Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Yellow-Billed Stork

The yellow-billed stork is very closely related to the American woodstork (which I've previously blogged on here, here and here), the milky stork (found in Southeast Asia) and the painted stork (found in tropical Asia south of the Himalayas in the Indian Subcontinent). In fact, these four species belong in a clade, which is a group consisting of a common ancestor and all its lineal descendants. 

The yellow-billed stork is found in Africa south of the Sahara, as well as in Madagascar. It is found primarily in Eastern Africa, but is widely distributed from Senegal and Somalia down to South Africa. It is primarily white, but has a short black tail glossed green and purple when freshly moulted, a yellow bill, red skin on its face and forehead and brown legs. 
The back wing feathers on these flying yellow-billed storks is glossy green. 
In the Okavango Delta with some Egyptian geese. These appear to be juveniles as the color is more grayish/white and the reddish skin is not as extensive on the face. 
During breeding season, the plumage turns pink on the upperwings and back, the legs turn bright pink, the face is a deeper red and the bill a deeper yellow. It primarily breeds in Kenya and Tanzania, but has been found to breed in some other areas, including northern Botswana and Zimbabwe. 
This stork, on the Zambezi River, shows the mating characteristics of pink legs, pink plumage on the upperwings and a deeply yellow bill (radiating in the beautiful late afternoon light). 
We saw yellow-billed storks while riding a boat in the Okavango Delta of Botswana and while riding a large boat on the Upper Zambezi River near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. 
Flying in the Okavango Delta. 
Of note, they have been observed following moving crocodiles and hippos and feed behind them, eating the organisms churned up by them. 
Behind a crocodile in the Okavango Delta. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Common Tsessebe

The common tsessebe (Damaliscus lunatus) has five subspecies: (a) the topi (D.l. jimela), which I've blogged about previously; (b) the korrigum (D.l. korrigum); (c) the coastal topi (D.l. topi); (d) the tiang (D.l. tiang); and (e) the common topi (D.l. lunatus), the nominate subspecies, which retains the name of the species. The map below shows the distribution of the subspecies. The Bangweulu tsessebe (D. superstes), also shown in the map below, has been recognized as a separate species. 
The common tsessebe subspecies, which this post is about, is found in Angola, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and South Africa. It is the fastest antelope in Africa, running at speeds over 90 km per hour (54 mph). We saw one common tsessebe in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, mingling with a herd of red lechwe. We sat and watched the herd for about 20 minutes  and found it hard to get a good photo of the tsessebe because it always had its head to the ground, eating grass. 
It has a chestnut brown body, black on the front of the face and tuft of the tail, grayish or bluish/black on the forelimbs and thigh, brownish/yellow to yellow on their hindlimbs, and white on their bellies. 

The IUCN has noted a population decline due to habitat destruction and that it will become vulnerable to extinction by 2025.  

Monday, October 29, 2018

Southern Africa: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia & Zimbabwe

I spent quite a bit of time looking at parks and camps in Southern Africa trying to develop an itinerary that would allow us to visit four to six countries on one trip in a semi-affordable way. Namibia and Botswana were at the top of my wish list. Huge distances as well as particularly expensive camps in Botswana and Zambia were big obstacles. Ultimately, I had to eliminate any more than a border visit to Zambia because South Luangwa NP, the area I really wanted to visit there, was too far away and too expensive to get to and stay. Once I got a basic itinerary developed, I had a chance on-line encounter with Ker & Downey Africa and they came up with a proposal which was competitive with what I could do on my own and had the added benefit of their presence in Southern Africa and their experience and contacts for pulling detailed items together, like transfers. Our trip spanned 17 days, from May 25, 2018 to June 10, 2018. 

Judy and I both blog about our travels. Judy does a comprehensive coverage of our entire trip, in a linear sequence. I focus on animals, food and religion and jump around. Links to our individual posts are provided under the summary of the pertinent portion of our trip. This trip was mostly animals and some food for me. Judy is not finished blogging, and I may have a few more posts as well, so this will be updated with additional links later. 

London and Cambridge, England  
We left Los Angeles on Friday, May 25, at 3:35 p.m. on British Airways. We had a direct flight to London Heathrow which took 10 1/2 hours and arrived in London on Saturday morning, May 26, at 10:10 a.m. We had a layover of more than 11 hours, so we rented a car, arranged for my wife's niece, who lives in London, to join us and drove to Cambridge. Unfortunately, lots of little things sucked up huge gaps of time, like delays in getting to the car rental, the wait at the car rental to get our car, horrendous traffic to and from Cambridge, and difficulty finding parking in Cambridge. We had a nice meal at the Sea Tree in Cambridge and did some walking on the Cambridge University campus, but were unable to go "punting" on the River Cam as I'd hoped.
     England: a Short Visit to Cambridge on our Way to South Africa  (Judy) 
     The Sea Tree: Cambridge, England   (Bob)
Cape Town, South Africa  
We left London at 9:30 p.m. Saturday evening on British Airways and had a direct 11 1/2 hour flight to Cape Town. We arrived in Cape Town at 10:00 a.m. Sunday morning absolutely beat. We'd been traveling 32 1/2 hours with only what sleep we could get on the flights. The Cape Town airport had lots of reminders of its ongoing water crisis, but at least they'd had some recent rain to soften the short-term impact. We rented a car at the airport (driving for the second time of the trip on the left side of the road), and drove to Cheetah Outreach in Somerset West, about 32 kms and a 30 minute drive from the airport. We got to touch an adult cheetah and pet two cheetah cubs which was fun. Then we drove to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the backside of Table Mountain which was a perfect place to take our fatigued and jet-lagged bodies. We were able to walk at our own leisure and soak up the beautiful weather, plants, trees and wildlife we found there. We drove to Cape Town and checked-in to the More Quarters Hotel, our home in Cape Town. Then we used Uber to get a ride to Karibu, a restaurant on the Waterfront, where we got to taste some wild game, including kudu, ostrich, springbok and impala. We Ubered back to the hotel for much needed sleep. The Cape Town traffic was so bad that we parked our car the rest of the time and relied on Uber.
     Flying in to Cape Town, South Africa  (Judy)
     Cape Town, South Africa:  Cheetah Outreach  (Judy)
     Caracal  (Bob)
     Cape Town, South Africa: Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden  (Judy)
     Cape Spurfowl  (Bob)
     Natal Spurfowl  (Bob)
     Gurney's Helmeted Guineafowl  (Bob)
     Cape Turtle Dove  (Bob)
     Egyptian Goose  (Bob)
     Cape Town, South Africa: Sleeping and Eating  (Judy)
     Karibu - Cape Town, South Africa  (Bob)
     Ostrich Meat: Carpaccio and Steak  (Bob)
     Impala Steak  (Bob)
     Springbok Meat: Carpaccio, Steak, Stew and Biltong  (Bob)

Ryan Strauss, our guide, picked us up at our hotel Monday morning and drove us to downtown where we parked and got out and walked. We'd originally planned to do Table Mountain, but the weather was not conducive to a visit (and we ended up missing it altogether because of weather). We drove to the District Six Museum, in an area where colored residents were forcibly removed and the area bulldozed to make way for white housing. For lunch we visited the Eastern Food Bazaar and ate at Punjabi. Ryan introduced us to bunny chow, a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with lamb curry. Then, in a down pour, to the "Mother"[Jewish] Synagogue of South Africa and a Jewish Museum. Then to the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. Shortly after we got back to the U.S. we saw that Time Magazine listed the Zeitz as one of 100 places in the world to visit. That evening we Ubered to Gold Restaurant, a spectacular experience, with food tastings from all over Africa, and lots of African dancing and singing.
     Cape Town, South Africa: Around Town and District Six  (Judy)
     Cape Town, South Africa: Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA)  (Judy)
     Eastern Food Bazaar: Cape Town  (Bob)
     Gold Restaurant - Cape Town  (Bob)
     South Africa: Books and Movies  (Judy)

Tuesday was our most fun day in South Africa. Ryan picked us up for a drive down to Cape Point. We took the Chapman's Peak Drive and drove through the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve where we got a great view of three ostriches, then stopped at the Cape of Good Hope. Then after a short drive, we stopped at Cape Point, another highlight of the trip. After leaving Cape Point we saw some chacma baboons and then thoroughly enjoyed the African penquins at Boulder Beach. In Kalk Bay we saw some Cape fur seals and had a fishy lunch at Kalky's Fish and Chips, right off the bay. That evening we enjoyed a meal at Mama Africa. I had a warthog kabob.
     South Africa: the Cape of Good Hope  (Judy)
     South African Ostrich  (Bob)
     Cape Gull  (Bob)
     Cape Wagtail  (Bob)
     Red-Winged Starling  (Bob)
     Cape Chacma Baboon  (Bob)
     Cape Town, South Africa: Penguins at Boulders Beach (Judy)
     African Penguin  (Bob)
     Cape Fur Seal  (Bob)
     Cape Cormorant  (Bob)
     Kalky's - Kalk Bay, South Africa  (Bob)
     Warthog Meat: Ribs, Kabobs and Steak  (Bob)

Wednesday we started out from the Waterfront by boat to Robben Island (40 minutes out and 20 minutes back) where we took a bus tour of the island and visited the prison where Nelson Mandela was kept. Our guide was a former prisoner and knew Mandela. Afterwards we had my favorite meal of the trip at Arnolds. I got to try kudu, ostrich, smoked warthog ribs, crocodile tagine and gemsbok Wellington (which was fantastic). Afterwards we visited Bo Kaap, a black neighborhood with beautifully colored houses, and St. George's Cathedral. On the way back to the hotel Ryan stopped at a deli and we got some items to take home for dinner, including pickled octopus and cold-smoked salmon.
     Cape Town, South Africa: Robben Island  (Judy)
     Arnolds - Cape Town, South Africa  (Bob)
     Kudu Meat: Biltong, Drywors, Boerwors, Pate, Meatballs, Stew & Steak  (Bob)
     Gemsbok Meat: Wellington and Biltong  (Bob)
     Cape Town, South Africa: Bo-Kaap, St. George's Cathedral, and back to the Airport  (Judy)

Etosha National Park, Namibia
Thursday we drove our rental car to the Cape Town Airport and had a 6:45 a.m. flight on South African Airways, by South African Airlink, to Windhoek, Namibia, a two hour flight. We arrived about 8:50 a.m. The airport is very undeveloped. We got off a good-sized jet and had quite a walk to the terminal. We were met by a Ker Downey rep who drove us in to Windhoek and spent forever showing us the ins and outs of the vehicle. We wasted lots of time. If I had a do-over, I would have rented the vehicle on our own from the airport. It would have been much faster getting on the road and cheaper. We did get a nicer vehicle than I would have rented (or actually did - having rented one until we switched to Ker Downy and I cancelled). We had an approximate four to four and a half hour drive to Etosha National Park, plus time for several interruptions, one for a carry-out lunch at a supermarket, and the other for gas. I enjoyed driving through this very undeveloped country (also on the left-hand side of the road). We got to Etosha late-afternoon, but had a spectacular drive in. We saw a large herd of elephants, just inside the park, and quite a few zebras. When we arrived at Okaukuejo, where we were spending the night, we had enough time to drive out to Okondeka water hole, on the edge of the large Etosha Pan, about a 39 mile round trip and an hour driving at the maximum park speed of 60 km/hour (about 36 mph).
Okondeka Waterhole
On the way we had our best-sightings of springbok and wildebeest, and also saw some ostriches, black-faced impala, a giraffe, some vultures and some black-backed jackals. We checked into the government owned Okaukuejo Camp, where we had dinner, and spent some time at the water hole there. We had great sightings of black rhinos, giraffes and elephants.
     Flying to Namibia and Driving to Etosha National Park  (Judy)
     Namibia: Etosha National Park, Day 1, Okaukuejo Camp  (Judy)
     Chapman's Zebra  (Bob)
     Black-Faced Impala  (Bob)
     Kaokoveld Springbok  (Bob)
     Blue Wildebeest  (Bob)
     Northern Black Korhaan  (Bob)
     Crowned Plover  (Bob)
     Southwestern Black Rhinoceros  (Bob)

They open the gate at Okaukuejo about sunrise, which was about 6:15 a.m. Friday morning, June 1st, we were second in line.
We drove to Nebrownii water hole, 9 kms (5.4 miles) east of Okaukuejo. We saw two greater kestrels feeding on small birds, some gemsbok and some springbok. We set off again for Olifantsbad water hole, 16 kms (9.6 miles) to the southeast. Along the way we saw vehicles gathered together at Gemsbokviakte water hole and pulled in at Judy's insistence. Fortunately we did and saw a large male lion laying in the grass. Then off to Olifantsbad, which was my favorite of all the water holes from a beauty standpoint. We saw black-faced impala, lots of guinea fowl and some black-backed jackals. On our way back to breakfast at Okaukuejo after a couple of hours of the best morning viewing (a strategy I'd read on-line), we stopped at Gembokviakte again for another view of the lion and saw another male lion, and the original lion we'd seen earlier get up and stroll over to it. These were the only lions we saw on our trip. We stopped at Nebrownii again as well, seeing the kestrels again and many more gemsbok, zebras and springbok. We caught the tail-end of breakfast, the buffet was slim-pickins by that time, showered, checked out, then went back to the Okaukuejo water hole where we got great views of massive numbers of black-faced impala, kudu, springbok and zebra.
Okaukuejo Waterhole
We discovered a covered viewing area and on my way back out I mis-stepped and fell about three feet. I banged myself up, tweeking my right knee, but fortunately was not severely hurt. We headed southeast to Gemsbokviakte again, and saw at least four giraffes along the road. We got a great view of a secretary bird and watched it for about ten minutes. The lions were gone from Gemsbokviakte. We back-tracked just a bit, then headed northeast toward Ondongab, where we had a nice sighting of a lilac breasted roller, then were on the main route with a stop at Homob water hole (35 kms [21 miles] east of Okaukuejo). 
Homob Waterhole
It was a beautiful water hole, but with no animals other than a couple of black-faced impala near the parking area. We traveled 12 kms (7.2 miles) to Salvadora water hole on the edge of the pan and saw no animals.  At Rietfontein water hole, 6 kms (3.6 miles) further, we stopped quite a while and watched several male kudus interacting with their females, as well as some wildebeest and a pied crow. After leaving Rieftontein we saw several elephants along the road, a black rhino, and had a wonderful long view of a kori bustard. As we turned south toward Halili Camp, where we would spend the night, we got our best view of elephants on the trip. We were stopped about 30 minutes and had elephants pass right in front of our car and right behind it. It was quite a thrill. We also saw several giraffes. We checked in at Halili, where we watched a gray hornbill very close to our vehicle, and visited the water hole, seeing a number of female kudu. 
Halili Waterhole
Then we got in the car again and drove 20 kms (12 miles) to Goas water hole and back. 
Goas Waterhole
We saw several elephants there and had some great views of giraffe both to and from. At Halili we ate the buffet dinner, which included some made-to-order kudu steak, which was great. Afterwards we took a three hour night safari from hell (from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.). We'd been on a previous night safari in Tanzania which was an hour. I had no idea this was going to be three hours. It was in the 30s and despite the blankets and ponchos, we still froze. We saw quite a few animals, including giraffes, black rhinos, kudus, impala, lots of cape foxes, zebras and jackals, but it was way too long and we were relieved to have it over. I have no idea what water holes we visited, but I think it was most of them in that central part of the park. 
     Namibia: Etosha National Park, Day 2, Okaukuejo Camp to Halili Camp  (Judy)
     Greater Kestrel  (Bob)
     Gemsbok  (Bob) 
     Southwest African Lion  (Bob)
     Damara Helmeted Guineafowl  (Bob)
     Cape Jackal  (Bob)
     Zambezi Kudu  (Bob)
     African Red-Eyed Bulbul  (Bob)
     Namibian Giraffe  (Bob)
     Secretary Bird  (Bob)
     Lila Breasted Roller  (Bob)
     Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk  (Bob)
     Pied Crow  (Bob)
     Kori Bustard  (Bob)
     African Bush Elephant  (Bob)
     African Grey Hornbill (Bob)
     Cape Fox  (Bob)

Saturday morning, June 2nd, our schedule got messed up by an airline change. We were going to spend most of the day in Etosha, then drive to Windhoek and spend the night, with a flight out early Sunday morning to Johannesburg, then a flight to Maun, Botswana. However, the airline changed our flight time to Maun about 1.5 hours earlier, which gave us insufficient layover time from our earlier flight. So I begrudgingly agreed to sacrifice time in Etosha on Saturday, to catch a flight to Johannesburg Saturday afternoon. It also meant we missed a meal I wanted to eat Saturday evening at Joe's Beer House, a wonderful pub that served wild game. On our more time-constrained schedule, we left Halali shortly after sunrise and headed northeast toward the eastern Von Lindquist Gate which was 85 kms (53 miles) going the fastest route with no detours. I went the speed limit (or truth be told, a little faster) and we saw little game earlier in the morning. Quite a ways into our drive I barely saw several red hartebeest in the trees to our left and got a few photos before they disappeared, the only hartebeest we saw on the trip. Then after not-too-long of a drive, Judy spotted several hyenas at some distance and we saw about three of them walk up and over a ridge. We took a 6 km (3.6 mile) round trip detour to Kalkheuwel water hole where we saw lots of zebras and lots of unidentified birds on the ground. Then 13 kms (7.8 miles) further we took an 8 km (4.8 mile) round trip detour to Chudob water hole.
Chudop Waterhole
We saw another couple of hyenas on that drive, one on the way in and another on the way out, and at the water hole got great views of black-faced impalas, three large giraffes and some wildebeest. At Von Lindequist Gate I had a hard time finding my receipt for the purchase of our national park ticket at Anderson Gate, but finally found it after about 10 minutes of nerve-wracking searching. We had a long drive back to Windhoek, over five hours. Our gps was not working, but Judy did a good job of helping us navigate.
     Namibia: from Etosha National Park's Halili Lodge back to Windhoek Airport  (Judy)
     Red Hartebeest  (Bob)
     Spotted Hyena - Namibia  (Bob)

Johannesburg, South Africa
We dropped off our rental vehicle to a representative of Ker Downey at the airport about 3:30 p.m. and caught a 5:30 p.m. Air Namibia flight to Johannesburg. The flight was one and three-quarters hours. We were met at the gate by a representative of Ker Downey who walked us through customs, dropped us off to someone else near the entrance to the airport, who then found us our driver (the most amazing airport transfer we've ever experienced). We stopped at the Southern Sun OR Tambo Hotel, where we checked in and freshened up, then drove about 70 kms (42 miles) to Muldersdrift where we had reservations at Carnivore Restaurant. We got there quite late, about 9:00 p.m., as things were winding down. We did have some wonderful zebra, impala, kudu and bony crocodile, but I was a little disappointed at all the effort to get there for what it ended up being.
     South Africa: a Quick Layover in Johannesburg  (Judy)
     Carnivore Restaurant - Johannesburg  (Bob)
     Zebra Grilled on a Spit  (Bob)

Kadizora Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana
Our hotel was right next to the O.R. Tambo Airport. Sunday morning we caught a hotel shuttle to the airport for our 11:45 a.m. flight. We got to enjoy some time in this very nice airport with lots of fun shops. We took a South African Airways flight, operated by South African Airlink. It was one and a half hours, and unlike U.S. flights now, they fed us a meal. We arrived in Maun, Botswana about 1:15 p.m. and waited in a long line to get through customs in this very small airport. Once we got through customs we checked in at Mack Air which does small airplane flights into the Okavango Delta. We were on a flight with four other people, all from California. Three were dropped off at a small dirt runway after about a 25 minute flight. We stayed on and had another approximate 25 minute flight to our dirt runway near Kadizora Camp. Another person on our flight got off to go to a different nearby camp (we saw him the next day on our game drive). We were met at the runway by KT in a large safari modified Land Cruiser and taken about ten minutes away to Kadizora Camp where we checked in and then were whisked away by KT to find a mother leopard and her two year old cubs who had killed a red lechwe. We had a crazy fun drive through swamps several feet deep and spent about 45 minutes watching these two young leopards, including some time with one of them biting off chunks of the red lechwe. Along the way back we saw several large eagle owls, then had a sundowner along the way back (a stop with some soft drinks and nuts to watch the sun go down). We enjoyed a very nice meal at camp and then were accompanied by KT to our tent for the evening. This luxury tent was built on a firm foundation of some sort and had a very nice indoor shower and toilet, running water, carpet and a queen sized bed.
     Botswana: from Johannesburg to Maun to the Okavongo Delta to the Kadizora Camp  (Judy)
     Botswana: Leopards  (Judy)
     African Leopard - Okavango Delta  (Bob)
     Verreaux's Eagle Owl  (Bob)

Monday morning, June 4, we were woken by KT about 5:30 a.m. for our safari starting about 6:00 a.m. It was just the two of us and KT in the Land Cruiser. I'd told KT I wanted to see wild dogs and he said he would try. They knew where the den of a mother wild dog with young pups was. We decided to first go back and view the leopards. Along the way we saw a number of giraffes, had some great sightings of elephants, including one that was threatening to charge us and caused KT to put the vehicle in gear and get out of there, and some impalas. We just briefly saw the leopards running away as we got to where the red lechwe had been. KT saw the mother and I think I may have caught a brief glimpse of her as well. I got brief glimpses of the two cubs. The red lechwe was gone, either consumed or partly consumed and moved. We stayed in that area for awhile, watching a herd of red lechwe, with one tsessebe mixing among them, then we had a lunch down near a small pond that had some hippos in it. We were able to get out of the vehicle and walk near the pond. I was concerned the hippos might get out and charge us, but KT assured us that, if anything, they would run the other direction. At lunch KT talked with another guide who told KT he thinks the wild dogs have moved on as he's not been able to find them in several days. I was very disappointed by that news. However, when we got back in the vehicle KT assured us that the other guide didn't t know what he was talking about. KT was waiting for the pack to hunt in the morning and get back to the den for their afternoon nap. We drove in the direction of the den. We saw some chacma baboons in several large trees and on the ground, and shortly later KT drove slowly around some trees and there laying in the grass were three or four wild dogs, taking a nap. It was electrifying. We watched them for 20 minutes or so, me taking many, many photos. Then we drove about 15 yards and KT identified the male of the pack sleeping in the grass with another one or two dogs. He says he can tell the father of the pack by the size of his much bigger penis, because it is in use! The other pack members are older cubs of this father and the female of the pack. Then we drove about 20 yards more and found the matron of the pack, by herself, sleeping in the grass. KT says she has young cubs in a hole in the ground not far from where the mother was sleeping. She sat up and looked around for a bit while we watched her. Then, absolutely, giddy, we headed back to camp, looking along the way for some cheetahs that other groups had seen. KT finally saw the mother cheetah peering out over the side of a hill at us. We pulled off the dirt road and up within about ten yards of the mother cheetah and her two adult cubs and watched them for about 20 minutes. What a morning - leopards, wild dogs and cheetahs! Just outside camp, KT pointed out a reed buck in the reeds which bounded off. We had lunch and a little bit of free time before heading out on our afternoon excursion, a trip through the reeds in makoros, small wooden boats. Judy and I were each in a separate makoro, with one guide in each boat behind us, using a pole to push us along through the reeds. A makoro ride had been very high on my list of want-to-dos before our trip. In actuality, it was quite boring. The guides want to avoid anything like hippos, elephants or crocodiles, so we saw two different types of small frogs, one each, not what we were hoping for. I'm glad we did the makoros, sort of, but I have no desire to do them again. We had a very nice dinner in camp and then were escorted to our cabin. That night we heard what we thought was a lion roaring right next to our tent. It turned out to be Franklin, the camp elephant, much to our surprise.
     Botswana: Baboons and Hippos and Wild Dogs and Cheetahs and a Little Bit of Everything Else  (Judy)
     Cape Wild Dog  (Bob)
     Red Lechwe  (Bob)
     Common Tsessebe 
     Southern African Cheetah  (Bob)
     Southern Reedbuck  (Bob)
     Botswana, Kadizora Camp: Makoro Canoe Ride  (Judy)
     Long-Nosed Reed Frog  (Bob)
     Angolan Painted Reed Frog  (Bob)
     Botswana: Warthogs and Elephants in Kadizora Camp  (Judy)

Tuesday morning, June 5, we spent about two hours in a motorboat on the nearby river, just the two of us and a different guide. Next to our safari the day before, this was about one of the most fun things we've ever done. We traveled slowly along the river, spotting multiple crocodiles, many, many birds and many large hippos. At one point we approached a group of about 30 hippos. They dived and otherwise submerged themselves in the river, grunting and splashing and making an amazing amount of noise and commotion. It was a moment to remember. We also saw quite a few elephants along the bank and beyond. We got back in time to have a late breakfast and pack our bags. We were driven to the nearby dirt runway and were picked up for a flight with Mack Air to Kasane, Botswana.
     Botswana: Okavango Delta Motor Boat Ride  (Judy)
     African Fish Eagle  (Bob)
     African Jacana  (Bob)
     Pied Kingfisher  (Bob)
     Grey Heron  (Bob)
     African Openbill Stork  (Bob)
     White-Faced Whistling Duck  (Bob)
     African Sacred Ibis  (Bob)
     African Darter  (Bob)
     Cape Hippopotamus  (Bob)
     Black-Crowned Night Heron  (Bob)
     Little Egret - Western Race  (Bob)
     Blacksmith Plover  (Bob)
     Glossy Ibis  (Bob)
     African Great Egret  (Bob)
     South African Nile Crocodile  (Bob)
     Hamerkop  (Bob)

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
I believe we were picked up about 11:30 a.m. or so. It was a larger plane than the one that brought us in and my recollection is that our flight was about an hour and a half to Kasane. We were being flown by a very young black woman who must have been in her early 20s. She'd grown up in the bush. It was really inspiring to see her moving up in the world. At one point we were landing to drop off a group of people at a different runway when the pilot pulled up  to avoid a group of impala. We circled until they were moved off and then landed. Kasane Airport was larger than Maun and very new. A person was waiting for us and drove us to the border of Zimbabwe and handed us over to another driver. I was disappointed to be going through Zimbabwe. I believed we were going to have to cross the Zambezi River and drive through Zambia and cross back over the Zambezi River to Victoria Falls. This illustrates one of the benefits of planning with a local tour company - my research did not reveal the route we were taking. I was disappointed because it meant I needed to figure out another way to get to Zambia. In Victoria Falls we checked in to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, a little outside of town and on a hill. We were too late to catch the Sundowner river cruise we'd already paid for, so we got a hotel shuttle to Victoria Falls and met with a person at Wild Horizons to rearrange our schedule. Then to visit Zambiain, we caught a taxi to the Victoria Falls Bridge, bought a visa and went through the border, took a taxi to the other side of the bridge, crossed through the border, and then took a taxi to the Royal Livingstone Hotel on the Zambia side, and right on the Zambezi River, for dinner. Our taxi driver waited for us through dinner, and we followed the same routine back across the bridge and caught a taxi back to our hotel.
     From Botswana to Zimbabwe to Zambia: A Classic Bob-Style Adventure  (Judy)

Wednesday morning, June 6, we were picked up at the hotel by Wild Horizons for their Canoe Safari. We drove through Zambezi National Park to the place we put our canoes into the Upper Zambezi River, on the Zimbabwe side. We saw some very cool baobob trees on the drive and a few impala along the way. Our two guides were in one canoe, Judy and I were in a canoe, and there were two other canoes with two people in each. The Zambezi was quite mild, but we did go through some very small class one and two rapids. We saw a few hippos from a distance and at least one crocodile from a great distance, as well as some bee-eaters nesting in a clay bank. The mist being thrown up by Victoria Falls miles in the distance was very impressive. We had a nice lunch cooked for us by the driver of the vehicle, including crocodile kabobs, then drove back to the Safari Lodge. We got back around 1:30 p.m. or 2:00 p.m. and caught the very end of the vulture show. I saw some marabou storks and hooded vultures from the bar in the lodge. Later in the afternoon, around 3:30 p.m. or so, we were picked up for the Sundowner Cruise by Wild Horizons, the activity we'd missed the day before. We were on a large boat with a table next to the side of the boat and went up and down the Zambezi River with drinks and appetizers. We saw a number of hippos, had a great view of some bee-eaters nesting in a clay bank, and saw some other interesting birds. After we got back to the Safari Lodge we were picked up by a van to go the short distance to the Boma Restaurant where we had a nice buffet dinner and were to see a show. I enjoyed eland meatballs, guinea fowl stew, a warthog filet, several slices of crocodile tail and an impala filet. We also got to try mopane worms. We were very tired and left early and missed the show.
     Zimbabwe: Canoeing on the Zambezi River  (Judy)
     The Zambezi River and Victoria Falls  (Bob)
     Nile Crocodile Meat: Carpaccio, Tagine, Kabob, and Roasted Tail   (Bob)
     Zimbabwe: Sundowner Cruise on the Zambezi River and a Boma Dinner  (Judy)
     Marabou Stork  (Bob)
     White-Fronted Bee-Eater  (Bob)
     White-Crowned Plover  (Bob)
     Spur-Winged Goose  (Bob)
     Yellow-Billed Stork 
     Mopane Worms  (Bob)

Thursday morning, June 7, we were picked up about 7:00 a.m. by Wild Horizons for a 25 minute helicopter ride over Victoria Falls starting about 7:30 a.m. They were about 30 minute late getting started. It was just Judy and me in the helicopter. The early morning sun made photos from some angles impossible, so different a different flight time may have been better. We went back and forth across the Falls, from both the upper and lower sides, followed the canyons below the Falls for several miles, then went a distance above the Falls and out into Zambezi NP where the pilot spotted some hippos, giraffes, zebras, impalas and an elephant. Immediately afterwards, we were picked up by Wild Horizons for a tour of Victoria Falls, and it was amazing. We wore our water proof jackets, a hooded poncho, brought our umbrellas and rented sandals, in order to stay dry. The Zambezi was higher than it had been in years and the spray from the Falls created its own rain. The tour was a highlight of the trip. Afterwards, the same guide took us up to the Safari Lodge to check out, then he drove us to Hwange National Park.
     Zimbabwe: Seeing Victoria Falls by Helicopter  (Judy)
     Zimbabwe: Victoria Falls Trail  (Judy)

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
It was about a three hour drive from Victoria Falls to Hwange National Park. We were dropped off at the entrance and picked up by an employee of The Hide, who provided us a lunch and then drove us about 45 minutes to The Hide. Along the way I spotted a very rare black hornbill, but only got a few poor photos of it. We got to The Hide too late for the afternoon safari, so we were taken out on a shorter safari by the guide who'd picked us up. We stayed in the vicinity of the lodge, but saw bush buck, water buck, kudu, baboons, impala, elephants, zebras and a secretary bird standing in a tree.
     Zimbabwe: The Hide Safari Camp  (Judy)
     Southern Ground Hornbill  (Bob)
     Cape Bushbuck
     Common or Ellipsen Waterbuck 
     Grey-Footed Chacma Baboon  (Bob)
     Common Impala  (Bob)
We stayed in another deluxe "tent" at the hide. We had a king sized bed, a cement floor, an indoor tub, an outdoor shower, a sink with running water, and a patio overlooking the water hole. Friday morning, June 8, we got up early for our game drive. Unlike Kadizora, our vehicle had at least two other couples in it. We were out quite a while, and saw a roan (which I spotted and was told it was rarely seen), several tawny eagles, a number of yellow-billed hornbills, many lilac breasted rollers, quite a few secretary birds, elephants, zebras, several kori bustards, a ___ red korhaan, hooded vultures, and very long-tailed magpie shrikes. We had lunch in an area in Hwange NP that was set aside for lunches and included restrooms. After we got back to The Hide we saw a number of warthogs around the water hole. We arranged for a late-afternoon walking safari. Our guide carried a rifle. As we walked relatively near the water hole we first saw a beautiful bushbuck, then a huge group of chacma baboons. As we walked into some trees we spotted some impala and then several vervet monkeys. We viewed some tall termite mounds, including one that had a mongoose poking its head out. Our guide spotted some giraffes, and as we got closer zebras and wildebeest. As we walked closer to the giraffes we encountered more and more, seeing about 30 of them overall. It was thrilling to be on our feet and walking relatively close to them. It turned out we were walking toward the area where the whole camp was having a sundowner. As we approached we saw a secretary bird in a tree which flew when we approached. At the sundowner, a number of people mentioned they'd seen us out on our walk and thanked us for scaring the giraffes closer to them. During the sundowner, someone pointed to several African wild cats that were walking very close to our group in the dark. They look just like cats. That evening I went with several other people from camp out on a night safari. It was quite cold and we had blankets and lined ponchos. Fortunately, it was not as long as our last night safari. We saw about 40 springhares, an animal I'd never even heard of before. It looks like a little miniature kangaroo and hops just like a kangaroo. We also spotted an aardvark at some distance. Perhaps the most amazing thing was one of the guests asked the guide to stop the vehicle and turn off the lights. We stared up at the Milky Way and it was one of the most amazing scenes of my life. The Milky Way lit up the sky in a way I've never seen before. I've been in the deserts of southern Arizona, and eastern California, the Sierras and the Uintas, but I've never seen  such a sky before. I would love to have that experience again. It was a testament to how rural this area was. We had hot water bottles in our bed which were wonderful. I'm not normally one for extra warmth at night, but it was down in the 30s and I really appreciated the extra heat.
     Tawny Eagle  (Bob)
     Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill  (Bob)
     Roan Antelope  (Bob)
     Hooded Vulture  (Bob)
     Magpie Shrike  (Bob)
     Red-Crested Korhaan  (Bob)
     Cape Glossy Starling  (Bob)
     Grey Go-Away Bird  (Bob)
     Bradfield's Hornbill  (Bob)
     Crested Barbet  (Bob)
     Southern Warthog  (Bob)
     Vervet Monkey - Hwange NP  (Bob)
     South African Springhare  (Bob)
     Burchell's Zebra  (Bob)
     Angolan Giraffe  (Bob)
     Southern African Wildcat  (Bob)
     Zimbabwe: Hwange National Park  (Judy)
     Zimbabwe: Shopping, a Walking Safari, and our Last Sundowner   (Judy)
Saturday morning, June 9, we made arrangements to leave earlier than our scheduled time so that we could visit the Painted Dog Rehabilitation Center just outside Hwange NP. We left around 6:45 a.m. for the 45 minute drive to the Hwange NP entrance. We had the same guide who drove us in and gave us our first safari that same evening. We saw and amazing looking saddle-billed stork standing in a pond and stopped for some photos. Further on, we saw a tiny steenbok. Our Hide guide continued to drive us beyond Hwange to the Painted Dog Rehabilitation Center and we got there about the same time our Wild Horizon driver arrived to take us to the Victoria Falls Airport. We spent about 20 minutes inside looking at their exhibits and about 10 minutes out back to see their one wild dog in rehabilitation and talked with the man who feeds her.
     Saddle-Billed Stork  (Bob)
     Steenbok  (Bob)

Victoria Falls to Johannesburg to London to Los Angeles
We made good time, about two hours to the airport. We left Victoria Falls on a British Airways flight, operated by Comair, at 1:55 p.m. for a 1 hour, 50 minute flight to Johannesburg, arriving at 3:55 p.m. We had a 3 1/2 hour layover. We left Johannesburg on a British Airways flight at 7:20 p.m. for an 11 hour and 10 minute flight to London Heathrow.
     Zimbabwe to Los Angeles: The End of our Great Southern Africa Adventure   (Judy)

We arrived in London Sunday morning about 5:30 a.m. We had a 6 hour, 45 minute layover, but it was so early that it did not make sense to leave the airport and do anything. At 12:15 p.m., we left London on a British Airways flight operated by American Airlines for an 11 hour, 25 minute flight to Los Angeles, arriving about 3:40 p.m. Those two 11 plus hour flights each way are brutal. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Central Asia: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan & Azerbaijan

Central Asia has been our most ambitious trip to date. It was 25 days covering thousands of miles by automobile, bus, train and air in countries with culture, history and language we knew little to nothing about. Judy and I have both blogged about it, her much more than me. She has completed the Herculean task of 65 blog posts in sequence, over a period of 9 1/2 months, covering virtually every aspect of our trip. My posts jump around with no hint of a timeline, hitting my primary interests of food, religion and wildlife. This post is intended as a summary of the entire trip, tying it all together, with links to each of our blog posts. 

I had been interested in visiting the "Stans" for a number of years. I'd looked at the offerings by MIR and others. We'd taken several vacations with Fun For Less Tours ("FFL"), which offers great tours for good value, and I'd asked Michael Wilcox, their most popular tour leader, during a tour of the Holy Land, if FFL would ever consider a tour in the Stans. He told me that the owners were considering such a tour and suggested that I call Jim Tyndall, but I never did. Then out of the blue, some friends of ours came home from a FFL trip and told us that FFL was offering a Silk Road Tour to the Stans that they were offering to the participants on that trip and others of their best customers, and were not going to offer it openly on their website. Our friends signed us up, as well as their son and daughter-in-law, also friends of ours. This was in November 2015, almost two years before the trip was to take place.

I'd been talking to one of my partners, John, about a trip to the Stans and he'd expressed interest. So I shared this trip with him and he and his wife, Susan, were interested. So eight of us, four couples, signed up. We put down a deposit in December 2015 and then paid for the trip over 18 months, beginning in January 2016, with equal monthly installments. This was by far the most we'd ever spent on a vacation. 

We decided to add on three days at the end of our trip with FFL, which was ending in Turkmenistan, by visiting nearby Azerbaijan for three days, before returning home. John and Susan decided to join us on that extension and we obtained our flights together. 

LAX to Hong Kong
On Tuesday, September 26, 2017, we left Redlands, California about 9:00 p.m. for LAX in a one-way rental car with John and Susan. This was much cheaper than parking a car at LAX. Early Wednesday morning we took an American Airlines flight at 1:55 a.m. to Hong Kong. The flight was 15 and 1/4 hours and Hong King was 15 hours ahead of California, so we did not arrive in Hong Kong at Chek Lap Kok Airport until 8:10 a.m. Thursday morning. We had a 6 and 1/2 hour layover in Honk Kong, so we took a taxi to the Ngong Ping 360 cable car and visited the Tian Tan Buddha (Big Buddha) at the top. We also ate at Hung's Delicacies in the Hong Kong Airport, rated the world's best airport restaurant by CNN.
     Traveling the Silk Road  (Judy)

Xian, China
We left Hong Kong at 2:35 p.m. on China Eastern Airlines for a 2 hour and 35 minute flight to Xian (actually Xianyang), China, arriving at 5:35 p.m. We took a very long taxi ride from the airport to the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Qujiang New District, passing through some very gritty areas and marveling at the pollution. The hotel was gorgeous, one of the nicer hotels we've ever stayed in (see Judy's post for the next day). We connected with our tour group and had a nice dinner at the hotel.
     China: Arriving in Xi'an and Visiting the Terracotta Warriors  (Judy)
     Buffet at the Wyndham Grand Hotel - Xian, China  (Bob)

Friday morning, September 29, we went to see the Terracotta Warriors (see Judy's prior post). We got an early start, about 7:30 a.m., and arrived before the masses for a much better view. Afterwards we visited the Wild Goose Pagoda, then spent several hours walking around the Qujiang New District, the wealthiest area of Xian. That evening we visited the Tang Dynasty Dinner and Cultural Show.
     Xi'an, China: The Great Wild Goose Pagoda  (Judy)
     Xi'an, China: Sleeping, Eating, and Strolling in Xi'an  (Judy)
     Food of the Tang Dynasty Show - Xian, China  (Bob)

Dunhuang, China
Saturday morning we took a flight from Xian to Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China. In Dunhuang we visited the "Singing Sand Dunes," starting with an amazing ride on two-hump Bactrian camels up through the sand dunes, then we hiked up to the top of a very large sand dune and ran back down. We were transported to the Grand Sun Hotel for the night. We skipped our tour dinner and got our guide to take us to a restaurant where we had an amazing meal of donkey and camel, one of the more fun dinners we've had.
     Dunhuang, China: Riding Camels in the Gobi Desert  (Judy)
     Bactrian Camel  (Bob)
     Dunhuang, China: The Gobi Desert Sand Dunes  (Judy)
     Dunhuang, China: Eating Out, the Night Market, and the Sun Grand Hotel  (Judy)
     Donkey Meat - Dunhuang  (Bob)
     Camel Hump and Hoof - Dunhuang  (Bob)

Sunday morning we took buses out to Yadan National Geologic Park, about 110 miles northwest of Dunhuang, which we toured by bus, then visited a very old section of the Great Wall of China and Jade Gate Pass, an important spot on the Silk Road. We skipped our tour group dinner and had our guide take us to the night market where we had street barbecue (Judy covered this in a prior post).
     Dunhuang, China: Yardang National Geopark  (Judy)
     China: the Great Wall of the Han Dynasty and the Jade Gate  (Judy)
     Night Market - Dunhuang, Gansu, China  (Bob)
Monday we visited the Mogao Grottoes, a Buddhist conclave outside Dunhuang.
     Dunhuang, China: the Mogao Caves  (Judy)

Turpan, China
Afterwards we took a high speed train to Turpan, Xinjiang, China. We stayed at the Shuang Cheng Hotel and had a buffet dinner outside highlighted by a roasted whole lamb.
     Turpan, China   (Judy)

Tuesday, October 3, we visited Gaochang, the ruins of the walled capital of the Uighurs, then drove into the colorful Flaming Mountains. After lunch at the Mahmut Grape Music Manor, where we had a wonderful sampling of area fruits and nuts, we visited the ruins of Jiaohe City, then to Grape Valley where we learned about the Karez Irrigation Tunnels. Toward evening we visited Emin Minaret and then had a group dinner at a restaurant with lots of Chinese dancing. 
     Turpan, China: the Taklamakan Desert and the Ancient City of Gaochang  (Judy)
     Turpan Raisins  (Bob)
     Turpan, China: Flaming Mountains and Lunch  (Judy)
     Turpan, China: Jiaohe Ruins (aka Yar City) and Karez Canals  (Judy)
     Hami Melon  (Bob)
     Turpan, China: Emin Minaret and Dinner  (Judy)
     Emin Minaret - Turpan, China  (Bob)

Urumqi, China
Wednesday we left Turpan on buses and drove three hours to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province. We visited the Xinjiang Regional Museum which has quite a few old mummies preserved by the desert heat and sand, then had 45 minutes at the Grand Bazaar, where we bought horse meat, before heading to the airport for a flight to Kazakhstan.
     On the Bus from Turpan to Urumqi, China: Learning What Makes the Chinese, Chinese  (Judy)
     Chinese Tea Leaf Eggs  (Bob)
     Urumqi, China: Xinjiang Regional Museum  (Judy)
     Urumqi, China: the Grand Bazaar and Diwopu International Airport  (Judy)
     Packaged Horse Meat - Urumqi, China  (Bob)

Almaty, Kazakhstan
We flew from Urumqi, China to Almaty, Kazakhstan and transferred from the airport to the Royal Tulip Hotel, a very beautiful, Dutch owned, hotel.
     Almaty, Kazakhstan: the Royal Tulip Hotel and Republic Square  (Judy)

Thursday, October 5, we drove into the Tian Shan Mountains, the day after the first snow storm of the year, and visited the Medeu Skating Rink. Then we drove back into Almaty and visited Republic Square, then took a tram to the top of Kok Tobe Hill where we had a marvelous lunch at Abay Restaurant, which included horse sausage. After lunch we visited the Zenkov Russian Orthodox Cathedral and the nearby Panfilov Park War Memorial. Late in the afternoon we boarded our Silk Road Train that would take us through the five Stan countries.
     Almaty, Kazakhstan: the Medeu Skating Rink and Kok Tobe Hill  (Judy)
     Snow Leopard  (Bob)
     Abay Restaurant - Almaty, Kazakhstan  (Bob)
     Besbarmak - Kazakh Horse and Lamb Dish  (Bob)
     Kazy - Kazakh Horse Sausage  (Bob)
     Shuzhuk - Horse Sausage  (Bob)
     Almaty, Kazakhstan: the Ascension Cathedral (aka Zenkov Cathedral)  (Judy)
     Almaty, Kazakhstan: Panfilov Park War Memorial and the Silk Road Express Train  (Judy)
     Traveling on the Orient Silk Road Express Train  (Judy)

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
After a night on the train, we rolled into Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on Friday morning. A schedule in the train indicates we traveled 575 miles, but this appears to be a mistake, as by car, the route is 141 miles. We drove into the beautiful snow-covered Ala-Too Mountains in Ala Archa National Park and took a hike in the snow along the Ala-Archa River. On the way back out of the mountains, before reaching Bishkek, we stopped to take a look at a local cemetery. In Bishkek we enjoyed a meal with musical and dancing entertainment and had a short walking tour of downtown. Then back to the train.
     Kyrgyzstan: Ala-Too Mountain Drive (Tian Shan Mountain Range)  (Judy)
     Snow Leopard  (Bob)
     Eurasian Red Squirrel  (Bob)
     Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: a Muslim Cemetery  (Judy)
     Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: a Meal and a Walking Tour of the City  (Judy)
     Meal - Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan  (Bob)

Tashkent, Uzbekistan
During the night we traveled over 300 miles to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. We passed from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan early in the evening and then into Uzbekistan about 8:00 a.m. Saturday morning. At each border we had to go through border patrol for the country we were leaving as well as for the country we were entering. The final border crossing took four hours, from 8:00 a.m. to noon. In Tashkent we visited the Earthquake Memorial (remembering the 1966 earthquake that destroyed the city), Independence Square, the Mausoleum of Abu Bakr Kaffal Shoshi, Hazrat Imam Mosque, Madrasa of Barak-Khan, Hast Imam Museum, and finally, an amazing performance by the National Academy of Traditional Uzbek Musical Instruments at the Tashkent Philharmonic Hall.
     Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan  (Judy)
     Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Earthquakes, Wars, and Close Encounters with the Locals  (Judy)
     Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Hast Imam Square and a Mausoleum, a Mosque, a Museum, and More Encounters with the Locals  (Judy)
     Laughing Dove - Uzbekistan  (Bob)
     Eurasian Collard Dove - Uzbekistan  (Bob)
     Tashkent, Uzbekistan: a Performance by the National Academy of Traditional Uzbek Musical Instruments  (Judy)

Uzbek Outback: Kamashi, Katta Langar and Shahrisabz
During the night our train traveled 266 miles into the Uzbek countryside for a stop outside the tiny village of Kamashi. Sunday morning we were transported by buses to the home of an 82 year old woman who has 12 children and 47 great-grandchildren and saw rural Uzbeki life, from cooking bread, to a marriage ceremony and dealing with babies and dancing. Then our group was split up into a caravan of private vehicles that drove up the Kashkadarya River Valley to Katta Langar, on the slopes of the Hissar Range. There we visited a dilapidated 500 year old mosque and had an opportunity to wander among the locals and see the local village, one of the highlights of the trip for me. Back to the train, in the same manner we left, we traveled to Kitab, the nearest station to Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Timur. It was 35 miles by car, but much longer by train (the buses that transported us in Kamashi beat us to Kitab where they picked us up - I'm not sure why we didn't just stay on the buses). In Shahrisabz we visited Kok Gumbaz Mosque, built by Ulugh Beg, the grandson of Timur; the Dorut Tilavat Mausoleum and Jahongir and Omar Sheikh Mausoleum, where two of Timur's sons were interred; and the ruins of Ak-Saray, Timur's summer palace. Dinner was provided on tables set out next to our train while we got a lecture on Timur by Michael Wilcox.
     Kamashi, Uzbekistan, Part 1: Frida Kahlo Meets Fred Astaire  (Judy)
     Common Myna  (Bob)
     Kamashi, Uzbekistan, Part 2: a Mountain Drive to the Katta Langar Mosque  (Judy)
     Katta Langar Mosque - Uzbekistan  (Bob)
     Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan: Kok Gumbaz Mosque, Dorut Tilavat Mausoleum, and the Jahongir-Omar Sheikh Mausoleum  (Judy)
     Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan: Ak-Saray Palace and Amir Timur  (Judy)

Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Our train ride through the night to Samarkand was only 85 miles. When we arrived Monday morning we took small bags with us for a two night stay at the nicely located Registan Plaza Hotel. We visited the 15th century Observatory of Ulugh Beg and a forgettable museum, followed by a nice lunch at Istiqlol. In the afternoon we visited the remarkable Mausoleum of Shah-i-Zinda, one of the top sites of our trip, briefly visited Registan Square, for a night picture, then checked into our hotel. That evening we skipped the tour dinner at the hotel and took a taxi to Bar BQ, a restaurant recommended by our guide, Julia. This was one of the very fun meals of our trip. Afterwards it was lovely to spend a night in a bed, instead of the ironing board-like train bench we sleep on.
     Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Ulugh Beg's Observatory  (Judy)
     Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Shakhi Zinda Mausoleum  (Judy) 
     Necropolis of Shah-i-Zinda - Samarkand  (Bob)
     Bar BQ - Samarkand, Uzbekistan  (Bob)

Tuesday morning we visited the incomparable Registan Square, one of the greatest squares in the world, followed by a visit to Gur Emir, the Mausoleum of Timur. Lunch was a large group affair at the Samarkand Restaurant, followed by a silk carpet factory tour and a tour of a place that made paper out of mulberry bark. That evening we had an excruciatingly long and ordinary group dinner at Hobour ApSane which fueled an increased determination to avoid group meals and go out on our own.
     Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Magnificent Registan Square  (Judy)
     Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Gur-E-Amir, aka the Amir Timur Mausoleum  (Judy)
     Gur Emir Mausoleum of Timur - Samarkand  (Bob)
     Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Lunch, Silk Carpets and Meros Paper Factory  (Judy)
     Hobour ApSane - Samarkand, Uzbekistan  (Bob)

Wednesday morning we had some free-time. Judy and I walked back over to Registan Square, perhaps a half mile walk. It was so fun to wander on our own, look in shop windows, and then to see the Square when it was much less crowded. We bought a beautiful pottery plate. We had lunch back at the hotel, then boarded buses and visited the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and an outdoor market right next to it where I bought some gnarly dried fish, that was very, very fishy, and had to be restrained by Judy from buying a large shuzhuk (horse sausage) which I regret not buying. Our final stop in Samarkand was the Mausoleum of St. Daniel, a surprising destination in this Muslim-dominated land. Then back to the train for our overnight journey.
     Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Sleeping, Walking, Shopping, and Eating  (Judy)
     Russian Black-Billed Magpie  (Bob)
     Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Bibi-Khanym Mosque  (Judy)
     Samarkand, Uzbekistan: St. Daniel's Mausoleum  (Judy)
Khujand, Tajikistan
We traveled 196 miles through the night to Khujand, Tajikistan. Thursday morning we were welcomed by a small band and girls in native costumes holding round bread smothered in honey. The bread in Central Asia was not very good unless you got it immediately from the oven. We started with a very loooong visit to the Museum of Archaeology (I did love marble mosaic murals of Alexander the Great they had on some downstairs walls). I bailed out and walked part of the neighborhood. Afterwards we stopped to view a monument along the Syr River, then a quick visit to Victory Field, with a huge statue of Lenin and tributes to Soviet war heroes. Then to a huge statue of Ismoil Somoni, who governed the Saminid Empire from 892 to 907 AD and is considered the father of the Tajik nation. Finally, the only stop in Tajikistan that I really enjoyed, the Panjshanbe Market, the biggest bazaar in Tajikistan: lots of fruits and vegetables, hanging meat, bread, nuts, grain, clothing and other items. Finally, we visited the Arbob Cultural Palace which is where the Tajik's declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1992. We were back on the train for lunch and later dinner, as we had to push 479 miles to Urgench, Uzbekistan, the train station 35 miles from Khiva, our next destination.
     Kjujand, Tajikistan: Part 1, Around Town and the Citadel Museum  (Judy)
     Tajik Non Bread  (Bob)
     Kjujand, Tajikistan: Part 2, Monuments to Lenin and Somoni  (Judy)
     Khujand, Tajikistan: A Market (the 99%) and a Palace (the 1%)  (Judy)

Khiva, Uzbekistan 
Friday morning we were bused to Khiva, a city walled by mud brick. A beautiful old city with winding walkways and old buildings. Judy noted the great shopping, particularly for fur hats. Among other places we visited, we saw the Kalta Minor Minaret, the Islam Khoja Minaret (which Judy climbed), Tashauli Palace, and Khiva Djuma (Friday) Mosque. We were bused back to Urgench and resumed our train journey.
     Khiva, Uzbekistan  (Judy)
     Qibla Tozabog - Khiva, Uzbekistan  (Bob)

Bukhara, Uzbekistan 
During the night the train covered 261 miles, arriving in Bukhara in the morning. Saturday morning we loaded up a personal bag to take onto a bus to spend a night at the Asia Bukhara Hotel. Our first stop was the Grand Mosque, Po-i-Kalyan, a complex that included the Mir Arab Madrasa, a minaret and a mosque. We had another carpet demonstration, then checked in to the hotel and then had time to view the shops. We had a nice lunch at Minzifa Restaurant, recommended to us by hotel staff, eschewing the hotel lunch given to the rest of our tour group. Before dinner, that evening, we had a culture show, including dancing, which was followed by dinner for our tour group. We previously arranged to be picked up by taxi and went to our own dinner, at the same restaurant we ate lunch at.
     Bukhara, Uzbekistan: the Grand Mosque  (Judy)
     Bukhara, Uzbekistan: Shopping Heaven  (Judy)

Sunday morning we had a little walking tour in town, then bused to the Ark Citadel, a fortress build in the 5th century AD. We saw the Bolo Haouz Mosque and then bused to the Samanid Mausoleum, right next to an amusement park, the final resting place of Ismail Samoni, who founded the Samanid Dynasty. Then to the Chor Minor Mosque with four distinctive minarets.  On our way out of Bukhara we visited the Sitorai Mokhi Khosa, a summer palace of the Emir of Bukhara, and the Memorial Complex of Bakhouddin Naqshbandi, a Sufi theologian, a pilgrimage site. His tomb has a piece of the black kaabah stone from Mecca in it. Then back to our train.
     Bukhara, Uzbekistan: Monuments, Mosques, and Mausoleums  (Judy)
     Bukhara, Uzbekistan: the Royal Palace, a Sufi Temple and Mausoleum, and Leaving Uzbekistan  (Judy)

Mary and Merv, Turkmenistan 
During the night we traveled 232 miles by train to Mary, a modern city in Turkmenistan. Monday morning we got off the train and on to buses for the ancient city of Merv, the third largest city in the world around 1200 AD, which was destroyed by the son of Genghis Khan who killed about one million people. We visited the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, the Erk Kala Citadel, the Greater Kyz Kala (fort), and the Mausoleum of Muhammad ibn Zeyd. We got back to Mary and got on the train again for Ashgabat, another 219 miles.
     Mary and Merv, Turkmenistan  (Judy)

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan 
Monday evening we got off the train for the last time and were bused to our jaw-dropping five star hotel, the Yyldyz in Ashgabat. Tuesday morning we got on buses and visited the Halk Hakydasy Memorial Complex. It was ginormous and nobody else was there. This was just the beginning of Ashgabat crazy. Then we were bused out to the ancient (250 BC) city of Nisa, ten miles southwest of Ashgabat and very near the border with Iran. We walked the impressive ruins in a little bit of rain and a biting wind. Then we were off to Gypjak, the birthplace of Turkmenistan's first president after declaring emancipation from the Soviet Union: Saparmurat Niyazov. The Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque, the largest mosque in Turkmenistan is named after the first president and he is interred in a mausoleum next door to it. It was huge and beautiful, but virtually no one else was there.  We drove into downtown, full of white marble buildings, and visited a number of monuments that were bazaar, the most incredible one being the monument to a book, the Ruhnama, written by President Niyazov. Then the guide on our bus, one of three, based on our comments about not seeing where normal people lived, directed the bus driver to take us into a residential section of Ashgabat to visit the Ertugrul Gazi Mosque, a mosque that actually had people visiting and worshiping. It was a nice contrast. Finally, all three buses converged on a reception center where we had a final meal for our group, along with native dancers. Back to our hotel for a very early wake-up. We were leaving our big tourist group with a 3:30 a.m. flight to Baku, Azerbaijan.
     Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: Some Background Information and our Glamorous Hotel  (Judy)
     Yyldyz Hotel Buffet - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan  (Bob) 
     Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: the Halk Hakydasy Memorial Complex  (Judy)
     Turkmenistan Ghost Towns: Ancient Nisa and Modern Downtown Ashgabat  (Judy)
     Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: Two Mosques  (Judy)
     Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque - Ashgabat  (Bob)
     Ertugrul Gazi Mosque - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan  (Bob)
     Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: Monuments to Independence, a Wedding, and a Monument to Ego  (Judy)

Baku, Azerbaijan
We arrived in Baku about 4:05 a.m. with our friends John and Susan. We were met at the airport by our guide, Yalchin Mammadov, of Gobustan Private Tours, and the driver of our Mercedes Vito Van. We visited Yanardag, a place where natural gas seeps out of the ground and it is perpetually on fire. A good place to go in the dark. We checked into the JW Marriott Absheron Baku and dropped our bags, then went for breakfast at Anadolu Restaurant where I had khash, a dish of boiled sheep's feet. Afterwards we drove to Shirvan National Park, a drive of about 100 kilometers (90 minutes) southwest of Baku toward Iran. We spent several hours driving in Shirvan ere primarily wanting to see the goitered gazelle, which was almost extinct in Azerbaijain in 1961, and now numbers 5,000 to 7,000. Afterwards, we drove back toward Baku and intended to take dirt roads to Gobustan State Reserve and see mud volcanoes. However, recent rains made the dirt roads impassable, so we visited Gobustan National Park which has very old petroglyphs. Back toward Baku we visited Bibi-Heybat Mosque and the Mausoleum of Bibi Hakima. Then we visited the Seki Restaurant where I had piti, an Azeri soup that includes the tail of a fat-tailed sheep. We ended the night by a night visit to the Flaming Towers and got back to the hotel exhausted and ready for a nights sleep.
     Azerbaijan: Land of Fire  (Judy)
     Khash - Broth of Boiled Sheep Feet  (Bob)
     Azerbaijan: Two National Parks - Shirvan and Gobustan  (Judy)
     Goitered or Persian Gazelle  (Bob)
     Azerbaijan: Bibi-Heybat Mosque, Juma Mosque of Shamakhi, Juma Mosque of Baku  (Judy)
     Bibi-Heybat Mosque - Baku, Azerbaijan  (Bob)
     Seki Restaurant - Baku, Azerbaijan  (Bob)

Thursday we spent the entire day in the vicinity of Baku. For breakfast we walked to Mado Cafe which had a French bent, including pastries. Yalchin met us there and then we visited the Ateshgah Fire Temple; the Yasil Bazaar, where we tried motal cheese; Old Town, including the Shirvanshah's Palace and the Juma Mosque.  For dinner we went to Nakhish in Baku.
     Mado Cafe - Baku  (Bob)
     Baku, Azerbaijan: Sites Around Town  (Judy)
     Azeri Cheese: Motal Pendiri and Taza Pendir  (Bob)
     Baku, Azerbaijan: Art and Architecture  (Judy)

Lahic, Azerbaijan
Friday, October 20, we drove outside of Baku to the northwest. We visited the Juma Mosque in Shamakhi, then continued on to Lahic, about 115 miles from Baku. To get there we drove through some beautiful steep canyons and the leaves were starting to change colors. Lahic is known for its copper wares and we stopped in several shops, including one where a man showed us how copper plates were made. It was off-season in Lahic and we were about the only people there. On our drive back to Baku we stopped for dinner in a large tent resting on a brick platform. We had some nice grilled lamb, among other things. Our guide dropped us off at the Sheraton Baku Airport about 9:00 p.m. where we got 2 or 3 hours of sleep before we had to get up again.
     Juma Mosque - Shamakhi, Azerbaijan  (Bob)
     Lahic, Azerbaijan  (Judy)
     Azeri Countryside Meal - Azerbaijan  (Bob) 

Baku, Doha, then Los Angeles
Saturday morning, October 21, we had a flight out of Baku at 3:30 a.m. We had a flight of 2 hours and 50 minutes on Qatar Airways to Doha, Qatar, and then had a layover of 1 hour and 35 minutes. We continued on Qatar Airways for 16 hours until arriving in Los Angeles at 2:05 p.m.
     Going Home (Finally): Baku, Azerbaijan, to Los Angeles, California, via Doha, Qatar  (Judy)