved: Valor Tours, Historic Military Tours, the US military, the Air Mic crew, the honored veterans, and all the rest of us.

I am grateful for the perseverance of Valor Tours and Historic Military Tours in arranging this trip. It took extensive work, including many visits by HMT personnel to Hawaii and the Pentagon, to put it together and get the necessary permission. There is discussion that this tour may be repeated next year. These two organizations also conduct many other tours to historic and military locations. Contact Vicky at Valor Tours in Sausalito, California for more information.

No reports or photos on:

Aargau
Abkhazia
Abruzzo
Abu Dhabi
Acre State
Adelie Land (to S. Pole)
Adygeya
Afghanistan
Agalega (and St. Brandon)
Aguascalientes
Ajaria
Ajman
Aksai Chin
Alabama
Alagoas
Aland Islands
Alaska
Albania
Alberta
Aldabra Islands
Alderney
Algeria
Alsace
Altai Krai
Altai Republic
Amapa State
Amazonas, Brazil
American Samoa
Amirante Islands
Amur Oblast
Anatolia (Turkey in Asia)
Andalusia
Andaman Islands
Andhra Pradesh
Andorra
Angola (other)
Anguilla
Anhui
Anjouan
Antigua
Aosta Valley
Appenzell Ausserrhoden
Appenzell Innerrhoden
Apulia
Aquitaine
Aragon
Argentine Antarctica (to S. Pole)
Arizona
Arkansas
Arkhangelsk Oblast
Armenia (other)
Aruba
Arunachal Pradesh
Ascension Island
Assam
Astrakhan Oblast
Asturias
Austral Islands
Australian Antarctic Territory (to S. Pole)
Austria
Auvergne
Azad Jammu and Kashmir
Azerbaijan (other)
Azores
Baden-Wurttemberg
Bahamas
Bahia
Bahrain
Baja California
Baja California Sur
Balearic Islands
Balochistan
Bangladesh
Barbados
Barbuda
Basel Landschaft
Basel Stadt
Bashkortostan
Basilicata
Bavaria
Beijing (District)
Belarus
Belgorod Oblast
Belize
Benin
Berlin
Bermuda
Bern
Bhutan
Bihar
Bioko Island (Malabo)
Bjornoya
Bolivia
Bonaire
Botswana
Bougainville Province
Brandenburg
Brazilian Federal District
Bremen
British Antarctic Territory (to S. Pole)
British Columbia
British Indian Ocean Territory
British Virgin Islands
Brittany
Brunei
Brussels-Capital Region
Bryansk Oblast
Buenos Aires (City)
Buenos Aires Province
Bulgaria
Burgundy
Burkina Faso
Burundi
Buryatia
Busingen
Cabinda Province
Caicos Islands
Calabria
California
Cambodia
Cameroon
Campania
Campeche
Campione d'Italia
Canary Islands
Cantabria
Cape Verde
Carriacou and Petite Martinique
Castile and Leon
Castile-La Mancha
Catalonia
Catamarca Province
Cayman Islands
Ceara
Central African Republic
Central and Southern Line Islands (Caroline, Flint, Malden, Starbuck, Vostok)
Centre
Ceuta
Chaco Province
Chad
Champagne-Ardenne
Chandigarh
Chatham Islands
Chechnya
Chelyabinsk Oblast
Chhattisgarh
Chiapas
Chihuahua
Chile (mainland)
Chilean Antarctic Territory (to S. Pole)
Chongqing (District)
Christmas Island
Chubu Region
Chubut Province
Chugoku Region
Chukotka Autonomous Okrug
Chuuk State
Chuvashia
Clipperton Island
Coahuila
Cocos (Keeling) Islands
Cocos Island
Colima
Colombia (mainland)
Colorado
Connecticut
Cook Islands (Southern)
Cordoba Province
Corn Islands
Corrientes Province
Corsica
Costa Rica (mainland)
Crete
Crimea
Croatia (other)
Cuba
Curacao
Cyclades
Czech Republic
Dadra and Nagar Haveli
Dagestan
Daito Islands
Daman and Diu
Darfur
Delaware
Delhi (NCT)
Denmark
Desecheo Island
District of Columbia
Djibouti
Dodecanese Islands
Dominica
Dominican Republic
DRC (Zaire)
Dry Tortugas
Dubai
Ducie Island
Durango
East Timor (other)
Easter Island
Eastern Cape
Ecuador (Mainland)
Egypt (non-Sinai)
El Salvador
Emilia-Romagna
England
Entre Rios Province
Eritrea
Espirito Santo
Estonia
Ethiopia
Euskadi (Basque Country)
Extremadura
Falkland Islands
Faroe Islands
Farquhar Group (Farquhar, Providence, St. Pierre)
Federally Administered Tribal Areas
Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Fernando de Noronha
Fiji Islands
Finland (mainland)
Flemish Region
Florida
Formosa Province
Franche-Comte
Franz Josef Land
Free State
Free Zone (Sahrawi-Controlled)
French Guiana
Fribourg
Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Fujairah
Fujian
Gabon
Gagauzia
Galapagos Islands
Galicia
Gambia
Gambier Islands
Gansu
Gauteng
Gaza Strip
Geneva
Georgia, State
Ghana
Gibraltar
Gilbert Islands
Gilgit-Baltistan
Glarus
Goa
Goias
Golan Heights
Grand Comoro
Graubunden
Greece (other)
Greenland
Grenada
Grenadines Parish
Guadeloupe (and Deps.)
Guam
Guanajuato
Guangdong
Guangxi
Guatemala
Guernsey
Guerrero
Guinea (Conakry)
Guinea-Bissau
Guizhou
Gujarat
Guyana
Hainan Island
Haiti
Hamburg
Haryana
Hawaiian Islands (including NW Islands)
Hebei
Heilongjiang
Helgoland
Henan
Henderson Island
Herm
Hesse
Hidalgo
Himachal Pradesh
Hokkaido
Honduras (mainland)
Hong Kong
Hubei
Hunan
Hungary
Iceland
Idaho
Ile-de-France
Illinois
Indiana
Ingushetia
Inner Mongolia
Ionian Islands
Iowa
Iran
Iraq
Iraqi Kurdistan
Ireland, Republic of
Irian Jaya
Irkutsk Oblast
Isla Margarita
Islamabad Capital Territory
Islas de la Bahia
Isle of Man
Israel (other)
Istria
ITU (HQ - Geneva)
Ivanovo Oblast
Ivory Coast
Jalisco
Jamaica
Jammu and Kashmir (except Ladakh)
Jan Mayen
Java
Jeju Island
Jersey
Jewish Autonomous Oblast
Jharkhand
Jiangsu
Jiangxi
Jilin
Johnston Atoll
Jordan
Juan Fernandez Islands
Jujuy Province
Jura
Kabardino-Balkaria
Kalimantan
Kaliningrad
Kalmykia
Kaluga Oblast
Kamchatka Krai
Kansai Region
Kansas
Kanto Region
Karachay-Cherkessia
Karakalpakstan
Karelia Republic
Karnataka
Kazakhstan
Kemerovo Oblast
Kentucky
Kenya
Kerala
Kermadec Islands
Khabarovsk Krai
Khakassia
Khantia-Mansia
Kirov Oblast
Komi Republic
Kosovo
Kosrae State
Kostroma Oblast
Krasnodar Krai
Krasnoyarsk Krai
Kurgan Oblast
Kuril Islands
Kursk Oblast
Kuwait
Kwazulu-Natal
Kyrgyzstan
Kyushu Region
La Pampa Province
La Rioja
La Rioja Province
Labrador
Ladakh
Lakshadweep
Languedoc-Roussillon
Laos
Latvia
Lazio
Lebanon
Leningrad Oblast
Lesotho
Lesser Sunda Islands
Liaoning
Liberia
Libya
Liechtenstein
Liguria
Limousin
Limpopo
Lipetsk Oblast
Lithuania
Llivia
Lombardy
Lord Howe Island
Lorraine
Louisiana
Lower Normandy
Lower Saxony
Loyalty Islands
Lucerne
Lundy
Luxembourg
Luzon (Northern Philippines)
Macau
Macedonia, Republic
Macquarie Island
Madagascar
Madeira
Madhya Pradesh
Madrid Autonomous Community
Magadan Oblast
Maharashtra
Maine
Malawi
Maldives
Mali
Malta
Maluku Islands
Manihiki (and Penrhyn)
Manipur
Manitoba
Maranhao
Marche
Mari El
Market Reef
Marquesas Islands
Marshall Islands
Martinique
Maryland
Massachusetts
Mato Grosso
Mato Grosso do Sul
Mauritania
Mauritius (main island)
Mayotte
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
Meghalaya
Melilla
Mendoza Province
Mexico D.F.
Mexico State
Michigan
Michoacan
Midi-Pyrenees
Midway Island
Minas Gerais
Mindanao (Southern Philippines)
Minnesota
Misiones Province
Mississippi
Missouri
Mizoram
Moheli
Moldova (other)
Molise
Monaco
Mongolia
Montana
Montenegro
Montserrat
Mordovia
Morelos
Morocco
Mount Athos
Mozambique
Mpumalanga
Murcia Region
Murmansk Oblast
Mustang, Kingdom (Upper, Lo Manthang)
Myanmar
Nagaland
Nagorno-Karabakh
Nakhichevan
Namibia
Nauru
Navarre
Nayarit
Nebraska
Nenetsia
Nepal (other)
Netherlands
Neuchatel
Neuquen Province
Nevada
Nevis
New Britain
New Brunswick
New Caledonia (mainland)
New Hampshire
New Ireland Province
New Jersey
New Mexico
New South Wales
New York
Newfoundland
Nicaragua
Nidwalden
Niger
Nigeria
Ningxia
Niue
Nizhny Novgorod Oblast
Nord-Pas-de-Calais
Norfolk Island
North Carolina
North Dakota
North Island
North Ossetia-Alania
North Rhine-Westphalia
North Vietnam
North West Province
North-West Frontier Province
Northern Cape
Northern Ireland
Northern Line Islands (Christmas, Fanning, Washington)
Northern Marianas
Northern Territory
Northwest Territories
Norway (mainland)
Nova Scotia
Novgorod Oblast
Novosibirsk Oblast
Nuevo Leon
Nunavut
Oaxaca
Obwalden
Oecussi
Ogasawara
Ohio
Oklahoma
Oman (other)
Omsk Oblast
Ontario
Oregon
Orenburg Oblast
Orissa
Orkney Islands
Oryol Oblast
Pakistan-administered Kashmir
Palau
Palmyra Atoll
Panama (mainland)
Papua New Guinea (other)
Para State
Paraguay
Paraiba
Parana State
Pays de la Loire
Pelagie Islands (and Pantelleria)
Peninsular Malaysia
Pennsylvania
Penza Oblast
Perm Krai
Pernambuco
Peru
Phoenix Islands
Piaui
Picardy
Piedmont
Pitcairn Island
Pohnpei State
Poitou-Charentes
Poland
Pondicherry
Portugal
Primorsky Krai
Prince Edward Island
Principe
Provence-Alpes-Cote d\'Azur
Pskov Oblast
Puebla
Puerto Rico
Pukapuka (and Suwarrow)
Punjab
Punjab State
Puntland
Qatar
Qinghai
Quebec
Queensland
Queretaro
Quintana Roo
Rajasthan
Ras Al Khaimah
Ras Musandam
Redonda
Republic of Congo
Republic of Cyprus
Republic of Georgia (other)
Republic of Srpska
Reunion Island
Revillagigedo Islands
Rhineland-Palatinate
Rhode Island
Rhone-Alpes
Rio de Janeiro State
Rio Grande do Norte
Rio Grande do Sul
Rio Muni (Bata)
Rio Negro Province
Rodrigues Island
Romania
Rondonia
Roraima
Ross Dependency (to S. Pole)
Rostov Oblast
Rwanda
Ryazan Oblast
Ryukyu Islands
Saarland
Saba
Sabah
Saint Petersburg (City)
Sakha Republic (Yakutia)
Salta Province
Samara Oblast
Samoa
San Andres and Providencia
San Blas Islands
San Juan Province
San Luis Potosi
San Luis Province
San Marino
Santa Catarina State
Santa Cruz Province
Santa Fe Province
Santiago del Estero Province
Sao Paulo State
Sao Tome Island
Sapmi (Lapland)
Saratov Oblast
Sarawak
Sardinia
Sark
Saskatchewan
Saxony
Saxony-Anhalt
Schaffhausen
Schleswig-Holstein
Schwyz
Scilly Isles
Scotland
Senegal
Serbia (other)
Sergipe
Seychelles (Inner Islands)
Shaanxi
Shandong
Shanghai (District)
Shanxi
Sharjah
Shenzhen
Shetland Islands
Shikoku Region
Sichuan
Sicily
Sierra Leone
Sikkim
Sinai Peninsula
Sinaloa
Sindh
Singapore
Slovakia
Slovenia
Smolensk Oblast
Society Islands
Socotra
Solomon Islands (Main Group)
Solothurn
Somalia (Other)
Somaliland
Sonora
South Australia
South Carolina
South Dakota
South Georgia
South Island
South Orkney Islands
South Ossetia
South Sandwich Islands
South Shetland Islands
South Sudan
South Vietnam
Southern Provinces (Morocco-Controlled)
Sovereign Base Areas (Cyprus)
Sovereign Military Order of Malta
Spratly Islands
Sri Lanka
St. Barths
St. Croix
St. Eustatius
St. Gallen
St. Helena
St. Kitts
St. Lucia
St. Maarten
St. Martin
St. Pierre and Miquelon
St. Vincent
Stavropol Krai
Sudan (Other)
Sulawesi
Sumatra
Suriname
Svalbard
Sverdlovsk Oblast
Swaziland
Sweden
Syria
Tabasco
Taiwan (main island)
Tajikistan
Tamaulipas
Tambov Oblast
Tamil Nadu
Tanzania (Mainland)
Tasmania
Tatarstan
Telangana
Temotu Province (Santa Cruz Islands)
Tennessee
Texas
Thailand
Thurgau
Thuringia
Tianjin (District)
Tibet
Ticino
Tierra del Fuego (Argentinian)
Tlaxcala
Tobago
Tocantins State
Togo
Tohoku Region
Tokelau Islands
Tomsk Oblast
Tonga
Trans Dniester
Trentino-Alto Adige
Trinidad
Tripura
Tristan da Cunha
Trobriand Islands
Tuamotu Islands
Tucuman Province
Tula Oblast
Tunisia
Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
Turkish Thrace (Turkey in Europe)
Turkmenistan
Turks Islands
Tuscany
Tuva
Tuvalu
Tver Oblast
Tyumen Oblast
U.S. Virgin Islands
Udmurtia
Uganda
Ukraine (Other)
Ulyanovsk Oblast
Umbria
Umm Al Qaiwain
United Nations Headquarters (New York)
Upper Normandy
Uri
Uruguay
Utah
Uttar Pradesh
Uttarakhand
Uzbekistan (other)
Valais
Valencian Community
Vanuatu
Vatican City
Vaud
Veneto
Venezuela
Veracruz
Vermont
Victoria State
Virginia
Visayas (Central Philippines)
Vladimir Oblast
Volgograd Oblast
Vologda Oblast
Voronezh Oblast
Wales
Wallis and Futuna Islands
Walloon Region
Washington
West Bank
West Bengal
West Virginia
Western Australia
Western Cape
Wisconsin
Wyoming
Xinjiang
Yamalia
Yap State
Yaroslavl Oblast
Yemen
Yucatan
Yukon Territory
Yunnan
Zabaykalsky Krai
Zacatecas
Zambia
Zanzibar
Zhejiang
Zimbabwe
Zug
Zurich