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Serdar - Kopetdag - Magtymguly - Mollakara - Balkanabad

Moon Mountains and the Salt Sea


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Breakfast this morning in the guest house here at Serdar consists of yogurt, cherry jam, cheese, tomatoes and the ever-present bread. There can't be many nations on earth who eat as much bread as the Turkmen do.

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Later we are asked if we want fried egg and salami. It's an unusual combination, but rather enjoyable.

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This morning's drive takes us south through barren and desolate scenery, with no trees or even falcons, which we saw many of on our journey yesterday. Nothing. The place appears eerily devoid of life.

We are now nearing the Iranian border and arrive at a restricted area that requires special permission to enter. We have been warned that the checks here may take a while, and that we are to avoid photography at all costs. We hand over our passports, which Artem (our cute driver) takes to the police post along with vehicle registration documents, his driving licence and the tourist authorisation certificate; and wait. And wait. Meanwhile we listen to music in the car; Artem plays a good mix of popular western and Russian songs. The procedure takes just over 25 minutes in all, and we are on our way again.

Moon Mountains

The Kopetdag Mountains is a 600 kilometre long mountain range stretching along the Turkmenistan-Iran border. The landscape is distinctly lunar in appearance, living up to its local nickname of 'Moon Mountains'. The name Kopetdag, in fact, means 'many mountains' in the Turkmen language.

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Once located at the bottom of the sea, the heavily furrowed sedimentary rock slopes look like soft gravel or even slag heaps, but are in fact more akin to solidified mud, and very firm underfoot. We see evidence of crustaceans on the ground, adding to the surreal atmosphere.

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Stretching as far as the eye can see, the forbidding desert-like landscape is as curious as it is beautiful – seeing the arid remains of low-level vegetation, I can but wonder what it would look like in spring, after the rains, when plants and flowers come to life.

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This area is rich with pomegranate and walnut trees, and we see a number of the former along the side of the road.

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It's the first time we have seen pomegranates in their natural habitat, and I am keen to see how they grow and photograph them. That is one of the numerous things I love about travel – exotic fruits that I have only ever seen in the supermarkets, are commonplace somewhere in the world. It never ceases to amaze me that however much we travel, we still manage to get 'firsts' on every single trip.

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Magtymguly Museum

We make a stop at a small museum dedicated to a local hero, Magtymguly Pyragy, who was an Iranian-Turkmen spiritual leader and philosophical poet in the 18th century.

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Looking at the copies of some of the books Magtymguly has written, I am intrigued by the frames within each page containing diagonal writing. Neither the guide nor the museum curator are able to shed any light on this peculiar aspect.

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Magtymguly was much more than a renowned poet; he also worked as a silversmith for a while.

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He even made a wedding ring for Mengli, the girl he loved and wanted to marry. Unfortunately her family forbade the union, and the ring remained unworn.

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Magtymguly had a number of strong political views, and fought to keep the Turkmen-way sacred, as well as maintaining the harmony and integrity of the Turkmen nation. He became a symbol of Turkmen unity but also a common voice of Turkish and Islamic world and is revered not only in Turkmenistan but also in neighbouring countries. The museum is very proud of the artefacts associated with his life and career.

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17th century ewers found during excavations

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Meat cooler made from sheep skin

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Kitchen implements, including a pestle used to make the customary small holes found in the traditional Turkmen bread

David is suffering from a severe cold he picked up on the flight out here, with his eyes being extremely sore and sensitive to light, so stays behind in the car while I have the museum, guide, and curator to myself.

The journey back through the border control is way quicker, just a mere three minute passport check and we're on our way, continuing further west. For a while the road is intermittently bumpy, with a number of potholes, and a couple of times I find myself caught unawares and bouncing off the ceiling.

Lunch

Yet another private room with a huge flat-screen TV. This one is not playing Lara Croft, however, but a very funny Russian slap-stick comedy about an incompetent chef in a restaurant. There is no need to understand Russian to appreciate the humour, although Meylis translates any dialogue of importance. None of us want to leave when we have finished our meal, as we are desperate to find out what happens next in the soap opera. Alas, we will never know the fate of the live goose the hapless chef bought.

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After the huge lunches we've had the last couple of days, and as my tummy is still pretty fragile, I order just a plain lentil soup accompanied by the ubiquitous bread

The road from here is long and straight, cutting through a vast flat area with the Kopetdag Mountain Range behind, and in the distance a mirage appears on the horizon. It must be soul-destroying boring to drive, and although the speed limit is 90km / hour, we are travelling a 'little bit' faster than that.

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Sand from the Karakum Desert (which covers 80% of the country) blows across the road for a few miles, offering some reprieve - and interest - from the previous monotonous view.

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In this arid and barren region we are surprised to see a flood plain. Apparently the water is still here since some heavy rain they experienced in April. I am absolutely flabbergasted that surface water can survive the oppressive dry heat in this region for five months without evaporating. That must have been some rain storm! It's not just a small puddle either, but covers quite a substantial area. Meylis tells us that at the time the road was deep under water for a couple of weeks. I can well imagine that is must have been pretty bad for there still to be so much flood water left now.

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We stop at a filling station to put fuel in the car, and are impressed by the Eco 93 petrol sold here. Apparently it is the first 'clean petrol' in the world, made from gas (of which Turkmenistan has rather a lot). At 2 manat a litre (57c / 46p at the official rate of 3.5 manat per dollar) it is more expensive than regular petrol. I wish I could take some home!

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Mollakara Sanatorium and Salt Lake

Opened in 2012, the modern health spa was built in a famous therapeutic mud resort on the shores of Lake Mollakara. The lake is fed by underground sources, and its healing features include chlorides and sodium sulphate, magnesium, iron, bromine salts and other minerals.

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Artem is trying to find a way down to the lake, but it seems the sanatorium wants to monopolise the salty waters, and has closed all gates and entrances that lead down to the shore. After trying a number of options, which include ignoring signs, attempting to pick gate locks, and driving off road to get around fencing; we finally manage to get near the water's edge, only to find the lake is almost dry!

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How astonishing! We passed areas of flooding just a few miles back, yet here there is very little water left in the lake! The sanatorium websites talk about swimming and floating in the alkaline waters - here it is so shallow that you'd be lucky if your ankles get wet!

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After driving around a little bit more, Artem finds another part of the lake, where, although there is very little water left, the salt deposits are easily accessible close to the road.

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The salt has formed little ridges on the surface, creating an interesting texture.

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Like little kids, all four of us go and play on and with the crusty salt formations.

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The benefits of salty water and mud treatments have been know to people from old times, and as long ago as 1900 there was a sanatorium built here.

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Who needs an expensive health spa to reap the benefits?

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Cemetery

It seems that different regions of Turkmenistan have different traditions and cultures when it comes to burying their dead. The grave markers at this cemetery consist of leaning plants of wood.

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Balkanabat

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This area is well known for its strong winds (which we saw evidence of earlier, with the sand drifting across the road), something that is reflected in this sculpture depicting desert people leaning in to the wind and shielding their faces from the blowing sand as they walk.

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Balkanabat may be a modern city built on the proceeds of oil; but there are still unattended camels wandering around the streets.

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Nebichi Hotel

As with the hotel we stayed at in Ashgabat, Nebichi Hotel looks palatial from the outside and has a grand-looking lobby.

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What it doesn't have, however, is a lift. Nor does it provide more than one set of towels or spare roll(s) of toilet paper. This seems to be a common trend here in Turkmenistan, and we ring for Housekeeping to bring the missing items to the room. Thankfully Meylis helps carry our bags up the two flights of stairs. Having a strong young man for a guide, certainly has its advantages.

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Dinner

As he did last night, Meylis knocks on the door as he has been asked to come down to the restaurant to help us order as the waitress speaks no English.

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The restaurant is full of idiosyncrasies – lovely linen tablecloth, covered in tacky-looking plastic; and the beautifully folded cloth napkins are apparently just for decorative purposes. Once the waitress has taken our order, she removes David's napkin and places it on a storage cabinet next to us. As soon as she is out of sight, however, I recover the napkin and place it back onto David's plate. When she returns with our drinks, the server yet again removes the cloth napkin, and brings us cheap paper serviettes instead. By this stage I have already unfolded mine and put it on my lap, so the moment she disappears back into the kitchen again, I carefully re-fold it, thread it through the little serviette-ring and put in with David's on the side. I might as well comply with the unwritten napkin rule and enjoy a my beer.

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Too pretty to be used

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David's head cold is still making his eyes extremely sensitive to light, so he plays Mr Cool with his sunglasses on.

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Adana Kebab - meat in a wrap with vegetables and a tasty sauce.

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The beef stroganoff features the best meat we've had so far on the trip

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Russian salad. With ham. In a Muslim country. OK.....

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The food is good, and we go to bed feeling very satisfied after another fascinating day here in Turkmenistan. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 06:12 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged beer desert landscape cemetery scenery museum dinner tv flood camel salt gas petrol cold travel_photography mirage poetry fuel arid comedy poet turkmenistan salt_lake kebab central_asia undiscovered_destinations head_cold pomegranate karakum ex_ussr fried_salami border_checks moon_mountains kopetdag kopetdag_mountains lunar_scenery pomegranate_trees magtymguly magtymguly_museum private_dining lentil_soup karakum_desert mollakara sanatorium mollakara_sanatorium mollakara_salt_lake balkanabat petrol_station nebichi_hotel idiosyncrasy napkin napkin_saga serviette adana_kebab beef_stroganoff stroganoff russian_salad Comments (11)

Ashgabat and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

33 °C
View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As he dropped us off at the hotel last night, or rather early this morning, Meylis (our guide for the trip) suggested meeting at 11:00 today, allowing us time to catch up on a little sleep. We are therefore rather surprised when we get a call from reception at 08:30: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. Reception sends the bellboy up to collect the passports, which is great as we then don't have to get dressed yet.

Five minutes later there is another call from reception: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. David tries to explain that we have already dealt with this and that the bellboy has our passports. They don't understand and after a few minutes of trying to explain in every different way possible, David ends up having to go down to talk to them in person. By the time he gets down there, it is all sorted, of course. So much for sleeping in!

This is what we were woken so early for – several copies of a 'Entry Travel Pass'. Ironically we were never asked for copies of this during our two week tour.

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This was our first sight of the capital city of Ashgabat in daylight, the view from our hotel window.

We later ask the guide what the amazing monument is. "Oh, that is just a roundabout" he said. As the trip goes on, we find that every large roundabout in the major cities has such beautiful white marble and gilded monuments in the centre. Quite surreal.

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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The 8-pointed star seen on the aerial view of the roundabout is found everywhere in Turkmenistan. And I mean EVERYWHERE: railing, lifts, walls, lamp posts, the country's flag, trash cans, emblems.... you name it, it probably has a star on it! Apparently it signifies the Muslims' belief that there are eight steps to heaven.

White Marble Buildings

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, the former president of Turkmenistan had a thing for white marble, a tradition that his successor has carried on. Today Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for the most marble buildings in any city, with 80% of public buildings covered, using 5 million cubic metres of marble.

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It certainly makes for a bright and clean look for the city, something that is further enhanced by the total lack of advertising hoardings, graffiti, litter and traffic. Ashgabat has to compete with Pyongyang in North Korea as the capital city with the least amount of cars on the road.

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We see a few of the many gleaming buildings as we drive through the empty streets this morning.

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Owadan Tourism

Our first stop this morning is at the office of our local agent, where we are introduced to the General Director.

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They have created a small one-room ethnographic museum where tourists can learn about the history and culture of the various aspects of Turkmen life.

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Here we see two different types of carpets – the white one, made from felt, symbolising spring; while the red carpet, coloured by pomegranate, indicates autumn.

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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I love these colourful boots. On the shelf above you can see the traditional skull
caps many of the local men wear.

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

The Silk Road Map on the carpet is prepared according to the map from Seyahatname 'Book of Travels' written by the well known 17th century Turkish traveller Evliya Chelebi (1611-1684), who travelled for more than 40 years, mostly on the western part of the Silk Road.

UNESCO considered Chelebi 'Man of the Year' in 2011 on the 400th anniversary of his death.

The carpet was woven by the General Director's family in 1999.

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Before we leave we are encouraged to have a cup of tea, and are given a box of chocolates to take away, as well as a couple of traditional wallets.

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Nisa

By the time we arrive at the ruins of this 3rd century capital of the Parthian Empire, which are reached via a long staircase, I am very hot, my back is hurting, the two blisters on my feet are painful, and the jet lag is catching up with me. It all seems too much trouble.

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Known as Midridatkert city in ancient times, the fortress of Old Nisa had walls that were nine metres thick with 43 rectangular towers and has now been given a UNESCO Heritage status.

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The so-called Round Hall, with a diameter of 17 m. The Old Nisa architecture is unique, original and is unprecedented in whole Central Asia, merging architectural traditions of antique Greece, Rome and the East.

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Old Nisa's walls protected the royal palace, Zoroastrian temples and the power and prestige of successive ruling dynasties until its eventual destruction at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th century.

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Old bricks and shards. I am utterly disgusted to see some Australian tourists picking up bits to take home as souvenirs, boasting about the age and historical importance of the fragments. Shame on them! I really regret not saying anything at the time.

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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The necropolis. Only about 30% of the site at Old Nisa has been excavated.

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The Red Hall; so called because remains of red walls have been found underneath the mud.

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Looking out over New Nisa in the distance. It has not been excavated as yet, so does not feature on our itinerary.

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Lunch

Returning to Ashgabat, we stop for lunch at a tourist restaurant where seating is offered in private yurts with no furniture where you sit on a carpet on the floor; or at 'proper' seating areas in the leafy gardens.

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The waitress brings over a menu in tablet form, with photos of each dish and a clickable caption in English which brings up more information about the dish. Love this idea, especially when you don't speak the language.

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For starters we choose a dish called Dograma, consisting of lamb, bread, green onion, fresh tomatoes, water, salt and pepper. It is very tasty, and extremely filling.

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Main course is Manty, which is delightful little dumplings, a very traditional Turkmen dish. They are usually filled with a choice of meat, pumpkin or spinach. We decide on the meat variety. They are served with a small dish of smetana (a type of soured cream).

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The choice of salads in Turkmenistan really impresses me. Each and every restaurant has a huge selection of interesting salads, not at all what I am used to from the UK. Today we choose a concoction called Men's salad: green leaves, boiled beef, gherkins, mayonnaise, white cheese, salt and pepper.

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Independence Square

The Independence Monument is an extravagant affair, covering an area of more than 80,000 m². The entire structure is 118m high, with the minaret-like tower standing at 91m.

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The monument is surrounded by statues of 27 of the most prominent Turkmen heroes.

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Quite by accident we manage to time our visit to coincide with the changing of the guards; which takes place every two hours.

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The square is also home to a number of spectacular fountains.

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The founder emperor of the Seljuc Empire that reigned in this region prior to the Mongolian invasion in 1037.

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Statue to the first Turkmen leader. In his hand he holds three arrows. Legend has it that he demonstrated the power of team work by breaking an arrow in two, quite easily. Then, holding all three arrows in his hand, breaking them was not so easy; and when he had six halves together, it was impossible to break them – proving that alone you are weak, together you become strong.

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The five heads of the eagle on this symbol represent the five states of Turkmenistan, protecting both internal and external enemies (the two-headed snake)

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Everything in Ashgabat is ornate, include the street lamps; here decorated with the crescent (symbolising the new moon = new country) with five stars representing the five states, and the ubiquitous eight-pointed star denoting the eight steps to heaven.

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One of the numerous gold-plated statues to the former president Saparmurat Niyazov. As the self-declared 'President for Life', Niyazov gilded the country with his own image in a cult of personality that makes Kim il Jong look like an amateur.

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National Museum

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As with nearly all museums and archaeological sites in Turkmenistan, we have to pay a 'camera fee' in order to be able to take photos inside. Mostly the price is 50 manat as here, around US$14 according to the official exchange rate of 3.5 manat to the dollar.

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Like so many of the places we visit on this trip, the museum is housed in a grand building, with lots of gold and marble.

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

The museum covers several sections, from prehistorical man to more recent finds.

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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Model of how Gonur Depe - which we shall be visiting later on during our trip - would have looked in its heyday in the 3rd millennium BC

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Bronze Tools from Gonur Depe, dating back to the 3rd - 2nd millennium BC

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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Terracotta fragments of Ossuary found at Munun Depe, from 1st century AD

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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The campaign of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC

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A much more recent ceremonial sword, set with 98 precious stones

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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Turkmenistan has been very much a crossroads of cultures over the years, including being part of the famed Silk Road.

Flag

Everything is grand in Turkmenistan, including this flag pole, complete with a jet engine at the bottom to ensure the flag billows even on windless days. There is no need for it today.

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After independence from the USSR in 1991, a new flag was designed for the independent Turkmenistan, and it is the only country in the world that has carpet designs on its flag. The red stripe on the left with the five patterns, shows the various traditional design of carpet from the five different states in the country. These five motifs, like the eight-point star, feature in so many places within the country: boxes of chocolates, hotel door frames, posters, building decorations, the airport etc. The crescent moon, as well as being a traditional Islamic symbol, also represents the rising of a new country, and the five stars its separate states.

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Arch of Neutrality

While countries like Switzerland and Sweden have neutral foreign policies, Turkmenistan in the only country which is officially recognised by the United Nations as truly neutral. This has been recognised by the addition of a wreath below the carpet symbols on the country's flag.

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Note the five carpet designs on the plaque, as well as the eight-pointed star decorations.

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On top of the 75 metre high monument stands a 12 metre high gold statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, the infamous previous leader. His statue was designed so that it would rotate in order for the great leader to always be facing the sun. Upon his death in 2006, it was agreed that the statue should 'die' with him, and the rotations were turned off.

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Wedding Palace

On a small hill outside the otherwise very flat capital city, sits the bizarre and eccentric Wedding palace – also known as the Palace of Happiness. Built in 2011, the Wedding Palace is created of a number of star shaped floors topped with a 'disco ball' featuring a map of Turkmenistan in gold. Note the eight-pointed stars around the globe and the carpet pattern decorations on the sides of the stars.

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As well as six halls for wedding ceremonies, there are banquet halls for parties and receptions, shops, hair dressers, beauty salons and photography studios, and a small hotel with 22 rooms for newly-weds, Apparently, you can get a divorce here as well, as it is said that divorce can bring some people happiness too! There is also a huge portrait of the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and one of the conditions for being granted a marriage licence is to have your photograph taken in front of his picture.

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The (white, obviously) wedding cars in the country are always lavishly decorated.

Further up the hill stands the equally offbeat building that houses Yildez Hotel. The roads, like elsewhere in the capital, are totally empty for cars, and the numerous street lamps sport unusual, and elegant shapes.

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Being just slightly higher than the main part of town, we do get a bit of an overview of the White City below.

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

When we get back to the hotel, we notice a couple of little things that we later realise will come to be standard in most the places we are staying on this trip: just one set of towels and no spare toilet paper.

The view from the balcony is pretty darn good though, with changing coloured lights on the monuments.

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Considering this is supposed to be a four star hotel there are a few other annoyances too: the bedside table and the glasses in the bathroom have not been cleaned when they made the room up today; one of the bedside lamps do not work; neither does the standard lamp next to the TV, and there are no spare sockets for charging our phones, so we have to unplug one of the bedside lights. I suppose as it is not working anyway, it doesn't really matter.

We are too tired to even contemplate going out for dinner tonight, and settle for a glass or two of Duty Free rum and some nibbles. My back is hurting, and I now have two more blisters on my feet!

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:11 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged fountains ruins monuments flag museum necropolis lunch unesco carpets turkmenistan ashgabat nisa silk_road united_nations central_asia national_museum manty undiscovered_destinations wedding_car smetana ethnographic_museum lamp_posts guinness_world_record neutrality dutar grand_turkmen_hotel ex-ussr entry_travel_pass eight_pointed_star white_marble empty_streets owadan_tours turkmenistan_national_museum old_nisa parthian_empire parthian tablet_menu dograma independence_square changing_of_the_guards seljuc saparmurat_niyazov arch_of_neutrality neutral_country wedding_palace gurbanguly_berdimuhamedow yildez_hotel Comments (11)

São Tomé city tour and Monte Café

An easy day


View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

I set the alarm for 06:30 this morning for some bird watching in and around the hotel grounds before breakfast. I am not disappointed.

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Yellow-billed kite

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Village Weaver

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São Tomé Prinia

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Yellow Fronted Canary

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Yellow Billed Kite

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Village Weaver

Four 'lifers' (new species to us) before breakfast on the first day! I also spot a couple of cute little lizards.

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Breakfast

Forte de São Sebastião

The old San Sebastian Fort has now been turned into a museum.

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The square outside is home to statues depicting the first settlers in São Tomé and Principe.

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São Tomé & Principe were both uninhabited prior to colonisation by the Portuguese in 1470 who came in search of land to grow sugar and as a base for trade with mainland Africa. São Tomé, being right on the equator and more than wet enough, fitted the bill perfectly. Slaves were brought over as forced labourers from Congo and Angola on the African coast to work the plantations. The first successful settlement was established in 1493 by Álvaro Caminha, who received the land as a grant from the Portuguese crown and by the mid-16th century the islands were Africa's foremost exporter of sugar.

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Attracting settlers proved difficult, however, and most of the earliest inhabitants were 'undesirables' sent from Portugal, mostly Jews, a great number of whom soon died.

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By 1515, São Tomé and Príncipe had become slave depots for the coastal slave trade centred at Elmina in Ghana. The interesting little museum chronicles the history of the country, but unfortunately photography is not permitted inside most of the rooms in the fort, so you will just have to make do with some external shots from the courtyard.

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Sugar cultivation declined over the next 100 years as a result of competition from the West Indies, and São Tomé was now primarily a transit point for ships engaged in the slave trade between the West and continental Africa.

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In the early 19th century, two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced to São Tomé. Large plantations (known as roças), mostly owned by Portuguese companies, sprung up all over the islands. Soon São Tomé became the world's largest producer of cocoa, with 800 of these plantations, and although this is no longer the case (and so many of the roças lie in ruins), cocoa remains the country's most important crop.

The second room in the museum shows examples of the different types of cocoa beans (and there was I thinking a cocoa bean was a cocoa bean). The plant was originally brought from Portugal as an ornamental plant, and remained so until someone said: “You're wasting your money, this plant grows so well here you should start a plantation”. Experts were imported from other Portuguese colonies such as Mozambique and Angola, and the rest is history.

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Other rooms are devoted to Catholicism, the President, the Flag, dining room, culture room (including voodoo paraphernalia and mannequins in various traditional costumes) and a gallery of old pictures from the city.

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By far the most emotional and poignant of all the exhibitions, is the Massacre Room. I find most of the pictures too distressing to look at, yet again despairing at man's inhumanity to man.

By the time we get to the 'turtle room', my back is giving me a lot of pain. I had hoped the pain would be gone by this morning after a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed, but not so; it is getting worse and worse.

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São Tomé is home to five different species of turtles, and much education work is taking place to ensure their continuing conservation.

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I had no idea Leatherback Turtles could grow that big!

Climbing onto the roof is proving to be quite a task because of my painful back. It is worth it for the view though.

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The graves of some 'important people' of a bygone age.

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Catedral de São Tomé

The 16th century cathedral is the oldest on the island and is reputed to be the first Catholic church to be built in an African country.

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The original building was constructed from wood, but the church was rebuilt in a more durable material - concrete - in the 17th century.

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As a place of worship, it is popular, especially for Sunday mass, when the pews are full.

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Damaged by fire during a revolt in 1975, the church was repaired from donations.

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Beautiful relics from the Portuguese era.

Parliament Building

Photographing this building is not permitted, with armed guards posted outside. Despite my experience in 2011 when I was chased down the road by one such guard after taking a picture of a bank in Algiers, I risk a covert shot from a distance.

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Driving by the market and later past the popularly named 'Think Square' where Sãotoméans gather to work out a survival strategy when they have no money (unemployment sits at 70%), we head out of town and up into the hills. I am pleasantly surprised at the condition of the road: there is some sizeable areas of tarmac between the potholes. The first settlement of any size we reach is Trindade, the second biggest city in São Tomé, with 45,000 inhabitants. It was here that a rebellion took place in 1953, where hundreds of native Creoles were killed or captured and tortured to death (known as the Batepá massacre). Later their bodies were thrown in the sea, like animals. "Throw this shit into the sea to avoid troubles," the Portuguese governor was quoted as saying. A memorial has been built to mark the spot and its anniversary is officially observed by the government.

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Roça Monte Café

One of the largest coffee plantation on the island, Monte Café has now been turned into a museum offering a tour of the coffee production process.

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At 600m above sea level, the air is considerably cooler here than in town, and the climate is ideal for growing Arabica coffee.

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We are invited up the stairs of one of the old warehouses, to walk through the exhibitions with a Portuguese-speaking guide, and Agostinho as a translator. Here the men toiled the plantations while the women worked in the factory.

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I am in agony with my back now, and seek out a chair on the balcony after the first couple of rooms, especially as photography is not permitted inside the museum.

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Alei Coffe Shop

Despite taking a double dose of painkillers, my back is still going into spasms, unfortunately marring my enjoyment of the excellent lunch.

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Ceviche with marlin, passionfruit, onion and cucumber

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Red snapper with plantain, breadfruit and rice. The green stuff is described as a 'lusoa sauce' and is really quite nice. I have been unable to ascertain what it is in English - maybe the green tops of sweet potato.

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David tries the locally brewed beer, Rosema, which comes in unmarked bottles without a label.

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Passionfruit cheesecake

Passionfruit is grown in abundance here on São Tomé, and I am intrigued by the size of them. I had no idea there was more than one type of passionfruit.

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Miramar Hotel

With my back being so painful, we return to the hotel a little earlier than planned, where I have a short siesta and feel some better afterwards.

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Like last night, we wander onto the terrace for a drink outside before dinner. Tonight we choose some Portuguese Vinho Verde, which goes down very nicely.

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Dinner

I am assuming the hotel is not full this evening, as we are the only diners at 19:30. Tonight's special is chicken stroganoff, and we both choose that. It is very good.

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Coconut jelly on a biscuit base

The end of another interesting day in São Tomé, arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:45 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged turtles fish fort museum cathedral africa birding parliament coffee trindade pain slavery ceviche defence canary plantations weaver massacre demonstrations cocoa bird_watching roca red_snapper undiscovered_destinations sao_tome batepa_massacre miramar_hotel prinia endemic_birds forte_de_são_sebastião sugar_plantations roca_monte_café vinho_verde passionfruit back_pain Comments (4)

Salalah: Taqa, Derbat, Sumharum, Bin Ali's Tomb, Mirbat - UK

Last day in Oman


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Taqa Open Air Museum

A small collection of replica dwellings shows how local people lived in the Dhofar mountains in the old days. The hut on the left would have housed the family, while the building on the right was for the animals.

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Taqa Castle

Built in the 19th century as a private residence for the Sheikh and his family, the castle was restored some 15 years ago.

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Barza – the vestibule where visitors would wait to see the governor.

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Issa shows us the type of bowl used when milking camels. Camels are majorly fidgety animals and have to be milked quickly as they won't stand still for long. Stones from the fire are then added to the bowl to 'sterilise' the milk.

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The responsibility for the camels is usually the men's domain, while the women look after the sheep and goats.

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This room was used as a store for household items and as a workroom for grinding wheat, pounding spices, churning milk, and grating coconut.

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Tannur Oven

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The prison

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They seem to have left behind a prisoner in the cell.

Wadi Dirbat

As we make our way towards Wadi Dirbat, we see a number of camels in the road; creating the quintessential Middle Eastern scene of my imagination.

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There are camels everywhere and they are all heading the same direction.

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This is what they have come for: the water. And this is what we have come for: to see them in the water.

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Sumhuram Archaeological Park

The ancient site of Sumhuram dates back to the 3rd century AD and is the most important pre-Islamic settlement in this area.

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Built near the harbour of Khor Rori, it was once a wealthy port situated on the trading route between the Mediterranean and Asia.

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The city gate of Sumhuram was an imposing defensive structure. The access was tortuous, steep and blocked by three successive wooden doors.

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The fort was protected on all sides and almost impregnable.

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Khor Rori Port - the approach to the fort from the sea - the walls on this side did not have any openings, thus making it very secure.

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Flamingos in the bay

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The fascinating and informative Audio Visual show in the Visitors' Centre brings the whole place to life.

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Bin Ali's Tomb

Originally from Tarim in Yemen, Bin Ali came to this region in the beginning of the 12th century to teach Islam and build schools. A mosque has been built over his tomb, which is still used for prayer and mourning and this is now one of the most important Islamic sites in the region, partly because Bin Ali is said to be a descendant of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

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The tomb and mosque are surrounded by a large traditional cemetery.

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Issa explains how the female graves have three headstones and those containing the remains of a man have two.

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Mirbat

Once the capital of Dhofar, Mirbat is now primarily a fishing village with many old decaying merchant houses.

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I find the crumbling old buildings quite charming despite some being in a badly dilapidated state.

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We take a little wander around the old town, and again I am drawn to the ornate doors and windows, some of which are in a better state of repair than others; but all of which could tell a story or two about the people who once lived and worked here.

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The Old Town is deserted, and the busy working port is not exactly bustling either.

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When we get back to the hotel, we are informed that our flight this afternoon has changed and is now 5½ hours later. We manage to secure a late check out and have a snooze followed by something to eat and then listening to piano music in the lobby before trying to check in on line for our flights. When we get an error message stating “Flight Cancelled” we panic ever so slightly, and email Undiscovered Destinations (who arranged our trip) to see if they can find out for us what the situation is. They quickly come back to us to confirm that the flight is indeed running, so we assume the error message is just a computer glitch.

Homeward Bound

Salalah Airport is a joy. There is no queue for check in, and I chat up the guy on the counter who gives us window and aisle seats and blocks out the middle seat so that we can spread out. Success.

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At Muscat Airport we have to collect our bags, but again there is no queue to check in. Just like we did on the way to Salalah, we are made to wait in the bus while they finish off getting the plane ready to board.

The flight back to the UK via Istanbul is uneventful and at Heathrow we get plenty of exercise walking from the gate to the main terminal building – I swear it is at least half a mile!

And so ends another successful tour with Undiscovered Destinations. If you are interested in travelling to some of the more little-known places off the beaten path, check them out. They can arrange group or private tours and have a huge selection of destinations to choose from.

As for Oman: we absolutely loved it! The country as a whole has moved directly into our Top Three list of favourite countries, with its friendly people, cleanliness (including a number of fabulous public toilets), good food, nice hotels, stunning scenery, and a host of interesting historical and cultural sites. Go now before everyone else discovers it.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:34 Archived in Oman Tagged history travel fort cemetery tomb museum port castle necropolis old deserted asia camels ancient mediterranean oman archaeology wadi trade middle_east frankincense salalah taqa taqa_castle camel_milk wadi_dirbat sumhuram sumharam_archaeological_park frankincense_trade impregnable khor_rori bin_ali mirbat dhofar Comments (1)

Muscat

Half a day in the capital


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Having arrived at the hotel at 03:30 this morning, we miss breakfast totally and sleep through until we are woken by Housekeeping at 11:00. I am sure this is a sign of getting old: some 30 years ago we would have been up at 07:00 to make the most of our time here in Muscat; today we thoroughly enjoy the lie-in and leisurely start.

Al Falaj Hotel

Named after the traditional irrigation channels that Oman are famous for, the hotel is in a residential suburb of Muscat, with very little around in the way of amenities. The hotel itself, however, is very pleasant, with super-friendly staff, a nice pool and comfortable rooms.

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Hotel entrance

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Lobby

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Self-playing piano in the lobby

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The outside dining area

Interestingly, it has a Sri Lankan Tea Shop off the lobby and a Japanese Restaurant on the top floor.

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Lunch

While not being at all keen on a buffet lunch, there really isn't much choice here. The mezze starter selection is nice, and I enjoy the tabbouleh and hummus in particular.

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Mezze selection

The chicken is a little too dry and I am intrigued by the 'bacon', which looks and tastes exactly like regular bacon. As Oman is a strict Muslim country, pork is banned, so it is probably turkey, but it is certainly a very good imitation.

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Thinking this is labneh in oil, I am very disappointed to find it is in fact pickled Brussels sprouts. I guess it was meant to be for decorative purposes only...

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Fresh fruits and desserts

The chocolate mousse is even better than it looks!

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Aslam, the restaurant manager, comes over to chat with us. Like most of the staff, he comes from Sri Lanka. That could explain why all the main course dishes are Indian-style.

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There are some nice decorative touches in the restaurant too.

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Old Muscat

At 15:00 Said, our guide for the next eight days, picks us up for a short tour. First he stops for a view over Old Muscat, with the City Gate, Forts and Palace clearly visible.

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Bait Al Zubair Museum

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Photography is not allowed inside the museum unfortunately, which is a great shame as there are some amazing displays: clothing and jewellery, including the khanjar, the ornamental dagger worn on a belt. Mannequins show the traditional costumes from various parts of Oman, much of which seems to be inspired by Indian outfits. The Omani wedding displays are my favourite.

Scaled models show the four main forts of Oman: Nizwa, Quriyat, Jabrin and Al Hazm.

The section dedicated to guns is of less interest to me than the kitchen utensils and cooking implements. I am particularly taken with the Al Dallah, the coffee pots that look like they are taken straight out of an Arabian fairytale.

The second part of the museum, housed in a different building, shows old photograph from Oman before the Renaissance of 1970, when the current Sultan turned the country around from a poverty-stricken backwater with just three schools and one hospital in the entire country; to the modern progressive nation we see today.

There is also a wonderful exhibition with winners from a recent photographic competition. Absolutely breathtaking photographs!

Rooms are set out as they would have appeared in the living quarters of the late Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali (founder of this museum) in the 1940s and 50s. It is interesting to note that most of the furniture came from England and India.

Amongst the exhibits are two items that make me feel particularly old – my very first camera (Kodak 66) and a desk caddy very, very similar to the one I inherited from my grandmother.

The grounds of the museum are nicely laid out, with further exhibits and a miniature village scene.

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There are also a number of these sponsored painted goats dotted around the grounds.

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Kalbuh Bay Park

After a refreshing juice stop, we continue to the Muttrah Corniche from where we will watch the sun set over Muscat.

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The park is a lovely little haven, with fountains and pavilions; and is popular with locals and tourists alike.

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David climbs the watchtower for a better view

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David's view

I love the way the low sun makes the hills disappear into misty oblivion, with paler colours on the further away peaks.

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Off shore is the Sultan's private yacht – better looking than any cruise ship!

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On a hill above the park stands a giant frankincense burner

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Tourists are ferried around the harbour in dhows, the traditional ships historically plying these waters.

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As the sun gets lower, the colour of the sky intensifies.

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Going, going, gone

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We stay for a while after the artificial lights come on along the promenade and on the giant frankincense burner.

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Kargeen Caffe

Tonight is the only night where food is not included, so we wanted to make the most of it by choosing a restaurant very carefully. Usually included hotel dinners tend to be international buffets, and I wanted to try some traditional Omani food. I spent a fair amount of time on the internet searching for somewhere not too touristy, but not so traditional that we have to sit on the floor. This is what I came up with, and we certainly aren't disappointed as we walk in: the place oozes atmosphere. The clientele is a mixture of ex-pats, tourists, families and trendy young Omanis.

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I am not sure how I feel about being watched by a couple of sheep while I eat...

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Labneh plate and breads

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Traditional stuffed bread

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Main course of shuwa and chicken biriyani

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Shuwa - tender lamb traditionally cooked for 24-48 hours in an underground oven.

What a lovely way to end our first day in Oman. Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:38 Archived in Oman Tagged sunset sheep museum oman buffet muscat dhow corniche mutrah undiscovered_destinations al_falaj_hotel old_muscat lunch_buffet bait_al_zubair muttrach_corniche muttrah kalbuh_park kargeen_caffe shuwa labneh Comments (3)

Dar es Salaam - Moroni (Comoros)

We're here!


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

Much as I love Tanzania, this trip is something totally different. Today we are continuing to the small island nation of Comoros.

“Comoros? Where’s that?” has been the common refrain when I tell people where I am going.

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Nestled between Madagascar to the east and Mozambique on the African mainland to the west, Comoros consists of three major islands: Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani) and Moheli (Mwali). Internationally, the islands are known by their French names, and I have added the local Comorian names in parentheses.

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It’s not exactly all the rage

The reason you haven’t heard of Comoros lies largely at the door of its total lack of commercial tourism, unlike that which its neighbours Mauritius and Seychelles close by ‘enjoy’ (or endure, whichever side of the fence you are). According to the Tourist Office, the islands receive fewer than 3,000 visitors each year (the last data I could find was from 2011, when 2,497 tourists entered the country). To put things into perspective, the Seychelles received 36,000 tourists in April this year alone.

As described by an online travel deal comparator promoting the islands: “Not many tourists travel to Comoros in the Indian Ocean and for good reason: there is regular seismic activity on top of great political instability”.

Cloud Coup Coup Land

Affectionately known as ‘Cloud Coup Coup Land’ as a result of its numerous (more than twenty) coups d’états since its independence in 1975, with various heads of state assassinated. Subsequent instability has left the small archipelago desperately poor (said to be the third poorest country in the world), unsurprisingly corrupt, and relatively untouched. It has an unemployment rate of 80% and it is believed that around 50% of the population live below the poverty line of US1 a day; and unfortunately it has few natural resources with which to recover its failing economy.

Dar es Salaam - Moroni

Anyway, back to today’s journey.

We are up at the crack of dawn this morning for a 5am pick up for the transfer to the airport. The journey that took well in excess of an hour last night in the terrible traffic, takes us a mere 20 minutes this morning.

Check in

We approach the Air Tanzania check-in desk with trepidation, and hand over our passports. The young girl types away on her computer and we are asked to place our bags on the scales. This is looking promising. My heart sinks, however, when she asks: “Are you travelling with Air Tanzania?” I hand over the original e-ticket plus the email and explain that we were originally booked on the Precisionair flight this morning which has been cancelled and that they informed us we have been re-booked with Air Tanzania instead (see yesterday’s blog for the full explanation). "Ah, that's why I can't find you on my system" she confirms. I hold my breath, waiting for the rejection and expecting her to pass the buck and tell us to go and sort it with Precisionair. She doesn’t. She calls them herself and asks us to sit down and wait while she sorts it out.

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We sit and we wait. And we wait, and then we wait some more. After around 30 minutes the supervisor comes over to tell us “it is being sorted”.

One hour. I go and ask. The supervisor tells me: “It is all confirmed, we are waiting for the second paper to be completed. Just sit down and relax.” I sit down. And relax. Sort of.

We eat the packed breakfast the hotel provided us with while we wait. And wait. And wait some more.

20 minutes before the departure of the flight and 2½ hours after we first checked in, we finally have boarding cards!

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Passport control is very slow, leaving us no time to buy any rum in the Duty Free as we go straight on to the plane.

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As we climb high and leave the metropolis of Dar es Salaam behind, I am looking forward to lazy days on tropical beaches in this ‘hidden paradise’.

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I am surprised to be served a small snack on the short flight – it is only about one hour and 20 minutes long.

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It’s not long before we spot the peaks of Comoros’ highest point, Mt Karthala in the distance.

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The origin of the name Comoros comes from the name given to the islands by an Arab geographer in the Middle Ages: Djazair al ‘Qamar’, which translated into English means Moon Islands. It is said that the first Arabs who arrived in the archipelago were enthralled by the lunar-like landscape caused by petrified lava on the pure white sand of the beaches. Looking down on the coastline below, I can see what they mean.

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Soon we are approaching the small runway of Prince Said Ibrahim Airport in Moroni (I have no idea how this airport got its three letter code HAH).

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At immigration there are two forms to fill in, and my Norwegian passport seems to cause a bit of a stir, with the official calling her supervisor over to check it out. She speaks no English, I speak almost no French and even less Comorian. She keeps repeating “Visa! Visa!” I am not sure if she means I should have obtained a visa before travelling or that she is going to issue me with a visa.

It turns out to be the latter.

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I am very impressed they manage to produce a sticky-backed printed visa complete with my picture right here in the little immigration booth. She even asks me which page of my passport I would like it stuck on. There isn’t much choice in my case, as I only have one single spare page left in my passport; the rest is full with stamps and visas.

After a cursory luggage check in the Customs area, find ourselves outside in the sun looking for someone carrying a sign with our name on it. Again. We look around, nothing. Again. Neither of our mobile phones seems to work here in the Comoros, something we were warned about, so we are unable to call our guide or the office. Hovering by the exit for a few minutes soon attracts the local taxi touts, one of whom speaks a little English. He is thankfully not persistent and we chat to him for a while, explaining that we have someone coming to meet us from a local agency. When, after around 20 minutes or so, our pick-up still hasn’t arrived, he kindly uses his own mobile phone and rings the telephone number we have been given for the local agent’s office. It goes through to an answering machine. He then tries the number the agent supplied for the local guide we are to have for the duration of our stay here, Mr Akim. Success. David talks to Mr Akim and explains that we are waiting at the airport for him. Mr Akim is somewhat perplexed, and stutters as he laments: “I didn’t know you were coming… I am nowhere near the airport…” He sounds genuinely concerned (and extremely confused) and asks us where we are staying. “Take a taxi to the hotel… but the hotel is not booked…” We are both feeling a little tense and rather uneasy by this stage, wondering what else can go wrong, and if this trip is maybe jinxed in some way

Out of the corner of my eye I spot a chap walking purposefully directly towards us, and in his hands I can see a sign “Grete & David Howard”. He introduces himself as Yahaya, and is full of apologies for being late. Great! First a feeling of relief, then confusion. Oh. So, if this is our guide, who is the person we are talking to on the phone?

(It later transpires that the local agent had arranged another guide for us, but didn’t let us, or Undiscovered Destinations, who we booked the trip through, know)

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Waiting for the car at the airport

The car boot is not big enough to take both the bags and close as well, so we drive along with the boot lid open. It doesn’t really matter: these are not fast roads.

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But first we must get the car started. It fires, turns and then dies. Time after time, again and again. We, and the luggage, get out of the car in order to access the spare battery the driver keeps in the boot, and the tools under the rear seat. This is obviously a regular occurrence.

As we approach the capital, we hit a huge, slow-moving traffic jam. “There is a strike,” says the girl whose name I heard as Malika and David thinks is Monica. We take a short cut through some badly pot-holed back streets, and stop at a small shop that doubles as a money changer.

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Pretty beach outside Moroni, the capital

National Museum

On the way to the hotel we stop for a visit to the small, but reasonably interesting National Museum.

All the Comoros islands were created at various times as a result of volcanic activity on the seabed resulting in each of the islands having a distinct topographical characteristic as a result of their different ages.

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Volcanic stones

According to pre-Islamic mythology, however, a jinn (spirit) dropped a jewel, which formed a great circular inferno. This became the Karthala volcano, which created the island of Grande Comore.

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A cross section of the earth, showing Mt Karthala, the still-active volcano on Grand Comore

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Pottery shards

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Coelacanth - the fish thought to be extinct for millions of years until it was re-discovered here in Comoros in 1938

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Pufferfish

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Whale skull

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Shells

A few bedraggled and sad looking stuffed birds

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Caspian Tern

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Common Ringed Plover

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Comoro Blue Pigeon

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Drums and other musical instruments

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Various pots and containers

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Oil lamp - usually whale oil was used

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Outrigger canoe - the museum guide explains that he was a fisherman himself, using one of these for many years; much to his father’s disappointment, as he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become an Imam.

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Sugar cane crusher. The juice is later turned into 'honey'.

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Items made from the coconut palm - no part of the plant is wasted

Medina

Walking down through the Medina (old market) of Moroni, we cause quite a stir. There is lots of laughter, pointing and many shy smiles, plus a few requests for us to take them back to England with us. Tourists are a rarity here.

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Fruit and vegetables

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Beans

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Chillies

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Onions

Many Comorians believe that having their photograph taken will bestow them with bad luck, so I am therefore very surprised when this lady actively wants to have her picture taken with me. Don’t you just love the look on the face of the woman behind though?

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Butcher

This lady not just asks us to photograph her young daughter, she begs us to take the child back to England to “give her a better life”.

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I am not sure the girl, however, is equally enthralled with that idea.

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Some more images from the market:

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Shoes

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Tailor

Also in the Medina, behind these elaborate doors, is the palace once used by the last prince of Comoros.

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The Old Town

We continue through the maze of narrow alleyways in Moroni Old Town.

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Similar in many ways to Zanzibar’s Stone Town (they share a lot of history and culture), the old town has many beautifully carved doors.

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As we get nearer to sea level and the large Friday Mosque, the alleyways open up and the vestiges of grand mansions appear, now but sad relics of faded glory.

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Sultan Ahmed Mwigni Mkou Mosque

Historically, Comoros was divided into a number of Sultanates following the arrival of Arab settlers starting in the 11th century. Mwigni Mkou was the biggest of these Sultans, reigning for over 40 years.

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The Town Hall

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Retaj Moroni Hotel

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After checking in and dumping the bags in the room, we head down to the restaurant to see if we can get a small snack for lunch. Passing through the bar, we see a pizza oven and someone rolling dough, which will be perfect as neither of us are particularly hungry.

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Pizza oven!

When we arrive at the restaurant, all they are doing is an international buffet. We both hate buffets with a passion and decide to forego lunch and take a wander around the hotel grounds instead.

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Swimming pool complete with water!

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Dinner

After a stroll to the local supermarket and a nice little siesta, followed by a shower and change, it is time to go down for dinner. This time they do have pizza, which is what we order.

Mine has meat, chicken, vegetables and egg on it – it is the first time I have ever had egg on a pizza.

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David chooses his to be topped with turkey and mushrooms.

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The Retaj Hotel is own by a Qatari organisation, and as such they abide by their strict Muslim beliefs: no alcohol served in the hotel at all!

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It is not quite the same toasting our safe arrival in Comoros – our 139th country – with water!

Starry sky

As we make our way back to the room, I notice the sky is clear and full of stars, so I go and grab my camera and tripod and head for the darker areas of the hotel grounds to look for the Milky Way. Considering we are on the outskirts of the capital, there is surprisingly little light pollution here.

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The land arrangements of this trip was organised by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:47 Archived in Comoros Tagged mosque beach travel hotel volcanic_rock market flight museum africa tanzania muslim lava tourism old_town pizza swimming_pool airline islam indian_ocean medina town_hall sultanate hah dar_es_salaam comoros undiscovered_destinations air_tanzania precisionair moroni retaj_moroni coelacanth pufferfish mt_karthala Comments (4)

Sucevita - Voronet - Târpeşti - Galați

Missing shoes, painted monastery, eclectic museum, more moonshine and a long drive.

sunny 32 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After all the beer, home made wine and double distilled moonshine yesterday evening, I slept deeply last night; and woke up feeling deservedly groggy this morning.

I sit on the balcony for a while, hoping the fresh air might make me feel better, and when Andrei surfaces, he looks as if he too had a rough night. “Have you seen my shoes”? he asks. We have a quick look around, but no sign of any shoes.

Later, as we go for breakfast, Andrei spots his shoes outside the dining room. Having no recollection of where you left your shoes and how you got back to your room is a sure sign of a good night; bearing in mind that he must have walked across the courtyard barefoot last night.

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Voronet Monastery

Regarded by many as the most beautiful of all the painted churches of Bucovina, Voronet was built in 1488, with the frescoes added in 1547.

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The monastery is often referred to as the ‘Sistine Chapel of the East’, or ‘The Blue Monastery’, due to the intense shade of blue on its frescoes, known in Romania as ‘Voroneț blue’

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The frescoes illustrate biblical scenes and important historical events; and Andrei explains them all to us. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who is as knowledgeable as Andrei; in every subject, not just about the sites he takes us to.

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At this stage I have to admit that so much of it is going whoosh past me today, my concentration and enthusiasm are rather lacking this morning.

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I come away from the monastery with way fewer pictures than I normally take, and not a single note in my trusty note-book.

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Nicolae Popa Museum

In the village of Târpeşti, we visit this private museum, set in beautiful gardens complete with Popa’s eclectic carvings, inspired by Dacian statues.

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Nicolae was a craftsman, artist and collector, who started his amazing collection as a child with his New Year masks.

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The exhibits include ancient archaeological finds from 5000 years ago, more recent agricultural tools, various ethnographic objects such as clothing and belts, paintings and embroidery, and traditional household objects.

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Wounded in action during WWII, and later imprisoned by the communists for his resistance work; Nicolae Popa went on to passionately dedicate his life to preserve Romanian folklore and values.

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Nicolae Popa himself

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He created hundreds of ritual masks and traditional costumes, composed lyrics, organised various folk performances, and wrote several books. His collection of traditional objects and creation of his own artwork continued right up until his death in 2010, aged 91. Today his family continue his traditions.

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Pan for making polenta

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After exploring the museum, we take lunch in the grounds, in the shade of plum trees.

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We start with some home made cheese and bread.

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Followed by the ubiquitous soup. Unlike in Russia, where it denotes beetroot soup, in Romania borsht is any soup soured by the juice of fermented wheat husks.

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Main course consists of meatloaf, creamed potato, salad and a tomato-based sauce.

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On the right of the picture you can see the large jug of water, medium sized jug containing home made wine, and the smallest one with double distilled moonshine. For lunch.

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Galați
As a result of the fairly alcoholic lunch, I sleep most of the time as we make our way south towards the Black Sea. My knee is bothering me greatly, giving me so much pain that I feel nauseous. We stop once for me to stretch my legs, but it is soon agony again once I am back in the car. When we finally reach Galați and our accommodation for the night, the Vila Belvedere, I cry with relief as I get out of the car.

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Feeling somewhat sorry for myself and in pain, we decide not to go out for dinner tonight. We grab a snack in the room and re-pack into a small overnight bag for the trip to the Danube Delta tomorrow.

Thank you yet again to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging our private tour of Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:39 Archived in Romania Tagged travel museum folklore collection shoes romania monastery unesco hangover undiscovered_destinations moonshine lost_shoes voronet voronet_monastery unesco_heritage_list voronet_blue nicolae_popa popa_museum nicolae_popa_museum ethnographic_museum meatloaf galati vila_belvedere Comments (0)

Chișinău - Bendery - Tiraspol

♫♪♫ Back in the USSR ♫♪♫

sunny 38 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

That pesky lift this morning! Complete with our luggage, ready to check out, we press the call button. We can see the lift come up from the ground floor, then go straight past us to the top floor. It's the same on its way back down – it does not stop on the third floor for us. Five lifts whizz past on their journey either up or down, as our frustration grows. When one eventually stops, it is full. The same happens with the next two. This is getting beyond a joke; walking down the stairs is not an option with all our luggage. Finally an empty lift arrives and we manage to get in. Just. We feel like sardines pressed up against the mirrored walls of the miniscule lift.

Today we have a new driver, Ivan, to take us across the border from Moldova into Transdniestr. Valeriu pulls us aside before we get to the car and with a hint of drama requests that as Ivan hails from Transdniestr, we do not mention anything about the relations between the two countries or the political situation while in the car with Ivan.

Border Controls

The Moldavian side of immigration goes without a hitch and we don’t even have to leave the car. After travelling through a substantial stretch of no-mans-land, we arrive at the Transdniestr border, where we enter a small wooden hut on foot. Having heard stories about how previous travellers have had to bribe officials and even having their camera equipment confiscated at the border, I leave everything back in the car. Through the small window used by the immigration official, I spot a wall full of a ‘rogue’s gallery’ featuring artist impressions of ‘wanted’ travellers. We hand over our passports. Valeriu is travelling on an ID card, whereas Ivan has what looks like an old USSR passport, but is in fact issued by the government of Transdniestr. As Transdniestr is not recognised as a nation by most countries in the world, this passport is about as useful as a chocolate teapot: it cannot be used for overseas travel!

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The atmosphere in the hut is tense; with people shuffling about uncomfortably and speaking in hushed voices. Finally we receive our approval to enter the country. The border officials do not stamp passports; instead a loose-leaf permit is issued which we need to hand in when leaving the country. “Do not lose it!” Valeriu implores, and I guard this piece of paper with my life, fearing the consequences!

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We have permission to enter the country for 24 hours only, with the permit dated and timed TO THE SECOND!

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We’re in!

Transdniestr

So what’s the big deal with the border crossing between these two countries?

Transdniestr is a breakaway republic nestled between Moldova and Ukraine. Following the break-up of the USSR, conflict between Moldova and the Transdniestr republic escalated to some serious and bloody military clashes, which ended in an uneasy ceasefire. The territory of Transdniestr broke away from Moldova, who granted it the status of ‘Transnistria autonomous territorial unit with special legal status’. Although the ceasefire has mostly held, the territory's political status remains unresolved: Transdniestr is an unrecognised but de facto independent state with its own parliament, currency, flag, anthem and border controls. And passports.

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So why did they not want to be part of Moldova?

Unlike the majority of Moldavians who are of Romanian descent and speak a form of Romanian, the people who live in this small, self-declared republic are mainly ethnic Russians and speak Russian.

This is how the BBC describes Transdniestr:

”…one of the post-Soviet space's ‘frozen conflicts’. The international community does not recognise its self-declared statehood, and the territory, which remains in a tense standoff with Moldova, is often portrayed as a hotbed of crime. It has a reputation for corruption, organised crime and smuggling, and has denied accusations of illegal arms sales and of money laundering.”

That’s OK then.

Wikivoyage also warns tourists that:

”Visitors should note that they are highly likely to face demands for substantial bribes from the border guards either on entry or exit from Transnistria (or both). Despite official orders from the previous President Smirnov to act professionally and to decline such payments, bribery is rife and your passport may be destroyed if you do not pay. Indeed, you may be turned away from the border on the Moldovan or Ukrainian side if you are unwilling or unable to pay the border guards a bribe.”

Which is the reason we approached the border controls with some trepidation and distrust, and why I am terrified of losing my slip of paper.

Bendery Fortress

The fortress, also known as Tighina, dates from 1538 when it was built to protect what was then one of the most powerful cities in Moldova.

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The Military Historical Memorial is the cemetery where soldiers who died in the two world wars are buried, as well as those who lost their lives during the storming of the fortress by Ottomans, Ukrainian Cossack soldiers of Mazepa, and Swedish soldiers under the rule of Charles XII (who took refuge here), mostly from the 18th century.

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In 1710, Pylyp Orlik (a Cossack Hetman in exile) wrote one of the first state constitutions in Europe here at Bendery, and was named as the ‘Protector of Ukraine’ as a result. This open book celebrates the occasion.

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Busts of various Russian generals who liberated the fortress from the Ottomans in the 18th century.

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It looks like the Ottomans have returned.

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The fortress is pretty unusual in that each of the eleven towers has a different shape.

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In the small museum hangs a portrait of Carl XII of Sweden, who fled south after the Swedish assault in the Great Northern War in the 18th century ended in disaster and saw him badly injured. He and around 1000 of his men took refuge in Bendery Fortress where he was initially welcomed with open arms by the Ottomans.

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Also in the museum are relics from an ancient Greek settlement found here, old currency, and a cool model of the fort showing how it would have looked in its heyday.

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Outside in the courtyard we find a trebuchet and some stocks.

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We move slowly back to the car as the temperatures are already in the high 30s. It’s going to be a hot one today!

Tiraspol

Internationally this city is recognised as the second largest city in Moldova, but Tiraspol is in fact the capital of the breakaway republic of Transdniestr, and celebrates its Russian connections with a fairly modern statue of Lenin in front of its Parliament.

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Glory Monument

Monument Plaza features commemorations to those who died defending Transdniestr during both world wars, the Afghan War, and the Great Patriotic War (the breaking up of USSR and ‘independence’ from Moldova 1990-1992).

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The T34 Tank was brought from Hungary in 1945. Underneath it is a capsule with soil from Volgograd (site of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942).

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Statue of the Sorrowful Mother

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Eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

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A newish chapel

Dniester River

The river is used for a variety of leisure activities, such as boating, fishing, sunbathing, or swimming.

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Central Square

Here we find a statue to Alexander Suvorov, a national hero and city founder who liberated Bendery Fortress back in 1770.

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What I didn’t expect to see, however, is a group of Hari Krishna singers here!

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Independence Day celebrations

Two days ago – on September the 2nd – Transdniestr celebrated its Independence Day, and everywhere we go in Tiraspol, we see posters and decorations, including these banners in the colour of the Transdniestr flag.

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A statue to Catherine the Great, the Russian leader under whom Suvorov fought when he founded Tiraspol.

In-Line Skating

I am really impressed to see this guy, who must be well into his 70s, keep up with the youngsters in the skate park! Respect!

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City Hall

We stop to admire the City Hall and later Valeriu asks if we would like to taste some Cognac. We are both feeling the heat today, and I have an upset tummy, so we kindly decline.

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Kvmahëk Restaurant

Instead we continue to lunch, at a Ukrainian restaurant well known for its excellent food.

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When we arrive, we are presented with vodka shots accompanied by some amuse bouche.

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This will be 'kill or cure' for my upset tummy, for sure.

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I'll go with the 'cure.

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We start with the ubiquitous soup of course, this time traditional borscht – beetroot soup with smetana (soured cream).

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The restaurant specialises in varenyky – traditional Ukrainian pierogi - and we have a selection, filled with cheese, potato, and even cherries.

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Hotel Russia

After the late lunch, Ivan drops us off at Hotel Russia; he then has to drive Valeriu back to Chișinău for another tour this evening! Talk about being in demand!

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The hotel is very new and modern, with a retro style throughout.

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The A/C is very welcome and we take a long nap, followed by a refreshing shower and feel very much better afterwards – almost human again.

I start to snigger as I read the description of the hotel services, detailing how they offer “speed dating” in the bar. It certainly sounds like a euphemism to me, and I become even more convinced when I read about their “private room where you can relax in utmost privacy or conduct confidential business negotiations” I feel sure that there is more to this place than just a hotel.

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Dinner and ‘entertainment’

It is still very warm out when we go down for dinner, but thankfully there is a shady courtyard where we can eat.

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It seems they are expecting us, and a very pretty waitress brings us some water and later a salad, explaining that the ‘meat will be around 20 minutes’. Or at least I think that is what she is trying to tell us.

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Initially we are the only two people in the restaurant, but there seems to be a private party or something going on next door, and we watch guests arrive. One by one, or sometimes in pairs, the most stunningly beautiful girls arrive, wearing precipitously high heels, skirts so short that if they even slightly bent over I could see their breakfast, or dresses so tight they would have needed a shoe horn to get into them – usually with splits reaching for the armpits. When I say that these girls are glamorous, I mean it to the point that they would not look out of place on a red carpet in Hollywood. These are amongst the most beautiful and elegant girls I have ever seen!

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Watching the comings and goings. No pun intended.

The girls are truly conversation-stoppers. Or rather starters – we do wonder with so many flashy and seductive girls (and mostly scruffy corpulent men) if this is anything to do with the “speed dating” and “private room” we read about earlier…?

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David is bemused but enjoying the view.

They all disappear behind a wall at the end of the terrace, to what I presume is a private party, but being the nosy sort, I go to have a peek. The setting is equally sophisticated, with colourful drapes and a multicoloured fountain.

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Having taken what I had hoped was a surreptitious photo of the girl in the gold dress; the chap in the background comes up and starts to talk to me in Russian. Although I can’t understand what he is saying, I feel quite uncomfortable about his demeanour, so I shrug my shoulders, smile sweetly and hurry back to where David is sitting.

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Our main course soon arrives, a very tasty beef stew with potato wedges.

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The dining area is more like a café or bistro, and the first two courses were fairly plain and ordinary; the dessert is therefore all the more of a surprise when it arrives! It is almost as glamorous and dazzling as the girls!

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Not wishing to gatecrash the party next door, nor wanting to change money into Transdnistrian Roubles just so that we can have a drink in the bar; we retire to the room fairly early.

I’ve been asleep for a couple of hours when a sudden noise wakes me up. I hear the clippety-clopp of high heels on the hard floor of the corridor, then the slamming of a door. I look at my watch – it is 02:30. More clippety-clopp and door slamming follows, accompanied by giggling and laughter. It seems a number of guests are returning to their rooms a little worse for wear.

I have almost managed to drift back off to sleep by ignoring the noise from the corridor, when I hear shouting. Loud shouting. First a male voice, and then a female. A very loud door-slam follows, with the noise seemingly emanating from the next room. More shouting. They are obviously having a major ‘domestic’ dispute. At around 04:15 there appears to be a ceasefire, and I am just returning to a slumber when they start off again. At one stage the fight gets pretty intense, it sounds like things are being thrown around, and I am very much expecting to hear the sound of broken glass followed by sirens. Thankfully that does not happen.

At 05:15 the argument reaches a crescendo: the female screams what I can only assume are Russian profanities, slams the door and leaves him, running down the corridor with more clippety-clopps. It doesn't sound like he follows her.

Was this another "speed date" gone wrong, or did the "confidential negotiations" break down? Either way, I am extremely grateful for silence at last. and I collapse into a deep sleep.

And so endeth another 'interesting' day in Moldova / Transdniestr with Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:13 Archived in Moldova Tagged lenin fountain memorial museum party border_crossing fortress passport chisinau immigration moldova bender transnistria hookers hotel_russia tiraspol transdniester transniestra hotel_codru codru bendery tighina bendery_fortress tighina_fortress berder_fortress carl_xii glory_memorial Comments (0)

Butuceni - Capriana - Hincu - Chișinău

Our first canonisation


View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The restaurant looks completely different this morning without the wedding party, decorations and DJ equipment.

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For breakfast we are on the same table as a group of eleven Finnish tourists, and like last night, there is way too much food.

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Some sort of rice pudding, doughnut-type pastries, feta-style cheese, yogurt and tomatoes more than fills us up.

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After breakfast we take a short walk around Butuceni Village, with its collection of cute old buildings, ornate gates and jumbled street furniture.

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I call in the village shop to get some water, and notice the elderly shopkeeper uses an abacus to add up the purchases. I don’t think I have seen one of those in use since we visited the old USSR back in the 1980s.

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I am also very surprised to see a British car in the village!

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Capriana Monastery

On our way to Capriana, we spot a number of police cars that increase in frequency and number the nearer we get to the monastery. The last bit of road leading to the complex is closed off with a police cordon, and parking is impossible anywhere near the area. There are people everywhere; most dressed in their Sunday best. The national TV station is present and there are food stalls and first aid tents set up. Somebody important must be visiting – other than us, I mean.

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Even from a great distance we can clearly hear the church bells and some beautiful chanting.

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Valeriu is as perplexed as we are, but his confusion soon turns to awe as he realises that the liturgy is being led by none other than the Patriarch of Moscow – who for those of us not in the know (including me and David), he is the 'head honcho' of the Moldavian Orthodox Church, held in the same esteem as the Pope is for the Catholics.

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The air is full of celebratory reverence, devoted admiration, and pious wonderment; and we soon discover the reason: Moldova is getting its very first Saint in the shape of Metropolitan Banulescu Bodoni who died 200 years ago. We, along with thousands of others, are in fact attending their – and our - very first canonisation. How cool is that?

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The Church of St Mary

The crowds are too great to do sightseeing justice, but we follow the throngs of worshippers into the church of St Mary. Dating from 1545, it is the oldest of the three churches that make up the monastery complex, and the oldest preserved church in Moldova.

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After falling into decline during the 17th century, the church was reinvigorated in 1813, and for a while thrived. In 1940, the whole monastic estate was confiscated by Soviet troops, the monks fled and the churches were desecrated and pillaged. During the 1960s and 70s, the monastery was used as a sanatorium for sick children and later as a dance hall. In 1989 reconstruction of the monastery began and Capriana once again became a place of religious services.

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It amuses me that a woman’s hair must be covered before entering the church, yet a tight, short dress is fine.

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Despite not being religious, I find the visit to the church quite emotional and very spiritual. Valeriu gives us a candle each as we enter the church, for us to say a prayer and then ‘plant’ the candle.

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The Church of St George

Dating from 1907, the church of St George is smaller and nowhere near as crowded.

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We leave the crowds behind and call Leonid to come back and pick us up for the journey to Hincu.

Hincu Monastery / Convent

Located in the picturesque Codrii Forest, reaching Hincu Monastery involves a very pleasant stroll up through the woods, although I didn’t expect to see a monk on a tractor along the way.

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Founded in 1678 by the daughter of the High Steward Mihai Hincu, Hincu is one of the richest monasteries in Moldova. The convent was then known as Parascheva. After the wooden church and cells were destroyed several times during Tatar invasions in the 18th century, the nuns left. The care of the convent fell on monks from a nearby monastery, who repaired the cells and eventually moved in.

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With the arrival of the Soviets in 1944, the monastery closed and the monks were 'asked' to leave. In 1978 the monastery was taken into use as a sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers, while the church was turned into a club. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990, Hincu once more became an active monastery, albeit short lived: in 1992, the community was abolished and the monks moved out. Later the same year, a few nuns returned and started the reconstruction of the monastery / convent – which just proves that if you want a job done, get the girls in!

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Next-door a new church is in the process of being constructed, but apparently they have run out of funds, so the interior is still fairly basic, without any of the usual adornments normally associated with orthodox churches.

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The grounds are beautiful, with beds bursting to the seams with brightly coloured flowers. I guess this is the female touch that comes from it being a convent now rather than a monastery.

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The nunnery has one of the best tended and colourful cemeteries I have ever seen!

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From Hincu we continue the short distance to the official visitors area of Codrii Forest.

Codrii Nature Reserve

At the reserve head quarters we have a picnic in a specially constructed ‘pavilion’, set in a serene and tranquil location in amongst the trees.

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Founded in 1972, it is the oldest scientific nature reserve in Moldova, and boasts some 1,000 species of protected plants, 43 species of mammals, 145 species of birds, 7 species of reptiles and more than 8,000 species of insects.

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Natural Museum

Guided by the curator’s daughter Doina - who is keen to practise her somewhat limited English - we are shown around the small museum detailing some of the species found in the area.

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While David goes with Doina for a hike down to the lake, I join Valeriu in the ‘pavilion’, listening to Deep Purple and discussing palaeoanthropology. As you do.

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We leave the countryside behind and return to Chișinău, taking a nap in the car on the way.

Chișinău

Back in Chișinău we drop the bags off at the hotel and continue to the National History Museum.

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Chișinău National History Museum

The museum's large, bright, clean and modern rooms feature exhibits dating from pre-history, through various occupations to independence of this small country.

The visit feels a little rushed, but to be honest I am not at all unhappy about that as I am tired, it is uncomfortably hot and my back is hurting.

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Hotel Codru

As it is only a couple of blocks away, we walk back to the hotel (rather than let Leonid drive us) to pick up the luggage we dumped earlier and check in. We’re back in Room 313, and yet again we negotiate the tiny lift, just about 1m², where there is barely enough room for two (large) people with two backpacks, two wheelybags and two camera bags.

Dinner

After some chill time and a welcome shower, we wander downstairs to have dinner. The restaurant is closed for of a wedding reception (another one? That’s exactly what happened to us last night!), and the outside terrace is out of bounds because of a private party; which leaves us the bar. That suits us fine, as we really just want a small meal and a glass or three of wine.

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Chicken stew with branza (feta type cheese), smetana (soured cream) and mămăligă (polenta)

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Moldovan style roast beef in a clay pot
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Side dish of grilled vegetables and country style potatoes

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Wine!!!!

The food is delicious (especially the cheese) - and we are both very impressed with the wine - very, very smooth!

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for another great day in Moldova!

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:49 Archived in Moldova Tagged trees food flowers nature hotel cemetery museum woods wine monastery forest saint convent chisinau moldova nunnery natural_history codru_hotel pucari pucari_wine capriana capriana_monastery hincu codrii codrii_forest canonisation moldovian_food Comments (0)

Mbuzi Mawe - Seronera Part II

Rain doesn't stop play, it creates photo opportunities


View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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Lake Magadi

After leaving the ‘Lion Tree’, we try to find somewhere to stop for our picnic lunch. Malisa’s initial plan is to park down by Lake Magadi, but there is no shade whatsoever and the sun is relentless.

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Terns

On the shores of the lake, a number of terns are congregating: Whiskered, White Winged Black and Black.
As we get closer, they all take off en masse.

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Rueppell's Long Tailed Starling

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Grey Backed Shrike

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We finally find a tree to take our picnic under, listening to the grunting of hippo as we eat. When Lyn comments to Malisa that the sounds appear awfully near, his reply doesn’t exactly re-assure her: “This is leopard country…” Seeing the paw prints in the sand, Lyn makes a hasty retreat to the car.

Banded Mongoose

This is an enormous family!

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Cape Buffalo

A buffalo tries – unsuccessfully – to hide in the long grass.

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Ostrich

A male ostrich shows off his typical breeding plumage: bright pink legs and neck.

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Moru Kopjes

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Gong Rock

On top of one of the kopjes is a strategically placed, strange-shaped rock. This large rock with holes emits quite a gong when hit with a stone. In the old days – before the Maasai were relocated to make this an animal-only national park - it was used as a form of communication, to call together clan members to meetings. These days I guess they use mobile phones.

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Maasai paintings

The kopjes here at Moru also hide a number of rock paintings believed to be several hundred years old. The colours used are similar to those on the Maasai shields, so it is thought that they were painted by a band of young Maasai warriors who wandered this area for several years before settling down to their pastoral life.

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The colours used were created from plant matter: the black from volcanic ash, the white and yellow from different clay, and the red from the juice of the wild nightshade.

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I am intrigued by the bicycle.

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Rock Hyrax

The area around the kopjes is supposed to be home to Serengeti’s last remaining black rhino and is a favourite hangout of leopards apparently. But all we see are a few rock hyraxes.

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My tummy really is in a bad way now, causing me quite some concern; and I beg Malisa to find me a proper toilet. “We are very near” he tells me.

Dark Chanting Goshawk

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Serengeti Rhino Project Visitors Centre

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Half an hour later, we reach the Rhino Information Centre, where the toilets are indeed very good.

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Phew!

Mostly as a result of poaching, the black rhino population has declined to a critically endangered point, with an all time low of 2,300 individuals in the wild. Fewer than 700 eastern black rhinos survive in the wild, with Serengeti being home to around 30 of them.

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Named after the German conservationist Michael Grzimek who devoted his life to the Serengeti, the Visitors Centre has displays about the rhino and how the conservation strategies are being employed to ensure the continued survival of the rhino.

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The exact location of the park’s rhino population is a well kept secret, with a small army of rangers and wardens looking after the animals 24/7.

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One of the reasons the crocodile is often found with his mouth wide open, is to attract insects, who are drawn to bits of meat left in the croc’s teeth. The insects again attract birds, and as soon as an unsuspecting bird enters the mouth – slam! The bird is no more.

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For some reason that reminds me of this Youtube clip.

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Squacco Herons

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These enormous nests take the birds up to three months to build, and are the height of sophistication, with three rooms inside. The nests can weigh up to 90kg, measure 1.5 metres across, and are strong enough to support the weight of a man! These birds are compulsive nest builders, constructing three to five nests per year whether they are breeding or not. When the hamerkop abandons a nest, Egyptian Geese move in.

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Many local people believe the hamerkop to be a ‘witch bird’ because they collect all sorts of stuff for their nest building, including human hair!

More Ostriches

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Giraffe

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Rain

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In Africa, rain is a blessing, for humans, animals and the environment.

♪♫♪ I bless the rains down in Africa… ♪♫♪

"Africa" by Toto

I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation
She's coming in twelve-thirty flight
Her moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation
I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say: "Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you"

It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had

The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become

It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had

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Rain can also be a blessing for photographers, creating some lovely moody shots.

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Lions

Seeing a herd of Lancruisers in the distance, and knowing that they always hunt in packs, we surmise there must be a suitable prey around.

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We are not disappointed. Wet and bedraggled, there is a pride (or sawt) of lions in the long grass, with what’s left of a dead wildebeest.

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Two mums and three cubs (around 1½ - 2 months old) gather around the carcass.

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The rain is persistent now; so we put the roof down to stop everything in the car getting wet. Although, looking to the west, it does seem that it might clear up soon.

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Actually, almost as soon as we put the roof down, the rain eases off. Typical. We leave it down for a while to see what happens, but as the rain seems to hold off, we raise it again to allow for more movement and ease of photography.

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One of the mums has had enough, and goes off, growling.

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She then lies down in the short grass to tidy herself up from the eating and the rain.

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Followed by a quick roll on the ground.

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Before continuing her stroll.

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The other mum watches her girlfriend with interest.

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And decides that she too would like a roll in the long grass. Copy cat!

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Obviously her tummy is not quite full yet: she goes back to the wildebeest for another bite or two.

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The cubs try to emulate mum, tugging at their dinner.

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I have to say that the normal cuteness associated with lion cubs is not very evident in the wet!

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Eating is boring when you’re a young lion cub, playing with mum is much more fun!

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Mum, on the other hand, is not impressed. “Will you stop that for goodness sake, I am trying to eat!”

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"But muuuuum..."

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Sunshine

Meanwhile, the sun is trying to come out.

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It seems mum number two has also had her fill for the day, leaving the kill behind; licking her chops as she wanders off through the long grass.

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She stops to sniff the air; her face still bloody from dinner.

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Aha! So, that is what she could smell!

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Dad settles down for a rest – or at least that’s what he thinks. The cubs have other ideas.

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Just like mum, dad is not amused either and growls at the playing cubs, who have been jumping up and down on his back and rolling around all over him.

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The playful kitties go back to annoying mum for a while.

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She is still having none of it.

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I am sure this is an expression mothers throughout the world can relate to: the sheer frustration of pleading young eyes.

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Eventually they realise it is less hassle to just play amongst themselves.

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Time to get a move-on

We reluctantly leave the playing kitties to head for camp. It is already 18:15 and we have another 45 minutes drive from here. "Depending on what we see on the way", as Malisa always says when we ask him how long it will take to get somewhere.

The roads are wet and slippery and in his rush to get to camp before we get into trouble, Malisa starts to skid on the muddy track, then over-compensates. For a brief moment we are hurtling sideways at some speed before he manages to skilfully correct the car. Well done that man! Although I found the ‘Serengeti Drift’ quite exhilarating!

Hyenas

This weather seems to have really brought out the hyenas, as we see a dozen or more during one particular stretch of road. Or perhaps they just like this specific area.

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Shooting straight into the setting sun makes for some spectacular backlit images.

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Rainbow

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Seeing the rainbow, I ask Malisa to find me a giraffe for the foreground. Not too demanding then!

The nearest I get is an elephant and a tree. Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.

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Sunset

This evening’s stormy clouds have created one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen in Africa, with moody, threatening clouds and ever-changing colours.

I hang out of the window with my camera all the way to the lodge; constantly changing the settings (mainly exposure and white balance) to try and achieve different effects. You can see some of the end results below.

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Serengeti Serena Lodge

Just as we arrive at the lodge – in the dark – a long tailed mongoose crosses the road. A very rare animal to spot, it is a first for us. Even Malisa is exciting about it!

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The car park is full and very dark; and we have to negotiate lots of obstacles to get to reception. They are busy and check-in is the slowest we have experienced so far. Eventually we are taken to our rooms – it is a great shame that we cannot see them, as they look very unusual and rather fancy from the post card!

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The design of this hotel is based on traditional Maasai dwellings, with a number of thatched-roofed rondavels dotted around the ground. We give it the nickname of the ‘Nipple Hotel’ due to…. well, I am sure you can figure that out yourself.

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The restaurant is disappointing, with no available tables when we arrive, and most of the buffet food is finished. I am feeling quite weary this evening, and I can’t even finish my one bottle of beer. I must be tired!

As he walks us back to the room, the escort points out a bush baby in the trees.

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Lyn and Chris' room.

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The room is much too hot despite a fan, and I cannot bear to be surrounded by the mosquito net, so I remove it. I am covered in bites anyway, and they itch like mad in the heat this evening so I struggle to sleep.

Despite an unsatisfactory evening and night, we had an otherwise excellent day on safari. Again. Thank you Calabash Adventures and guide Malisa.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:15 Archived in Tanzania Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises trees birds sky rain beer sunset road_trip restaurant travel vacation hotel roads museum cute holiday fun africa safari rainbow tanzania crocodile mist moon unesco birding tourists picnic wet photography buffalo lions giraffe hippo roadtrip lion_cubs ostrich conservation serengeti hyena heron terns starling misty mongoose hyrax jackal skidding rock_art stunning bird_watching hippopotamus game_drive backlit road-trip adorable safari_vehicle canon_eos_5d_iii calabash calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators which_safari_company best_safari_company hammerkop lion_kill serena_hotels long_grass_plains central_serengeti kopje stormy_clouds rock_hyrax banded_mongoose moru bedraggled black_backed_jackal nile_crocodile squacco_heron lions_in_the_rain serena_serengeti seronera rhino_project muddy_roads mud_on_road controlled_skid lake_magadi hamerkop hamerkop_nest rhino_conservation cape_buffalo moru_kopjes gong_rock maasai_paintings mosquito_bites rim_lighting Comments (0)

Ngorongoro - Oldupai - Ndutu

Education, education, education!


View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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Seeing the clear skies from our balcony this morning, I really wish I’d got up in the night to take some pictures of the stars. I shall just have to photograph the sunrise instead.

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Our room has an amazing view over the Ngorongoro Crater from its balcony. The hotel is rustic to the extreme, having been built from rough local stone with the rooms all set on the ridge, facing the crater.

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There’s an even more spectacular view from the bar!

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Walking Safari

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This morning we leave Malisa and the car behind and set out to explore the area on foot with a ranger called Yohana, in order to get a deeper understanding of the bush and up close and personal with nature.

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The first wildlife we see is a Cape Robin-Chat, right outside the front door of the lodge.

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We amble at a slow pace, along the Ngorongoro Crater Rim and upwards into the hillside as Yohana teaches us the language of the bush.

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These signs always amuse me – do the wild animals read them and refuse to venture past that point (in the other direction) too?

This is not so much a safari in that we are not really seeking out wild animals; we are here to learn what native peoples have known for millennia – how wild plants are used as medicine and food. I am hoping to find something for the back ache I have been suffering with since we left home.

Sodom’s Apple
Although this fruit belongs to the tomato family, you won’t find it in any salads. Known as Sodom’s Apple as it is said to be the first plant to grow again after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the small, yellow fruit is used as a medicine for stomach ache, diarrhoea and to treat external wounds.

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Plant with unripe fruit

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The flower of the Sodom Apple

Wild Marijuana
This plant, which is in the same family as the common marijuana plant, is used to produce pesticide, as insects do not like the smell of it. Neither does Lyn by the looks of it.

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Leaves are soaked in water, which is then used to spray the fields to keep insects from eating the crop.

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Enkang oo-nkiri Maasai Ceremony
We encounter a Maasai who is in the bush for the Engkang oo-nkiri, or meat-eating ceremony – one the many stages of initiation into warriorhood for the young men of the tribe. A dozen or so men take a bull into the bush and slaughter it, staying there to eat the meat for two weeks. This is said to help them remain strong.

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Devil’s Snare
The fact that this invasive species is poisonous has not stopped the Mexicans from making drugs from it apparently.

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Stingy Nettle
Like we do in the West, the locals make soup “and wot not” (Yohana’s favourite expression) from this.

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Being full of sugar sap, nectar eating birds love this plant, whose name I don't catch.

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Beautiful Sunbird

Natural Insect Repellent

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Wild Tobacco
Yohana warns us that it is “not very good”.

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Old Man’s Beard
The presence of this lichen on trees is an indication of the air quality – it will only grow where the air is pure and clean!

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Augur Buzzard

Altitude
We have been climbing gently but steadily upwards from the lodge, and here at 2400 metres above sea level I can certainly feel the altitude.

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“I can see your house from here!” - Ngorongoro Serena Lodge

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Elephants
Yohana tells us elephants came by here in the night, eating the tops of the plants.

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Elephant Dung

Here we learn to read the jungle as a ‘daily newspaper’, by identifying trails, inspecting bushes and trees, studying spoor marks and animal tracks to deduce what animals have passed by recently, which way they were going, how long ago, how fast they were going, what they have eaten and so on. In fact there seems to be a story to be told in virtually every track and dropping that we come across. A bit like opening up Facebook first thing in the morning.

There’s a great view over the crater from up here.

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Eucalyptus

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It’s well know for being beneficial for clearing a blocked nose.

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Chris puts it to the test.

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Juvenile Common Fiscal Shrike

This is where we part company with the guys – Lyn and I head for the road where Malisa is waiting with the car; David and Chris continue their walk with a hike to the top of the hill.

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While we wait for the boys to do their daily workout, we chat to a group of school children on the road. One by one, as they pass, they shout out “Shikamo” – the greeting reserved for respected elders. That’ll be me then, I guess. In reply, I shout back: “Marahaba” (the traditional reply), much to their surprise and delight.
The kids explain to Malisa that their bus has broken down, so they have to walk the 40 minutes to their school.

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The guys come back bearing gifts.

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Mushroom – you can't get much fresher than this. And very good it is too.

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Khat – the drug of choice from Somalia to Yemen and beyond (and is also available – although illegal – in our home town of Bristol). It does nothing for me – it’s a bit like chewing grass.

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Quinine – this one might be useful for treating malaria.

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It’s time to move on to the next item on today’s itinerary – but first we have to get there, and we never know what we might see on the way.

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Malanja Depression with Mount Lemakarot in the distance

Emuratare - Circumcision ceremony

A couple of young Maasai lads have their faces painted to indicate that they have just undergone the circumcision ceremony. This is the most vital initiation of all rites of passages in the Maasai society and is performed shortly after puberty.

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Cow Bells

We stop to listen to the sound of the cowbells as Malisa explains that this is how the area got its name. Ngoro ngoro ngoro ngoro. A lot of goodwill and some poetic licence is required methinks.

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Kaki Weed

Today is an educational sort of day for sure, as Malisa hands us this plant which some people do smoke.

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Cooke's Hartebeest

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Maasai Warriors

Ahead a number of Maasai Warriors are walking along the road, and we are warned by Malisa not to take photos. The scene is surreal, like we are driving through a film set.

A Tower of Giraffes

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At Endoldol we spot a few giraffe on the ridge, in the distance.

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Then a few more.

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Soon we have a whole forest of giraffe.

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We count 53 animals – which beats Malisa’s previous record of 48 - but it's impossible to put an accurate number down as more and more keep coming from the back.

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I have never seen anything like this incredible spectacle.

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When a Maasai warrior appears in the distance, the whole scenario goes from being fantastical to becoming completely absurd as 50+ giraffe start running.

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Giraffe are awkward runners, and with their long necks arching and bending as they go, they look like a wave. Totally, utterly unbelievable!

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There is just one word that will do: WOW!

Elerai Maasai Boma

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We are introduced to David, the son of the chief, who explains – in very good English – about the village and the dances we are about to see. The name Elerai refers to the yellow barked acacia trees that grow around here.

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First of all, the men and women perform a ‘welcome dance’ for us.

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The dance is accompanied by a single musical wind instrument (traditionally a kudu horn), an olaranyani (song leader) singing the melody and a chorus chanting harmonies, combined into a sort of screeching syncopation.

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This is followed by a display of the Maasai men's famous ‘jumping’ dance, known as adumu. This dance is traditionally performed during the eunoto, the coming of age ceremony of a Maasai warrior.

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Chris decides he would like to join in

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So he studies the style and technique carefully.

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His approach is a little strained initially.

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But he soon gets the hang of it.

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Elerai is what is known as a ‘cultural boma’. The Tanzanian government restricts visits to Maasai homesteads to just a small selection of villages in a bid to limit the damaging effect it has on their culture.

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The beauty of visiting one of the official villages is that not only are we shown around the village, we can also freely take photos of the people who have ‘dressed up’ for the occasion. Taking photos of the Maasai walking along the road is considered very bad and is strongly discouraged, as mentioned in the RULES AND REGULATIONS at the entry gate.

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Here at Elerai, however, I can snap away to my heart’s content. And I do.

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The women have been hanging around while the men have been jumping, but now it is their turn to dance.

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Over the years we have visited a few Maasai villages, as well as other East African ethnic groups, and never before have we been treated to a display of women jumping.

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They may not jump quite as high as the men, but they make a brave attempt.

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While David (the chief’s son, not my husband) takes Lyn and Chris around the village, Kaki, his brother, leads us into one of the other huts.

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To us, the village doesn’t look all that big, but this collection of straw-and-mud huts is home to around 120 people.

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The work of constructing the huts falls on the women, who build a frame from wooden sticks, make the walls and roof from acacia grass, they then cover the whole lot with cow dung. During the rainy season the houses have to be re-covered with new dung every night.

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Standing around or walking very slowly, as we have been doing while watching the dancing, has a terrible effect on my troubled back, it is now hurting so much I am struggling to walk. I therefore decline the invitation to see what the hut looks like on the inside, instead I send David in with strict instructions to take photos using his video camera.

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The heigh of luxury it ain't, but I guess they don't spend much time inside.

Eventually curiosity gets the better of me, and I carefully put my head around the corner to take a peek.

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Although the older children go to school in a nearby small town, the younger ones attend the on-site kindergarten.

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The children beautifully recite the alphabet and numbers in English for us.

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The occasional grubby exterior fails to hide the beauty and innocence of these charming kids.

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The Maasai – as well as most other ethnic tribes in this region – build their homes in a circular pattern, with a ‘fence’ made from thorny acacia bushes to keep any wild animals out.

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At night, the domestic animals are herded into a coral for safety.

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Exit through the shop.
A Maasai ‘market’ has been set up in the centre of the village where we are ‘encouraged’ to buy something from the stall belonging to the householder whose home we just visited.

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This stuff always looks so good - and tempting - when you see it like this in its appropriate surroundings, but usually becomes horribly out of place if you take it back home.

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We choose a ‘talking stick’ and a small calabash to go on our wall next to the necklace we bought in Kenya last year.

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The talking stick is a communication tool used by the Maasai elders during their community gatherings as a symbol of authority and a right to speak. Everyone present must listen respectfully to the person holding the stick, and only that person is allowed to speak. When he has finished talking, the stick is passed on to someone else, ensuring everyone present has a chance to be heard.

Not sure how it would work in the Howard Household…

We are only partially successful in getting a mutually satisfactory price, and walk away with a feeling of having been ripped off.

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Moving on to our next educational stop, with a few interesting (or not) sights along the way.

Camels

Tanzania has become a lot more commercialised in just the 20 months since we were here last – these camels are brought to the road side by the Maasai who charge tourists to have their photo taken with them.

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Dust

This may be the green season, but the only rain we have seen so far is a mere five minutes just as we left Kilimanjaro Airport. Any vehicles, especially large trucks, throw up great amounts of dust from the tracks.

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As we slow down for the junction, a group of teenagers shout and wave their arms. One young lad lifts his gown to reveal nothing underneath except a hard-on. I am left in a state of incredulity: “Did I really just see that?” You’ll be pleased to know that there is no photographic evidence.

Eland

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Dark Chanting Goshawk

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Thomson's gazelle

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Rough track

The vibration caused by the incredibly rough rutted track results in Lyn’s lens filter becoming unscrewed and me shouting: “Can you keep the noise down please!”

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Beetle

A stowaway flies in through the window, hoping to catch a ride. One of my ambitions for this trip is to see a dung beetle, but this one is sadly dung-less. I know, I know, there is no pleasing some people.

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Oldupai Gorge – Where human life began

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The thirty-mile long and 300 feet deep ravine is part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches through East Africa. The original paleoanthropologists who excavated this area over 50 years ago, wrongly named it Olduvai after mishearing the Maa word for the wild sisal plant which grows in the vicinity. The Tanzanian government renamed it (correctly) Oldupai Gorge in 2005.

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It is thought that millions of years ago, the site was that of a large lake, the shores of which were covered with successive deposits of volcanic ash. Around 500,000 years ago seismic activity diverted a nearby stream which began to cut down into the sediments, revealing seven main layers in the walls of the gorge. Just one small pinnacle remains standing.

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This is another place I hardly recognise from last time we came – which admittedly was nine years ago in 2007 – there is so much building work and a completely new Orientation Centre.

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Scenic as the gorge may be, it is by no means on the same scale as the Grand Canyon, or even Cheddar Gorge; but then again it is not the gorge itself that is the star attraction here; it is all about the secrets this deep-sided the ravine concealed.

Cradle of Mankind Museum

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Oldupai Gorge is considered to be one of the most important pre-historic sites in the world. In the 1930s Mary and Louis Leakey discovered fossils of early humanoid dating back some 5 million years (give or take a few hundred thousand years); which has been hugely instrumental in furthering our understanding of early human evolution.

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Realistic replicas of some of their most important discoveries are on display in the modest museum, including the ‘Laetoli Footprints’ – perfectly preserved marks in the rock showing two upright bipedal hominids, out for a stroll more than 3.5 million years ago. If that doesn’t make you feel humble and small, nothing will.

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Other exhibits include fossils, tools, artefacts and display boards with old photos from the Leakey’s time.

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Part of the exhibition is dedicated to Dr Yoshiharo Sekino, who set out on a remarkable journey following the routes of ancient civilisations.

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Dr Sekino's bike

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His route on the map within the exhibition

We have our picnic lunch overlooking the gorge, next to the group of American college students we saw on the flight from Nairobi as well in Tarangire National Park. They are incredibly noisy, but I am more concerned about the fact that this girl thinks it is perfectly acceptable to eat her lunch in public with her great big walking boot on the table!

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History comes to life with a short presentation on how the various layers of rock strata have formed over the past 5 million or so years.

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We can clearly see three of the five layers here:

1. Basalt from 2 million years ago
2. Volcanic ash from 1.75 million years ago
3. Iron oxide from 1.2 million years ago.

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The top two layers (ash and mud – 800,000 and 150,000 years ago respectively) have eroded over the years.

Different types of humanoids inhabited the different time epochs. With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I have my own slant on evolution…

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We are also given the low-down on the sisal plant – which the gorge is named after – and its many uses: rope and mats, painkillers from the roots and animals will chew on it for water.

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After our educational break, we head down into the gorge itself, on some pretty basic tracks.

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What I want to know is how we can be sure we are not actually driving on top of some hitherto undiscovered important archaeological remains.

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The Mysterious Shifting Sands

Having come across articles about this phenomenon while researching our trip, I asked Malisa if we could make a detour to try and find these elusive dunes.

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These fascinating crescent-shaped mounds are a remarkable occurrence known as barkan. Dunes are formed when ground dust blown by unidirectional wind collects around a stone and continues to accumulate until a small dune is formed. As more sand is added, the process continues and the dune moves, in this case around ten metres a year.

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Shifting sands is not a new experience for us; but this one is different in that it is not only made up of very fine black sand, but it is also highly magnetised due to its high iron content.

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Despite its very fine texture, when you throw a handful of the stuff in the air, it doesn’t blow away on the wind, it falls almost straight down. The whole thing is eerie and ethereal, like an alien world.

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The volcanic sand that makes up the 9-metre high and 100-metre long dune originates from the Maasai’s most holy of places, Ol Doinyo Lengai - meaning ‘Mountain of God’ - which erupts with frequent intervals sending plumes of steam and ash over the surrounding countryside.

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Erm... why Chris?

The sands have moved around 500 metres since people started to take notice of it – there are markers on the road to indicate its route – the first recorded resting place was over by those trees in the background some time in the 1950s.

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Lemuta

Instead of taking the direct route west from Oldupai to Ndutu, Malisa heads off towards Lemuta, “to see what we can find”.

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Giraffes

The first thing we see is four giraffes lying down – a most unusual sight. In this position giraffes are very vulnerable to predators because of the time and effort it takes them to get up.

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Beetle

Another dungless beetle flies in through the window and lands on Chris. “Throw him out” I shout, and with that Chris gets out of the car! Doh!

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We make sure he is not on his back on the ground (the beetle, not Chris), before we drive off.

Thomson's Gazelles

A large herd of gazelles start running as we approach. One little baby gets separated from the rest and instead of running across; he sprints along the track as fast as his little legs will carry him.

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Malisa slows down so as not to cause him any more stress, and soon mum comes in from the left to collect him. Phew. Another disaster averted.

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A few gazelles refuse to run – instead they stand and stare eerily at us as we pass. David waves out of the window, but they don’t wave back. Ignorant so-and-sos.

(Ex) Wildebeest

It was the end of the road for this wildebeest as he died of natural causes.

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Vultures

Something obviously didn’t make it here either – Malisa explains that it is an old cheetah kill which the vultures are now finishing off.

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Endless Plains

Seeing the Short Grass Plains at Lemuta, I can understand how Serengeti got its name – it means “Endless Plains” in the local Maa language. As far as the eye can see in every direction there is nothing but grass, dotted with a few animals. It is quite overwhelming, and none of my photographs do it justice.

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The panorama below – joined together from nine different images, shows a 180° view, to give you some idea.

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Secretary Bird

This large bird - standing at 125 cm - gets its name from the crest of long quill-like feathers which gives it the appearance of an old-style secretary with quill pens tucked behind their ear. Although it has the ability to fly (I have never seen one in flight), the secretary birds is largely terrestrial, hunting its prey on foot

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Lappet Faced Vulture

A lappet Faced Vulture surveys the plains, looking for food.

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Vultures and Jackal

Another old cheetah kill attracts a number of vultures (White Backed, Woolly Necked, and Rueppell’s Griffon) as well as a Golden Jackal.

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Squabbles are almost constant, with everyone looking for an opportunity to grab a piece of meat for themselves.

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The jackal is definitely at the top of the pecking order, while the vultures fight amongst themselves.

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A couple of Lappet Faced Vultures arrive to join in the party

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More fighting, and even the jackal joins in with a growl.

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It looks like the jackal has his fill as he licks his chops and walks off.

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Then, and only then, do the vultures get a look-in.

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They tuck into what's left of the once cute little Thomson's Gazelle.

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Having access to the meat doesn't stop them feuding, however.

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We continue across the short grass plains, looking for cheetah at every kopje. No luck. Not one.

Hyenas

We do, however, spot a cackle of female hyenas. They lie down in puddles and streams to cool down while digesting their food. Unhappy at being woken up from her afternoon nap, this one takes flight when she sees us.

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Female hyenas have a false penis (which you can just about make out in the photo below) and are the pack leaders.

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For a while they circle a Tommy family (Thomson’s Gazelle), but eventually decide it’s too much like hard work and call it a day.

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Yellow Throated Sandgrouse

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Kori Bustard

Another tall bird at almost one metre in height.

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Capped Wheatear

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Crowned Plover

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Golden Jackal

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Eland

As a result of hunting (eland meat is highly prized), these animals have become very skittish, so it is good to get some photos that are not ‘bum shots’ for a change.

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Dung Beetle

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Each time I go on a safari, I have a wish list of animals I would like to see. This year the dung beetle is one of my top requests for Malisa to try and locate. As always, he comes up trumps, and much excitement ensues when he stops the car to introduce us our new little friend.

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Aren’t dung beetles just the coolest, most fascinating little animals? OK, maybe you think I am very sad for getting excited about a small shit-eating insect, but just hear me out first before you poo-poo my statement.

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These tiny bugs (about twice the size of my thumbnail) prefer excrement from herbivores rather than carnivores, as the former is largely undigested vegetable matter. OK, so now we have a vegetarian poo-eating insect. Although, the veggie poo is not so easy for them to locate as it gives off less of an odour than the meat waste. So, it has now become a vegetarian poo-eating insect with a sensitive nose.

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Most dung beetles are fussy eaters, so they won’t just eat any old shit; it has to be waste from a particular animal. They also like their poo to be fresh – don’t we all – the fresher the better. I think I am beginning to understand this; these are finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian poo-eaters. A new patty can be descended on by up to 4000 dung beetles within 15 minutes of being dropped, and as many as 15,000 have been observed on one pile of dung at the same time. A real sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian, poo-eater it seems.

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All I wanted was one single beetle carefully rolling away his prized poo!

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You could say he is on a roll... actually, they move surprisingly fast!

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Dung beetles can eat their own weight in less than 24 hours, and are probably the most industrious resident on the savannah, clearing up the mess left behind by other animals. The original recyclers! We can now add another string to his bow, making him a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian, poo-eating eco-warrior.

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So how does a dung beetle know which way he should be rolling his poo? He navigates using the Milky Way of course. Now this is starting to get serious: he is a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian, poo-eating environmentally friendly astronomer.

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This image is all mine, although the pictures of the sky and the beetle were not taken at the same time.

Although not all dung beetles roll their dung away, those that do, do so to feed their young. There is nothing like passing poo to your babies eh? Those beetles that don’t move the poo, make their home in the pile of dung. You could say they are happy as a pig in shit – or it that beetle?

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As well as food and housing, that pile of manure is also great for cooling off your feet (or rather for the beetle’s feet) – a bit like us trying to get off the hot sand on a sunny beach. Dung is considerably cooler than the parched African soil, mainly due to its moisture contents. So, how is that little insect doing now? He can now be described as a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian poo-eating, hot footing environmentally friendly astronomer.

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The last point I want to make is about their strength (I’m am not going to mention about his horn) – imagine yourself pushing a giant ball (just try not to think about what it is made from) which is over a thousand times your body weight, which is equal to an average gym-goer pushing 80 tons!
Now our little friend has become a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian poo-eating, hot footing, athletic, environmentally friendly astronomer. He sure is my hero!

And you thought he was just another beetle!

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You think I am talking a lot of crap? Check it out for yourself.

Dung Beetles guided by Milky Way

Wikipedia

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Safari Vehicle

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This is what our ‘home’ for the eleven days in Tanzania looks like. Based on a Toyota Landcruiser, it has been especially converted for safari use, with plenty of room in the back (six seats plus luggage compartment), an elevating roof means we can stand up for a better view to take photos, and it is easy to move around on a flat floor. There are charging points for camera batteries, and a beanbag for photography, plus we can attach a clamp with a tripod head to the rails too. All mods cons (including a fridge full of cold drinks), and comfortable seats - it has everything we need for long days on the African savannah.

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Pregnant Hyena

This pregnant hyena is very close to giving birth, and all she wants to do is sleep. Instead she has to pose for these horrid tourists. It’s a hard life isn’t it?

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A congress of Jackals

Five or six Golden Jackals turn up.

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A couple of Ostriches

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Female

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Male

And some Zebra

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Spotting another vehicle makes us realise that the last time we saw one was actually four hours ago. I like this low season safari lark.

Wildebeest Migration

Because the rains arrived later than normal this year, the wildebeest seem confused and appear to have split up. You can see from the map below where they normally are during May, and where we spot large herds of them today.

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Grant’s Gazelle

The wildebeest are accompanied by Grant’s Gazelle.

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And a Tawny Eagle

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Lion Pride

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Not far from our lodge, and with the light fading fast, we come across a pride of nine lions spread out over a swampy area between Lakes Ndutu and Masek.

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The females and young males lie in the late sun, stroll around or play fight.

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By reason of a strict pecking order, these guys are waiting their turn to have dinner – once the two alpha males have had their fill.

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And for those of you who are wondering exactly how close we are to the lions – THIS is how close!

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When one of the boys has had enough and gets up and walks away, the others look at the kill expectantly.

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But it seems his brother is still not finished.

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Has he had enough?

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Has he?

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It seems that way…

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Has he heck!

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The youngsters resign themselves to having to wait a little longer for supper.

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One of the braver ones decides he is going to risk it.

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Finally!

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Seeing the look on this guy’s face as he struggles to bit off a slice of the fresh rib, I am instantly grateful for steak knives.

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And after all that, all he ends up with is a mouthful of bones. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

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Maybe, just maybe… he is trying to bite off more than he can chew…?

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He looks forlorn: “There’s got to be an easier way than this.”

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“I’ll try a different approach”

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“Or maybe I’ll just lick the plate”

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Malisa points out that meanwhile, behind us, a glorious sunset is painting the sky orange over the lake, signalling the end of another extraordinary day and time for us to say goodbye to our lions and head to camp.

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Ndutu Lodge

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As with our previous visit, it is dark by the time we arrive at Ndutu Lodge. Despite several other safari vehicles arriving at the same time, the check in is impressively swift and efficient. After a quick shower and change, we meet up dinner.

Good food, Savanna Cider, Genets in the Rafters, coffee in the lounge and Dik Diks on the lawn – a perfect end to a perfect day!

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Chicken and rice

Small Spotted Genet

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Cat-like in appearance, the genets are wild but encouraged to hang around the rafters of the lodge by staff who occasionally slip them tidbits of food in exchange for keeping the rodent population down. They are also obviously very popular with the guests.

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Apparently the roof of the dining room / bar area was originally supported by huge wooden beams which the genets used a climbing frame. When the rafters were removed during the refurbishment, one of the beams was retained purely for the pleasure of the genets

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Dik Diks

Normally extremely shy, these tiny antelopes have become accustomed to people and feed happily in the grounds of the lodge.

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Yet again Calabash Adventures and their wonderful guide Malisa have given us a day in the bush to remember.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:04 Archived in Tanzania Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises animals birds sunset road_trip view travel vacation views shopping village adventure roads kids scenery museum sunrise africa safari tanzania lodge zebra lunch beetle unesco birding chicken souvenirs lions maasai giraffe roadtrip lion_cubs ngorongoro dust hyena kill tribes anthropology wildebeest olduvai jackal ngorongoro_crater rip_off bird_watching game_drive road-trip eland african_food dung_beetle safari_vehicle great_rift_valley night_photography canon_eos_5d_iii school_kids qat calabash calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators which_safari_company best_safari_company nature_trail maasai_cattle ngrongoro_serena ngorongoro_conservation_area tower_of_giraffe maasai_boma kindegarten shifting_sands oldupai lamuta lion_kill Comments (0)

Cormier Plage - Cap-Haïtien - Port au Prince

Back to the Ole Smoke

sunny 34 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our tour of Haiti with Undiscovered Destinations.

Darkness still hangs over the Caribbean as we go for breakfast this morning, later replaced by an aspiring sunrise which never really amounts to anything.

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In the distant twilight we spot the Anthem of the Seas – The Royal Caribbean's cruise ship - heading for Labadee so that its passengers can spend the day on the beach.

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In the time it takes the ship to make its way across our horizon, twilight has almost been pushed aside by daylight, showing the ship in all its glory. I reluctantly admit that it does look impressive, at least from this distance.

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The sun is still low as we are driven to the airport for our return journey to the capital.

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Arriving at the airport, my heart sinks when I see the long queue of people - complete with huge amounts of luggage - waiting to check in; and when I realise that even the passengers are being weighed ready for the flight, the aforementioned heart plunges further into my stomach. I am therefore immensely relieved when Serge walks past the queue to another check in desk - the poor people heading for the humiliation of having their weight recorded are travelling to one of the outlying islands, not Port au Prince. Phew!

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Pimp my Truck

In Port au Prince Geffrard awaits us, now like an old friend, navigating his way through the morning traffic; all of which is infinitely more colourful and enriched than our min-van.

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Literally meaning 'quick quick', these buses – known as tap-taps, follow fixed routes, but not a timetable – they leave whenever they are full. That is full according to Haitian standards, not European, with passengers often hanging on the back or even sitting on the roof! There are no fixed bus-stops, the passengers knock the roof when they want to alight.

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They are mostly pick-up trucks which have been lovingly home welded and garishly decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels.

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Often painted with religious names or slogans, portraits of famous people, and intricate, hand-cut wooden window covers, the ubiquitous tap-taps are unique to Haiti.

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Musée Canne à Sucre

Although it is not far from Port au Prince airport, by the time we reach the museum I am feeling decidedly weary. The sun is shining relentlessly, and it's already very hot - I always suffers from the effects of dehydration quite quickly - and severely - and I suspect I have not taken in enough liquids this morning.

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All I want to do is sit down, in the shade somewhere, with a cool drink. Instead we are introduced to the guide who will show us around the museum.

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The first room displays a brief chronicle of Haiti's history, from the Taino Indians through to Victorian times.

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Taino artefacts

I feel listless and disinterested, which isn't at all like me. Normally I love museums, and soak up every word the guides say, but this morning I find myself wandering around the displays aimlessly, not really taking any notice of the explanations offered.

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The museum has the appearance of a haphazard collection of random items, situated in someone's living room.

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Slavery
The second room focuses on slavery, revolution and black history in Haiti. If there is such a human trait as having too much empathy, then I suffer from this condition. Looking at the impassioned illustrations displayed, my mind immediately wants to try and imagine how I would feel if I was in that situation. Damn emotions... STOP IT! If I was indifferent to the exhibits earlier, I now find myself getting quite distraught at the thought of man's inhumanity to man.

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Seeing Haiti today, it is hard to believe that it was once the wealthiest overseas colony in the French empire! However, economic success came at a cost - Haiti's riches could only be exploited by importing up to 40,000 slaves a year. For nearly a decade in the late 18th century, Haiti accounted for more than one-third of the entire Atlantic slave trade.

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Map showing where the slaves came from

Conditions for these men and women were atrocious; the average life expectancy for a slave once they arrived on Haiti was 7 years. Essentially, the owners worked their slaves to death and then just bought more slaves. Those who tried to run away were severely punished and by 1789, there were 500,000 slaves in Haiti.

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Cut-away model of slave ship shows the conditions the slaves were transported across the Atlantic under. Goods at the bottom, people on the middle deck.

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Some of the gruesome ways the slave masters kept their 'workers' in check. It doesn't even bear thinking about how cruelly these people were treated. I find it impossible to imagine how someone would have the mentality it would take to dish out that sort of punishment to another human being, and the fact that it was not just isolated incidents, it was considered the norm.

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Once they arrived in Haiti, slaves were divided into different categories: domestic help, overseers, agricultural workers and those involved in the sugar cane industry.

Revolution
Inspired by the French Revolution, the revolution in Haiti (1791-1804) is the only successful slave revolt in modern times, and makes Haiti the only country where slave freedom was taken by force. A bedraggled group of slaves organised themselves, held a vodou ceremony calling for their liberty and went out with a guerilla war to defeat Europe’s most powerful army.

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Plantations were taken by force, or by using more subtle methods, such as poisoning their masters.

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In 1804, Haiti went on to become the first independent nation in Latin America; it is the second oldest republic in the western hemisphere (after the US); and the oldest black republic in the world. The three main players in the fight for Haiti's liberty were Jean Jaques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion.

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Set in the grounds of the ruined old sugar plantation Habitation Chauteaublond, the museum courtyard features a collection of antiquated material relating to the sugar cane industry.

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17th century water mill, brought over from England, was used to extract the juice from the sugar cane.

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The guide turns the water on for us to show the wheel in operation. As we are the only people in the museum, it makes sense not to have the mill running continuously.

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As well as hydro-power, animals were used to operate this traction wheel.

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Vats for boiling the sugar cane to make molasses for export to Europe where it would be fermented to make rum.

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Belonging to the Haitian American Sugar Company, S.A. (HASCO), this – the first train in Haiti – was used for transporting sugar cane from the fields to the processing plants.

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Relais de Chateaublond Restaurant
Although the gorgeous on-site restaurant is famous for its selection of flavoured rums (such as passion fruit, anise and various herbs), we stick to Diet Coke with our lunch.

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Croix des Bouquets

In the suburb of Noailles is the commune of Croix des Bouquets, famed for its metalwork artisans. The flamboyant movement of recycling metal into art was started some 60 years ago and today there are over 1,000 artisans working in Croix des Bouquetes, hammering away to create intricate masks and other wall hangings from discarded oil drums, car parts and even kitchen utensils.

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We visit the workshop of Jacques Eugene, a renowned artist who was born here in Croix des Bouquetes and now employs several other locals in his studio.

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Like most of the artists, Jacques takes his inspiration from vodou, creating extraordinary wall hangings which are as bizarre (to us) as they are curious.

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Jacques explains the process from the raw material to the finished product: the oil barrel is cut open, burnt and flattened, then a pattern is traced on the surface. The rest is done with a hammer and chisel, metal cutters and artistic skill.

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This handsome mask now hangs proudly in my living room along with the two masks we wore for Jacmel carnival and the one I bought at Milot (well, I had to have something to do while David and Kyle were visiting the Citadelle – that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!)

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In addition to the intriguing masks, one of the most popular designs for steel drum art is the Tree of Life, a symbolic image with a cultural significance to the people of Haiti. Representing immortality, new life, blessings and fertility, the branches of the tree reach into the sky, while the roots burrow deep into the earth; uniting heaven, earth and the underworld. Having seen several different variations on walls in our hotel rooms as well as restaurants, we are keen to pick one out to bring home.

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David also adds a lizard to his collection.

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Making our way back to Hotel Le Plaza (again), we are stuck in a traffic jam (again). The cars are completely stationary, and we soon become aware that several cars in front of us make a turn. Serge goes off to investigate what the problem is, and comes back to explain that there was an accident between a car and a motorbike, and all the bystanders have taken the side of the motorcyclist. They then set about beating the car driver, who very wisely retreated to the safety of his vehicle. That didn't stop the mob apparently, and now they are pelting his car with stones. Justice Haitian style!

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We also decide to get out of here before this escalates. That means driving through a 'less-than-salubrious' neighbourhood, and we are advised to close the windows and put the cameras away. So what do I do? Take photos of course...

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With so many cars having turned around to avoid the melee and are now travelling the opposite direction, the traffic is still terribly slow moving, so it's a great relief to finally arrive at the hotel. This being our third visit to Le Plaza in the last week, it's like coming home.

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Feeling awfully jaded and quite unwell by now, I am rather grateful we don't have any plans for the rest of the afternoon; and after re-packing for tomorrow's journey home, we take a siesta. I notice I have the beginnings of a cold sore on my lip, something that causes me some concern after last time I had one, which developed a secondary infection, resulting a several courses of antibiotics.

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When Geffrard turns up to pick us up later, he brings me a gift from Serge: spicy peanut butter! What a wonderful surprise.

This evening we have arranged to meet up with Jacqui (the local agent) and Paul (the Bradt Guidebook writer we met in Jacmel) for dinner. Jacqui has also invited Dawn (she was at the carnival with us too), who is bringing a friend; so it is quite a happy little band who turn up at La Plantation Restaurant in Pétionville.

The cocktails are good, the food is great and the conversation is even better.

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It's a delightful way to end this tour – we have found Haiti to exceed our expectations in every way. This small nation has so much more to offer than the usual Caribbean attractions of sunshine, beaches and sunset cocktails – although it has its fair share of those too! With extremely welcoming people and an intriguing culture, I am already planning my return visit to delve deeper into its vodou customs and celebrations.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:37 Archived in Haiti Tagged beaches art planes beach history travel vacation hotel museum caribbean artisans photography cocktails revolution slavery pilot metalwork artists aerial_photography slaves spicy haiti undiscovered_destinations canon_eos_5d_iii voyages-lumiere port-au-prince port_au_prince baron_samedi paul_clammer bradt vodou cap-haïtien haitien_revolution haitien_food haitien_art labadee cormier cap_hatien petionville croix_des_bouquets jacques_eugene sugar_cane haitian_revolution peanut_butter Comments (1)

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