Posts Tagged ‘Food’

Flying East to the West

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

The arrival at Beijing International airport was my third time in a Chinese airport (I had transited through Hong Kong International on my way to and from Lao 4 and 5 years earlier), and I went through the standard arrival procedures of checking my connecting ticket to LAX. This time things were a bit different, however, because Swine Flu was apparently on the mind of the Chinese government. Upon arrival all passengers were asked to fill out and sign a form saying that they were not suffering from any of the symptoms of the flu. Unfortunately, I have always suffered from allergies to airborne allergens and had been congested that day because of this. So, being the honest Mennonite that I am I dutifully checked the “Nasal Congestion” box and handed the form to the customs official along with my passport. This earned me a trip to a specially cordoned-off waiting area from which I watched all my fellow passengers pass by on their way into the international departures area. About 10 minutes later a man and woman in scrubs and white lab coats arrived with my form and the man started asking me some questions. “Where have you been traveling?” had a difficult and lengthy answer, but eventually we got around to the reason I had checked the “Nasal Congestion” box. The man spoke English fairly well so it was easy enough to explain about my allergies. “Ah, yes.” He said, “That’s alright.” Five minutes, several stamps, and a few signatures later I was on my way.

I had over 5 hours to kill before my plane to LAX left and I had decided that I would try to get out of the airport if at all possible. When we had been planning the trip we had decided against going to China because of a visa cost of over $400 per person. However, Matt had told me that he had met someone in Beijing who had been allowed to leave the airport for a few hours during his layover without a visa. This gave me an idea and as I talked to the customs official at arrivals I asked if it was possible to leave the airport for a little while before my flight left. He said yes and told me where I needed to go get out of the international terminal. So, when I finally saw the terminal entrance I walked toward it exuding as much confidence as I could muster. I was walked upstream through the flow of arriving Chinese travelers arriving at the arrival customs counters from the wrong side. I watched two stewardesses and a few captains walk out through a small gate along the right side of the room and headed that way. When I arrived, however, I was firmly but kindly stopped by a security guard who told me in Chinese and pantomime that I was going the wrong way and pointed me toward the departure lounge. I didn’t take no for an answer, however, and, apologizing to the guard, went to the nearest customs box. I politely got the attention of the young woman stamping passports and tried to explain my hopes and dreams of being able to walk around outside. All I succeeded in doing, unfortunately, was confusing her and so she made me understand that I was to wait there and she would call someone to help. A few minutes later a man who must have been a supervisor approached and in clear English asked me what the problem was. There was some hemming and hawing and a few more questions about reasons (”There are very nice restaurants in the departure lounge.”). But my polite persistence eventually won the day! The supervisor gave my passport to the young customs official to stamp and told me which monorail line to take and off I went.

For about 2 hours I walked the streets of Beijing in the area near the airport. It took about 20 minutes to get from the airport to a nearby market where I went to a bank and found that the ATM only offered currency in RMB (renminbi). I had literally never heard of the RMB and was expecting to withdraw Yuan. It was a good reminder that there is still a lot out there to learn. I did eventually learn that the RMB was the official name for the currency with the yuan being the name for the unit of currency. Anyway, I withdrew about 100 yuan and used it to buy some delicious Dragon Fruit, a pomello and a few other things for a nice picnic lunch in a small park from which I could watch Chinese life go by. The sounds of bicycles, pedal taxies, a few cars and busses and many voices in a language I didn’t understand made for an appropriate backdrop for my last day in Asia and my last “Cultural Experience” of the trip. With just an hour and a half to go I headed back to the airport and got through security and customs with few problems and prepared for a long plane flight to LAX.

The trip was remarkable only for the length of time it took and the packed 747 on which it took place. I chatted a bit with a Chinese family returning to their home in LA and an American business man who had been working in Beijing for a few weeks and then everyone settled down to some fitful, airplane sleep. As we approached LA many hours later, I spend the last 20 minutes of the flight looking out of the window, watching the coastline of my home country approach after 4 months away. The city bustled with cars, and few bicycles or pedestrians could been seen from the air. Roads were clean and it seemed like ads plastered every visible inch. Just before our gentle landing I caught a glimpse of a flaming hillside and billows of smoke just outside the city. The huge forest fires I had read about while waiting for departure.

A uniformed, American customs official kindly welcomed me home and, after picking up my bag I walked outside into the warm, California air. Waiting me were my girlfriend Rachel, my sister Elizabeth, and my Great-uncle Ned. Elizabeth, Rachel, my brother Levi and roommate Chris had all taken a trip through the American Southwest to pick me up. They had stopped at Ned and Marge’s house and then come to pick me up. It was nice to see some familiar faces after almost two weeks on my own and Ned and Marge prepared a wonderful supper for us during which all of us talked about our adventures.

My time overseas had ended but I still had a few days of adventure driving back across the US before the trip would be at an end.

A Mongolian Life

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

I waved goodbye to Matt at Chinggis Khaan International Airport and made my way to the taxi stand downstairs. I was on my own in the middle of Asia in a large, dusty city where my camera had already been stolen and where my friend had been pelted by a chunk of sidewalk. It was a bit nerve-wracking to me. I wasn’t sure how I would do on my own! My confidence returned, however, after wrangling a 5,000 togrok trip back to the city from some taxi drivers who had claimed it was impossible to get me back to the city for anything less than 20,000… then about 5 minutes later, 10,000.

So, for 9 days from August 18-27 I was on my own in the central-Asian nation of Mongolia. I didn’t have a lot of money (I limited myself to $10 a day, $6 of which went for lodging each night I was in Ulaanbataar, leaving 4 for entertainment, travel, and food). I spent some of my timing working on this site cleaning things up and uploading photos. I spent some of it (the daylight hours at least) walking the streets of the city seeing what I could see, from large markets to street-side DVD stands. Ger Restaurants on the sidewalks to road works projects. The city was bustling and I was just another citizen. Unfortunately for me, I was a citizen who looked like a tourist and couldn’t speak the local language. So, that limited my interaction with the real citizens of Ulaanbataar to what we could communicate with sign-language, my extremely limited Russian, and their broken (but better than my Mongolian) English.

It was a relaxed time schedule-wise for me, but a bit stressful as I tried to learn the ropes of a new city by myself. Most evenings I would hole up in the hostel’s public area to avoid the less savory citizens of the city. This gave me the opportunity to meet the people who were staying in the hostel. Most people stayed just one or two nights at the hostel, but some were there for longer. An Irish fellow getting over a bad intestinal parasite infestation was there for three nights. He had bicycled by himself from Beijing to Ulaanbataar and was going to take a horse-ride to the Gobi and western Mongolia eventually getting back on his bike and heading for Russia. He had been delayed a week, however, by his unfortunate illness.

Two Israeli men and a British girl stayed for a night, they were on their way to the Gobi to explore it for two days. Three French men were planning a walking trip to Western Mongolia. Two girls waiting for their plane flights out, one from France and one from the US, were at the end of their Asia trip which had taken them to several cities in Eastern China, the Gobi, and eventually Ulaanbataar. One girl was at the end of a year-long term working at a school for underprivileged children from the ger district—an area with about the population of the city proper people with nomads who are in and out throughout the year and live in their gers—which surrounds Ulaanbataar. It was an interesting place to be and made the evenings less lonely. I was even invited to join two French students who were traveling by horse around the Gobi for two weeks and had an extra horse leaving me to only pay the daily expenses, unfortunately I was leaving well before they would have returned so I had to turn them down.

I spent three days and two nights in the wilderness camping by myself and finishing out the supplies in a little town called Gachuurt, to the northeast of Ulaanbataar. It cost me almost 20,000 togrok for the taxi out there, but I found it was worth it to save the $6 a night for the hostel. It was a calming time and not altogether bad to be by myself somewhere I felt completely comfortable. Making the half-hour trip to pump fresh water, scouring the parched hillsides for sticks to make a fire and clearing a rock-free tent-site for myself made for good exercise and a great way to pass the time. When a goat-herd passed my little camp with a flock of 75-100 as I was reading my Bible, a nod and a smile told me that I was welcome there.

When I got back to the city, I was a bit disappointed to be back in the dirtiness of the city. I had discovered over the trip that cities always feel dirtier than the countryside. I have yet to find a city where I would be comfortable eating a grape dropped on the sidewalk, even if I washed it off. But in the countryside, a grape dropped on the dirt would be brushed off and eaten without a second thought. I walked back to Gachuurt and caught the 500 togrok bus to Ulaanabataar.

The last 4 days in the city were uneventful for the most part. I talked to the hostellers, watched a movie about a Mongolian nomad during Soviet days. Apparently the Soviet government had attempted to control all meat production which up to that point had been the purview of individual nomadic families. In order to do this, they offered buyouts to the farmers and gave them palotes (small apartments in large concrete buildings). At about the same time (coincidentally?) the government also released news of a plague which would ravage the flocks of the nomadic farmers and required that the animals be burned to prevent the spread of the disease.

It was a sad movie, but interesting in its (delectably accurate) depiction of the history of Mongolia during Soviet control. The movie was shown at a small coffee shop called Café Amsterdam and was attended by about 20 Dutch people and a group of about 30 mixed French, Yankees, Mongolians, and other peoples.

By the time it came to leave Ulaanbataar, I was ready to leave. It’s not that Mongolia struck me as an unpleasant place, or that I didn’t enjoy my time there, I was just done with the city and ready to be traveling again.

At 10 AM the Mongolian segment of my trip ended with the departure of my no-frills trip on Air China from Chinggis Khaan International Airport to Beijing International. Since 5:30 that morning, I had been getting ready, walking toward the airport, and, when the time was right, getting a 10,000 togrok taxi ride to the airport, and waiting after customs. My trip in Asia was coming to a close, but I still had almost a week before the true end of my trip.

At the End of the Trail

Monday, August 24th, 2009

We were wet. We were miserable. Matt was feeling better than he had, but still not completely cured. I was freezing cold despite my coat and Deutschland hat. We were facing the a Siberian summer storm.

We plodded on in our coats, fished the last bits of Wild Bill’s Beef Jerky from the bottom of the bag with our soaking wet hands, and resigned ourselves to being cold and wet. The view was spoiled by the clouds, mist, fog, and rain. The lake was calm again, but still frigid. The warmth of the fire that morning, the hot tea and cocoa, and the rather odd pancakes I had made without butter seemed distant memories as we focused on completing those 10 kilometers remaining and reaching our goal: the town of Bolschoye Goloustnoe.

The town of Bolschoye Goloustnoe was about 4-6 hours of hiking away, according to a French-speaking Russian I had met on the trail while Matt had fetched the water that morning before the storm began in earnest. We had begun hiking at around noon, so we expected to reach the town well before dark and hopefully in time to sit down in a little café and warm ourselves with some coffee or tea before locating the bus station that would take us into Irkutsk the next morning (at 9, the Russian man informed me). Then we planned to find a camping spot outside of town, settle in for a cold, wet night, and get to the bus station in time to leave the next morning.

Little of those plans worked out. As we walked into town we found a sprawling, muddy camping area stretching out for several kilometers from the southern end of the town. It was mainly full of drunken Russians. One old lady was in a bush by the side of the road relieving herself and shouting at two guys who were drunkenly trying to set up a tent. Two middle-aged ladies who had obviously been drinking pulled up beside us, spraying us with mud accidentally and invited us to ride in their brand-new car which was very clean on the inside. We declined and trudged on, despite their insistence. They slid all over the road as they made their way toward the town and we were glad to not be in the car.

In the town we found everything closed down. There were two little cafes, both of which were closed. We couldn’t find the bus station either. I found myself in a downright foul mood, made little better by the fact that the only semi-dry camping spot we found was in the middle of a cow pasture and we didn’t even consider making a fire in the downpour that continued.

That was when the francophonic Russian, Sasha, and his hiking partner Bruno arrived. We had passed them a few hours earlier and apparently made it to the town at the same time. They had stopped at the home of someone Sasha knew and gotten the real times for the bus (6, 7, and 8) and learned that a minibus would be leaving sometime that evening. They intended to have some supper then catch the minibus to Irkutsk. Sasha invited us to join them at their campfire. To tell you the truth, I was a bit dubious. The ground was wet, the woods were wet, the trees were wet, we were wet, and it was still raining.

But, Sasha came through! Matt and I finished setting up our tent and then rushed around helping Bruno find any dry wood we could. In my despair I had forgotten that in most storms the majority of rain comes from one direction, leaving dead wood on the lee side of trees still dry. With that memory, we quickly gathered a pile of dry wood, and a pile of semi-damp wood that we could dry once the fire got going. And it did get going! With a roaring blaze, our spirits were instantly lifted and we had soon dried out. The rain stopped falling quite as strongly as well, lifting our spirits even more. A good pot of well-cooked rice and topping and a taste of some of Bruno and Sasha’s porridge left us feeling pretty good. We finished off the evening by sharing some of our adventures and hearing about some of Sasha and Brunos’.

Bruno was a retired fellow from Paris, France who went hiking every so often and was in Russia to visit some friends. Apparently he had, a few summers ago, been hiking in Finland, north of the Arctic circle! Sasha was a photojournalist with a large, nation-wide newspaper and had been working and living in Irkutsk for a long time, during which he had hiked the shores of Lake Baikal relatively often. He was on call for a friend of his who was a tour guide and gave hiking tours whenever his friend was too busy. That’s what he was doing with Bruno, although two members of their team (who had set out from Listvyanka just like us, just a day later) had left after being scared out of the hike by the terrain. This made Matt especially feel better since he had done the entire thing with a cold like a real man.

We fell asleep that night warmer and drier, though still a bit damp and chilly. The next morning dawned cloudy at 6 AM when we got up to make breakfast and pack the tents up in time for the 8 AM bus. We did, eating the last of our porridge. Matt was feeling almost entirely cured with just a hint of a runny nose. We hopped on the bus and made it back to Irkutsk where we lounged the day away and ate some delicious food. It was a good day and we had such a sense of accomplishment after muscling through the hiking trip.

Even now the memories of the less pleasant bits of the hiking are fading away leaving crystal clear, shimmering lake water, verdant mountains and valleys, pleasant camping spots, good friends, and the sense of a job well done.

Another Day Hiking

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The light of our second Siberian dawn trickled through the trees and woke me before it did Matt. I got up, packed my sleeping bag and the cooking supplies, made sure the fire was completely out (we had spread the ashes the night before, but I wanted to make sure it was cool. It was) and finished the last swig of water in my trusty Nalgene. It was looking to be a warm day and I knew we needed to find some water, but the lake was at the bottom of a 50 foot cliff, so we’d have to walk on until we found a stream or a beach.

Matt woke up after I had been reading for 15 minutes or so (I was in the middle of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) and we set off down the hill. It was a bit of a rough trail, but after 15 minutes we came to a beach and sat down to enjoy our fill of crystal clear, filtered (thank you Mommie and Papa for letting me borrow the water pump), and frigid cold water. And we made breakfast, porridge again.

Matt was not feeling any better, his whole body was aching and he had a low-grade fever that had started the evening before. We took our vitamins and I encouraged him to drink a Nalgene of water right there. I also filled up my Platypus bladder which I had forgotten I had with me. We were much better off and as the morning progressed, we hiked on with hourly rest breaks and some delicious Wild Bill’s beef jerky from my parents that I had been saving for a special occasion.

Lunch that afternoon was a can of tuna steak (delicious) and a two hour nap on the pebbly beach of what was turning into one of the worlds most beautiful spots. Matt was feeling better after our break, and plodded on stolidly. We camped early that night after hiking just 15 kilometers, but arriving where we had hoped to make it. We set up camp under a spreading evergreen, lit a small fire and Matt went to sleep early. I stayed up for a while longer tending the fire and being bitten by mosquitoes while reading The Idiot (half of which we had used to start the fire that evening.)

That night was cloudless, but a strong wind started from the North East and smashed the coastline with oceanic breakers all night long. I slept well, waking just once in the middle of the night to check on the fire and our bags (we were just past the town of Bolshaya Kadilnaya and a bit close to civilization for my comfort).

The Train to Moscow

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Waiting in the station was an intense game to play. While Matt went hunting for postcard stamps and some form of money, I watched the piles of luggage. We had stocked up on some supplies earlier in the day, not knowing what would be available on the train, so we had 6 bags with us. My backpack was ¼ full of clothes, ½ full of food, and ¼ full of medical supplies and toiletries and hanging from it was our pot, my shoes, two Nalgenes, and my sleeping bag. My bookbag was full of bowls, books, my laptop, camera, phone, and all the associated cordage. We had a hearty plastic bag with several loaves of bread, some jam, peanut butter, a bit of cheese, some meat, silverware and cups and random odds and ends. Matt’s big bag had his clothes, his tripod, some food, the tent, his sleeping bag, and sundry other items, hanging from it were two water bottles. Matt also had his small camera bag which had his camera and its associated items.

It was this motley group of items that I carefully guarded as Matt hunted. The time came, however, to load up like pack mules and make our way to the train. Matt, however, was nowhere to be seen… I began to become nervous at the end of an already slightly stressful day to have the stress of being unable to board our train was a bit much. Matt showed up about 10 minutes before our scheduled departure and we rushed down almost the entire length of the train, got into our car and began to make our very disjointed way down the packed aisle.

The car we boarded bears some description. It was a dingy yellow on the outside with the roof a dingy grey. Inside, wooden sides betrayed the age of the wagon and the thin foam pads on the seats were covered with some sort of vinly, cracking under the abuse of years and passengers. The train car itself was separated into 6 or 7 unenclosed compartments. Along the left-hand side were facing bench seats with a table between them and a “bed” or sleeping-board above each. Above the beds were another flat surface intended for luggage. On the right-hand side as we jostled our way up the crowded car to our seats, were single benches flat against the outside wall made of three sections: two seats and a fold up seat/table between them. Again, above this a bed and above that luggage storage.

We had plenty of luggage and were at a loss as to where to put it. Every seat was filled with three people to a bench in the left-hand compartment and a lady sitting on the bench on the right-hand side, where our tickets indicated our seats were to be. With many apologies in unintelligible English, we eventually got our luggage situated and settled down for what would almost certainly be an uncomfortable night. What did we expect, though, when we bought the cheapest seats on the train?

A few hours later we cleared the luggage we had put on the bed area and the old lady climbed up to sleep there. Matt and I were left trying to find ways we could fit at least 75% of our bodies onto the bench without sticking either our elbows or unclean feet in each others faces/necks/backs/stomachs. I drifted off after a while to an uncomfortable and frequently interrupted sleep. We woke once to be briefly interrogated by first the Latvian/EU and then the Russian border guards. The event went smoothly and in the morning I woke, after a few fitful hours, to find ourselves not much over two hours from Moscow.

On Our Way North

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Leaving Turkey we had quite a push ahead of us. We had to get to Riga, Latvia by Thursday so we would have enough time to sell our car, buy train tickets to Moscow (we had checked online while in Istanbul and found tickets for the equivalent of about $30 and were pleased with that price), and get everything repacked into our much smaller space for hoboing our way across Russia. Because of this we had only 4 days to make the 3000 kilometer drive from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. It was going to be our longest straight drive ever and we were doing it with only two drivers. So, we began.

We crossed into Bulgaria early Sunday (19/07) evening with no difficulties and headed North-West. It was a rather un-exciting evening and we passed it driving over relatively nice roads, listening to some NPR programs we had downloaded in Istanbul, and snacking every once in a while on some bread with Nutella or jam. We slept in the early morning south of the Romanian border in a rather muddy spot just off the road. The next morning, bright and early, we were off heading North. We entered Romania that morning, paid for a Vignette and drove off. We soon realised, however, that the cost of the vignette for Romania had not been worth it. In fact, the roads were terrible. Just a little after we passed the border we got on a road which was alright, but we did have to dodge a few potholes. Then… Matt, who was driving, didn’t manage to dodge one. It hit hard and as we citröened away from it, something was wrong. The car started wobbling a bit and jerking to the right as a loud thumping came from the right-hand rear wheel-well.

Matt held it together well and pulled us off to a good spot along the road. Our right-hand rear tyre had been going a bit bald because it was cambered in pretty badly, so we were rather expecting it to go at some point. When we got out to examine the situation, however, we discovered that the pothole had bent our rim at least an inch out of place at one point, which explained how quickly the air had gone out of the tyre.

We replaced the tyre with the spare (which had a slightly wobbly rim, but not bad), topped up on air at a nearby filling station and made our way up to Bucharest, drove through Bucharest rather quickly, and made the turn North-West and headed for the Carpathians. Driving through the Carpathian mountain range was beautiful. Winding mountain roads didn’t make for quick driving, but they made for many interesting sights. We drove through Transylvania, thankfully avoiding Vlad’s hot-spots especially that evening when we spent the night just outside his territory and departed the next morning, glad to not have been impaled.

Hungary was next on the list. We passed through yet another border, praised the Shengen agreement that allowed us to pass so easily between so many EU nations, bought a vignette and set off to explore Budapest. The twin cities of Buda and Pest and full of beautiful sights, not the least of which is Danube River spanned in several points by scenic bridges. Our first stop was the top of a mountain at the center of the city where a castle and Victory Monument stood guard over the city. We then made our way into the center of the city to a cathedral where the mummified hand of St. Stephen, first king of Hunagry who lived around the turn of the first century, was preserved in a gold and glass reliquary.

After exploring the rest of the city a bit, including the Hungarian parliament building, modeled after the British parliament building in London, we made our way back to the car and left. North again, toward Warsaw where we arrived the next morning, passing through Slovakia in the night (paying for yet another vignette). After just a few hours in Warsaw using the internets. We also had to try to get in touch with David so that he could transfer the rest of our money out of the group’s savings account to our checking account so that we could actually access it. We were unable to make contact with David, but succeeded, eventually, in getting in touch with David’s dad. Relieved, we made our way north yet again, drove through Lithuania, and arrived in Riga after long hours of uneventful travel on Thursday the 23rd, right on schedule.

The Greeks Knew How to Build

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

It was Thursday (16/07) when we reentered Athens, found a parking spot and set out to explore one of the most famous sites in the world: The Acropolis. The rather expensive tickets (€12) gave us entrance to the Acropolis and a number of other sites in the area. Athens is a hotbed of archaeological sites, with dozens across the city. The city has been inhabited for thousands of years and a center of civilization for most of that time.

The Acropolis, for most of that time, has been the center of Athens. It was the temple, the administrative area, a market, everything. The most impressive buildings are still in the process of being restored. Much of the Parthenon was obscured by scaffolding, for example. Still, to see these places where the history of our civilization began to take its’ current form. We entered through the Propylaea, the ceremonial gate, and began to explore the grounds.

Matt and I split up at the top and visited the sites in different orders. There was the Parthenon, a huge building used as a main temple for the the city which contained a giant statue of Athena, but after having been destroyed after the Turkish occupation, the Parthenon was then raided by the British Lord Elgin (with the Turkish government’s permission) who took almost all of the sculptures and friezes to London leaving the Parthenon a ravaged tabula rasa.

The Erechtheum was just across the main open area. There, the porch of the Caryatids was the resting place of many of ancient Athens’ religious treasures and possible some of its early kings. Many of the other buildings were destroyed, but pieces of columns and other building debris were scattered around the area. Over the edge of the top of the mountain, two large amphitheaters, one of Greek origin and the other of Roman origin are still used to this day. After exploring the site for a while Matt and I met back up and went to the Acropolis Archaeological Museum—just opened in June!—and explored it. It contained much of Athens’ treasures, mainly Greek and Roman sculptures.

Matt and I met up at the car again and went for some Gyros. Cheap and delicious! Then we were on our way again. We drove north west, hit the coast and continued more west past through Lamia. We had heard from the Zimmermans about a cluster of Greek Orthodox monasteries built on top of immense free-standing rock columns called meteoron (from the Greek μετεορον which means “suspended from the heavens” or something… the same root of the word meteor) and intended to get there by the next morning. We got lost a few times on our way but eventually reached the area, although we couldn’t see any of the monasteries. We cooked dinner and slept in a small pull-off area by the side of the road.

The next morning, not knowing exactly how far from the monasteries we were, we got up and, after some breakfast müesli we were on our way. Around the very next corner, we saw it. Dozens of rock pillars rising majestically from the valley floor. They seemed so out of place, like a modern art exhibit in the middle of the desert. The tops were covered in vegetation and seemed relatively flat, the tops ranged in size from a few acres to a few dozen square feet. Within our view, the tops of three of the pillars—one small, one medium, and one venti—was covered with stone buildings with red roofs, like tile icing on a stone muffin.

The entire area reminded me of a computer game I used to play called Riven (an intense, puzzle game played in a world that looks much like the area around the meteoron). A blue sky provided the background for the greys, reds, and greens of the meteoron. There are six of these structures scattered in the area (now a national religious monument, so free of too many chincy souvenir stands, although there were a few). Five of them are monasteries and one is a nunnery. The three we could see from our vantage point by the side of the mountain road above the valley of the meteoron were a small one, I don’t know what it’s called, one medium sized-one—I was later informed is about the average size—named Varlaam, and a very big one named The Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoron. We decided to aim for the big one and see if we could get in, and then we noticed about a dozen tourist buses and several dozen cars… we were disappointed, but decided to go for it anyway.

We entered The Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoron via a hike down into the valley and a steep climb up a tunnel then stairs all painstakingly carved into the side of the pillar. At the top, we were greeted at the door by a man who we were a bit disappointed that the man taking our money was not dressed in a monk’s habit but rather a tee-shirt and jeans. The entrance only cost €1 though, so that the took the sting away. The monastery itself was more like a museum, but a tasteful museum with some exhibits in English.

The monastery itself seemed much like a normal 8th century monastery which has been rebuilt and improved and expanded several times over the past millennium or so, although the size was limited to the extent of the flat area at the top of the pillar. At the time I was reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and was pleased to discover all the parts of the abbey were almost exactly the same. Seeing a living, active monastery with its chapel, dining room, kitchen, prayer room, library, servants’ quarters, even an ossuary really brought that rather disturbing book to light.

The first section we explored was an historical exhibit in an area that had been a dormitory for the monks. It gave the history of both the Greek state: the history of the modern state and the ancient nation. It also gave the parallel story of the Greek Orthodox church culminating in Greek freedom after World War II and the modern establishment of the Meteoron monasteries. We also visited a shrine to a few orthodox saints and the stories of several martyrs who had lived in the Meteora. Photos will convey the glory of these places and how they glorify God through the way they blend with their surroundings better than I can.

We left the Grand Meteoron and went down the road a bit to a spot we thought would be fun to climb. It was like a miniature version of one of the pillars so we climbed. It was a bit tricky and a bit nerve-wracking at a few points, but enjoyable after doing quite a bit of driving the day before. When we had finished climbing and were heading back to the car, we were confronted by an American. He asked us what we were up to and what brought us to the Meteoron. We talked for a bit comparing stories and then we gave him and his friend a trip down to the town at the bottom of the mountains where their bus would take them to Larissa.

It turns out that the one fellow, Tim, was an English teacher in Madrid, Spain where he was participating in a Spanish government program. He and his friend, Savannah, who was an engineering student in München, Germany, were traveling between Istanbul and North-Eastern Greece just for fun. We had an enjoyable time swapping stories with them, dropped them off at the bus, picked up some good drinks (it was an extremely hot day). Then, we headed for Turkey, although that evening we did make a very quick trip north just barely getting into Macedonia just to add a country with such a cool flag to our trip.