Sunday, November 19, 2017

Retired Tampa neurosurgeon travels around the world by land and sea


Why go around the world? I have no singular reason to relate. But I did it last year, in large part I suppose for the romance and adventure. I think there is still lots of adventure to be had in this life and one must go out and seek it.

I decided to travel by land and sea, using public transportation as often as I could to avoid airports and flights.

Many of the places I would visit on my six-month journey had romantic histories of great empires, great civilizations, powerful kings, massive and beautiful castles and fortifications, and then, of course, ultimate defeat and destruction.

Partly I wanted to travel the world to see if I could find a better understanding of some of the many questions that have built up over the years about history, ancient civilizations, the spread of DNA and migrations of peoples, origins of religions and geography. Things like: Was Marco Polo really the first Westerner to reach China and open trade? How could the "Great Game" occur between the British in India and Russia with all those mountains and distance intervening? Where did the Turks come from? What is the origin of wine? How could the Mongols have possibly conquered the world up to the middle of Europe and so quickly? How do people live in the desert? Where exactly are Russia's space program and nuclear development?

And partly it was to see how logistically difficult it would be to circle the globe.

I wanted to go on the surface, not using air travel, most importantly because the majority of the world's population lives in rural areas. One has to go to these areas to learn about the circumstances of the people, their agriculture, their housing, their transportation, their history and the geography of the countries. With air travel we go from large city to large city, and lifestyles are vastly different outside these cities. City residents have an income in most countries twice that of people in rural areas. The sea portions of travel teach about how world commerce is done, and public transportation is how people get around. It's also less expensive.

I decided to go from west to east, and first I had to get visas for the many countries I would visit. That took about four months and cost $1,500. The last visa was approved just a couple of days before I was leaving in May. No visa was required for the countries of the European Union, though Turkey and all the countries to the east required visas. The countries of Central Asia made it difficult; I don't think they really want you there, and they aren't promoting tourism. Their visas were valid only for about seven to 10 days, and the dates of entry and exit are strictly enforced. Thus I had to precisely plan the sequence of the trip.

From west to east

I departed Tampa on the bus and picked up the Amtrak train to reach New York. My wife, Kathleen, flew up and joined me there for the trans-Atlantic crossing on the Cunard Queen Mary 2. From the United Kingdom the Chunnel train brought us to the continent, and from there we were able to use Eurail passes — also valid for some buses. The Eurail pass is still a very good deal. We worked our way down through Belgium, France (celebrating our 50th anniversary with dinner at the Eiffel Tower), Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to Turkey. From Mannheim in Germany through Bulgaria the trains were what the people called "Russian trains," meaning the old trains left from Communist days that had rusting roofs and showed wear. There is no train from the Bulgarian border through Turkey, so a bus is necessary to reach Istanbul. (The romantic and mysterious Orient Express train that inspired Agatha Christie and other authors is no longer in existence. The Orient Express used to take several days to travel from Istanbul directly to Calais, thus giving time to commit and solve murders. Now one must work one's way down with multiple trains.)

After we left Istanbul and passed over the Dardanelles into Asia we saw no Americans, except a few who had flown into Cappadocia. We explored our way through Anatolia and through Ankara, where Ataturk is particularly venerated. In Cappadocia, the cave and underground city hiding area of the early Christians, we were able to sleep in a cave operated by a hotel. I gained a great respect for the dangers facing the early Christians. Upon leaving Cappadocia we hired a van and a Kurdish guide and headed southeast. We were within a few kilometers of the Syrian border and could see a Syrian refugee camp from a distance. Anatolia is loaded with interesting archaeological sites, some only recently discovered, as well as ancient monasteries, palaces, biblical sites and Roman and Byzantine ruins. Many of the excavations are from the Paleolithic Era, with others on forward to the Bronze Age.

Proceeding eastward the mountains rise up, and we left Turkey to enter Georgia and Armenia. As planned, Kathleen flew home from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and I continued through Azerbaijan. I had some concern because the train started its overnight journey in Georgia the day before my Azerbaijan visa was authorized. If I were to arrive at the Azerbaijan border before midnight, the border officials could make me disembark and stay in Azerbaijan in the middle of nowhere or, more likely, demand a large bribe. Fortunately the train arrived at the border just after midnight. My plan was to travel along the Silk Road continuing east into China.

The Caspian Sea intervenes in Central Asia, and I had to cross it from Baku, Azerbaijan, to get to Turkmenistan. There is no ferry service, but there are small freighters sailing irregularly, whenever they get a load. I was able to catch a ride on a freighter without waiting too long, with a piece of plywood on a bunk as my bed for the three-day voyage. Food is not provided, of course, so I brought along water and a little sustenance.

The crew members were a hard-drinking group with little to do while at sea. They spoke only Azerbaijani and some Russian (the second language of all the Central Asian ex-Soviet countries). I was able to communicate with the aid of a fellow passenger, a young Canadian man working in Russia. He was hitchhiking through Central Asia and up to Siberia.

Turkmenistan is so security conscious that all visitors must have a handler, whom they call a guide, accompanying them at all times. He (they do not consider this work for women) must be present at immigration in order to enter the country. I had to call my handler and get him there in the middle of the night when the freighter was able to dock. The availability of dock space is never certain. After a few hours of waiting, I got through passport control and customs with the handler.

Turkmenistan is a fascinating country with the Karakum shifting-sands desert occupying 70 percent of the area. Dromedaries roam freely all over (even though Bactrian camels were used when the Silk Road was active) and feed on brush where they can, but they all have owners and eventually return to them.

The capital and largest city, Ashgabat, is known as the "White City" because all buildings by law must be white. (According to the Guinness World Records in 2013, Ashgabat has the highest density of white marble-clad buildings in the world — 543 new buildings lined with white marble covering an area of more than 48 million square feet.) The country's late eccentric dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, had huge golden statues of himself placed around the city and nation.

Proceeding along the Silk Road, the next stop was Uzbekistan, with its rich history of many civilizations and exotic towns such as Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. The eastern portion of the country becomes a large oasis called the Fergana Valley, and here much of the agriculture exists. It also is home to smuggling and drug trafficking, and thus has a heavy police presence. Surrounding the valley are magnificent mountains with ranges passing into the almost totally mountainous Kyrgyzstan.

In Kyrgyzstan the seminomadic people move around with yurts, bringing their horses, cattle, sheep and goats to the mountainsides and high valleys for grazing on the open range. They have many horses and are great horsemen. (Horse meat is a great delicacy and is usually served at weddings and festivals.) Now on to Kazakhstan and then China.

Kazakhstan is a huge country, bordering Russia, Mongolia and China, but most of it is steppe. North of Almaty, the Russian space program and the Russian nuclear weapons programs have their headquarters. The Chinese border to Kazakhstan is in the remote northwest corner of China in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It is the home of the Uyghurs, a minority non-Han ethnic group with guerrilla fighters that China is trying to control.

I traveled for several weeks in China on its highly utilized and extensive rail system. They have been building high-speed rail between many of the major cities, though most of the trains are slow and crowded.

Xi'an, a large city and capital of Shaanxi Province in central China and home to the famed Terracotta Warriors, is generally regarded as the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and Istanbul the western. Thus I had traveled the length of it. There are multiple branches of the road, and I was able to explore these paths and their byways, over mountains and through deserts, as I went through Central Asia.

China has many fascinations. One, the Taklamakan Desert in southwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is the second largest shifting-sands desert in the world, covering an area of more than 13,000 square miles. When there are pictures of caravans crossing the sand dunes of "the Gobi," this is really the Taklamakan, and the Silk Road had to pass through there. (My rented car broke down there in the middle of the night.)

Another, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, also known as the Panda Base, in Chengdu, Sichuan, is dedicated to the preservation of both the giant panda and the red panda. Giant pandas are particularly threatened because they breed only once a year, and the females are very poor mothers. Thus they are usually artificially inseminated, and the very tiny babies are placed in incubators in the neonatal ICU and taken care of by nurses at this nonprofit research and breeding facility. Also nearby the Panda Base is the stunning 233-foot-tall Leshan Giant Buddha, the tallest stone Buddha sculpture in the world, carved out of a cliff during the Tang Dynasty.

And while a cruise down the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges is certainly memorable, I liked hiking along the Li River surrounded by the beautiful round-topped karst mountains even better. I found the exact spot pictured on the 20-yuan bill. Shanghai, Macau and many other cities are interesting as well, and a can't-miss is the sublime beauty of the Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou, with its many bridges in a maze of connected pools and islands.

In Hong Kong I boarded a freighter bound for Long Beach, Calif. (I had to wait an extra two weeks for the freighter to arrive, but that's how it is with freighters.) It took 15 days to cross the Pacific. From Los Angeles I traveled by Amtrak train along the coast to Seattle, where Kathleen rejoined me. We took a bus to Vancouver, and then crossed Canada on the Via Rail train. From Toronto, we connected on Amtrak to New York. Kathleen flew home, but my surface mission took me on the Amtrak back to Tampa, completing the circumnavigation of the world in November.

My own best friend

The emotional aspect of being alone much of the time was not so difficult. I had to be my own best friend. When encountering people who spoke English along the way, I found them eager to tell me about their country, answer questions and, generally, be helpful. I also had downloaded apps of Chinese and Russian to my iPhone, which came in handy.

It wasn't really a gastronomic trip, though I did have some wonderful dining experiences in western Europe, which I wrote about in my blog on (reached also through Facebook). After Europe it was largely plain local cuisine, and that's what I wanted to experience. (However, a Szechuan hot pot dinner was a special treat.) For a month I traveled in Muslim countries during Ramadan, and no food was available until the minute the sun set.

Generally each day of the journey was exciting, busy and interesting. When I visited countries that have cash-only economies, I carried large amounts on my person in two money belts. At some of the border crossings the armed guards would try to shake me down for money, and upon entering China the border guard confiscated my Lonely Planet guide because it showed Taiwan in a different shade of gray than China.

Did I ever feel as though I was in danger in these travels around the world? Not really. In some cases, perhaps from naivete.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Ralph Rydell, 75, of Tampa retired after 48 years in practice. He grew up in a very small town in Minnesota wondering, and eagerly reading about, what the rest of the world was like.

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