Mongolia: Ulaan Bataar and Into the Gobi

Following our train journey out from Pyongyang to Beijing, we overnighted in a hotel not far from the airport and left the next morning to Ulaan Bataar (UB) capital of Mongolia.

A former work colleague of mine, Greg Goldhawk, is now Canada’s Ambassador to Mongolia and he kindly offered us a place to stay at his modest official residence in the dowtown core. It was great to enjoy his, and his wife Sharon’s, hospitality during our days in UB.

By late September, Mongolia is already starting to get cold. Windy morning temperatures of below freezing in UB sugggested heading further north and into higher altitude might not be advisable. So instead of heading to the mountains of Uvs aimag (the Mongolian term for a province or state) in the far west of the country near the border of Kazakhstan, which had been the initial plan, we decided to head south, deep into the Gobi.

We booked our route through Tseren tours whose sub logo”Off the Map Adventures” is very accurate.

There is a striking juxtaposition between driving through gridlock and the constant traffic jams inside UB and the rest of the country. The route to the south starts close to the airport. Ten or fifteen minutes of easier movement and shortly later, just as you get beyond the edge of town you are in the wilderness with almost no other vehicles in sight. There are the occasional buildings over the next thirty minutes. Then you are in the genuine remote grasslands of Mongolia.

Isolated yet stark primeval places on earth still exist. Among Tibetan nomads in Qinghai and the Changthang, Canadian Inuit in the High Arctic, some very isolated estancias in Patagonia, farms on the edge of the desert in Australia, Tuareg encampments deep in the Sahara, are places fundamentally defined by isolation, resilience and remoteness. The Gobi in southern Mongolia and those who live there are yet another expression of this phenomenon. Throughout our days we would go long distances on unimproved tracks with either no signs of habitation or only an occasional ger (the Mongolian term for a yurt) encampment visible in the distance.

Late in the afternoon or just around dark, we would stop at what appeared to be a random encampment. Our guide would go in and speak for a few minutes, and then we were usually given a place to stay. There would usually be a separate ger for us to sleep, and the family ger, where we would be served some fermented mare’s milk and be given a simple dinner. The families that hosted us were invariably polite, low-key and hospitable. None spoke any English or French.

Our route south of Ulaan Bataar took us the the aimags of Dundgov and Omnogov. Even though we were heading south at the end of September and beginning of October, night-time temperatures still were well below freezing. Highlights included the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag, which became famous in the 1920’s for the rich number of dinosaur bones and eggs found in the area.  Another highlight was Khongoryn Els, among the most spectacular and dramatic sand dunes found in Mongolia.  The largest dunes are more than 300 metres high and it is a fairly tough slog slithering up the sand dunes to the top. We spent two nights in a ger encampment at the base of the sand dunes.  It took well over 1 1/2 hours to get to the top. The trip down took less than fifteen minutes. Khongoryn Els was the only place on our trip outside of UB where we met any other travelers. Sitting in the ger in the afternoon with the door open and the sight of Bactrian camels just outside with the backdrop of sand dunes was most enjoyable.

The other highlights were Yolyn Am and Dugany Am, mountain areas with great opportunities for hiking. The initial entry into Dugany Am from the south went through a high gorge that at its narrowest was barely wide enough to allow the jeep to get through. We hiked in the mountains over a couple of days, based in a ger encampment at the northern edge of Dugany Am. The final day we drove to Omnogov’s aimag capital of Dalanzadgad. Like all of the the few towns and villages we passed during our journey, Dalanzagad was stark with a limited amount of commercial activity. It lacks the globalized dynamic of the bustling capital of Ulaan Bataar. It is little wonder, therefore, that the capital continues to attract rural Mongolians. Almost one half of Mongolia’s population in this vast country, now reside in the capital.

Mongolia is a great and amazing country. Unlike controlled North Korea, it beckons the adventurous traveler to explore the place on whatever terms you wish.  Check it out….


Deep Inside North Korea

North Korea imagesIn September 2012, I spent ten days in North Korea. Until this trip, I had always waited for a country to allow independent unrestricted travel before going. This strategy worked for China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Albania and the countries of the former Soviet Union, among others. Yet thirty years after I briefly visited South Korea en route to recently opened China, North Korea still keeps the phalanx up. So, for the first time in my life, I decided to enter a country with a tour group.

David Edwards on ICI Radio-Canada - May 31-2013

I was recently interviewed on ICI Radio-Canada about my trip to North Korea (French interview)

I wanted a comprehensive experience, so I selected an itinerary with Koryo Tours that maximized time outside Pyongyang and skipped the most visited sites of Nampho, Kaesong and the DMZ. It was described as “Remote and Unique Korea”. We only spent a small amount of time in Pyongyang. Most of our experience was in the mountains of Kumgang, Paekdu and Chilbo, with some additional urban experiences in Wonsan, Hamhung and Chongjin, cities along Koreas’s east coast, along with a handful of other venues. We traveled several hundred kilometres by bus throughout the country, along with chartering a plane to go to Mt. Paekdu, and then to Orang military airport, the access point for Chongjin.

The entire experience for me, albeit fairly controlled, was fascinating and positive.

My biggest initial surprise was Pyongyang. From its setting and physical location, it is one of my favourite cities in Asia. Admittedly, I was seeing the city and the country during September when the weather and vegetation was at its most gentle and bucolic. As 2012 was the 100th birthday of the birth of the first President Kim Il Sung, the city has seen significant recent infrastructural improvements. New skyscrapers dot Pyongyang’s skyline. The relative lack of traffic and extensive parklands, the handful of decent restaurants and the Taedong River bisecting the city, all made for a positive impression.

Another surprise of North Korea was that even in the countryside, and as mentioned we traveled long distances inside the country, it was notably and visibly less impoverished than I expected. Even the grimmer industrial cities of Hamhung and Chongjin reminded me of the “socialist drab” architecture of Poland and East Germany in the 1970’s, with a slight oriental twist.

North Korea, visually, seems to have achieved the ideal Marxist worker – peasant communist society as it might have been envisaged by the famous philosopher at that time. Yet this rural Marxist version of communism looks as if it was set in the late 1800s and then stopped. There is almost no visible interim technology between the MiG jets flying overhead on the east coast, and the ubiquitous one speed bicycles that most Koreans used to get to work. Virtually all agricultural work was still being done by hand, peasants harvesting rice with small scythes.

Although a North Korean visit is controlled, the unrolling of our visit was rather normal for a standard tour. Our guides from the North Korean-based Korea International Travel Company who met us on arrival at Pyongyang airport were the very pleasant Ms. Yu, perhaps in her early thirties, the charming but quite shy Ms. Lee, in her early twenties, and the cheerful Mr. Pyong who was 27. The representative of KORYO tours, who accompanied us from Beijing and throughout North Korea until we left by train was Tori, a young American leading her fifth visit into North Korea. Another aspect of the tour, obviously understandable in the context, is that the official program was busy from morning to evening.

The countryside is mountainous and very picturesque. About half of our tour was dedicated to visiting and hiking around Mt. Kumgang, Mt. Paekdu and Mt. Chilbo. The other half consisted of visits to various sites (farms, factories, schools etc.) designed to portray the DPRK in a positive light due to the enlightened leadership and infallible wisdom of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il,and now Kim Jong Un. The official “spin” was usually delivered by Ms. Yu on the bus shortly before arriving at a site. But this was done in a low-key and non-polemical manner. Once we arrived at a site, we would be met by a local guide. In every case, the description was initially given to us in Korean, which was then translated. Usually Ms. Yu did the interpretation, but occasionally the visited site had their own interpreter.

After an initial tour of Pyongyang, we left the following morning to drive across the peninsula to Wonsan, a major port town on the east coast. Wonsan was the most prosperous city we saw along the east coast. Wonsan pier was one of the rare places in the country where we could be away from our guides. As the pier had only a few fishermen and lead only to a small island with two houses, we walked ahead on our own for about an hour before walking back and seeing the ever charming Ms. Yu. There was a gentle admonishment that she had been looking for us, but left it at that.

The resort at Mt. Kumgang was initially built by Hyundai corporation as an isolated mountain spot just north of the DMZ where South Koreans would be able to go under the “sunshine policy” of a previous South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung. However, the program was stopped a couple of years ago and that access point to the DPRK is now inaccessible for South Koreans. The hikes up to a series of waterfalls in the area are beautiful. Similarly up in the far north at Mt Paekdu, there is a shrine to the birthplace of Kim Jong Il and a beautiful blue lake that can be viewed from the summit of North Korea’s highest mountain. Around Mount Chilbo as well, we visited a Buddhist shrine and did a short hike in the mountains.

One of the more innovative features of travel in North Korea is the availability of a home-stay program along the east cost of Korea at Chilbo, in a coastal village below the mountain of the same name. This was something of a set-up in that the homes, though inhabited by North Korean families, were built specifically for this purpose. The homes we stayed in were notably more upscale than what was typical of what we had seen while driving across the peninsula  or along the various spots on the east coast. While Americans were welcome on the tour, they were not permitted to stay overnight in the home-stay, and instead had to stay at a hotel about 20 kilometers away. Alas, of our group, only Tori, the American KORYO tour group representative, and one of the other Americans spoke any Korean, so as they left we had no opportunity to talk with our local North Korean hosts.

Chilbo was another place where we could walk fairly freely along the beach and around the village in the evening and at night.

Our experience in North Korea was at its most controlled in Hamhung and Chongjin, two industrial cities along the east coast only opened to foreign visitors since 2010. There we were told that we could not walk anywhere outside of the hotel. Our experience in Chongjin probably came closest to the hyper-controlled caricature of travel in North Korea that is portrayed in the West. A Canadian guide with another group (three groups traveled together in the chartered plane), Chris Graper, provided the context as we landed at Orang airport, the access point for Chongjin, in saying “Welcome to retro DPRK. You are now going to experience what traveling in the entire country used to be like until only a few years ago.”

We were fortunate in visiting the DPRK during the period when the Arirang Mass Games were being held in a stadium in Pyongyang. It is among the most impressive performances I have ever seen. There are approximately 100,000 participants in the performance, including several thousand school children on the opposite side of the stadium displaying flash cards…the North Korean flag, a portrait of a smiling Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the little house on Mt. Paekdu were Kim Jong Il was born, Kim Il Sung’s first handgun, s

olidarity between China and the DPRK… It was an exceptional and visually stunning performance and well worth the supplementary 85 Euros that we had to pay for admission.

As a Canadian, I was permitted to depart Pyongyang by train to Beijing. The journey took a little under 24 hours. It took about six hours to get to the North Korean border town if Siniujin. The border crossing was straightforward but very slow, about two hours on the Korean side. The Korean customs agent, a woman in her thirties, asked to look through the photographs in my camera. She deleted a handful of the several hundred I had taken. The crossing of the bridge over the Yalu river to Dandong marked a huge contrast as we entered into China, a now much more modern society with all the trappings and bright lights of a more developed country.

Form the late 1940s until the end of the 1980s, a significant percentage of the worlds’ population lived in ostensibly communist societies that controlled the entry and exit of visitors and did not allow free movement of their own nationals outside their country. The DPRK may be the only place left on earth where the underlying ideology which sustains it, mixed with the unique aspects of  “juche” (self-reliance), continues to this extent. It is certainly worth a visit and rewards the visitor with a unique experience and perspective.


Photos by David Edwards - North Korea Flash Card artwork

Photos by David Edwards - North Korea Flash Card artwork

Bethlehem: Behind the wall

Bethlehem Now and Then - O Little Town - Tryptych

During my visit to Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine in March-April 2012, one of my most powerful moments came in visiting Bethlehem.

I stayed in Jerusalem towards the end of my stay in Israel, after having spent time in Tel Aviv, visiting the north around Zefat, the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee, as well as staying in Mitzpe Ramon deep in the Negev desert.

From Jerusalem, one boards a local bus,#21, which goes to Bethlehem. Given its proximity to Jerusalem, Bethlehem is almost a suburb. When I initially arrived in Israel from Jordan, I had taken a bus to Jerusalem and then a collective taxi to Tel Aviv, I had barely noticed the “security wall”.

As far as I could tell, there were only Palestinians and a few western visitors on the bus.

After about fifteen minutes of driving a large bare wall could be seen to our left. At one point on the opposite side of the divided highway, now much closer to the wall, was an Israeli military checkpoint.

We continued a bit further , then backtracked slightly as we climbed a hill and started to enter the outskirts of Bethlehem. There were a couple of security related signs. One sign said something about Israelis not being allowed to enter under Israeli law, and another said something about it being illegal to hand documents over to Palestinian authorities. Then a series of signs saying “Welcome to Bethlehem..Welcome to Palestine.”

The bus deposited us on a busy street in the middle of town. On the bus I had met two American girls and a Korean guy, and we had decided to explore Bethlehem together. Shortly after we got off the bus, we were approached by a taxi driver who offered to show us the three highlights of Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity, St. Catherine’s Church, the Milk Grotto Chapel and the Old Bethlehem Museum.

We negotiated a price with him and I asked if he could also show us some parts of the “security wall” and its famous graffiti. The driver was a loquacious Palestinian who decried what had been happening in recent years.

Visiting the wall was a humbling and rather disturbing experience. It is now more than twice the height of the Berlin Wall.

Revolutionary artwork is found in numerous places around Bethlehem, some by the famous anonymous British graffiti artist “Banksy”. Some of the more memorable include a dove of peace with an olive branch in its beak wearing a flak jacket with a sniper’s target on the vest, a soldier being patted down by an eight year old girl in a dress, and a blindfolded Palestinian being manhandled by two armed soldiers. The wall itself was also filled with various scrawled graffiti. “Small flowers crack concrete:” “Compassion not apartheid”. “Abort occupation”. “This is not security. This is shit.” “Facebook is exposing the truth like this.” We were also taken to a house which was surrounded on three sides by the wall.

Afterwards, we went to the Church of the Nativity and the Milk Grotto Chapel and we walked around viewing some beautiful paintings of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus in the manger, and other scenes taken from the Bible’s New Testament.

We later had lunch in town. In mid-afternoon, we boarded the bus to return to Jerusalem. This time we were checked by Israeli security at the checkpoint for about twenty minutes. As I got off the bus and started walking back to the old Walled City of Jerusalem, I felt a strong sense of sadness of what, two thousand years later, has now befallen the “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.

Bethlehem Now and Then - O Little Town - Tryptych

In Iraqi Kurdistan: Part 2

See Iraqi Kurdistan: Part 1

See On my return from the northern edges of Iraqi Kurdistan, I had originally intended to stay in Shaqlawa. It sounded appealing from the Lonely Planet guidebook to the Middle East:

“At 966 metres above sea level, the cool temperatures and lush green environment have long attracted wealthy Iraqi tourists from the hotter Arab regions of the country”.

On arrival, however, Shaklawa has degenerated into a caricature of a Malaysian hill resort. It was a large construction zone of oversized houses, shopping centres and bulldozers, dessicating the once beautiful area into something appearing as a city inside a strip mine. I decided to continue on to Erbil.

The following day I went to the “garage”, the collective taxi stand to go to Sulumaniya, the second largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan. I negotiated the fare and just as I was leaving, I tried to confirm thatthe route would go through Peshmerga controlled Koya and not through Kirkuk. The drivers said it was OK. “No problem, safety, safety, safety. Only near Kirkuk. No terrorism”.

While this contradicted the advice in the Lonely Planet guide (went to press in late 2008), and I had hired the taxi individually, previous advice received from major hotels had advised that taxis going from one place in Iraqi Kurdistan directly to another all went through safe areas. So we were on our way.

On the road to Dohuk, roads had been constructed that bypassed Mosul and stayed just inside Peshmerga controlled areas. There had been several checkpoints as we bypassed Mosul and my passport was checked several times.

As we left Erbil, there was a checkpoint where we were waved through. We drove at high speed along an excellent highway as the signposts counted down the kilometres to Kirkuk  …60,50,40,30, 20…

We passed a sign saying “Welcome to Kirkuk”, as we entered a semi-urban area. We approached another checkpost, this time with blue uniforms rather than green. We were in Arab Iraq. We were waved through.

Shortly after, there was a bypass with the sign for Sulaymaniya. The driver turned on it saying “This way central Kirkuk and Baghdad, this way Sulaymaniya”. Shortly after there was another Arab Iraq checkpoint, The Arab guard asked me in English without asking to see my passport, where I was from and where I was goings. He then said “Have a nice trip: and we were on our way. We stopped for tea at a road side stand for about 20 minutes, drove through another checkpost where we were waved through. Then another more formal checkpost with an Arab Iraqi flag on one side and  the Iraqi Kurdistan flag on the other.

This time the Peshmerga guard asked for my passport, reviewed it and gave it back to me. We were back in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Sulumaniya is a delightful city at over 800 metres above sea level with the Zagros mountains in the background.

There is a modern section along Salim avenue and a wonderful old bazaar and old quarter entered through a giant arched gate.

In the bazaar I met a shop-owner who spoke English and we agreed to meet that evening. He said he was from a town on the Iranian border and he was willing to have his cousin take me there, as well as Halabja and Ahmadawa, the two main sites outside Sulayamaniya. We went together and it was another great travel day.

His village was Tawela, a lovely village right on the edge (within two kilometres of the Iranian border) in a gorge surrounded by high mountains. Most of the actual frontier has been fenced by the Iranians. The border area is surrounded by impressive snow peaks.

As I come to the end of my time in Iraqi Kurdistan, I leave highly impressed by the what Iraqi Kurdistan has been able to accomplish in the last twenty years.The landscapes are gorgeous, and the place is fundamentally well organized and safe. It has been a privilege spending the last week here.

In Iraqi Kurdistan: Part 1

I am currently in Sulaymaniya (see Map), near the end of my sojourn in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is a fascinating place, very much off the beaten path, virtually devoid of international travelers, yet it is a safe and relatively inexpensive destination.

My first surprise came on arrival into Erbil International Airport from Amman, Jordan. My arrival in Amman was OK but slow, the airport older and crowded, and the process for getting a visa on arrival uncomplicated, but time consuming and somewhat cumbersome – get in line to change money into dinars at a bank, get into another line to pay 20 dinars to get the visa entry, get into another line to get through immigration.

By contrast, Erbil is a large, bright, brand new airport. The visa on arrival was free and stamped immediately into my passport and within a couple of minutes I was through and waiting for my bags.

Iraqi Kurdistan came into existence in 1991, during an uprising against the brutality of Saddam Hussein by the Kurds  in March 1991. When Saddam tried to reassert control through an air campaign in April, the UN and the USA imposed a no-fly-zone, allowing the Kurds in the north of the country to maintain control over the region. As a result it was also spared direct involvement in the 2003 war in Arab Iraq. The Kurdish military, Peshmerga,controls almost all of the territory in Iraqi Kurdistan. In terms of personal security, while it may not be Norway or New Zealand, it is certainly as safe a destination as, say, Jordan,or Costa Rica, or Hungary.

Erbil, and indeed the other larger cities such as Sulaymaniya and Shaqlawa are booming with vast construction projects. On my first full day, I walked around Erbil and to the center of the city in the now crumbling Citadel which is undergoing reconstruction.

One of the advantages of the widespread accessibility of cell phones and cheap digital cameras is the emergence of photographic tourism in reverse. Various individuals and families would come up and ask if they could take a photo of me with them (their camera) usually with the Kurdish flag in the background. I was, of course, happy to oblige. It was also slightly odd to be walking through the streets of the city with signs pointing to cities made notorious by the Iraq war such as Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk.

For me the real adventure began when traveling north to Duhok and then deeper into northern Iraqi Kurdistan.  Duhok is a crowded but somewhat appealing town with an extensive covered market and bazaar. I decided to hire a car and driver and we drove the following day tothe Yaviza temple at Lalish, Zakho and overnighted in Sulavm next to Amadiya.

On the route from Duhok to Zakho at the Turkish border the scenery became increasingly green and hilly. In Zakho I visited the famous Delal bridge, an old stone arch structure over the Khabur river. It was a pleasant site, without being particularly special. However, that deviation allowed us to take the northern route through more green hills and then, in the distance, a range of snow-capped mountains. As we drove towards Amadiya, the mountain range became ever more dramatic – reminding me of the Pyrenees. As we came to the crown jewel of Amadiya, I was blown away. My rough analogies  would be of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan or Bonifacio at the southern tip of Corsica.  The city is constructed and completely coversthe top of a butte at 1200 metres, with a backdrop of an extensive now-capped mountain range.Were it in any other place than Iraq, it would certainly have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The following day I continued to Barzan and then to Gali Ali Beg. Throughout the route, the panorama of soaring snow-capped mountain peaks continued. From there I took the Hamilton Road, constructed by the British in the late 1920’s and early 1930s as a strategic short cut to connect Erbil with Teheran and the Caspian Sea. The road goes through a deep gorge with cascading waterfalls.

We went as far as Chomran, the last town in Iraqi Kurdistan before the Iranian border at Haji Omran.

While major cities in Iraqi Kurdistan – Erbil, Sulumaniya and Duhok are packed with hotels, almost all of recent vintage, there is almost no accommodation elsewhere, even in places that virtually anywhere else would be mountain destinations with B&Bs, and niche hotels. Nowhere is this more true than in Amadiya. However, I did find accommodation in nearby Sulav. The Sulav hotel was basic, partly broken down, had only squat toilets, and had no heat, yet it was more than worthwhile to stay in one of the most gorgeous locations in the Middle East.

Individual reactions to my plans to visit Somaliland or Iraqi Kurdistan, often starts off with disbelief and then contempt that I would choose to be so careless. Yet the reality is more complex than that. While most of Iraq and Somalia remain lawless and dangerous, in both countries, de facto separate governments exist in parts of the country – with their own militaries, entry and exit procedures, numerous professional checkpoints and security, and are fundamentally safe to visit at this time.

See In Iraqi Kurdistan: Part 2

Deep in the Amazon

Deep in the Amazon in Itaituba (map) as a massive deluge is now falling on this place.  Earlier in this trip, I was up in the Amazonian canopy. About 2 1/2 hours north of Manaus is the small town of Presidente Figuereido.  We left at 0330 in the morning to arrive at the INAP tower, 12 kms from the main road on a disused forest access road. We carried flashlights in the pre-dawn darkness along a flat but slippery trail that led to the tower. The tower was built in the 1970s, and is used mainly for scientific research. The metal tower has ten stories that you climb to get up to, and then slightly above, the canopy.

  At the very earliest break of dawn, we heard what sounded like jet engines in the distance. Only shortly later did we realize that this was the guteral sound of howler monkeys in the distance. Later parrots and other birds started to fly overhead as the rainforest canopy came alive. This was one of the primeval experiences of life on earth – equivalent to seeing the coral reef for the first time, or the intense light in a high altitude desert, or the first experience in the Arctic or Antarctic.

  It was an indelible memory of an unforgettable trip.